Graduate School

How to Apply & More

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Preparing for graduate school
Deciding on graduate study
Choosing schools to apply to
Timeline for applications
Application packet
Paying for grad school
Accepting an offer
Preparing for the next big step
Useful links


PREPARING FOR GRADUATE SCHOOL

Preparation for graduate study really begins in your freshman year.  That's when you begin taking courses that lay the foundation for later success.  Most undergraduates change majors a couple of times in the course of completing a degree.  That means that the most important courses early on are the ones that build basic skills that can be used in all majors.  Reading and writing are essential for advanced study in the humanities and social sciences.  English Composition and English Literature are key courses in improving writing and reading.  Courses in History, Philosophy, and Political Science are also useful in building reading and writing skills.  Mathematical reasoning and logic are also necessary skills for success in most fields.  Courses in Mathematics and Science can build those skills, as can some Sociology and Psychology courses.  Finally, students with graduate school ambitions should work to build their critical thinking and analytical skills.  Almost any college-level course should build a student's ability to question evidence, review arguments for logic and consistency, and make connections.  Most graduate programs in the humanities (and many programs in the social sciences) require some mastery of foreign languages, so you'll want to consider what languages would be most useful in your field and lay a foundation in them as early as possible.

There are many summer programs that can help you prepare for graduate study.  Some are specifically designed to give students preparation for graduate study and a chance to see what graduate school is going to be like.  Some are at schools with strong graduate programs and serve as a community outreach and recruitment tool for their programs (often with the goal of attracting under-represented groups to graduate study).  Other programs offer students a chance to pursue in-depth research and study in their chosen field.  Internship programs can give students a chance to earn money and/or college credit while doing hands-on work in their field.  Usually these summer programs begin advertising in the winter and early spring.  Keep your eyes open for announcements and deadlines on web pages and bulletin boards.  Ask faculty if they know of anything coming up.

Students might also want to join professional societies and honors societies within their field.  History students will want to consider the American Historical Association and the Phi Alpha Theta honors society.  Political Science students should consider the American Political Science Association and the Pi Sigma Alpha honors society.  There are also a lot of more specialized associations, such as the Medieval Academy or the National Conference of Black Political Scientists.  Most professional associations have special rates for students.

As well as preparation in specific subjects, students prepare for graduate school by continually stretching their minds.  This means taking courses because they are an interesting challenge and not because they are an easy grade. This means choosing paper topics that let you build on and add to your essential skills.  This means doing your best in every course, even if you can make an A with a half-hearted effort.  This means seeking out extracurricular activities that will expose you to new ideas and new ways of looking at the world.  This means reading widely in your chosen field and on topics of general interest.  This means making serious thought a normal part of every day of your life.

Your first years of college are also when most people learn how to use their time and energy wisely.  Learn how heavy a load you can carry without wearing yourself down mentally and physically.  Learn how to work hard when you have to, but also what you need to do to refresh yourself between tasks.  Learn what time of day you work most productively and how to get the most out of your effort if you are forced to work at other times.  Learn to recognize and compensate for your personal weaknesses (procrastination, carelessness in proofreading, obsession with petty details, tendency to wander off topic, etc.) and how to prevent yourself from sabotaging your own best effort.

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DECIDING ON GRADUATE STUDY

Graduate school will make you master of your field.  If you want to teach at the collegiate level, you will need at least a master's degree and ideally a PhD (if you want a secure job at a 4-year school).   Graduate study can also prepare you for a career in public service, business, or writing, but graduate school is not the only path to those career goals.

Many students imagine that graduate school will be like undergraduate education but more work. There are certainly some similarities between the two levels of education

  • but graduate school will require more specialization
  • more self-discipline and independent work
  • a greater awareness of what others in your field are doing
  • more attention to research design
  • more collection of raw data
  • and more original analysis of data.
  • If you want to immerse yourself in a field of study
  • then graduate study in the liberal arts is a good path for you

If you are interested mainly in improving earning power or prestige in the community, then other professional tracks (including graduate study in fields such as business or public administration) would be better choices.

Occasionally, students will switch fields between undergraduate and graduate school.  That's OK, but you should be prepared to address the reasons for your switch in your application materials. You should also be sure to research the requirements for your new field of study so that you can take courses or acquire skills that might be more emphasized in your graduate major than in your undergraduate major.

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CHOOSING SCHOOLS TO APPLY TO

Your choice of schools will depend on many factors.  If you need to stay in a particular part of the country, then that will limit your choice of schools (and possibly your fields of study).  Be aware that as you become more specialized the post-PhD jobs available to you will likely be scattered over a wide geographical area, so you should consider whether your career goals are compatible with your need to limit your geographical range.

If you have a clear idea of what you want to study, then you will want to look for programs that have that focus.  Graduate school generally involves working closely with a faculty mentor, who will direct your master's thesis and ultimately your doctoral dissertation.  Make sure that any prospective school has someone who works in your area (ideally a cluster of faculty who work in your general area, as well as one person that you would like to work with as your primary mentor).  You should also make sure that your chosen faculty mentor is accepting new graduate students.  (Faculty might stop accepting graduate students for a variety of reasons--administrative duties, imminent retirement, too many current students, health, etc. A call or e-mail to the program/department office can often answer that question.)    You should also pay attention to other faculty at the school.  Make sure that you will be able to learn the languages and special skills you need easily (either on campus or through summer programs elsewhere) and that other faculty will offer courses that will support your primary area of study.  Even if you work very closely with just one person, you will have to take courses from several other faculty and to have several other faculty on your master's and doctoral committees.

You should also look at the reputation of the program that you are applying to, bearing in mind that there are lots of different ways to rank programs and that they are all subjective to some degree.  Some programs will graduate students more quickly than others; ask about the average number of years to get a PhD.  Most graduate programs offer merit-based aid to a large proportion of their students, so the proportion of fully funded students will probably be more important to you than the cost of the program.  (Fields that are more oriented to job skills than to research will probably have fewer fully funded positions.)  You might also want to get a sense of how much teaching experience graduate students will get (and teaching what types of undergraduate students) and how successful the program is at placing PhDs in appropriate jobs after graduation.  Finally, you might want to consider how diverse the program is (percentage of students who are women or minorities) and what the overall campus culture is like.

If your ultimate goal is the PhD, consider whether you want to attend a school that offers only a Master's degree.  The advantages may be that admission could be  less competitive, the atmosphere might more nurturing to the beginning students,  and/or the school could be more conveniently located than schools with PhD programs.  One disadvantage is that PhD programs often assume that students will take their entire graduate education at one institution and have set up funding and other rewards accordingly.  Some programs also build a lot of peer support among cohorts (students who entered at the same time), so someone coming in after the Master's degree might feel marginal or left out.

Undergraduate faculty can help you identify schools that have good programs in your area of interest.  Various professional associations (American Historical Association, American Association of Political Scientists, Organization of American Historians, etc.) have guides to graduate programs.  You can also get lists of top-ranked programs from various publications (US News and World Report has some of the most well-known rankings, but you can also find other guides serving different audiences--and note that just because a program is strong overall doesn't mean that it is strong in the particular area that you want to study).

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TIMELINE FOR APPLICATION

Most graduate programs  begin accepting applications in the mid to late fall for admission the following fall.  Some programs will also admit students in the middle of the year.  Check the school's web site for specific information.

Masters and PhD programs usually have a three-step application and aid process.  Students must gain admission first to the Graduate School and then to the individual program.  Once a student has been accepted to the school and the program, the department begins considering merit-based aid (such as fellowships and graduate assistant ships).  Usually schools start giving out merit-based aid much earlier than the official deadline for admission.  (For example, many schools have admissions deadlines in March but have a January or earlier deadline to be considered for aid.)

Ideally, students planning on graduate school should start researching graduate programs at the end of the Sophomore year.  At this point you will be looking less at individual schools and more at overall requirements, to make sure that you will have the skills that graduate admissions committees are looking for in your field.  You may also want to start doing some preparation for the GRE.  You'll want to start researching specific schools and their requirements in your Junior year.  You should begin lining up application materials (writing samples, cover letters, letters of reference, GRE, etc.) the summer after the Junior year.    Applications should go out in October of the Senior year.  Students will probably receive acceptance notices (with offers of aid) in January or February of the Senior year.  You should review your offers and be prepared to accept an offer in March or April of the Senior year.   If you don't decide to go to graduate school until your Senior year, however, don't panic.  You will just have to go through the steps a little more quickly. If your GRE scores haven't come back by the time materials need to be sent out, just send out the materials with a note indicating when you took the GRE and when the program can expect to see the scores.

There's no set rule for how many schools you apply to.  If you have limits on where you can live or what type of program you can enter, you might find that there are only a few programs that fit your needs.  In that case, apply to all of them. If you have a lot of flexibility, then you should probably narrow your list down to 5-10 schools.  At least one or two of the schools should be "safety" schools whose standards you are pretty sure that you meet (and exceed).

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APPLICATION PACKET

Graduate and professional programs generally use the following information to determine admissions and financial aid:

  • GPA
  • Coursework
  • Standardized test scores
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Writing samples
  • Employment history
  • Extra-curricular activities
  • Cover letter

Transcripts provide evidence of GPA and coursework.  Students planning to go to graduate school should try to maintain a GPA above 3.0 (above 3.5 is better still, of course).  Students with lower GPAs still have a  chance at entry into many programs, but they will need to provide evidence that their abilities go beyond what the bald numbers suggest.  If specific circumstances have affected the GPA, students should highlight those circumstances in a cover letter.  (For example, a student might have become seriously ill or suffered a personal loss one semester, resulting in a drop in GPA for that semester.  Or a student might have been working full-time while taking a full load of classes.  Or perhaps a student had trouble adjusting to college but showed steady improvement after the first year.)  Departments will also be looking for whether students took a challenging and relevant mix of classes.  (Schools and colleges often don't look at specific courses quite as closely as individual departments do.)

Different programs will require different standardized testing.  Most graduate programs in the liberal arts require the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) sometimes with a subject test (History and Political Science do not have subject tests) or some other standardized test.

Students should take care in requesting letters of recommendation.  The best letters will come from faculty who have worked closely with you recently and can provide a lot of details about your writing and overall academic ability.  Letters from employers or community leaders will weigh less heavily unless they address experience that is directly relevant to the program you are applying to (for example, if you've done an oral history project with your church, a letter from your pastor would be a good letter if you are applying to a History program but not if you're applying to an Economics program).  Obviously, you want to ask only faculty who have had a good experience with you. If you are in doubt, it's OK to ask if the faculty member would be able to recommend you strongly.  You also need to allow faculty enough time to write the letter.  Ideally, you should give them two weeks or more.  You should also be very clear about where they should send the letter (and the person to whom they should address it) and some general information about the program and why you are applying to it.  If you anticipate asking for a lot of letters, then you should warn the faculty member in advance.  If you haven't taken courses from a faculty member recently, you might want to give them  some reminders (perhaps you still have a copy of a term paper you wrote for them) so that they remember who you were and how you performed in the class.  It's in your interest to make it easy for faculty to write letters for you.

Many schools ask for a writing sample.  In some cases you can simply submit a paper from a course.  In other cases, the program might ask for something composed specifically for the admissions committee (an intellectual autobiography, for example, or a statement of why you want to study in a particular field).  Whatever you send in, be sure that it is the type of writing that the application calls for, that it is the length called for, that you have proofread carefully, and that it prints clearly.

Your application packet should include a cover letter.  Begin the letter by indicating what program you are applying to (PhD in African History or Masters of International Relations, for example).  Indicate if any application materials will be sent separately (test scores, letters of reference, etc.).  If you have not done so elsewhere, this is the place to say a little about any special circumstances that the admissions committee might need to know about.  If you have relevant work or volunteer experience, this is your opportunity to mention it.  If you took courses that did a particularly good job of preparing you for graduate study, then you can mention those as well.  Likewise, if you had circumstances that caused you to do poorly in classes (work obligations, health problems, etc.) you can mention these as well.  (You do not have to be detailed about the nature of the problems, but you should be clear which semesters were affected and point out that the preceding and following semesters were much better.)  As with all written submissions be sure to proofread to make sure that there are no grammatical, spelling, formatting errors, or printing errors.

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PAYING FOR GRAD SCHOOLS

Many graduate programs offer incoming students some sort of fellowship or assistantship.  A fellowship is usually a living allowance and tuition waiver given to students so that they can focus on their coursework full-time.  A full fellowship is designed to cover all likely expenses (housing, food, clothing, tuition, books, etc.), though at a fairly basic level (and often a  "full fellowship" will be running behind the real cost of living by quite a lot).  Partial fellowships will off-set some of the costs of going to school, but not all.

Schools also offer graduate assistantships to support students while they are in school.  Students perform some sort of professionally-related work in exchange for a stipend and/or a tuition reduction or waiver.  The most common are teaching assistantships and research assistantships.  Teaching assistantships allow students to learn about teaching by helping a faculty member with a course.  (Teaching assistants assist with grading, running small discussion sections for lecture courses, preparing course materials, and/or other course-related work.)  Research assistants help an individual faculty member (or group of faculty) with a research project.  Duties can vary from the routine (photocopying, fetching books from the library) to highly skilled and specialized (reading documents in foreign languages, running complex statistical analyses, creating computer databases).  Some research assistantships are funded by the school or department, but most often they are funded by an outside grant to a faculty member.

Some programs also have scholarships for special study, such as foreign language study or acquisition of other specialized research skills.  Many departments have travel grants to allow students to attend academic conferences or travel to archives for research.  Students can also apply for need-based aid using the Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) submitted to the school's financial aid office.

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ACCEPTING AN OFFER

In the best of all possible worlds you will have several offers to choose from.  You may have already ranked your schools before offers arrive. Nevertheless, it is useful to look at the details of the offers.  Things to look at include:

  • What type of admission is offered (to a joint MA and PhD program, to the MA program only, to the MA program with the possibility of continuing to the PhD, directly to the PhD program)
  • What type of aid is offered (fellowship, assistantship, need-based only, etc.)
  • How long the aid will continue (through the MA, through the PhD, for one year only, for two years, renewable for up to a certain period)
  • How much aid will be provided (note that the cost of living will vary--a school in San Francisco or New York City will require a larger living allowance than one in Lincoln, Nebraska)
  • Conditions of aid (maintaining a specific GPA, making progress in the program, etc.)
  • Expected course load (some programs will expect you to take a lighter load if holding an assistantship)
  • Assignment of academic advisors (some schools will assign advisors at the time of admission; others will have students wait until they are on campus)

You can ask for further information while you are considering offers.  You might want to contact your likely faculty mentor by phone or e-mail.  Many schools will also put you in contact with current graduate students so that you can ask about the program.  If you have the time and money, you might want to schedule a campus visit.  (Make sure that you are going to be visiting at a time when students and faculty are likely to be around to meet with you.)  You can also talk to your undergraduate faculty about the merits of the different offers.

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PREPARING FOR THE NEXT BIG STEP

Once you have been admitted and accepted an offer, you will want to set yourself up for success. Make sure that you have completed all paperwork necessary for admission and receipt of aid.  Take note of your new institution's academic calendar so that you know when you need to show up. Your department may also have some orientation activities for new students (both academic and social) before the term officially begins.

Once you know when you need to be on campus, you can plan your move.  You will need to have some place where you can work effectively.  Some schools will give students library carrels (reserved desk space in the library where students can keep books, sometimes with locking drawers or cupboards).  If you work best at home, then you want to make sure that your apartment or dorm room has a comfortable place for you to study.  Note that the best places for undergraduate students to live are not always the best places for graduate students to live (for reasons of noise, for example).  Many schools have special graduate student housing (either dorm rooms or apartments).  If you want to live off-campus, you should ask where other graduate students are living to get an idea of what neighborhoods are most suitable for the graduate student lifestyle and budget.  If you decide you need a roommate, choose carefully to make sure that the person you room with has similar ideas about quiet time, paying bills, and shared household chores.  You also need to decide if you will want a car or not.  Parking and insuring a car in some big cities can be prohibitively expensive on a graduate student stipend.  On the other hand, some communities don't have good public transportation, making a car a necessity.

Make sure that you will have the financial resources that you need to make the move.  Hiring movers can be very expensive, so unless you get a moving allowance from your school or have a lot of valuable necessities, you are probably better off moving yourself.  Rental trucks are usually affordable.  Budget for the expenses of moving into a new apartment, utility hook-ups, deposits, storage if you won't be able to move in right away, and perhaps a few nights in a hotel while looking for an apartment or waiting for an apartment to become available.  A summer job can help you save some money for these start-up expenses. You might also want to have a yard sale before you go so that you aren't taking anything that you don't absolutely need.   (The farther you are moving, the less you want to take.  For a cross-country move, you might want to consider leaving all or most of your furniture behind and buying used furniture when you get to your destination. In a really light-weight move, you might take a plane or bus and send your clothes and books by mail.)

The summer before you go is also a good time to make sure that you are ready for the change mentally.  This is a good time to work on languages and other necessary skills.  Alternatively, you might want to give yourself a mental break in the summer so that you are rested and ready to work when you arrive.   Whatever you do, be proud of your accomplishment in getting into a graduate program and be sure to fill out our Senior Exit Survey so that we can boast about you:  http://www.tnstate.edu/history/exitsurvey.aspx

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USEFUL LINKS

TSU's Career Center:

TSU's Graduate School:

American Historical Association:

List of History Doctoral Programs in the US and Canada (from American Historical Association):

Graduate School Application Process (from the American Historical Association, but useful for most fields of study):


American Political Science Association:

Grants, Fellowships, and Other Funding Opportunities (from American Political Science Association):

Beyond Academe (site created by History PhD's who decided not to work as professors):

PhDs.org (graduate school rankings):

Free Application for Student Financial Aid:

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webpage contact:
Elizabeth Dachowski