Academic Success

Preparing for Graduate School: Picking an Appropriate Program

There are thousands of graduate programs and the choices can seem overwhelming. Rather than spending hours browsing graduate school websites, first identify what you want to get out of your graduate degree. In other words, think about your career aspirations and what knowledge, skills, and experience will help you achieve them. Next, pick a program that suits your intellectual interests and career needs. Unfortunately, this is sometimes easier said than done.

Explore Opportunities

It is very important to target your program search to match your professional goals, as studying at a graduate level is where you develop expertise within a particular field. Many undergrads still have no idea what they want to do next semester, let alone the rest of their working lives. While uncertainty is perfectly fine and understandable, it’s also important to do some due diligence. Research the career choices within each program that interests you, look at the class schedule, talk to students in that program, and look into an internship in the field(s) you’re considering.

For graduate school applicants who have trouble choosing one area to focus on or don’t have specific career aspirations yet, be introspective. Your perceptions of certain programs may not be entirely accurate; so as an undergraduate, consider taking a course or two in each area of interest. Applicants should also look for programs with opportunities to study a range of different topics as well as for internships to sample different professional roles.

Think Outside the Classroom

Internships give you the real world experience that can’t be taught in a classroom or found in the library. Before you fully commit yourself to a program and career field, diversify your experiences. Get a relevant internship or do some job shadowing to obtain a real-world sense of your program’s day-to-day work. This will allow yourself to realize whether your profession of interest is or isn’t for you.

Start reading papers published by well-known researchers in your field(s) and explore which papers you find more interesting than others. Determine why certain areas of those papers are interesting, and use that as a stepping-stone to do more exploring.

Be proactive and go to the meetings of academically focused clubs that are interested in the same topics as you. Attend events, lectures, and seminars hosted by your prospective program departments. Speak with students enrolled in the programs you're considering, and see how they feel about their course and workload. Individual impressions vary, so be sure get a balanced opinion. If you hear the same things from several students, then the information is probably reliable.

Weigh All Your Options

Many undergraduates choose to pursue professions and postgraduate degrees based on what’s going to make them the most money. While it may be a good idea to plan your future based on the field’s financial outlook, remember that this is your life, it’s not all about the money. Do you really want to devote 40+ hours a week for the next 40 years in a career that makes you miserable, simply because it delivers a hefty paycheck?

An informed decision of the best program involves exploring all opportunities to determine what you want your end goal to be. While your career outlook is by no means completely dependent upon the program you choose to pursue, it’s a great place to start. You’ll want to think about how much education you will need to qualify for the career you want while at the same time give you a competitive advantage in the job market. For example, if your undergraduate major is psychology, you will most likely need some kind of graduate degree for you to practice in the clinical or academic field, whereas if you want to teach at the University level, you will most likely need your PhD.

Consider studying abroad. There’s the general benefit gained from studying abroad as employers are increasingly valuing international experience across a wide range of sectors. By choosing to study abroad for your graduate degree, you’ll add strength to your résumé and set yourself apart from the other applicants.

Work with a Program Counselor

Unmistakably, there is a lot of information available on the internet, whether its websites dedicated to studying in general or studying in a particular field, sites that address multiple schools, or graduate schools’ own websites. However, when gathering information to know what to expect once you join the program, don’t forget to contact representatives from the school of the graduate programs you are considering.

It is beneficial for you to utilize your university’s resources when choosing a program. Talking with a program advisor will give you a more in-depth look at finding out the best prerequisites to take, the length of the program, and future prospects with that program. Don’t be afraid to do this, or feel that you’re wasting the advisor’s time, graduate schools are also looking for the right match with students who fit well with their programs. Remember, while the internet makes it much easier to discover information without speaking with someone, it still doesn’t beat personal interaction when it comes to decision making.

Create a Degree Plan

Once you have chosen a program, create a concise and focused degree plan. With it, you should have an idea of your graduation date and it will enable you to plan accordingly. A degree plan, sometimes referred to as a program plan, begins with an academic evaluation. It is a tool universities share to help students identify the areas of credit needed in order to complete a degree. A completed academic evaluation will show you which of your previously earned credits apply to a degree, where in the degree they apply, and where in the degree there are still required credits to be completed.

Taking a course and then finding out the credit won’t apply towards your degree is among the most frustrating student experiences. The university and degree advisors are there to help you avoid such experiences and the unnecessary expenses. Therefore, by selecting potential classes before registration and getting them approved by a program counselor, you will be able to make a long-term degree plan.

Every section in your degree is filled by either credits you have already earned or credits you can earn with the following methods of earning credit:

Prior Learning Methods New Learning Methods
College-level courses taken through regionally accredited colleges or universities and transferred to the university* Distance courses from any regionally accredited colleges and universities
Examinations such as the TECEP©, CLEP, DSST, and Excelsior College exams along with the university and ACTFL Foreign Language Proficiency exams Classroom courses from any regionally accredited colleges and universities
PLA (Portfolio Assessment) through the university or other schools** Online courses from the university
ACE, NCCRS and the university APRs

*PLA/portfolio credit done through institutions other than the university needs to be reviewed for its transferability.

When you plan credits, your advisor will place them on the degree plan where they can be more beneficial to you. Sometimes course credits are transferred to other sections within the degree. That is okay. It is not always important where credits fit, but that they do fit.

Final Thoughts

As an undergraduate, you shape your degree toward your interests and future goals. There are also opportunities to participate in clubs, internships, department lectures, and study abroad programs. In many ways, this is similar to graduate school. Once you have decided that graduate school is part of the career path for you, the next step is to develop professionalism. Even as a student, you are part of a professional field. Get involved, make use of your student memberships, and maximize your time so that you are building a solid record of experience for your resume or CV.


1 Information taken from “Creating Submitting and Updating a Degree Plan,” Thomas Edison State University 2017, URL:

2 Information taken from “Creating Submitting and Updating a Degree Plan,” Thomas Edison State University 2017, URL:

Preparing for Graduate School: Explore a Variety of Subjects

Deciding to seek a graduate degree is a major commitment of time and money, and not everyone has a clear understanding of what he or she wants career-wise. Without a clear goal, going to graduate school could end up being a waste of your efforts as applying to graduate school involves: requesting letters of recommendation, requesting transcripts, taking the GREs/MATs/GMATs, and writing a personal statement. Additionally, many prospective graduate students also do not realize how much more demanding graduate course load is than undergraduate programs— with several years of intense work and research in which you will be expected to contribute to a specific field of study. If you have any doubt about your professional goals, consider putting off graduate school and working on some self-assessment and career planning instead. Also, many schools offer an alternative to a graduate program: a non-degree or non-matriculating student status, another option for those who are not ready to commit yet.

If you do decide that graduate school is the right path for you, take the time to explore subjects that interest you.

Get Involved with your Major

Networking is extremely important. A great way to get into campus life is to explore organizations within your major. This can provide you a path to students and professors who share your interests and passions. Most schools offer pre-professional societies and various honor societies for different fields of study, which host conferences and competitions each year to help members grow intellectually and professionally. Also, spend time interacting with department members by going to lectures by professors, guest speakers, or any nearby events and conferences to get an idea of the kind of work other people do and get ideas on who to collaborate with later on.

Try to participate in multiple research opportunities as an undergraduate at your, or other, institution. Research opportunities include class projects, independent projects, research assistantships, and summer research programs. Research programs are a significant part of your personal statement and expose you to faculty and graduate students who can serve as a mentor and assist you with the graduate school process.

To look for networking opportunities outside your major, take some time to determine which ones will be the best fit for you. Explore groups and activities that spark your interests and offer a way for you to use your talents. Chances are you will find what you are looking for, if not, many institutions allow and encourage the formation of new clubs or organizations.

Testing the Waters

What are your interests? If you do not have an immediate answer, really consider spending a semester or two as a non-degree seeking student and take classes in different fields to develop a better understanding of what areas interest you. This is your opportunity to explore different avenues of interest. Determine a few fields that are options for you. Pull up the required curriculum for graduate degrees that can get you into those career fields. The more specific you can get about your interests, the stronger your application will be. For example, if you're applying for a PhD in English, try to identify a focus such as 18th-century British literature. If you don't have an idea of what concentration you want to focus on, hold off on program applications and take time to decide on a topic until you feel confident about your choice.

While not vital to program admission, try to get some experience teaching, peer tutoring, or work as a research assistant; this will give you a good sense of what the profession is like and help you produce a good personal statement. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you are uncertain which major would be the best option for a career field (e.g., you could pursue several different majors if you are interested in law school). Whom can you ask? Talk to professors, professionals, and practitioners in your field(s) of interest.

Talk to Professors in Respective Fields

Take time to research your profession of interest. Look at graduate program websites and visit campuses. Talk to a graduate student (maybe one of your TAs) and professor(s) about what it's like being a graduate student or professor, which is very different from being an undergraduate student.

Acquiring research experience can greatly enhance your acceptance into graduate school. The majority of professors love to talk about their work/research. Get an insight into their experiences and see if what they are doing interests you. If possible, sign up as an undergraduate for a research project with one of your professors in your field interest. This will give you an idea of what research in graduate school will be like as well as help you to develop a close working relationship with your professor and possible mentor. Here are tips on what to talk to about to a faculty member of your potential graduate program:

• Read some publications in your field(s) of interest and see what topics are of most interest to you.

• Consider the topics you are interested in and look up the research interests of the faculty.

• Make an appointment to speak to the faculty member.

• Tell the faculty member that you’ve investigated and read their work (don’t forget to be specific), and indicate what research of theirs you found especially interesting.

• Ask the faculty member what they’re currently working on and respond enthusiastically to what you’re interested in regarding their current research.

• Ask the faculty member the possibility of assisting them on a current project and tell the number of hours you could commit to their research.

• The faculty member may ask about your skills or previous research experience. If you don’t have previous experience, indicate your interest in the subject and willingness to learn.

Examine Career Options

You may not want to start thinking about what comes after graduate school, but this question is crucial when deciding whether to go back to school. You need to understand that your purpose in attending graduate school is not to launch off on a quest to find yourself, but to accumulate a set of skills and build a career. Research what you're career options will be with your degree after graduation.

You may have decided on a career field (e.g., health, law, education, etc.). Now is the time to hone in on potential jobs you could get upon graduating from graduate programs in those fields. It’s never too early to start examining career options. When examining career options, look at it realistically, and take into account the salary, job availability, etc.

If you’re investing your time and money in a graduate program, you need to have a very clear idea of the prospective jobs that wait on the other side. One important distinction between undergraduate and graduate degrees is how potential employers view your education. Your bachelor’s in English can be completely irrelevant to the work you end up doing. However, a master’s or doctorate in English signals to employers that you are an expert in that field, and you may be considered overqualified. An undergraduate degree is more flexible, versus a post-grad degree, which is more final in terms of career options.

Other factors to examine when considering potential careers are:

• First, do you have to continue with a postgraduate education to find employment?

• Do you like the types of jobs associated with your degree?

• Is the graduate program located in the right area for the type of work you want?

• Will the connections you make in the graduate program (e.g., your professors, lecturers, classmates) prove valuable in finding a job?

• Are internships available nearby?

To answer these questions, explore career options before graduate school by:

• Take classes as an undergraduate or non-degree seeking graduate to increase your skills and knowledge in areas that need improvement, especially those in your field of interest.

• Find an academic mentor who might guide you through the application process of getting into graduate school, as well as a backup plan for if you aren’t accepted.

• Reach out to current graduate students in your area of study.

• Speak to former/current advisors, the career center, or faculty for suggestions.

• Participate in an internship that focuses on projects in your field of interest.

• Prepare a resume with a cover letter and personal statement expressing your interests, plans, and skills.

One of the biggest decisions you have to make as a graduate student is whether to stay in school/academia or venture out into the workforce. Other decisions that are difficult to make include what classes to take in order to get exactly what you want and need out of your graduate program, how to network with professors and classmates, and which organizations will benefit you the most. Many graduate students have a hard time with this decision because they don’t want to throw away all the hard work they put into their graduate classes, but they might also want to find out what other options are out there. Some graduate students want to expand their skills and explore new environments, while others want to stay where they have conducted research and continue to collaborate with the same professors and classmates.

To ease your mind about the decisions you need to make as a graduate student, remember what you can and can’t handle. You need to remember to reach for realistic goals, if you try to force yourself to reach unrealistic goals; you will most likely end up being disappointed. Think your time as a graduate student as preparing yourself to do what you love, but have a few backup plans just in case you aren’t accepted into the program, or the program is not what you expected.


Remember, when going to graduate school; be prepared for a different experience from your undergraduate years. When you enroll in a graduate degree program, it's best to be and stay motivated by professional and academic goals. Read about other things PhDStudent advises to consider when deciding to go to graduate school here, here, and here.

Key to Student Success: Being a Prepared Student

Student success is something that is on every graduate students mind, especially considering that going to graduate school is a huge time and financial commitment. Students need to be ready and prepared to tackle this intense process, and the best way to do this is to prepare themselves as an undergraduate. While you are an undergraduate, you should master time management, study, and self-discipline skills because these skills will serve you well in graduate school.

After you have applied and been accepted to graduate school, be prepared for a minimum of 12–15 hours class time each week and 3 times as much study time outside of class. If you are not prepared to work hard and keep up, you can easily fall behind in graduate school, and student success will be unattainable. Gradate classes are often more focused on discussions and less on lectures. Consequently, students must be caught up on reading and other assignments, or they will fall behind.

What specifically are some of the ways to achieve student success in graduate school? First, you should always stay on top of your course materials. What’s the best way to stay caught up in class? Always plan ahead and stay prepared. You can stay prepared by knowing when your assignments are due and by reading ahead. Reading ahead of the assigned chapters will not only keep you up to date but will also allow you to make connections among concepts. Concepts in graduate school often build on each other, so reading ahead will allow you to make connections more quickly. Reading ahead also allows for some human error. If you don’t have time to read an assignment because of some unexpected circumstance the night before class, you will still be prepared for class.

College is a mental game. As with other games, being stressed, unorganized, and overwhelmed are all tickets to failure; however, you can prevent this from happy by organizing your time to make tasks seem more manageable. You can do things in a timely manner if you exercise self-discipline, which will eliminate the stress involved in procrastination and last-minute scrambling. Keeping your time under control will also keep your task list shorter and less overwhelming.

Attending class is vital to any education. Avoid missing class at all costs to stay prepared and to keep from falling behind. If you must miss class, be aware of the attendance policies, and email your professor before you miss. Ask classmates what information you missed in class, and borrow their notes. Make sure to be caught up before the next class, and remember that it is imperative that you receive all missed information.

Following the guidelines to student success laid out for you above may help you navigate your way through the sometimes difficult waters of graduate school.

Can a Minor Make a Major Difference?

What is a Minor in College?

Some students may find themselves wondering, “What is a minor in college?” Minors are additional subject areas that are secondary to students’ primary subject areas in their majors. Minors do not require the extensive study that majors require. Students can use minors to enhance their majors or to explore additional subjects that interest them.

Minors can provide specialties to majors, which can be useful to graduate students because graduate studies usually focus on narrower topics than do undergraduate studies. Minors can also complement majors; for example, a minor in business would complement a major in accounting. Graduate students can use minors to demonstrate multiple skills and interests and to make themselves more marketable to grad school admissions committees. Most minors require about half of the classes necessary for majors, so minors require an average of five classes within the academic department of each minor.

Having a minor in college can benefit students, but not having a minor will not hurt students. Instead of getting minors, students could take additional courses in a related subject or could even double-major. Not all schools offer the option of minors. If students would like to have minors, students should investigate the minor options at their universities.

Do You Think a Minor in College is Right for You?

First, find the best major to fit your needs. Then, investigate the minors available to you. Research what minors will best complement your desired major, and see if those minors are of interest to you. If passion is your reason for pursuing a minor in college, go with the minor that interests you the most. If you still can’t decide, look for something that could integrate your academics with real-life application.

GPA Matters

High Undergraduate GPA can lead to Graduate School Success

Highly competitive graduate programs may require high grade point averages (GPAs) for potential students as a high GPA is a strong indicator of graduate school success. You can improve your admissions applications to graduate schools by maintaining a high GPA as an undergraduate. To maintain a high GPA as an undergraduate (and also a high graduate school GPA as well), you should remember the following:

Go to class.

Going to class may seem daunting and monotonous to some students, but most of the course material will be covered here. Therefore, going to class should be your priority, especially because every 1 hour in class equates to over 2 hours of studying. Going to class is more time efficient than is playing catch-up later.

Develop good study skills early.

Going to class is a big part of the learning process, but students must apply and practice knowledge outside class by developing good study skills. Developing good study skills will save you time and will dramatically increase the amount of information you can retain.

Pace yourself.

College can be overwhelming but will be less so if you manage your time wisely. You should schedule specific study times to alleviate the stress of your work load and to make it more manageable. Allowing yourself to be stressed is a waste of your energy. Instead of stressing about the things you need to do, you should direct that energy in a positive direction to get things done.

Do not underestimate your freshman year.

Your first year in college is about learning academic skills and adjusting to your new environment. Remember that even the classes you take during your freshman year count toward your GPA.

In conclusion, keeping your GPA high is crucial to your admissions applications for graduate school as a high GPA is a strong indicator of graduate school success. Top graduate schools have minimum GPA requirements that you must meet for admission. Exceeding minimum GPA requirements can distinguish your application from others. Striving for a higher GPA becomes more important in the competitive environment of graduate school, and these undergraduate tips will help you toward a higher graduate school GPA as well.

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