What Is Graduate School?

June 5, 2023

“Graduate school” sounds like a paradox, right? If you’re a graduate, why would you need more education? Hidden in this paradox is the very thing that makes grad school what it is. Graduate programs mark the transition from being an apprentice, absorbing knowledge, to a master. In fact, that’s why these degrees are called “Master’s” and “Doctorate” degrees.

So what is graduate school? This article will unpack what graduate school is, the surprising differences in grad school from being an undergraduate, and what happens in a graduate program. We’ll also talk about when and why it might be a good idea to apply to graduate school.

What Is Graduate School: The Short Answer

According to the 2021 United States Census, only 14.3% of adults in the US has an advanced, or graduate, degree. These terms refer to any Master’s degree or PhD., also called a doctorate. And as you can see from these numbers, getting a graduate degree is a special, and specialized endeavor. Or rather: these degrees demonstrate specialization in any given topic of choice, at an advanced level past that of an undergraduate.

For that reason, these programs are often intensive, and research or experience-focused. Like an advanced apprentice, graduate school allows for structured ways to apply your knowledge, and receive feedback on your work.

How Grad School Feels Different From An Undergraduate Degree

Education has many purposes, but the main goal of kindergarten to 12th grade education is to get a foundation in a range of subjects considered necessary to be a prepared, informed member of society. Required schooling changes by state, but usually goes until the age of 16. At this stage, you are not necessarily required to specialize in anything.

In college, that spirit of exploration and introduction to different topics continues. You may have a major, but there is a core curriculum chosen by the faculty. Class sizes might be larger, and you are more likely to encounter quizzes, tests, and basic checks of knowledge. That’s because your primary objective as an undergraduate is to learn. This is what brings you closer to finding your individual passions and interests. It also helps you understand what you might contribute to your field.

Enter: graduate school. In a graduate degree, the aim is to become a producer of knowledge (or a certified professional) in your field of work. If you’re getting an MFA in Creative Writing, that means acquiring the skills to contribute your own writing to the literary world. Exploring different types of Master’s degrees can help figure out where you might be able to grow expert enough to give back.

Now that we have the aims clearly mapped, here are the functional differences between undergrad and graduate school:

1) In graduate school, you will have more work and less time to do it.

Getting a graduate degree is infamously intensive. It requires the maturity and independence to organize time on your own, and carry out your own work. You will likely also be asked to complete multiple long-term projects at once. On the bright side, everything you do will ideally be on a topic of interest to you (or at least necessary to your work).

2) Graduate school tends to be more independent and research-driven.

As mentioned, you are here to develop your expertise in a topic. That means that professors might be less available or won’t hold your hand as much. On the flip side, it can also mean that you collaborate more with them. If their research interests align with yours, you could find yourself joining them on projects in a more substantial way than as an undergrad.

3) You don’t take courses outside of your specialty (unless you really want to).

No one is going to stop you from signing up from taking Introduction to Botany or Aquarobics, but it probably won’t be counted toward your graduation credits.

4) You might be able to teach, or work, as part of your degree.

 Undergrads can have internships and be teaching assistants, true. But as a graduate student, you may be employed by the university to either complete independent research or teach full courses on your own. More experience toward becoming an expert!

5) Graduate school is either way shorter than undergrad (Master’s degree) or way longer (PhD).

In American schools, you tend to study for four years. Four years is a big commitment, but also lots of time to explore, make mistakes, and have new life experiences. In a Master’s degree, 1-3 years, you’re there primarily to focus on your work. It’s like the espresso shot of degrees. A U.S. PhD program, on the other hand, takes 6-8 years of hard work. It’s like a slow pour-over coffee: all of that high intensity and effort to bring out the subtleties takes a long time.

 6) What Happens in A Graduate Program

Masters and PhDs differ, but each offers the same basic experiences.

  • Specialized coursework: a graduate program offers advanced seminars and workshops on specialized topics. Where you might take Intro to Biology in an undergraduate program, you might get as specific as “Cellular Structure and Morphology” in a graduate course.
  • Advanced feedback: In workshops and seminars there are plenty of opportunities in graduate programs for (sometimes brutally honest) individualized feedback on your work.
  • Mentorship and advising: It’s a good idea to choose programs based on professors because graduate degrees are all about learning from specific figures in your field.
  • Professional development: A good graduate program offers professional guidance and opportunities for development. That way, you work concretely on your career while also learning.
  • Networking and collaboration: Unlike the random people in your undergrad economics seminar forced to take economics, graduate school connects you with other people passionate and involved in your field. These can be future people to lean on, complain with, collaborate with, be inspired by, and above all share information with.
  • Research and thesis: Most graduate programs involve an independently-driven final project. Usually, you will create this project, spearheading the research process. This is it! This is the moment when you add something new to your field, and it is considered more deep and authoritative than an undergraduate thesis, for example.
  • Comprehensive exam or defense: At the end of a program (or for comprehensives, sometimes midway through), the final ring of fire you must leap through is an exam that tests your knowledge and authority on your point of study. Here the apprentice becomes the master, or in some cases the doctor.

7) Types of Graduate Programs

First, it’s important to note whether a program grants a terminal degree or not. A terminal degree means the highest level degree in a given field, for example, an M.D. is the highest level of degree to become a doctor. Some master’s are not terminal degrees–although they still create opportunities for advanced jobs.

  • Master of Arts (MA): 1-2 years
  • Master of Science (MS): 1-2 years
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA): 2-3 years
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA): 2 years
  • Juris Doctor (JD): 3 years
  • Doctor of Medicine (MD): 4 years
  • Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS): 4 years
  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD): 6 years

When and Why to Go to Graduate School

If you’re reading this, you may be wondering if you need, or want to go to graduate school. You might think about this question in two directions.

For one, what do you want to be doing in the near future? How do you want to spend your days? Do you dream of reading about the topic you’re most passionate about? Of talking about niche facts in the company of others? Of meeting like-minded people who care about the same things you do, and can show you different ways you might apply them?

Second, what do you want for your long-term future? Do you want a certain type of job or career? How important is salary–and how much do you want to make? Is there anyone who you admire, whose trajectory you might want to follow?

What is Grad School? (Continued)

Start doing a little research about your interests, and different programs. Is the experience of the grad school program that aligns with your interests what you’d want? For example, if you love reading, would you prefer to be a high school English teacher and get a Master’s of Education, or do you want to focus on research and becoming a professor, aiming for a Ph.D. in Literature?

The clearer you are about your goals, the clearer your decisions about grad school will be. If you want to be a doctor as soon as possible, then start studying for the MCAT now. If you want to get a little bit of work experience first before getting an MBA, that could help you down the line.

In other words, every road is different. For some, it might not even be necessary at all to go to graduate school. But at the very least, it’s worth understanding the role it serves, and ways it might fit into your life.

What is Grad School? – Additional Resources

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