Nov 19, 2016

Adjust Your Expectations for Grad School

Beginning a doctoral program? Prepare yourself for several years of intense research, studying, and professional growth. Like anything else in life, realistic expectations will be critical to your success. What should you know?

Successful Graduate Students are Autonomous 
You may have already noticed that grad school is less structured than college. It requires independent thinking and initiative as you'll be responsible for guiding your own professional development. You may have to choose your own advisor, and you definitely will have to have to figure out a way to get along and work with him or her. It will be up to you, with a little guidance, to carve out an area of research and find a dissertation topic, as well as make the professional contacts that are essential to advancing in your field and getting a job after graduation.

Accustomed to undergrad, new grad students often wait for someone to tell them what to do. The they wait without answers or direction, the more fearful they may become about their futures, which can lead to paralysis. For success in graduate school, be prepared to take control of your own education.

Graduate School is Not Like Undergrad 
I've said it before but it's worth repeating. Doctoral programs are nothing like college. If you're considering graduate school because you're doing well in college and like school, be aware that grad school will likely be very different than the last 16 or more years of school you've experienced. Graduate study, especially at the doctoral level, is apprenticeship. Instead of sitting in class for a couple of hours a day and then being free to play, grad school is more like a job that occupies all of your time. You'll spend a great deal of your time working on research in your advisor or mentor's lab, as a formal research assistant or simply to get experience.

Research Rules in Graduate School
The purpose of doctoral education is to learn to do research. The emphasis is on learning how to gather information and construct knowledge independently. As a researcher or professor, much of your job will consist of gathering materials, reading it, thinking about it, and designing studies to test your ideas about it. Grad school, especially doctoral education, is preparation for a career in research.

Don't Expect a Speedy Finish
Typically a doctoral program is a five to eight year commitment. Usually the first year is the most structured year, entailing classes and lots of reading. Most students are required to pass a set of comprehensive exams at various points in the program in order to continue. For example, in my graduate program, students took a set of comprehensive exams at the end of the first year to receive their master's degrees and then another set after completing all coursework (at the end of the third year) to progress to doctoral candidate status (often informally referred to as ABD - all-but-dissertation status).

The Dissertation Determines Your Fate 
The doctoral dissertation is the basis for earning a PhD. You'll spend a great deal of time searching for a thesis topic and advisor, and then reading up on your topic to prepare your dissertation proposal. Once the proposal is accepted by your dissertation committee (typically composed of 5 faculty that you and your advisor have chosen based on their knowledge of the field), you're free to begin your research study. You'll plug away for months or often years until you've conducted your research, made some conclusions, and written it all up. Then comes your dissertation defense: you'll present your research to your dissertation committee, answer questions, and defend the validity of your work.

Jul 23, 2016

How Grad School is Different from Undergrad

The first days of the semester are always busy, but the first days of grad school might pass in a blur of classes, orientations, and meetings. I remember little of my first day of graduate school many years ago. What stands out is an orientation speech by the chair of the department who explained that grad school entails a critical transition from consumer of knowledge to producer of knowledge. That’s what it’s all about, but I had never thought of it that way. I was to become a producer of knowledge? I went through the rest of the day in a daze.

Totally overwhelmed, I got home, changed into comfortable clothes, and discovered that I put my shirt on inside out and backwards. Stressed? Those first few weeks of school I learned that graduate school was way different than I expected. In the coming years I'd put in intellectual sweat, emotional equity, and much more time than I ever expected. Despite this, I wouldn't trade my time in graduate school for anything. And, if grad school is right for you, I suspect that you will feel the same way.

So, how do you make a smooth transition to graduate school? Here are four major differences between college and grad school.

It's Not Just Classes 
Classes are a big part of master's programs and the first couple of years of doctoral programs. But grad school entails more than completing a series of classes. You will take courses during the first couple of years of your PhD program, but your later years will emphasize research (and you probably won't take any courses during those later years). The purpose of grad school is to develop a professional understanding of your discipline through independent reading and study.

Apprenticeship Model
Most of what you learn in grad school will not come from classes, but from other activities, like doing research and attending conferences. You'll choose and work closely with a faculty member on his or her research. As an apprentice of sorts, you'll learn how to define research problems, design and carry out research projects to test your hypotheses, and disseminate your results. The end goal is to become an independent scholar and design your own research program.

It’s a Job
Approach grad school as a full-time job; it's not "school" in the undergraduate sense. If you soared through college with little studying, you're in for a big culture shock. The reading lists will be longer and more extensive than you've encountered in college. More importantly, you'll be expected to read and be prepared to critically evaluate and discuss it all. Most grad programs require that you take initiative for your learning and demonstrate commitment to your career. Remember that no one will hold your hand and walk you through. You must provide your own motivation. Also note that if you’re receiving funding from your department or program, you’re probably expected to put in full time hours – and are probably forbidden from outside work.

You'll Become Socialized to Your Field 
Why is graduate school so different from undergrad? Graduate training teaches you the information and skills that you need to be a professional. However, being a professional requires more than coursework and experiences. In graduate school you will be socialized into your profession. In other words, you will learn the norms and values of your field. and you will learn to think like a professional in your field. Are you ready?