1. Understand your reasons.
Students decide to attend graduate school for a plethora of reasons.
However, if you simply want to stay out of the job market and land a “cushy” job as a professor, then graduate school may not be the right choice for you.
“You should go because you enjoy learning about new topics, through your research and that of others, and sharing knowledge with others through writing and teaching. You should also go if you are self-motivated and like planning out your work day,” advises Northern Kentucky University professor Richard L. Boyce.
This stage in your education will be challenging, and you will need self-discipline and perseverance to achieve your goals. Kevin D. Haggerty says these qualities are often more important than intellect because “you not only need to maintain momentum but also develop a sensibility about how to manage trying events.”
Find ways to balance your outside life with your commitment to study during your program. If you go for the right reasons, graduate school will be a gratifying experience.
2. Present your best self in your application.
Applications often require Graduate Records Examination (GRE) scores, undergraduate transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a statement of purpose.
Many programs also ask for a sample of your work, such as an analytical essay. The weight of each item varies by program, but admissions representatives look at your application as a whole. So if, for example, your GRE scores are not quite where you want, remember that the other aspects of your application are just as important.
Your statement of purpose can individualize your application. You should highlight unique aspects about yourself. Mention any research or teaching experience you have. Write about any projects you have conducted that relate to your area of study. You can also include how the graduate program will benefit from your admission.
The goal of your application is to “tie your background and the department’s graduate program together with [your] specific career goals,” says Boyce. Showcase your talents, and do not shy away from telling the university why you are an ideal candidate.
3. Choose the right supervising professor.
When deciding where to apply, research professors in the program. Boyce says, “You will not in most cases be taking a lot of courses. [Instead] you will be working primarily with one faculty member,” known as your supervisor. You will develop a close relationship with this mentor. Not only will supervisors evaluate you during the program, but they also will be a long-term reference after you graduate. I still turn to my mentor for career advice and letters of recommendation.
To decide on the right supervisor, look at her credentials and reputation. Which topics have been the focus of her research and publications, especially recently? How have her previous students fared in the program and after graduation? This will give you an idea of the sort of work she will expect from you.
Talk to senior graduate students when you visit the campus. What do they say about the professor? Remember that supervising professors “provide the scholarly network in which a student will initially be immersed,” says Haggerty, so be sure that your personalities are compatible because this relationship can make your experience wonderful or difficult.
Do not commit to a supervisor until you have met him in person, advises Haggerty. Once you choose the right professor, listen to his advice because he “has a vested interest in seeing you succeed” as you represent him as much as yourself.
The professor “has access to a bigger picture than is typically available to graduate students,” Haggerty explains. He will know the current trends of research and how to obtain a position in your career.
4. Strengthen your writing.
Most of your work in graduate school will consist of researching and writing, so it is imperative you strengthen your writing. Excellent writing will convey your ideas clearly and help you publish your work. You must practice writing every day. It is like a muscle; without regular use, your ability will atrophy. To prevent this, create a regular writing routine.
Haggerty explains, “some time-honored techniques include joining (or establishing) a writing group [and] reading books,” paying attention to how others write. Some writers “set aside particular times of the day, while others compose in hour-long segments, never leaving their chair until that time has expired. Others commit to producing a certain number of words or pages a day. Many authors, wary of being distracted, unplug their telephones and refuse to read their email until they have produced their self-imposed output.”
I write first thing in the morning for several hours, and I commit time to read every day. I often switch scenery when stuck with writer’s block; I travel between my offices, local coffee shops, and book stores. Whatever your preference, establish a personal writing routine that you commit to every day.
Boyce, R.L. (2009). Thinking about graduate school? Bios 80 (1), 35-40.
Haggerty, K.D. (2010). Tough love: professional lessons for graduate students. The American Sociologist 41(1), 82-96.