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Great Expectations: How Grad School Differs From Undergrad

Without a doubt, graduate school will be an entirely different experience from your undergraduate life, but how does it differ? Here's an inside look.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re thinking about enrolling in graduate school. Whether you’re continuing on after college or going back to school a little later, one thing is for certain: graduate school will be an entirely different experience from your undergraduate life. How so, you might be wondering? And what should you expect? There are several overarching areas where those differences will be apparent, and it helps to pay attention to—and brace yourself—for the following...

General vs. specialty area of focus

While everyone chooses a major as part of their undergraduate experience, students go into a graduate program with an exclusive area of focus. It’s up to you to do the homework necessary to select that discipline. Keep in mind that part of what any graduate admission committee is assessing is how a student’s interests fit with their program offerings. Make sure you understand exactly what the curriculum will cover before you enroll. Do you know the difference between public administration and public policy? If you’re enrolling in one of those programs, you should. If an admission interview is required, will you be able to answer that question? If not, more investigation is needed.

Theoretical vs. research vs. professional

The undergraduate curriculum often covers topics in a given major discipline in theory, but students are not expected to do research in the field or pursue practical skills that result in a professional qualification. Graduate school is usually just the opposite. Most programs include a research component in the form of a thesis or major project. Professional programs, like law school, are intended to train you for high-level work in a field and/or prepare you for a professional certification. If this sounds like a lot and overwhelming, don't worry. Your academic advisor will be there to guide you. 

Related: A Master Mentor: How to Pick a Grad School Advisor

Career-flexible vs. career-focused

Many people pursue a career in a field quite different from their undergraduate major, but a graduate degree on your résumé tells prospective employers that you’re a specialist in that field. Make sure your program aligns with the career path you hope to follow. Identify professionals who have the type of job you think you want and talk to them about your proposed plan to get there. Do your expectations match their feedback?

Be prepared to start interacting with prospective employers at a much earlier point in time than during your undergraduate experience. In MBA programs, students often start interviewing for internships early on in the very first semester, and quite often that internship results in a full-time job offer. There’s not a lot of time to “find” yourself in graduate school; be focused on your path before you start. A special note on PhD programs: a PhD is not just a longer master’s program. Doctoral programs are designed to train scholars on how to conduct new research that contributes to their chosen field of interest through publication. The traditional career path for a PhD graduate is to pursue a life in academia that encompasses both research and teaching.

Workload changes

Think about the amount of time you spent on academic work outside of class during your undergraduate experience. Now double or triple it—that’s graduate school. Be prepared for an academic experience more intense than anything you’ve experienced to date. You’ll still have time for friends, family, and extracurricular activities, but you’ll need to be even more disciplined with your time management. Involve important people in your life in the graduate school search process so they can fully understand the commitment you are making, how much time it will require, and how they can best support you. Map out when you will study and where you plan to study. Do you need to find a quiet space or change your schedule? Set yourself up for success by planning ahead.

Related: The Importance of Finding Balance as a Graduate Student

Format changes

Was school your only focus as an undergraduate student? You likely were a “full-time” student if you went to college directly after high school. There are plenty of graduate programs available on a full-time basis, but many are also often available in part-time, executive, or online formats. Perhaps you found a job you really love and don’t want to step away from it to get that graduate degree you need in order to advance to the next step at your company; if so, a part-time program might be perfect for you. Or even better, pursue an online graduate degree. Or are you tied to a specific geographic area for personal or professional reasons and having a tough time finding the right graduate program nearby? Maybe an executive format (weekends) or online option offered by a school outside of your area would best fit your needs.

Work experience expectations

Most college students go directly from high school to an undergraduate program. Many graduate programs look for individuals who have gained some work experience after earning an undergraduate degree, and some even require it. Even if you do go into a graduate program immediately after finishing your undergraduate degree, be ready to interact with other students who bring a wide variety of professional and life experiences with them to the classroom. If you’re used to lecture-style classes, get ready for robust discussions and case method classes. Graduate school is an active learning experience in which you’re part of advancing the dialogue, and you’ll be expected to contribute to class on a daily basis.

Budgeting tactics

Financing a graduate education is an entirely different experience, and your options will vary widely by discipline, degree level, and institution. Unlike undergrad, your parents’ income will likely not be a consideration in the financial aid equation, and you will be expected to take on the majority of the costs by using your savings and/or taking out loans. Merit-based aid is often available, but competition can be fierce for those opportunities. The more effort you put in to submitting a stellar application, the better your chances of securing those awards. At the graduate level, merit aid also comes in a variety of forms. Some schools award traditional scholarships, but many institutions provide graduate assistantships: a work arrangement in return for tuition and a stipend. PhD candidates are often fully funded for study, but these programs are highly selective and often admit only a handful of students each year. Third-party scholarships are available, but they can be hard to locate and deadlines are early (usually before March 1 of the year you go to school). Start searching for financing options before you are accepted to your program of choice. Most importantly, take a moment to think about your return on investment. Is what you’re paying to attend graduate school going to benefit you enough professionally to recoup the costs in the long run? Payback will not always be immediate, but if you don’t see a return in the future, is the joy of learning enough to justify the cost?

Related: How to Pay for Grad School: Plan Ahead to Get Ahead

Undoubtedly, graduate school will test your stamina, your intellect, and, potentially, your wallet. But it will also be a period of tremendous personal and professional growth that will result in a lifelong network of friends and colleagues. So what are you waiting for? Discover these differences for yourself!

Find more great grad school advice in our Graduate School section, where you can also explore and connect with graduate programs.

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