FAQ's: Exploring Graduate School

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Selecting a Program and School

I am planning to attend graduate school in a year or so. How do I find out about programs and how do I find out about rankings of these programs?

To find programs in your area of interest, consult Peterson's Guide to Graduate/Professional School and the Graduate School section on the Career Center website. These are good starting points. Then, talk to the faculty and graduate students in those areas to get their views. While there are rankings in publications and websites like US News, you will want to look at them with some skepticism. The National Research Council ranks departments every ten years. That is usually considered a good rating system.

Your faculty is your best source of reliable, up-to-date information about the relative strengths of different graduate programs - especially when it comes to their specific fields. Some departments are good in one area, but not others. You will get lots of opinions, and they may not match. You will want to go to a given department's website, email the departments of interest and even specific faculty to acquire the kind of information necessary to determine a good fit. Visiting may help. A lot of variables factor into the decision about which program suits you best.

Where can I get more detailed descriptions on graduate school programs, such as which subject GRE test the school requires, which part of the GRE they emphasize, and their minimum GPA?

A good place to start is the university’s homepage which will typically have a link for grad admissions which can provide a broad overview of the process. However, when applying to graduate school, you are essentially applying to a specific department or program and the best source of information on admissions requirements and standards is that department’s website. These websites typically have a link for either "Prospective Students" or "Admissions" that will provide you with information about what you need to apply and the timeframe for the application process.

What about a Masters or PhD? I'm not sure which degree to pursue.

Graduate work usually leads toward research and/or teaching and is too long a process to enter into lightly. Most of your friends will be making significantly more money and getting started on their careers while you remain a "student." This is especially true for the PhD. This degree is for someone who wants to spend a career in teaching and research. While some do other things with a PhD, especially in the current academic job market, the purpose for one to get a PhD in biology would be teaching and research.

If you're thinking about a PhD, you should have undergraduate research experience (in a lab, as a part of an independent study, honors thesis, etc.) and know that research is a realm that engages and brings out the best in you. Current graduate students are a great, easily accessible resource for learning more.

Master's degrees are offered in many fields of study. Some are designed to lead to a doctorate degree while others are the "terminal" degree for a profession (e.g., Master of Public Policy or Master of Business Administration). For full-time students, completing a master's degree usually takes 1-2 years. As a part of a master's degree, you may be required to write a master's thesis or complete a fieldwork experience.

The Application Process

When are applications typically due for graduate school?

Deadlines tend to occur in December, January, and February. Schools vary, so check out the Peterson's Guide to Graduate/Professional School or the university's website and see what the deadlines are at the programs that interest you. Note, there may be different deadlines for the graduate school/department and fellowships/financial aid applications.

When Should I Take the GRE?

While graduate school application deadlines vary, most will be in the December-February period. Given the above, it is wise to have your scores by fall of the year in which you will be applying (some 10 or so months before entrance). This will give you time to ensure that your scores are available in advance of the deadline, and possibly to repeat the test if necessary. A good piece of advice is to assume that nothing will work right and plan for plenty of time to correct errors. Hopefully, your application will experience smooth sailing. Further, if you are applying for a fellowship, you may need to meet earlier deadlines. So, determine a time that will allow for some preparation free of other major demands to take the GRE.

Do All Schools Require a Statement of Purpose? What Should I Write in a Statement of Purpose?

Graduate and professional schools usually require some sort of written statement as a part of the application. Some statements ask for rather specific information--for example, the applicant's intended area of study within a graduate field, reasons for attending, plans for the future, and how he or she is prepared to study the field. Others suggest subjects that might be addressed. Still others are quite unstructured, leaving the applicant free to address a wide range of matters. Some applications call for one statement, while others require responses to a series of six or more questions, ranging from 250 to 750 words each. The importance of the statement varies from school to school and from field to field.

Don't be afraid of the essay or statement of purpose. Writing it should help you clarify your motives and goals. Graduate school is rarely a good idea when pursued as a means of avoiding the job market. If you can't articulate your reasons for seeking an advanced degree, your mind may be telling you that perhaps it's not the most appropriate option.

What Makes a Competitive Candidate for a Top-Notch Graduate School?

Many factors go into admission to graduate school. Grades, especially in the proposed area of graduate study, are very important. The GRE counts but not as much as letters of recommendation from those who have taught you, and better yet, from those with whom you have done research. A PhD program usually looks for research and scholarly potential. Talk to professors in the area you're interested in with whom you might want to work and see what they have to say. Admission to graduate school is based on a broader range of factors than just grades and test scores.

What are my chances of getting into graduate school if my grades barely meet the minimum requirements of the school?

If you are applying to a competitive program (and not all programs are competitive) and your grades are low, your chances will be enhanced by your ability to provide additional evidence that your GPA doesn't accurately reflect your abilities and potential. Some programs, for example, will place substantial value on work experience in the field. Or you might be able to overcome a relatively weak overall GPA by undertaking a demanding independent study or research project that demonstrates your true abilities and generates a strong letter of recommendation.

Some schools will list a minimum GPA, but that figure reflects the minimum as opposed to the typical threshold figure or average GPA of those admitted. Schools are often reluctant to list average GPA and GRE information because they are only part of the package examined in the decision making process. You may be able to get more concrete information by contacting a department or program and asking, "In the past few years, what kind of grades and scores have your accepted students presented?"

My GPA is below 3.0 and many graduate schools will not accept such a GPA. Is there any way to improve my GPA or my stats for graduate school admissions? I've heard that taking extra classes after graduation will help my situation. Is this true?

Graduate schools differ on their requirements for admission. Some state they want at least a 3.0; others state a 2.75. Also, some may not hold to their stated minimum. That is, they may take applicants below their stated minimum if those people have other significant strengths to offer. For example, they may have gone to a good school like Cal or have very strong letters of recommendation or test scores. Grades in the intended field or in related fields will be looked at more carefully than overall grades. For example, if a person's grades in the intended field of study were much better than the overall grades, the grad school might be willing to overlook a lower total GPA. For some schools, a 3.0 indicates that you are not likely to possess the academic skills and motivation necessary to successfully complete their program.

If you don't believe your undergraduate record reflects your true ability, post graduate work offers a fresh start with a clean transcript. If your grades are low you may not be able to get into the graduate program of your choice, but a strong performance in getting a Masters (or in the case of medical school, a post-baccalaureate program) may provide entrée to a much more competitive Ph.D. program. It may also be possible to enhance your credentials by taking demanding courses outside a degree program. Take classes related to the graduate field that you want to enter to demonstrate your ability in that field. If you want to go into grad school in English take more advanced courses in English, not biology. These courses usually should be taken at the best four-year institution you can attend.

Letters of Recommendation

How do I find professors to write letters of recommendations if I'm not really close with any of them?

Have you gotten to know any of your GSIs? You can use them as letter writers as well. Admissions people tell us that recommendations from GSIs carry as much weight as those from faculty, and in some field it's common to have faculty co-sign letters written by a GSI. Letters are valuable to the extent that they come from a person who can offer meaningful information about you.

It is important for you to provide your letter writers with information about you. When you ask for a letter of recommendation, don't just leave a note in the professor's/GSI's mailbox. Go to office hours and spend some time with the letter writer, so that he/she has the chance to learn more about you, your strengths, and your goals. It's also a good idea to give them a copy/draft of your personal statement, samples of your class work or papers and a curriculum vitae or brief resume which includes your GPA. Typically, you will need 3 letters.

One of my professors is writing me a letter of recommendation and would like to see a sample letter. Are there any samples on file or online?

If you look at this website's Letter Service Online section, you will find suggestions for letter writers. You may print those out and give them to your letter writers. The letter writer should make it clear how he or she knows you and how well. The writer should be as specific as possible about your academic skills and personal traits, if relevant. The writer should also put you in perspective with other students he or she has recommended. "I have taught at Cal for X years and during that time have recommended X# for grad school. I put this student in the top x percent."

The more detailed a letter, the more it reflects the writer's direct knowledge of your work and potential; the more credible it will appear to members of the admissions committee

Is there an advantage to waiving my right to see letters of recommendation? Do admissions committees prefer this?

Confidential letters are more common, and admissions folks tend to give them more weight. If you're not sure whether someone will write an effective letter, you can ask for an open letter and look it over before deciding whether or not to have it included in your dossier. It is rare that someone will write a bad letter.

A more common outcome is a letter that offers little more than vague generalities or lukewarm praise. If you ask a given faculty member or GSI to write you a letter, they may not feel comfortable saying "no" even if they don't feel able to write a strong endorsement. Give them another option. Rather than asking if they'd write you a letter, ask if they feel they know you and your work well enough to write a good letter. This allows them a graceful out and saves you from having a letter that appears to damn by faint praise.