So You're Thinking About Graduate School?: Some Dos and Don'ts

Truer than you think--trust me.
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Extending the undergraduate university years is something that many more students are thinking about today. And really, who could blame them? With all of the grim employment statistics for youth globally, together with the widely circulating idea that today’s undergraduate degree is equivalent to the high-school diploma of 30 years ago, there is a tendency for many students to view graduate school as some logical move in their academic journey. More seems to equate to better. It is a conversation I have at least once a week with a student in my office, and a continual reminder with the requests for grad school referee letters that are a routine part of my job. But the common misconception about graduate school as a continuation of the undergraduate experience is one that warrants some serious consideration before accepting the major commitment and challenges that go along with another 2-10+ years of further education.

I first encountered this dose of reality when I began making my own plans to attend grad school in the final year of my undergraduate program. I was lucky enough to be given very honest advice and suggestions by my professors. At first, what was most striking was how often I was actively discouraged from applying without a clear financial plan and alternative road-map, underscoring the reality that completing grad school in no way guaranteed me a job. I must stress that this is rare advice when it comes to weighing your grad school options and was a valuable lesson when I grasped the full reality of the graduate school undertaking as more about expanding my intellect than collecting a better paycheque. Even so, the journey can indeed make financial sense (see this Grad School Calculator to see for yourself). In the end, I have no regrets whatsoever with going the full distance and completing a masters and a doctorate degree, but I know many more people who do. Many many more. And so what I present below are some Dos and Don’ts I commonly go over for students seeking advice about grad school (and the application process to a humanities/arts based grad program in particular). Remember, these are only guidelines and are not applicable in every case.

Bottom line, it is a life-changing decision to pursue graduate studies and one that many people decide without very careful assessment. Just ask anyone with an advanced degree, and you will likely get a mix of war-stories and open reflection about how the journey changed the trajectory of their lives. As one favourite prof said to me in those years I was deciding: “Is there anything else you would like to do besides complete a PhD? Well do that. Only go to grad school if you are passionate about learning and there is nothing else you can imagine doing with your life.”

  • Seek out and talk to graduate students already enrolled in a grad program, especially the ones you are interested in applying into. Attend conferences at local universities with grad programs to get a sense of the grad school culture. Call-up and/or contact via email graduate students who are affiliated with the program you are interested in attending.
  • Apply to multiple grad programs and across a wide range of university types. The reality is that you will not always get acceptance into your first choice, and if the time comes to decide between multiple schools who offer to take you, you will have some leverage in making schools compete for you with further offers of funding/jobs.
  • Research and find out who you would like to work with as a potential advisor. The key to getting a spot in a program is being a good “fit” with a particular faculty member. Find someone whose publications/work jibe with your own interests.
  • Find out what the funding sources and distribution are for the programs you are interested in. Teaching Assistantships are great, but they are not the same as receiving a scholarship or getting the time and space to research and produce projects
  • Ask for letters of reference well in advance of your actual application. I would suggest up to a month’s notice with your letter of interest attached so that the referee can say the right things in their letter of support. The best idea is to schedule a meeting to discuss the letter in person.
  • Look for clues about the culture of grad programs by taking a very close look at the program’s website. Do they offer up lots of info about current students and/or where their alumni are today? Are there regular updates on department activities? If not, you should be cautious.
  • Talk to a wide cross-section of professors (older and newer) at your current institution about their graduate school experience. You may be very very surprised at what you are told!
  • Plan to finish grad school in a timely manner and consider passing on job/volunteer positions to accomplish this goal. You will never again have that much free and uninterrupted time to focus on your projects—consider what other time-drains you can give up to focus on the goal of completion.
  • Consider the pros and cons of attending a Canadian versus an international graduate program. This is especially true if you have your heart set on becoming a professor and want to teach in a particular part of the country and/or a particular kind of university.
  • Familiarize yourself with the realities of the job market, especially if you are interested in becoming a professor of your chosen discipline. I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news here, but the sooner you understand the darker side of the academic labour market, the better off you are in weighing your career goals. I suggest starting here for some sense of the landscape.
  • Be discouraged if you are turned down upon your first application to a grad program—this is far more common than you think and the reasons for being turned down are usually related to a lack of good fit in the program (with potential advisors, the direction of the program, the general cohort) and not your aptitude or skill set. In other words, do not take a rejection letter personally. Consider that it may take more than one academic year to get into a school.
  • Apply to grad school as a way of sheltering yourself from a bad job market. Believe me, this is a very short-sighted approach and may result in both serious debt and major regrets later on.
  • Underestimate the importance of your application letter. It will likely be the most important document you have ever written to date and it requires no less than 2-3 other sets of eyes to refine and perfect before you send it off in the mail. The letter must also be tailored for each program that you apply to and list a range of your accomplishments and goals.
  • Worry that anyone will hold you to the project or research ideas that you outline in your application letter. Having stated the previous point, graduate programs expect that your ideas will change and evolve in the first year of the program.  
  • Apply to a graduate program that lacks a clear mandate and/or disciplinary path. This is very important, especially if you are interested in going on to teach in a particular area. Make sure that the program you are applying to has an established reputation and record of alumni achievement.
  • Send your application last minute and/or forget important deadlines. It is always best to send an application several weeks and days ahead of the deadline. The application packages are often looked at as they come in, and you have the advantage of being flagged early for acceptance. Last minute applications also tend to suggest less interest in the program and/or a last minute decision to apply.
  • Forward a less than stellar application to a grad program. This is for obvious reasons, but note also that the academic world is small, and if you send a crappy application, chances are someone may remember your name and/or have heard of you if you apply somewhere else.
  • Call and inquire about your application once you have sent your application. Don’t bug the administrative people with your questions. If you are accepted, believe me, they will contact you. The process also takes weeks longer than you imagine in your mind, so stay patient and distract yourself with other activities.
  • Overlook related and/or specialized graduate programs in your field of interest. Think outside the box. There are many professional degree programs for example (i.e. for curating, becoming a librarian/archivist, or in computer studies) that could compliment your interests .
  • Lose sight of an equally acceptable Plan B. Always have a Plan B and NEVER rely on your graduate program to find you a job. They won’t and you should hear that here first.
And for some fun, check out what Hennesy Youngman's thoughts are on grad school (applied to the Visual Arts specifically). Remember, he offers but one opinion: