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Questions to Ask Before Attending Graduate School

With all the difficulties that many students face when they go from college to graduate school, it's a wonder that anyone survives the first semester. Just about everyone does, but not without some initial anxiety.

Students who have been through the process and the professors who advise them suggest many reasons why the transition to graduate school is such a turbulent one. Fortunately, experience is a good teacher, so they can offer their knowledge and ask those pertinent questions they wished someone had asked them.

Why are you going to graduate school in the first place?

Lamar Murphy, Assistant Dean in the Graduate College at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, notes that transition problems can stem from not fully understanding what your personal and professional needs are before selecting a program. If you figure them out first, you'll be better able to find one that meets your specific requirements. The more you know about what you're getting into, the less likely you'll be thrown off by the inevitable adjustments.

What kind of college environment are you coming from, and how does it compare with the graduate school you're going to?

Eboni Zamani is a doctoral candidate in the College of Education in the Department of Educational Organization and Leadership and is the Coordinator of the Graduate Student Advisory Council at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She's seen how culture shock affects those who come from small, rural, liberal arts colleges to get an advanced degree at a major university like Illinois. The contrast between the two institutions can create doubts for new graduate students about fitting in and being able to compete.

The adjustment is not so difficult when students have had experience competing with other bright students and are familiar with defending their arguments in seminar settings, notes Walter Licht, Associate Dean for Graduate Education, University of Pennsylvania's School of Arts and Sciences. Realizing the differences that might exist between your former academic atmosphere and future graduate department will lessen the shock.

Will you be compatible with the culture of the graduate department?

Students would be amazed at the cultural differences between graduate departments at different institutions offering the same degree. If an environment is unfamiliar from what they've previously experienced, the assimilation process may take longer. Some departments are small, tight communities. Others are impersonal and comprised of mostly commuter students. Licht suggests that undergraduate students should visit graduate programs to determine if they are compatible not only with their learning styles but also with their social needs. "Go and see the ambiance," he advises. "You may be three, five, six, seven years in an intense and sometimes insular environment. If the vibes are not good, you won't be happy."

Bryan Hannegan did just that. Currently a Ph.D. student in earth system science at the University of California, Irvine, and president of the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students, he took the latter part of his senior year in college to visit graduate programs. He queried faculty members about their fields and met with students to ask candid questions about their departments.

If visiting is not an option, get a feel for the department by looking at catalogues and Web sites. Talk with the admissions staff, faculty members, and students via e-mail or phone.

How does the academic focus compare to what you're used to?

For example, students who come from comprehensive colleges won't be accustomed to intense research environments. Suddenly they find themselves thrown into lab situations where their major objective is to work closely with a professor. The transition is a steep one, Associate Dean Thomas E. Callarman at Arizona State University in Tempe points out. Graduate departments that offer professional degrees in law, education, and business have different objectives that produce a different feel. Your academic needs might decide for you which one you'll attend, but if you're aware of the focus beforehand, the transition won't hit so hard.

Do the particular academic strengths of this department fit your career goals?

"It's not enough to say, "˜I want a degree in higher education,'", explains Zamani, because your specific research area might not be as strongly supported in one institution as it would in another. Katharine Belmont, a Ph.D. student at Notre Dame in government and international studies, recommends that students fully investigate the emphasis of faculty research at the institutions they're considering. In her field of political science, there are many different ways to study the subject, and schools tend to prefer one approach over another. She advises undergraduate students to talk to professors about what institutions are dominant in their fields and where they will find the departments that emphasize the approach they want to take toward their degree.

Maria Cramer is a case in point. She came to Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business after spending several years in the Army, where she was accustomed to meeting and working with diverse people. She found that many of her colleagues at Southern Methodist were not only from Texas but also intended to stay there. She realized that her ultimate career goals would have been better met in another setting. In addition, her interest is in supply chain management and logistics, which is not one of Cox's strengths. The transition would have been easier for her had she chosen a graduate school that specialized in that area and had a student population with similar goals as hers. "I didn't really think it through," she confides. "I should have taken more time to ask myself what I want out of my MBA and where to get the best match."

Should I wait a few years before grad school?

Arguments abound on the side of waiting a few years before getting an advanced degree or continuing your studies immediately after college. David Urban, Professor of marketing in the School of Business at Virginia Commonwealth University, believes that the students who continue on from college are already in a student mode, so the switch is fairly easy for them. Those students, he says, usually encounter fewer transition problems than those who have been in a highly structured job situation for a few years and then choose to return.

Yet others will tell you just the opposite. Kevin Connell worked after getting his bachelor's from the University of Delaware in English and chemistry before he matriculated into Notre Dame's English department for his Ph.D. The hiatus gave him some time to formulate his career plans. "Now I realize I'm working toward my livelihood," he says.

Belmont got her bachelor's degree and, without clear career goals in mind, moved to Washington, D.C., where she spent three years exploring her options. "I was bored, busy, but not intellectually stimulated and realized I needed more," she says. She feels that gaining experience before graduate school prevents burnout and allows students to reach a maturity level they wouldn't have had before. "I went back to school with a more directed and focused purpose," she elaborates.

Students who immediately enter graduate school have not given themselves time to find out who they are, says Licht. He notes humanities and social science students would do particularly well to wait. "When they return as twenty-five-year-olds, they love being back in class," he explains. Science and math students receive the opposite advice from him. Because of the high-powered nature of the undergraduate work, he feels they are better off if they immediately continue their research.

How quickly will you be expected to get up to speed?

Professors know it takes time to settle in to graduate school, but students in some disciplines are expected to rapidly reach certain performance levels. Social and natural sciences, economics, and math students are usually faced with some difficult exams within the first six months, Licht warns. It is assumed that they have a basic level of expertise and are expected to quickly learn graduate research methodology. "The pressure is on for math and science students," concurs Lesli Mitchell, who received her graduate degree and wrote The Ultimate Grad School Survival Guide, published by Peterson's. "They have to pick an adviser and a specialization right off the bat, and many have to do it long-distance, so they might end up in the wrong place with an adviser who can't do anything for them," she cautions. Science programs are more structured; thus, it's critical to know what's expected ahead of time.

In English, comparative literature, the humanities, and history, Licht explains that first-year students are required to absorb an enormous amount of material. Those students are going to be waylaid, he says by the 800 to 1,000 pages they must read every week. They have to immediately develop strategies to skim the necessary information and ignore the rest. "I learned that you can get by in a discussion even if you haven't read every word of a book, which surprised me," says Kristin Kobes, a Ph.D. student at Notre Dame in American history, religious, intellectual, and women's history.

The adjustment process will be much faster if you've identified your personal and professional needs and understand what a particular graduate program will do for you. "Transitioning won't be seamless," says Hannegan, "but the student who is aware will have an easier time starting down the path to that big document."