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Is Graduate School for You?

Pursuing a graduate degree is an important endeavor.

When you make the choice to go to graduate school, you are deciding to do advanced work at either the master’s or doctoral (PhD) level. 

In a master’s program, you will gain specialized knowledge necessary for you to pursue professional practice.

In a PhD program, you will develop the independent research skills necessary for you to create new knowledge in your chosen field and to pursue careers that rely on those skills.


What to expect from graduate school


Only you can decide if graduate school is a path you want to follow. It is difficult to generalize about a topic as broad pursuing an advanced degree, but here are some things that prospective graduate students should know.

Graduate School is not a continuation of undergraduate education. The skills that make someone a successful undergraduate may not always make them a successful graduate student. New graduate students are often surprised to discover that there is no straightforward path to their degree nor the career beyond. You will need to be independent and willing to seek advice and assistance. You will need to be willing to forge new paths.

Before you apply, it is important that you assess your interests and your career and academic goals:

  • Is a graduate degree required for me to meet my goals?
  • Will a graduate degree assist me?
  • Do I have an academic record and personal qualities that will help me succeed?

Many people can help you think though this decision.

Talk with career counselors and your undergraduate professors and mentors. Meet with people you know with graduate degrees and are doing work that you are interested in. Share your interest in graduate school and get their perspective. Ask about their own decision to attend graduate school.

Gain additional experience through internships, volunteering, international programs, etc. These experiences outside of the traditional academic, classroom experience broaden your exposure to what is possible. They also help you discern what your individual interests and strengths really are.


Graduate School and You: A Guide for Prospective Graduate Students, CGS 2014 

Graduate Study in the United State: A Guide for Prospective International Graduate Students, CGS 2007 

Global Perspectives on Career Outcomes for Graduate Students, CGS 2012 

The Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) is a national, professional non-profit organization dedicated solely to the advancement of graduate education and research.

Preparing for Graduate School

Research—understanding and conducting it—is the focus of most graduate degree programs.  Getting experience in research is tremendously useful. 

If you are still an undergraduate, take advantage of undergraduate research opportunities, such as the Summer Research Opportunities Program. These experiences will help you find out if you enjoy research. Included in your application materials, these experiences indicate that you are a serious applicant. 

Professional academic conferences are another way to gain research experience. Look into opportunities to present your research and attend conferences. You will learn a great deal about how research is shared, and you will start learning about the network of scholars and researchers working in your area of interest. 

Contacts—establishing and maintaining them—are important for getting good advice and good letters of recommendation. 

Seek out resources to help you with GRE and other test preparation, preparing personal statements, and applications.

Timeline for Applications

Preparing for a successful application to graduate school will take more planning and preparation than your undergraduate application did. Starting your planning 18 months out is typical. If you can start earlier, do so. 

Graduate education is more decentralized than undergraduate education. This means that you will be researching graduate programs for how they fit with your interests more than the universities in which those graduate programs reside. 

For example, you may find that the best PhD program in x is at university y, an institution that you had never considered before but now you will because of the quality of its graduate program and faculty in your field.


18 months prior to desired start date

  • Assess your goals and connection with educational and career plans 
  • Research and apply for undergraduate research opportunities, such as the Summer Research Opportunities Program 
  • Talk with people who can give you perspective on going to graduate school 
  • Meet with your professors who have worked with you as an undergraduate. These conversations will lead to networking and stronger letters of recommendation from them. 
  • Research and identify graduate programs and each program's deadlines 
  • Begin practicing for standardized tests, such as the GRE 
  • Begin searching for fellowships and grants

15 months prior (summer before senior year)

  • Sign up for required standardized test 
  • Continue to meet with faculty members for guidance 
  • Identify faculty for recommendations 
  • Write draft of personal statement and get feedback. Multiple times. 
  • Get organized. Create files for each school you plan to apply to

Months prior (senior year) 


  • Take standardized test and send scores to schools 
  • Complete personal statement 
  • Request letters of recommendation 
  • Order transcripts and send copies to schools

October/November ​

  • Complete application forms 
  • Remind recommenders to mail letters by deadline 
  • Write each recommender a thank you note.  
  • Make copies of all application components for your records


  • Check with schools to verify required documents have arrived


  • Set up campus visits 
  • Watch for admissions decisions. Be sure to check your “spam” folders in your email accounts. 
  • Review offers with your faculty recommenders and consider negotiating competing offers 
  • Apply for financial aid


  • Notify schools of your final decision 
  • Mail acceptance forms 
  • Notify faculty recommenders of your final decision