Many students begin graduate school believing that it’s basically an overgrown version of their undergraduate education.
However, there are some big differences between college and graduate school. Being aware of the changes you’ll be expected to make can help the transition to graduate school feel less daunting. Here are seven of the biggest differences between life as a college student and life as a grad student.
1. In Grad school, you’ll spend (a lot) more time on each individual course
It’s not uncommon for undergraduate students to take 5 or 6 classes a semester in college. In graduate school, five classes would be nigh impossible. A full course load is generally 3 courses – and for good reason. Each graduate class will require a lot of reading, more than you ever thought possible in college – and more than might actually be possible in a week. You’ll have to learn to prioritize the most important readings and actively skim the rest.
Moreover, the structure of the courses will be different. There are virtually no lecture classes in graduate school; all or nearly all of your classes will be small seminars with 15-20 students or less. Even as few as 2-5 students in a class is not uncommon. You’ll be expected to be prepared for seminars and to speak up and participate in the intellectual conversation. Your professors will be interested in hearing your insights. Higher quality is expected from your papers, presentations, and group projects. You’ll devote much more time to each class than you did in college.
2. You’ll develop a laser focus on your topic of interest
Undergraduate education is primarily about breadth. In graduate school, your education will be focused on developing depth in a particular subject area. Coursework in graduate school is designed to help prepare you for your comprehensive exams and for writing a dissertation. Develop a clear idea of what you want to study before you start graduate school, because you won’t have the same freedom to explore different disciplines as you did in college.
This is good news for anyone who knows exactly what they want to study and is ready to polish their knowledge in that field (which – at least theoretically – should be everyone in grad school). You’ll spend a great deal of time reading deeply within your field and participating in high-level discussions with scholars in your area.
The caveat, of course, is that this is not the time to explore brand-new avenues. While there is some flexibility and plenty of room to grow in grad school, for the most part your job is to specialize and become an expert within a specific field. You’ll want to build upon the knowledge you’ve gained in college.
3. You’re expected to be(come) independent
In college, you were likely shepherded through the process of selecting a major and a class schedule. Graduate programs expect you to be much more independent – both in selecting your classes and in directing your research program.
Your classes themselves will also be more self-directed. While many undergraduate professors provide constant deadlines for big projects (e.g., by asking you to turn in a topic and an outline before turning in a final research paper), most seminar classes in graduate school will simply set a single deadline for the final paper. Moreover, that final paper may be your only ‘official’ assignment for the entire semester.
It’s your job to pace yourself and figure out what internal deadlines you need to set in order to get all your work done without overwhelming yourself into uselessness.
In research, too, you’ll be expected to be more independent. While you will get more guidance toward the beginning of your program, by the end of your first year you will be expected to have some fresh ideas about potential research or scholarly projects with potential to contribute knowledge to your field.
4. You’ll be judged by completely different standards
In college, the most important thing was performance in your classes. If you did well in classes, you received good grades, and you were considered a “good student.” In graduate school, classes are just the beginning – and frankly, one of the least important aspects of your program. Good grades are commonplace and expected. You’ll come to understand the oft-noted phenomenon whereby a “C in grad school is like an F in college.”
You’ll also be expected to get involved in research and/or scholarship early on in your program. The quality of your ideas and your research will be a far bigger part of how your advisor and other professors perceive you within the program than your performance in classes.
5. You’re highly visible
Even at a small college, you might have been one of a hundred other students in your major, while at large universities there are thousands of students in every department. It’s important to remember that unlike in college, you can’t just fade into the background if you want to succeed in graduate school and beyond.
In graduate school, you’re part of a much smaller cohort within your department, and as a result you’ll be much more ‘visible’ to your peers and faculty. The faculty in your department will form opinions about you based on the way you act, think, and speak in classes and at departmental events and meetings.
This is good – and necessary! These same faculty members become part of your network and you’ll want them on your side down the road when a hiring committee calls them for their opinion. You also want to be at the forefront of their mind just in case the perfect job for you crosses their desk or email inbox.
6. You’ll be more involved with your department and less involved with the rest of the university
Many college undergraduates become highly engaged with the life of their campus – joining campus groups, cheering the football team on Saturdays and hanging out at campus hotspots. While some graduate students are more active than others, in general graduate students are less involved in the social life of the campus and more involved in their department as the hub of their experience in graduate school.
Most of the people you interact with on a daily basis will be other students and faculty members within your department, to the point where you may find yourself completely unfamiliar with faculty and practices in other departments at the same school.
Graduate student organizations do exist, but typically they meet less frequently and tend to focus on different things than typical undergraduate social clubs. And while some graduate students live on campus, most will live outside the campus ecosystem. In any case, the halls of your department will quickly become your home on campus, for better or worse.
7. In graduate school, everyone wants to be there
Compared to college, the biggest difference in graduate school is that everyone wants to be there. Many graduate students think of their schoolwork as their job (and chances are, it is or will be) and this difference in mindset changes everything.
Your peers will stimulate and challenge you, and they won’t come to class in their pajamas. Faculty within your department will actually be interested in what you have to say. And because of this fundamental dynamic, you’ll learn more and discover that you have more to offer than you might previously have imagined.
This point should also be something that you think hard about before you decide to attend grad school: are you sure it’s what you want to do? If not, there’s no rush: wait until you know exactly what you want to study and make sure you can confidently answer the question, “Why do I want to go to grad school?” If it’s where you want to be, you’ll find yourself in good company.
In the end, graduate school is a completely different animal from undergraduate college. From studying to socializing, you’re entering a new world. But if you choose to go to grad school to study something you’re passionate about, you’ll likely find it much more rewarding than college.