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Applying to Graduate Schools

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Types of Graduate Degrees

When you consider graduate school, you may be thinking of professional schools (law, medicine, business), master's programs, or doctoral programs, all of which require specialized knowledge and concentrated study in one area. There are four main types of degree programs available.

  • The Professional Master's gives you a specific set of skills needed to practice in a particular field, such as education, business, engineering, social work, or other professions requiring a specialized training. It is generally a final or "terminal" degree, and involves an internship, practicum, or field work.
  • The Research Master's provides experience in research and scholarship, and it may be a final degree or a step toward the Ph.D. A master's degree usually takes one or two years of study.
  • The Professional Doctorate is the highest degree for areas such as medicine, business and law which require practical application of knowledge and skills. The M.D. for medical practice or the J.D. for law are the most common professional degrees.
  • The Research Doctorate or Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) is the highest earned academic degree and the primary credential for college level teaching. The Ph.D. typically involves both course work and an extensive and original research project. The Doctorate usually takes a minimum of four to six years of full-time study.

Remember that some schools offer combined-degree programs in which you typically obtain a master's and a doctorate in different fields. The Peterson's Guide offers a directory of these programs.

Deciding to Attend

Before applying for further study, you need to be fully aware of the working conditions, employment prospects, and physical and mental requirements of the field you plan to pursue. In addition, the more immediate demands of research, course work and major papers which are all part of the graduate school experience must be considered. Although there are defined course requirements in most graduate and professional school curricula, by and large you are expected to be able to build a program for yourself based on your interests and goals. This is hard work.

Some individuals enter graduate study with the idea that they can postpone the inevitable -- deciding on a career and searching for a job for another year or two. If this is one's sole motivation for entering graduate school, it could have serious implications for one's career development. Therefore, before going any further, you may wish to carefully consider some important questions:

  • What do I want to accomplish in my lifetime?
  • What are my long and short-range professional goals?
  • Is graduate study necessary for me to achieve these goals?
  • Am I willing to invest the time and money to take on another academic program?
  • Do I have the interest and ability to be successful in a graduate program?
  • By going to graduate school, am I simply delaying my career decision-making?

Two of the reasons most frequently given by students who have dropped out of graduate programs are because of a dislike of concentrated academic work and a realization that they have not defined their career goals clearly enough. By answering the above questions honestly, you hopefully can avoid similar problems in the future. Choose graduate school because you are working toward a goal.

In addition, through research, you should be able to get a solid idea of whether or not you would benefit from graduate study. In the process, however, be aware that further education is not absolutely required for every career field. It is, of course, if you are planning to enter such traditional professions as law, medicine, dentistry, or teaching at the college or university level.

Attending Now or Later

You may need time to clarify your professional goals. This is not uncommon. A frequently asked question about graduate school is, "Should I attend now or later?" You will find advantages and disadvantages of delaying or not delaying your graduate studies. It is highly advisable to speak with faculty advisers and with people currently pursuing programs of interest to you in order to hear their perspective on immediate entry versus delay. But remember, what you hear from others is advice, not fact.

Graduate School Rankings

A common concern of individuals considering graduate education deals with which institution has the "best" program of study. Contrary to student opinion and wishes, there is no single reliable ranking of graduate schools. National rankings do exist, though, and are available online, such as the U.S. News Graduate School Rankings. When looking at online rankings, pay attention to the criteria used to rank the schools to find out if those criteria coincide with your own personal criteria.

Personal Selection Criteria

Institutions and departments in which you might be interested may vary greatly in one or more of the following factors: programs available, size, location, facilities, faculty interests, reputation and requirements. Matching your own abilities and personal requirements against the varying factors above is an important task in selecting the institutions to which you wish to apply.

  • Admission - What are the admission requirements? Do you have the test scores/research/experience required for the program? What types of students does the program attract?
  • Programs - What specializations are available? Does the program focus on theory and original research, or does it stress the practical application of knowledge and skills? Do the research facilities suit your needs?
  • Geographic Location - The climate, the political, and social temper of an institution, its setting (whether urban or in a smaller community) are all worth considering.
  • Size - How large is the institution and the department in which you are interested? The number of students and particularly the student/faculty ratio, will affect the amount of individual attention you receive.
  • Faculty - Who are they? Are there specific people doing the type of research in which you are interested? Could you make contact with these people? What have they published?
  • State Regulations - Many state universities are required by law to give preference to in-state applicants.
  • Philosophy of Education - What is the average length of time spent in the program? Do opportunities exist for specialization in areas of your own interest? Some institutions may approach the subject matter theoretically while other may be more pragmatic in their approach.
  • Residence Requirements - How much time must you spend taking courses at the particular institution in order to earn your advanced degree? If you are at a public university, residence requirements also determine whether you pay in-state tuition.
  • Placement Services - Will you receive assistance in your job search when you are ready to graduate? Find out what types of employers typically express interest in graduates of the department you are considering.
  • Financial Aid - Any one applicant may receive larger awards at some institutions than others. The reasons may have as much to do with university budgets as an applicant's merits. Bear in mind that while awards may vary, graduate aid is based largely on merit, not need.

Letters of Recommendation

  • Choose from a faculty member who knows you well
  • Make a formal request of your professor
  • Ask early
  • Provide information about the program/school
  • Send a thank you note and update of acceptance to the professor
  • Sample Faculty Reference Letter (from NACE)

Applying to Programs

Formal applications vary from one institution to the next, but as you research each one you may wish to keep a record or file noting admission requirements and application deadlines. It is very important to pay attention to each program's distinct instructions and requirements throughout the process. Some graduate programs require a personal interview, and most require a non-refundable application fee.

Knox College

Printed on Thursday, September 28, 2023