3 happy diverse college graduates wearing caps & gowns, clapping with diplomas

Inside My Grad School Experience: Part 1

Want to know what life as a graduate student is really like? Read what these real-life students have to share about their grad school experiences!

Thinking about going to grad school? Wondering what it's really like to be a graduate student? You probably want to pick the brain of a current grad student. Don't worry—we did it for you. These three graduate students were happy to talk to us about their experiences. Read all about them below.

woman with brown hair in grad cap holding degreeEmma Rosen 

School: Boston College in Boston, Massachusetts 
Degree program: Clinical Social Work

Why did you choose to go to grad school?

I was a high school teacher previously and worked with a lot of students who were struggling with various non-academic issues that made it hard for them to focus on school. I learned about the field of social work and how as a school social worker, I could help students respond to these challenges and have a better chance at being successful in school and in life in general. I came to realize that I wanted to do this form of support work rather than classroom teaching. And to do this, I needed a master’s degree in Social Work or Counseling.

How did you find the right program for you?

I was living in the Boston area and wanted to stay there, and there are only a few Social Work programs nearby. I liked the social justice approach of the Boston College program as well as the opportunity to take international courses. Boston College also offered the most generous scholarship out of the three schools I considered, which was a big factor.

How does grad school compare to your undergrad experience?

In undergrad, I didn’t choose my major until sophomore year, and I didn’t choose to pursue a career in teaching until my junior or senior year. In grad school, I had a pretty clear sense of purpose from the beginning. I had already been working and knew what I wanted to learn and how I wanted to use it. In a Social Work master’s program, you also complete internships related to your career interests, so that helps you apply what you’re learning to the work you will do after graduation.

What has been the most challenging or surprising thing about grad school?

It was definitely challenging to get back into the habit of spending hours writing papers and doing research after years of not being in school. Additionally, free time was limited, and finding a school/work/life balance was not easy. Master’s programs in Social Work require two days a week of unpaid interning the first year and three full days the second year. Like many students, I was also working part-time, which was difficult given the volume of work and internship responsibilities.

What advice would you offer other (would-be) graduate students?

I would look into the educational background of people whose jobs interest you. Find out which programs they did and how useful they were in preparing them for the work they’re doing, and in helping them find a job. If there’s a specific employer you hope to work for, try to see which programs they tend to hire from.

Related: Where Social Sciences PhDs Received Their Undergraduate Degrees

young Black man with black framed glasses and white scarfChristian Ruiz 

School: Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas
Degree program: Masters in Fine Arts (MFA): Performance and Pedagogy

Why did you choose to go to grad school?

Money was kind of hard for me growing up. Especially going into a risky field like theatre, being a brown kid from Brooklyn definitely didn’t help my money-making opportunities in life. I decided to follow my college advisor’s recommendation, to audition for a graduate school in Texas.

For a kid who grew up in Brooklyn then moved to Boston, going to the middle of nowhere in West Texas was the biggest change I could've ever make—bigger than when I switched my major from Biochemistry to a BA in Theatre. But I started to realize that in order to make a living practically doing theatre, I might have to also teach it at the collegiate level as well! So I decided to go to Texas Tech University because I could do both the performance side of theatre and the pedagogy teaching side of it as well.

How did you find the right program for you?

I’m going to keep this one short. It was the only one that offered me a full ride. I was, and am not, paying for more school. Negative.

How does grad school compare to your undergrad experience?

I’m getting a lot of training from more diverse voices! My undergrad peers—bless their sweet hearts—were not backed by the school very well, so they didn’t have as many points of view on the material as far as professors. But my grad school experience has been really great because they have a strong school backing. That means more types of classes, more staff, and more workshops.

What has been the most challenging or surprising thing about grad school?

The most challenging thing about grad school was the adjustment to living in West Texas. I was born and raised in New York and Boston, so going to West Texas was never in the cards for me…ever. Like Texas, Texas? Cowboys riding on horses, rattlesnakes, and tornadoes Texas? Nope. I’m good.

To my surprise, people have been nice here. And that, coupled with the new setting of being in all new classes, adjusting to a new schedule, and making new relationships...that was a lot to handle along with homework. The most surprising thing about grad school has been that I’m becoming a much better academic.

What advice would you offer other (would-be) graduate students?

My advice to graduate students is to get some sleep. You might think you’re fine, but no. Negative. You have to teach in the morning and be in lab or practicum right after. Goodnight, homie.

Related: Great Places to Study Fine Arts

Brown haired woman in white scarf in front of country sideNatalie Armacost 

School: University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh, Scotland
Degree program: Master of Science in History

Why did you choose to go to grad school?

There are many reasons to go to grad school, but I had two major reasons. The first was that I wanted to be able to get higher-level positions in the museum and heritage industry and many of the jobs require a master's degree. The second was that I love to learn. I didn’t feel like I was done studying history, and I wanted to be more specific with my focus of study. I realized that graduate school is really the only way to do that with any sort of direction and guidance.

How did you find the right program for you?

Location was the most important factor for me. I knew I wanted to study somewhere outside the United States, preferably in the United Kingdom or Ireland. I also knew that I wanted to be in a major city, which narrowed down the options even more. By looking at different programs, the focus of the lecturers, and the course catalogues, I found four schools that I wanted to apply to. Most of them had rolling admission, so I was able to know very quickly what my options were. After that, it mostly came down to the class offerings. The University of Edinburgh offered many classes on World War II Germany, which I knew I wanted to focus on, and that’s one of the main reasons I chose the program.

Related: Where History PhDs Received Their Undergraduate Degrees

How does grad school compare to your undergrad experience?

It’s completely different. It started with the application process. Sticking to the grad school application timeline was crucial; then, once I was accepted to schools, I had plenty of time to consider my options because of the rolling admission process, which made it much less stressful.

Academically, grad school is much more independent and focused. Lecturers expect more from students, both in preparation for class and for outside work. On top of required reading, I would receive lists and lists of supplemental reading that was related to whatever the week’s topic was. It was always helpful to do some of the supplemental reading because it made for better class discussions and clarified the topics that were being covered. There are fewer graded assignments as well, so almost all my classes were graded based on one paper due at the end of term. That puts a lot more pressure on one assignment than I experienced in undergrad.

One of the biggest differences with grad school was also the amount of collaboration that goes on between students in the degree program. We often get together to talk about our paper topics, help each other when we find sources that might be useful to the whole class, and proofread each other’s papers. Everyone else here chose to work toward a master’s as well and are knowledgeable in such different areas, so helping each other out has taught me more than if we had all stayed separate.

What made you decide to get your degree abroad?

I really wanted a change of pace and a different learning environment to what I’d experienced in the past. I didn’t know much about the British education system but thought I would go out on a limb and apply to schools around the United Kingdom. The programs here are equivalent to the ones in the United States, but they only take one year, and there is no standardized testing required for applications.

What are the biggest challenges and advantages of going to grad school abroad?

The biggest challenge was obviously moving to a new country. Just adjusting to a new area is tough. When you’re not familiar with the grocery stores, the public transportation, and other basic parts of everyday life, the transition is tough. I also didn’t know anything about the structure of a British university, so terms and titles were different, often confusing me (i.e., my advisor is called a personal tutor, which I found strange).

The main advantage is the difference in perspectives I see in my classes every day. My classmates are from all around the world, and everyone has a different viewpoint, which makes class discussions more interesting. I took one American history course during my master’s program and I learned how the United States is viewed in a way I had never experienced.

What has been the most challenging or surprising thing about grad school?

The most challenging part of graduate school has been the high level of work expected of the students in the program. Trust me, your undergraduate study habits aren't going to fly in grad school. The reading lists are very long, and it’s expected that you not only understand the information but synthesize the different ideas being presented and have opinions about the surrounding historiography. Also, all of my classes were graded on one final paper, so the pressure was extremely high.

What advice would you offer other (would-be) graduate students?

The most impactful part of graduate school is your attitude and the people around you. Obviously make sure that the schools you’re applying to have good lecturers and programs. But it’s just as important to ask yourself: can I picture myself living and studying here? Finding an environment that you’re comfortable in is the most important thing. Finding a culture that agrees with your attitudes toward learning is crucial. I know I didn’t want a pressure cooker of a university, but I didn’t want to go somewhere where I wasn’t challenged.

Interested in reading more stories from real graduate students? Check out Inside My Grad School Experience: Part 2.

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