GETTING INTO GRADUATE SCHOOL C L O F S T AT E N

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1 GETTING INTO GRADUATE SCHOOL HOLARSH SC IP C L LE AN CO D TER EN CAR EE R 4 & GE O F S T AT E N IS L

2 What is graduate school? There is a big difference between your undergraduate education and graduate-level education. Your undergraduate studies involved taking many different types of classes in different fields. This is because an undergraduate curriculum is designed to prepare you for many possible careers, to introduce you to new ideas, to provide you with a foundation of general knowledge, and to help you to develop into a mature, intelligent adult. On the other hand, graduate school is intended to prepare you to specialize in a particular field of study, so that you can ultimately use this knowledge in a career. Graduate students are trained in professional practices and knowledge through specialized coursework, extensive research projects, and internships. The general aspects of most graduate programs include: expanding general knowledge of the field building expertise in a particular area or specialization within the field conducting original and supervised research developing professional problem solving methods gathering experience through internships and arranged part-time employment extensive interaction with professionals within the field, including the program s faculty members. 1

3 What is the purpose of a graduate degree? Many fields require that an individual has a graduate degree before he or she is able to practice that particular profession. For instance, some careers that require graduate degrees include teaching, law, most forms of medicine, and upper management. Other careers may allow you to practice within the field without a graduate degree; however, you will have much difficulty advancing within the profession if you only have your bachelor s degree. Advancement in most fields requires some form of postundergraduate education or degrees, particularly when most entrylevel positions in the job market require a bachelor s degree. The general belief is that a graduate degree will have provided you with the skills necessary to make influential decisions and coordinate employees tasks toward the realization of an organization s goals. On the other hand, not all careers require graduate degrees; in some careers, you only need to pass certain certification exams or undergo a probationary period of training, such as in some municipal or civil service positions, clerical and entry-level administrative positions, health care support positions, and construction and home repair. In short, though a graduate degree is not necessary to find a job or career, it could be very important if you hope to advance within a certain field, or if you have decided on a field that requires it. How do I know if graduate school is for me? Obviously, graduate school is a major commitment, and you don t want to make that decision lightly. Graduate school can consume a great deal of your time, energy, and money, so you want to conduct some careful self-examination and planning before you decide to apply. The following are some questions that you may want to consider before making your final decision: 2

4 What are my career goals? How can a graduate degree help me pursue those goals? Why am I considering graduate school? Am I searching for something to interest me? Am I trying to avoid making a real commitment to my career or future? Do I really enjoy the field enough to continue studying it? Am I ready to spend another two to six years in school? (Two years for most master s degrees, and three to six years for advanced doctoral degrees, depending on the field.) Am I ready for the amount of reading, writing, and research that I will be expected to complete? Am I financially prepared for the cost of graduate school? Do I have the personal qualities necessary to succeed and complete my degree? Do I have the qualifications to be accepted by a graduate school? After addressing these questions, you should have a much better idea of whether graduate school is a realistic or favorable option for your immediate future. 3

5 What is the difference between master s and doctoral degrees? There are many subtle differences between the two types of degrees. First of all, a master s degree can be the preliminary step on the way to completing a doctorate. In general, a doctoral degree involves a longer period of study (4 6 years, minimum) and a greater degree of specialization within the field, while a master s degree only requires 1 2 years of a full-time course load. A doctoral degree usually requires a book-length dissertation project, while a master s degree usually terminates with a much shorter by at least half thesis project. A master s degree usually prepares an individual only to work within the field; a doctoral degree is intended to prepare an individual to specialize in a particular aspect of the field and develop an expertise. In general, a doctoral degree requires at least twice the work of a master s degree: a great deal more primary reading, research, and writing is expected of doctoral students. Moreover, doctoral students are given the opportunity to contribute to the fields through publication so as to further their careers; master s students can publish, but it is not expected of them. What is the difference between professional and research degrees? Essentially, the difference between professional and research degrees is the respective focus of each. Professional degrees concentrate on providing students with the background, knowledge, skills, and practices necessary to work within the field. They do not often require a great deal of research; rather, students concentrate on developing their skills through practical exercises and projects. Some examples of professional degrees would be: MSW, MBA, MPA, EdM, MD, JD, or DDS degrees. Research degrees likewise provide students with the background, knowledge, and skills necessary to work within the field, but the curriculum concentrates on theoretical approaches and research methods, ultimately 4

6 preparing students to make their contributions to the field at a later date. Some examples of research degrees would be: MA, MS, PhD, or EdD degrees. Ultimately, the amount of work and requirements for entry vary from field to field. Moreover, what constitutes the highest attainable degree in a field also varies. You should research your field thoroughly in order to determine the types of degrees necessary to pursue a successful career. Can I change fields when I enter graduate school? Yes, it is possible to change fields to switch from your undergraduate major to a new concentration when entering graduate school. However, most well-regarded graduate schools prefer to accept mostly or only students who have had some undergraduate preparation in the field. Graduate schools expect that their students have a foundation of general knowledge, and a graduate curriculum does not usually include introductory coursework or material. Therefore, if you are changing your field, you may be asked to take some introductory courses to prepare you more thoroughly for graduate work before you can be accepted. Moreover, if you are moving into a new field, you can attempt to explain why you are switching to a new field in your application essays or personal statement, although that will not guarantee that you will be accepted. However, there are many graduate programs that look for students with broader educational backgrounds, as many fields continue to borrow ideas and methods from each other more frequently. In other words, having studied a different subject during your undergraduate years could provide you with certain unique skills or insights into the field you would like to study. If you are determined to switch to a new concentration or field, you should ask yourself why you are doing it. If you are hoping to study a subject that 5

7 you have always loved and privately pursued, then you should go ahead with the switch. If you are switching into a field because it seems to promise more money or because you have no idea of what you want to do, then it is probably not a good idea. Before you apply anywhere, you should know why you want to go to that school and study that subject. Moreover, you should be realistic about your chances. How is the daily life of a graduate student different from that of an undergraduate? Essentially, the two biggest differences will be the quality and amount of work expected of you. Graduate students generally have twice as much reading as undergraduates, if not more, and they are also expected to read related although not assigned materials independently. Moreover, the writing produced or research conducted by students is expected to be at or near the work of a professional in the field. At the very least, students are expected to learn how to produce work of such quality before their graduation from the program. Can I go to graduate school part-time? You can go part-time, although that depends on the nature of your field of study and on the other commitments in your life. To be a fulltime graduate student in any program, a student only has to take two to three classes per semester, which allows plenty of time for work and other things. Furthermore, most graduate schools administrations understand that graduate students work, so these classes are generally scheduled at more convenient times, largely in the evenings or weekends, when people do not regularly work. Of course, the flexibility of the schedule depends on the program, and there are certain schools or programs that expect their students to concentrate on finishing the degree, or that schedule classes at inopportune times for working students, such as in the early afternoon. 6

8 On the other hand, you should be aware that there are many types of programs that are not flexible at all, and require their students to dedicate themselves completely to their studies, such as most law or medical schools. You should also be aware that many people start graduate school thinking that they can finish their studies while working full-time and/or having a family, but they quickly find that it takes up too much of their time, effort, or money, and they quit before finishing. In short, full-time studies are best when they can be arranged. If you have many prior commitments, then you should carefully consider whether you really have the time to concentrate on your studies. Can I afford to go to graduate school? That depends on two things: the state of your finances, and the school to which you eventually will go. Some schools are significantly more expensive than other schools. Some schools offer enough financial aid to cover tuition, while others do not. You will be able to obtain student loans to defray the cost of tuition, which will have to be repaid, or your program may have a program of employing students so as to cover tuition. Scholarships and fellowships are always available, but their distribution is usually dependent on achievement or serious need. Moreover, certain fields give more financial aid to students than others: for example, science and engineering programs offer many scholarships and fellowships to students because there is substantial competition between these programs for the best students. In short, there will always be some means to pay for graduate education, although some are ostensibly more attractive than others. However, you should be aware that full or substantial coverage of your tuition is rare, and the competition for those scholarships and awards can be quite intense. Many graduate students must resort to loans, all of which must be repaid in full. Before you take on any burdensome financial obligations, you should consider whether your studies will ultimately lead to a career that will enable you to repay any debts. For instance, if your 7

9 career goal is to be an educator, then it might be unwise to borrow a substantial amount of money, as it will be quite difficult for you to meet your financial obligations. What can I do to prepare for graduate school while I am in college? Obviously, if you expect to have some success when you apply to graduate programs, you will have had to prepare yourself and your credentials to meet the necessary requirements for acceptance. There are several things that you should do while an undergraduate so as to prepare yourself for the application process and the subsequent rigors of graduate school: Establish your field or career goals. You cannot make a reasonable decision about graduate school if you do not know what you want to do. Where do you want to be in five years? What do you like doing? About what are you passionate? What are the most important things you would like to get out of a job (money, flexibility, mental challenges, etc.)? What are you good at doing? Find mentors or advisors in your field. Get to know your professors, particularly in your major you can ask them for advice when choosing schools or applying, and you will also need a few of them for references. Remember, a good referee (reference letter writer) is someone who knows your character and work, as well as your strengths and weaknesses. You should become acquainted with your professors as early as possible, because establishing a strong mentoring relationship with them can help you to maximize your time in college and give you the best preparation for your graduate studies or for your career. In short, developing a relationship with your professors can be one of the most important things that you can do in college. Get to know the different specializations or disciplines in your field. Almost every academic or professional field is broken up into divisions in which individuals may choose to specialize. For instance, a 8

10 medical student might specialize in anything from cardiology to endocrinology. Once you have established your chosen field, you should start to think about what parts of the field are most interesting or rewarding to you. Learn about important people in your field. Every field has individuals within it who are conducting groundbreaking work that may change the nature of the field. You will want to be familiar with the key players in your field so as to develop your understanding of the field and what is required to succeed in it. Learn about the currently popular concentrations or methods of scholarship or practice. In every field, the preferred practical methods or conventional wisdom shift periodically. What was once a popular subject for study, or a popular practice, will eventually be replaced by something new. You will want to familiarize yourself with the current trends of your field as early as possible because that will help to shape your graduate application and your subsequent studies. Depending on the field, this information can be found in a variety of professional and scholarly journals and Websites. Determine the type of scholarship or practice in which you are interested. Graduate programs usually look for students who can jump right into the work and start producing. They want to see applicants who have an idea of what they want to study. In your application particularly in your personal statement you will be asked to explain which aspects of the field interest you enough to focus your scholarship or practice on them. Concentrate on maintaining a high or respectable GPA, particularly in your major or field of choice. Graduate schools usually expect serious candidates, and strong undergraduate grades indicate a history of hard work and success, as well as the fact that the applicant can handle the additional work and pressure. Start to establish a curriculum vita or résumé. Most graduate schools ask for a curriculum vita, otherwise known as a CV. A CV is a 9

11 record of your accomplishments, academic background, publications, awards, and work history related to the field. You should start to establish your CV during your undergraduate years, by applying for fellowships and scholarships, finding parttime work or internships in the field, and becoming involved in projects within your field. For students who are interested in pursuing a research-oriented degree, participating in research projects individually, in groups, or with your professors can enhance your graduate applications greatly, particularly in the sciences. Study and practice for the Graduate Record Examination or other entrance tests. Most graduate schools require some form of standardized test. These tests results should indicate whether students have the aptitude to succeed in graduate studies. The most common required exam is the GRE, which tests students logical, mathematical, verbal, and written skills. There are also field-specific subject versions of the GRE that may be required by certain institutions. Certain fields, such as medicine and law, require their own standardized exams, such as the LSAT or the MCAT. You should practice ahead of time so as to familiarize yourself with the relevant test s structure and the type of material on which you will be tested. Start investigating graduate schools. Conducting research on possible schools can take a good deal of time and effort. Start the process as early as possible so as to avoid doing it at the last second, so as to give yourself ample time to visit the school, and to give yourself something for which to strive. Ultimately, how well you know the schools to which you apply will improve your applications and essays. How do I find out where to go or to apply? There are many ways that you can find out about the schools to which you might apply. Remember, there are many things that you will want to consider when coming up with a list of possible schools for you. Different schools have different things to offer, and if you have done the necessary 10

12 self-reflection and goal setting, you should have a pretty good idea of what your ideal school would be. More specifically, once you have decided on what you hope to accomplish through your degree and which instruction and environment you will require to finish that degree, you will be able to establish a list of personal criteria by which you can measure the appropriateness of different schools for your goals and personal requirements. The following are some ways that you can further your research and discover which schools will fit you best: Program rankings. Periodically, certain magazines rank graduate programs within certain fields, depending on responses they have received from students and faculty. The news magazine U.S. News and World Report conducts a yearly ranking of graduate schools that you may find useful. Talk to your professors. Almost all of your professors have been to graduate school, and they have a good idea of the faculty and working conditions of other universities. Ask them about their personal experiences and what they have heard about certain graduate programs. Visit prospective schools. Seeing a school s facilities and campus may help you to determine if the school is right for you. You wouldn t want to apply to a school and then find out that you can t stand the school s environment. You may also have the opportunity to talk to current students and faculty and discover what insider information they have about the school. Visit individual school Websites. These days, most schools put all or most of their information online. By visiting a school s Website, you can learn about a program s faculty, special projects, current students, and employment opportunities. Request graduate school brochures or information and application materials. Brochures and application materials will attempt to highlight certain aspects of a program. It will be the same information 11

13 that you found on the Website, but by looking through the brochures, you may see what the program seeks to publicize about itself and what its values are, which could be useful information for when you narrow down your list of schools or hone your application essays. What factors should I consider when I investigate schools? There are numerous factors that might play a part in your eventual decision. Of course, you will want to select very carefully the schools to which you apply and the schools that you would truly like to attend because it can become expensive and require quite a bit of work. You should always keep in mind that you want to choose the school that offers the best opportunities for pursuing your career and that has the most comfortable and supportive environment in which to continue your studies. The following are some of the many factors that you should consider when making your decision: To how many schools you should apply. You will want to have a short list of schools to which you will apply. Only schools that you realistically will attend should be on the list. You should also have one or two safety schools on your list, in case you are not accepted at your top choices. How much money to spend in the application process. The process can be expensive. Every application requires a processing fee, some of which can be as high as $70 or $80. You will also have to pay for reproduction of your materials and the costs of mailing. You should probably mail your applications via certified mail to ensure that they arrive at the school, which can also be expensive. How to pay for graduate school. If you are not independently wealthy, then you will want to investigate the various possibilities for paying tuition. Some schools charge more than others, and some schools offer less financial assistance than others. You may end up being unable 12

14 to pay for your entire term, or saddled with heavy loan responsibilities. Thus, you should pay close attention to the cost and financial aid offered at each school. You should also investigate the possibility of fellowships or teaching opportunities at each school, or the availability of other aid, including federal aid Federal Work Study, Federal Direct Loans, or Perkins Loans and private aid and loans. If and how far you are willing to move or commute. Many students need to move to a different city or state to pursue their studies. If you are determined to go to a school in California, for instance, then you should consider the cost and effort of moving and finding a residence there. The schools environments. Some schools have beautiful campuses and big airy facilities. Other schools are crammed into a few buildings in the middle of a large city. If the look and feel of your surroundings has an effect on your ability to study, then this may be an important factor for you. Treatment of students. Some programs are very supportive of students, while other programs try to push students through as quickly as possible. Since certain conditions may negatively affect your work, you may want to ask your professors or graduates of the school what they know about the treatment of students at a certain school, and if they think it is right for you. The program s record of job placement for graduates. Ultimately, one of the most important reasons to attend graduate school is to prepare you for a successful career, so you will want to discover how many students receive full-time positions after graduation and how the program assists students in the job search. Programs usually publicize their job placement record, so it should not be difficult to find. Requirements for applicants. Obviously, you don t want to apply to a school at which you have no chance of being accepted. Look closely at the minimum requirements in the application materials (such as 13

15 minimum GPA, test scores, etc.) and be sure that you will meet or exceed those requirements. Percentage of accepted applicants. Since the process can be expensive, you will want to weed out those schools at which you have very little chance of being accepted. If a program only accepts a small number of students, that means they are looking for the best students available. If your qualifications do not place you in that group, then you may not want to apply to that program. Faculty or faculty s recent scholarship. Any faculty member in a program could potentially become your mentor, or one of the people with whom you will conduct your research or from whom you will learn the practical skills necessary in the field. More importantly, you will want to make sure that the program employs an instructor who is an expert in your specialty, or otherwise you will have very little help in furthering your studies or pursuing scholarship in the field. Research facilities. This may include libraries, laboratories, and any other facilities necessary to conduct research in your field. In many graduate programs, you will be asked to conduct research, and the bulk of your time may be spent in these places. Good facilities can be quite important to the completion of one s individual studies or projects. How do I apply to a graduate school? Applying to graduate school can be a long and time-consuming process. Each application has many different parts that you will have to assemble and of which you will have to keep close records. In this process, careful record keeping, attention to detail, and thorough research will be invaluable in the production of successful applications. However, it should be noted that different fields, disciplines, and even certain programs have their own procedures, and the following are general suggestions that 14

16 address the most common aspects of graduate school applications: Conduct thorough research on schools. You will want to shape your application so that it specifically addresses the graduate program s interest or concentration, while you portray yourself as the program s typical matriculant. Conducting research on different programs will help you to understand each program s focus and the kind of student for whom it is looking. It will also help you to eliminate some less favorable choices from your list. Narrow down your list of schools. As noted earlier, you can only apply to so many schools because your time, energy, and money are limited. You should focus on the schools that you most want to attend, but you should try to apply only to schools at which you have a realistic chance of being accepted. Request application materials. Every program has special application materials that you will have to fill out. You will have to request these a few months before the application process will begin. Establish a schedule of applications and deadlines. Graduate school applications have specific deadlines, and they are all set at roughly the same time (For entrance in the fall: December 1 February 1). If you are applying to many programs at once it could be very easy to lose track of your applications. Keeping meticulous records will help to facilitate this process. Answering application essays. Some applications contain essay prompts that address your background or personal philosophy. For example, you may be asked to explain what your greatest achievement was. Answer these essays as directly and honestly as possible, and try to avoid clichés. Be sure to adhere closely to the essays minimum/maximum word requirements. Most importantly, you should have someone with good editorial skills proofread any written pieces, including application essays, personal statements, and writing samples. You should never send 15

17 anything out without reviewing it several times and ensuring that it represents your highest quality work. Personal statements. A personal statement is intended to explain who you are and why you are an excellent fit for a particular graduate program. That means you must sell two things: 1) your potential for producing strong graduate-level work, and 2) the fitness of the particular graduate program s curriculum, faculty, and requirements for you. You should address the type of work in which you are interested, and the possible long-term research project you hope to complete. You should also mention the faculty members with whom you would like to work and why you have chosen them. Curriculum vitae/résumés. Most graduate programs request a CV of some sort. It does not have to be loaded with experience and published works you are, after all, just finishing college but it should indicate a sustained interest in the field and some effort on your part to get involved in it. Writing samples. Some graduate programs, particularly those dealing with the humanities, will want to see a lengthy sample of your writing. This is because you will be expected to write and conduct research frequently, and often with an eye toward publishing. Your writing sample should indicate that you have the writing and research abilities to produce publishable papers. Therefore, you should choose your strongest piece of writing from your undergraduate classes and revise it a few more times to ensure that it is top quality. GREs/subject tests/entrance exams. When you take these exams, you are usually allowed to have scores sent for free to a small number of schools. If you are applying to more than three schools, you will have to make special requests to have GRE and other scores forwarded to the programs. The LSATs and MCATs have similar processes by which schools are notified of students scores. Make sure that you make all requests in a timely fashion, at least a month before the deadline. Also, 16

18 there is usually a section on graduate programs applications where you will be asked to fill in your scores. Letters of reference. References should be written by professors who know your work and who can accurately say that you are graduate material. You should select professors from the field who have strong reputations. However, it is more important that they know who you are and are impressed with your work. If your professors are truly impressed by you, their letter will shine with honest praise for you, and this will only improve your application. Remember, you have to give your professors time to write a letter for you, so you should request these three or four months before a deadline. However, you should not see your professors only as sources of reference. So as to ensure the strongest possible application, you should work with your professors closely, showing them every element of your application materials and using their feedback to improve your applications. Transcripts. All graduate programs will request transcripts. They want to ensure that you have completed your undergraduate coursework and that you have taken your studies seriously. Because of the nature of bureaucracy, it may take one or two months for your college to mail out your transcripts, so you should request them as early as possible. Make sure that these are official transcripts, signed and sealed by the registrar s office. Usually, you will be asked to send your transcripts directly to the graduate schools to which you are applying. Who reads the applications? Most programs have an admissions committee, the members of which read through the applications in a given year and determine to whom a place in the program should be offered. The membership of these committees varies from program to program. However, most admissions committees are comprised of a mixture of faculty and current students. 17

19 What are they looking for? Essentially, the admissions committee members are looking for someone who has a good chance to succeed and excel within the program and the field. They will look for various indications in your application that you can study at the graduate level. However, there is not any one thing for which they look. It might depend on the program and its focus, or on the emphasis established by the committee, or on the reader s personal values. They may look primarily at your grades, or they might pay closer attention to your writing sample, or they may look at your CV to see if you have a record of publication. In short, any part of your application may be the most important part for a particular program s admissions committee or for a particular reader, so you should ensure that every part of your application is as strong as possible. Does CSI or CUNY have graduate programs? Yes. The College of Staten Island has several master s degree programs. These programs include: Biology, Business Management, Cinema and Media Studies, Computer Science, Education, English, Environmental Science, History, Liberal Studies, Neuroscience, Nursing, and Physical Therapy. Further information is available on the CSI Website ( and in each department s main office. For all doctoral studies in CUNY, students must apply through the Graduate Center. Further information is available on the Graduate Center s Website ( 18

20 What should I do if I don t get accepted at a graduate school? If you are not accepted at any of your choices, it is not the end of your career or dreams. There are many options available to students. Most importantly, you should use your rejection as an opportunity for self-reflection, so that you might reapply next year with a stronger application. You should look back at the quality of your applications; perhaps you should show your essays or personal statements to a professor with whom you are close and ask him or her what you might do to improve them. Maybe you shot too high: perhaps your grades were not good enough for the schools to which you applied. Maybe you need to learn more about the field or your interests in it. After considering why you failed, you should be well prepared to reapply to a new list of schools. You may also be able to take classes as a non-matriculant at one of your schools. Get to know the faculty, while you learn more about the field. Perhaps you will be able to find a sponsor who might shepherd you through the application process, or you might learn more about why your application was not received, or you might realize that graduate work is not for you. In the meantime, you can also do more to get involved in your field. Participate in activities related to the field. Maybe take part-time jobs in the field. This can bulk up your CV and personal statement and improve your application for next year. Essentially, there are many different options for students who are not accepted by a graduate program. You can always learn more, get more involved, and improve your qualifications. If you do the work and thinking necessary to produce a stellar application, then eventually you will be accepted somewhere. Keep trying. Good luck. 19

21 Notes 20

22 G Designed and produced by the Office of Publications/CSI. College of Staten Island The City University of New York 2800 Victory Boulevard South Administration Building (1A) Room 105 Staten Island, NY Tomás D. Morales, President

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