Published on 2013/04/02
Welcome to Graduate School! Now What?
It is important for prospective adult students to know what to expect when they enroll in an advanced academic program.

One common question students often ask when beginning their graduate studies is, “What is the difference between undergraduate and graduate education?”

In short, graduate students participate in advanced study in a selected topic. This means doing a lot of readings. You can expect to read between 800 and 1,000 pages over the life of each eight-week course. You should also expect to conduct extensive research; for this, it is imperative that you know your way around the online library and its various databases. Additionally, you will engage in in-depth analysis designed to challenge all perceived notions; no assumption should go unchallenged, no belief unquestioned. Finally, you will receive constructive criticism from your instructors and classmates, and you will be expected to give it as well. Our ability to critically assess information is not developed or honed if we’re never shown ways to improve.

A successful graduate student is someone who is able to:

  • Easily discuss the major theoretical frameworks in their field;
  • Identify the key thinkers in their field, and their seminal works;
  • Synthesize complex theoretical approaches while developing one’s own approach;
  • Engage with the literature; and
  • Apply various theoretical perspectives to past and current events.

Should you take a comprehensive exam or write a thesis?

The comprehensive exam is recommended for students who will conclude their formal academic training with the completion of the Master of Arts/Sciences program. Students who anticipate seeking further academic training, such as a doctorate or a Ph.D., are strongly encouraged to complete the thesis option. Students in particular sub-disciplines of the humanities may find the creative project option the optimal choice, while those in business and other professional disciplines may consider the practicum as the best option.

The student’s degree program and supervisory professor are the main determinants in each of the available options. Students are encouraged to work with their academic advisors to ensure they take the correct courses during their degree.

In the end, completing a master’s degree says to the world that you:

  • Have mastered the literature in your chosen field
  • Know your subject area so well that you can teach it at the undergraduate level
  • Have well-developed analytical ability
  • Have mastered academic writing

Because your degree will mean so much, you should expect that the work you do in graduate school will be some of the most challenging, but also some of the most rewarding, you will ever do. Enjoy the journey.

Come back next week for the second part of Patricia Campbell’s series on advanced higher education: How to Excel in Graduate School

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Readers Comments

Curtis Keller 2013/04/02 at 8:09 am

For me, one of the key distinctions between undergraduate and graduate programs is that the latter requires so much of the “constructive criticism” process you describe. While undergraduate students are expected to acquire knowledge, graduate students are asked to deconstruct it and draw new conclusions. In graduate courses, that’s usually a collaborative effort, and this is the true benefit of advanced education — the opportunity to exchange ideas with bright minds.

Laura Kirby 2013/04/02 at 9:28 am

This article does a good job of describing the benefits of graduate education to the student. I would add that there is a lot asked of the graduate student in return. Whereas an undergraduate student is more or less expected to be a passive recipient, a graduate student is very much expected to be an active participant. This is why you may be asked to read 1,000 pages a week (in order to have the background knowledge to discuss topics) or complete a practicum or even act as an assistant to the professor in an undergraduate class.

Melanie Khan 2013/04/02 at 3:18 pm

Good advice on which route to go in terms of choosing whether to write a thesis or take a comprehensive exam. People tend to associate graduate school with thesis writing, and this article does a fine job of pointing out that there are options beyond that.

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