Graduate School

The good news is that if you look for a job with a B.A. or B.S. degree you will likely find one. However, it is important to understand that your salary, immediate responsibilities, and your opportunities for career advancement may be limited. If you choose to pursue an advanced degree, you will likely in the long term receive a higher paying job with greater freedom and increased responsibility, and enjoy a greater level of professional pride and job satisfaction. However, you need to determine whether or not you are willing and able to spend another two to six years in school and an uncertain future job market in order to obtain these benefits.

Articles on Graduate School

How to Apply to Graduate School

Graduate school admission is based on submission and positive review by a faculty committee of an application package. Most graduate programs do not interview applicants due to the cost and number of applicants. However, if you are applying to schools that are close to you, it can be advantageous to arrange a visit to the department to meet with a representative of the admissions committee and any faculty whose research interests you. If you do visit, request a tour of the department and its research facilities and ask to meet and speak with graduate students who share similar research interests.


The Application

Applications normally include payment of an application fee and submission of Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores, official transcripts from all academic institutions of higher learning you may have attended, an application form including an essay, and submission of three letters of recommendation. More information regarding each element follows below:

  • Application fee
    Most programs assess applicants an application fee of $50 or more. Paying the fee is important. Applications are normally not considered complete and therefore are not reviewed by the admissions committee until the applicant has paid the application fee.
  • Graduate Record Exam Scores
    Most programs require applicants to submit recent scores from the GRE examination. Some programs will also require applicants to submit recent scores from the relevant subject test as well. For international applicants recent TOEFL scores may also be required. In addition to being used to determine whether an applicant is qualified for admission to the graduate program test scores may also be used in evaluating the applicant for fellowships and/or teaching assistantships.
  • Official academic transcript(s)
    Programs usually require applicants to submit official transcripts from each of the academic institutions where they have studied - whether or not you have obtained a degree from that program. You should be able to purchase official transcripts from the Registrar's Office at your college or university. Be sure to provide them with the correct address information for each department to which you are applying and be sure to allow sufficient time for your transcripts to be mailed.

Application forms typically request the following information:

  • Contact information
    Current mailing address, e-mail address, telephone number, etc. Be sure to provide contact information that will be accurate throughout the upcoming academic year. If you move or change any of your contact information be sure to call or e-mail the department and update them.
  • Educational history
    Names of all academic institutions where you have studied whether or not you received an academic degree, GPA and major area of study, and year(s) you studied there. It is very important that you provide complete and accurate information in this section. If the application is on-line, be sure to obtain and verify this information from your current and any prior academic institutions in advance of completing the form. Inaccurate information may be construed as an effort on your part to obfuscate your academic record. So, be sure to think before you write.
  • Essay
    Applications frequently require the submission of an essay. Although the specific statement may vary, the purpose of these essays is fairly uniform - to determine why you specifically wish to pursue advanced study and why do you wish to do so at this particular academic institution, i.e., what is your motivation? Although it may be tempting to write one essay and submit it to all of the academic institutions at which you are applying, this is not the wisest strategy. Research each institution and department and then compose an essay that targets each institution.
  • Three letters of recommendation
    This may be the single most important component of your application so your selection of recommenders who can provide candid and positive assessment concerning the recommendation form criteria is critical. The graduate admission committee is attempting to learn whether or not you have the maturity, independence, drive, intellect, creativity and imagination, self-confidence, analytical skills and communication skills needed to be successful in graduate school. Consequently, it is a good idea to identify recommenders who have known you for a reasonable period of time, who know something about your academic record and your work record as it relates to the area in which you wish to study and who are likely to write in positive terms about you. All your recommenders don't have to be faculty, nor do they have to teach courses in your major area of study. However, it is important that their expertise and knowledge of you be relevant to your intended program of study. It isn't necessarily a wise idea to simply select a faculty member as a recommender simply based on the fact that you received a good academic grade in their course. You might have received the only "A" in a class of two hundred students but if you studied with that person three years ago and never actually spoke to them then they are unlikely to be able to say much regarding your qualifications. Consequently, their letter will likely be less enthusiastic and therefore carry less weight than it might have otherwise.

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General Suggestions

  • Apply only to those institutions where you really can see yourself studying - five or six at most. Don't attempt to use a mass mailing strategy in an effort to get into graduate school. This will cost you an excessive amount of time, money (application fees, postage), and effort in the short term and is not likely to yield the results you would like in the long term (admission to the program of your choice).
  • Compose your answers in advance and then transfer them onto the application form.
  • Seek feedback on your essay from interested mentors and/or your faculty advisor.
  • If at all possible complete your application on-line or type your answers onto the application form. Do not handwrite your answers unless you have very good penmanship.
  • Identify your recommenders in advance and "court" them. Provide each recommender with a copy of your resume and offer to sit with them and update them if needed concerning your career goals, recent activities, etc. Give them all of the materials (forms, envelopes, etc.) and information (deadlines - establish deadlines even if the programs do not specify formal deadlines, etc.) they will need in order to do their job. Follow up with your recommenders to make sure that they have everything they need to write their letters and later to make sure that they have submitted their letters.
  • Keep copies of all of your applications and application materials. Keep a record of the dates you mailed your applications, requested transcripts, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, etc. Call and follow up to make sure that your application is complete.

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How to Finance Your Graduate Education

There are several forms of financial support available to students pursuing doctoral study or a thesis masters degree in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The three most common forms of graduate student support in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics are teaching assistantships (TA's), research assistantships (RA's), and fellowships.

TA and RA positions are normally available for doctoral students but may also be offered to thesis master's students at some academic institutions. Teaching assistantships are teaching positions usually available during the academic year that cover tuition and provide a stipend in exchange for the graduate student's leading one or more discussion/recitation sections for a course and/or one or more laboratory sections of a course. Generally, beginning graduate students provide recitation and/or laboratory coverage for introductory courses in their discipline. Advanced graduate students may teach and/or assist in more advanced undergraduate classes and/or laboratories.

Research assistantships are research positions usually available for the full calendar year that cover tuition and provide a stipend in exchange for the graduate student's full-time efforts on a grant-funded research project. RA's are usually tied to a specific faculty member and research project. Their availability is dependent on a faculty member's funding level, your research background and interests. Continued support on an RA is normally dependent on a student's making satisfactory progress on the research project as determined by the faculty advisor and/or funding agency. Most first year Ph.D. students are supported on teaching assistantships. Once students have identified a research advisor, many students become research assistants in their advisor's research groups.

A third method of support for graduate education is through scholarships and/or fellowships. Generally, these are highly competitive and often provide support for one year or more of advanced study. Examples of fellowship programs in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematical disciplines include the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship program, the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship (NDSEG) program, and the Environmental Protection Agency's Science To Achieve Results (STAR) and Graduate Research Opportunity (GRO) programs. You can find links to more fellowship opportunities under the Programs Section on this website. The advantage of obtaining fellowship support is that as a graduate student this will provide you with greater flexibility and freedom in selecting both a faculty research advisor and a research project.

National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship

STEM undergraduate seniors and first and second year graduate students who meet the NSF citizenship requirements and are pursuing doctoral study in a STEM discipline are eligible to apply for receipt of a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRF). Note that these fellowships cannot be used for medical school or law school and this includes combined degree programs such as the MD/PhD and JD/PhD programs.
NSF GRF awards provide the successful applicant with $34k annual stipend and tuition waiver for up to three years. This level of funding may be slightly higher than the stipend for a teaching or research assistantship at your chosen university. Bringing your own funding to the graduate school of your choice may give you added leverage when selecting your research group and research advisor. These awards are prestigious and come with some unique opportunities that you might not enjoy otherwise. For example, after successfully completing one year of NSF Graduate research Fellowship support, fellowship recipients become eligible to apply for international research support through the Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW) Program. GROW Fellows receive an additional travel allowance of $5,000 per year through their home U.S. institution to cover travel and research costs associated with international research collaboration and they can reapply the following year as long as they are NSF Graduate Research Fellows.
The core components of the NSF GRF application include:

The Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement
The goal of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program is to identify future STEM leaders. So your personal, relevant background and future goals statement needs to convince the reviewers that you have the potential “to advance knowledge” (intellectual merit) and to “benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes” (broader impacts). Your statement should tell the reviewers where you want to go and how you have prepared yourself at this point in order to successfully undertake this next step in your education.
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Graduate Research Statement
The purpose of the Graduate Research statement is to determine whether you can identify an original research problem which you would like to carry out in graduate school. Since the statement can be at most 2-pages in length, you will be wise to first flesh out your idea and then worry about shortening your description to meet the two-page limit.
The statement should read like a mini-proposal. It needs to outline the proposed project, identify the related peer-reviewed literature, provide a methodologically sound experimental plan including analysis and next steps including dissemination of your research findings. Your plan needs to convey that you have the technical background and resources to carry out this work (is this work within the technical scope of the mentor’s expertise?) and that you understand the potential pitfalls and will be able to successfully deal with any challenges you may meet along the way. Lastly, since your Graduate Research Statement will be evaluated according to the intellectual merit and broader impacts criteria, your statement should explicitly address both criteria.
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Reference Letters
You may request up to five but a minimum of three reference letters are required. While you can select anyone outside of your immediate family to write a reference letter on your behalf, it is important that your letter writers can write persuasively about your potential “to advance knowledge” (intellectual merit) and to “benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes” (broader impacts), the NSF review criteria. Faculty who know you well and who can speak strongly concerning your academic abilities and potential for a successful STEM career are your best bet. If you have conducted research as an undergraduate, you should ask your research advisor to write one of the three letters. If you ask your research advisor to write a letter, you should ask him/her to explicitly comment on your past research accomplishments and your potential for success in graduate school and beyond in STEM.
You will help yourself by providing your reviewers with all the information they need to write a strong letter on your behalf. Call or email prospective faculty and set up a meeting to discuss your application. Come to the meeting prepared to provide them with:

  • a draft of your Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement (3 pages long)
  • a draft of your Graduate Research Plan Statement (2 pages long)
  • academic transcripts for every institution attended
  • a copy of the NSF review criteria, in case they are unfamiliar with them
  • a sheet outlining requirements for the reference letter and deadline

Reference letters must be 2-standard (8.5" x 11") pages or less in length, should be prepared on letterhead, and be signed. The writer should use 12-point Times Roman or Arial font and standard 1”-margins. All letters must be submitted electronically by the published deadline (November 5, 2015) and no late letters will be accepted for any reason so follow up with your reference writers to make sure that they meet the deadline.
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Advice

  • Start your application early. This application is not something that you can start at the last minute and expect to complete and complete well.
  • Revise, revise, revise. Solicit from your references and your university or college’s grants office critical feedback on drafts of your statements. Take to heart any critical feedback you receive on your two statements. Take with a grain of salt any advice proffered by students who have applied for and received an NSF GRF as they may not have the full picture.
  • Follow up with your references and make sure that they submit their letters on line to meet the published deadline. Incomplete applications will not be reviewed. It is your responsibility as the applicant to make sure that your application is complete.
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    Fellowship Application Evaluation
    Reviewers will evaluate your statements according to the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts criteria. These criteria are used to evaluate all NSF grants and awards so it is worth your time and energy to familiarize yourself with these criteria. I especially encourage you to think long and hard about the broader impacts criterion. All STEM applicants tend to have the intellectual merit criterion nailed but where many fall down is in addressing the broader impacts criterion. Have you considered how you and your work might integrate teaching and research in a new and meaningful way? Will your participation impact diversity in STEM? How will funding your graduate study impact and benefit society?
    Reviewers evaluate applications using the standard “language” of the National Science Foundation. Proposals are rated by each panelist as poor, fair, good, very good or excellent. At NSF, no effort is made to reach a consensus regarding proposal rating. Each panelist provides his/her own evaluation. One panelist will capture the panel’s discussion of the proposal and the panel’s overall recommendation in the proposal summary.
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    Who are the Reviewers?
    Proposals may be reviewed by ad hoc reviewers, panelists, and/or NSF Program Officers. Ad hoc reviewers are generally selected because of their technical expertise in the academic discipline you have identified as your area of study. Likely they have themselves received NSF funding. Small groups of 3-5 reviewers referred to as panelists meet together online to discuss sets of applications that they have been assigned to review.
    If you are not Successful…
    Remember that this is a very selective and prestigious fellowship. Only 2,000 or so STEM students will receive an award and over 14,000 apply. This is a VERY small number if you consider the number of students applying to graduate school or in their first or second year of graduate study in all STEM disciplines.
    If you have not yet completed 12-months of graduate study and you were not selected, consider applying again especially if you received honorable mention. While it may sting, you are experiencing something every scientist experiences every day when they submit papers for consideration of publication or when they submit grant applications to NSF or other agencies for consideration of funding. Analyze the feedback you have received and then determine whether it makes sense to try again this time addressing all of the issues raised by the reviewers.
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    Resources
    Applying for the NSF GRFP 2016: Workshops, Resources, and More! This Drexel University webpage (July 29, 2015) contains useful information and links to videos and tutorials. http://www.drexel.edu/fellowships/about/news/2015/July/NSF%20GRFP%20Workshops/
    National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship Program. http://www.nsfgrfp.org/
    National Science Foundation Grant Proposal Guide. This document outlines the general guidelines and requirements for all National Science Program applications. http://www.nsf.gov/publications/pub_summ.jsp?ods_key=gpg
    Jennifer Wang, PhD. NSF Graduate Fellowship Advice (Last Updated 9/26/14). This page includes links to many resources offering advice on the NSF GRF application and process. http://www.jenniferwang.org/nsf.html
    University of Cincinnati. The Graduate School. This webpage includes recent (2011-2012) applications. https://grad.uc.edu/student-life/awards/grfp.html
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How to Select a Graduate Program

It is very important to visit the university and the department to make sure that the environment fits you - your lifestyle and personality. If you are admitted, many departments will invite you for an expenses-paid visit so that you can determine firsthand if there is a good fit between your interests, etc. and their program. Important considerations in selecting a graduate school include:


Quality

At the graduate level, the quality of the graduate program and your faculty advisor are more important than the reputation of the university as a whole. Consequently, in researching academic programs, key considerations in your decision should be the quality of the graduate program, its faculty and students, i.e., of the people with whom you will work and study in the immediate future. Several organizations rank graduate research programs. Two of the most useful include the National Research Council and the US News & World Report.

Good questions to ask that will help you assess the overall quality of the graduate program to which you are seeking admission include:

  • Where did the faculty receive their advanced degrees? Have they won any national awards or received other forms of recognition for their scholarship and/or research?
  • How productive are the faculty? Check the primary literature for references by those faculty with whom you might like to study. In the field of chemistry, the American Chemical Society's Directory of Graduate Research is a useful resource. How many papers have they written in the last year? Two years? In what journals do they publish their research - what is the quality of those journals?
  • What are the requirements for the Ph.D.?
  • What is the size of the program? How many research active (and research inactive) faculty are there? How many full-time Ph.D. students?
  • What is the range of research activities represented? Very specialized? Broad coverage of your field?
  • Where do the graduate students in the program come from? What were their past undergraduate academic records and exam scores? i.e., what is the overall quality of your peers in the program?
  • How many graduate students receive financial support? In what form (RA, TA, fellowship)?
  • What is the average time-to-degree (You should anticipate 2 years for the M.S. degree and about 5 years for the Ph.D. degree - this varies though from discipline to discipline)? How many graduate students complete the graduate program? How many leave? Why do they leave?
  • Where do the graduate students go after graduation? If you are interested in an academic career: how many students ultimately obtain an academic post? At what types of colleges and/or universities?

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Atmosphere

Some important considerations in this regard include:

  • Is the department intensely competitive? Laid back?
  • Is there a graduate student professional organization?
  • Do the graduate students seem generally happy? Serious about their studies? Do they seem like they enjoy working with their advisors? Would you like to work with these people? Does it seem like a friendly, social environment conducive to student learning?
  • How many faculty are there in the department with whom you might like to study - never know when a potential mentor might choose to move to another academic institution, not be able to take new students (change in funding situation, impending retirement, etc.), etc.

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Housing

Good questions to ask include:

  • Does the university offer any on campus housing? If not, is there any low cost housing available close to the university or within a reasonable distance (commuting)?
  • What is the cost of housing? Will you be able to afford it on a graduate student stipend? If you must commute, is transportation available to/from the university?
  • What forms of transportation are there available - train, subway, bus? What are the normal hours of operation for these forms of transportation?
  • If you must commute by car, is parking available on or near campus? What is the cost of parking? Will you be able to afford it on a graduate student stipend?

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The Local Area

Is this a region of the country in which you can see yourself living for the next six years? Important consideration might include:

  • Weather (temperature, humidity, etc.),
  • Economic considerations (cost of living for the area, employment opportunities for partner or spouse, etc.),
  • Recreational activities (shopping, restaurants, night life, sports, theater, music, etc.)
  • safety (crime rate for city and campus), and
  • Family obligations.

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When You Should Go to Graduate School

There is no "standard" time-table for pursuing an advanced degree. Some students pursue advanced degrees immediately following graduation from college while other students choose to work for a year or more before pursuing an advanced degree. There is no "right" answer in terms of when you should go to graduate school. Important considerations include your financial situation (family, outstanding debts, etc.), career goals, and your energy and enthusiasm for advanced study at this point in time. Depending on your situation, it may make more sense to wait a year or two and acquire on-the-job experience in the workplace in the interim. If you do plan to take time off, it is important to not to stay out too long and to make an effort to stay current in your field as you will not be as fresh and up-to-date on course material as those students who went directly to graduate school. Also, it is wise to contact potential references and ask them to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf which can be placed on file in your college or university's Career Services Office.

Why You Should Go to Graduate School

It is helpful to understand the purpose of graduate education in order to decide whether it makes sense for you to pursue an advanced degree. The next higher degree after the bachelor's degree is the masters degree. In engineering the Masters of Science is the normal terminal advanced degree. In other fields like chemistry and biology, the Doctor of Philosophy or Ph.D., the highest degree awarded in the academic degree granting system, is viewed by industry and academe as the standard terminal degree. The Ph.D. is generally required if you wish to pursue a career in academics at a college or university. The Ph.D.is not necessarily required if you wish to pursue a career in the private sector. If you ultimate aspirations are to pursue a career in technical management, then a Ph.D. may be overkill. If you don't like research but wish to increase your career options, a M.S.degree might be a good alternative. It is possible to pursue a M.S.degree while working full-time. There are a number of universities that offer evening graduate courses to accommodate the work schedules of those from nearby industry who wish to take advanced coursework in their discipline. Today many private companies are encouraging their scientific staff to continue their education by providing tuition-reimbursement upon successful completion of graduate coursework (usually a course grade of "B" or better) at nearby universities. So, it is even possible to obtain financial support. Obviously, however, it will take a bit longer to complete an M.S. degree on a part-time basis as versus full-time.

The Ph.D. Degree

The degree requirements for the Ph.D. degree vary between academic disciplines, departments, and institutions, the Ph.D. is a research degree awarded for demonstration of the ability to synthesize and communicate new knowledge in a specific field of study. Unlike the bachelor's degree, the Ph.D. is not awarded in recognition of the completion of a specific program of coursework or study and/or completion of a period of residence in study at an academic institution though coursework and examinations are frequently required elements of the doctoral program. In fact, doctoral students typically spend the first year or two of their degree program taking courses, the purpose of which is to ensure that students have the requisite understanding of the theory and experiment that they will need in order to successfully perform independent research in their chosen field. Most institutions usually require candidates to demonstrate proficiency in these skills by completing a series of written and/or oral examinations that often include the identification of a significant research problem and an outline of a research proposal addressing that problem. Upon successful completion of these so-called "cumulative examinations" doctoral students spend three or more years exploring their research questions in the laboratory. When the degree candidate has synthesized a sizeable body of significant, new knowledge, they communicate this information in writing in the form of a dissertation and defend their work orally before a committee constituted from faculty from their department and/or university who share similar research interests and/or technical expertise.

The M.S. Degree

The masters degree is intermediate between a bachelor's and the Ph.D. Completion of a masters degree usually takes two years. Some masters programs are entirely course-work based and others require completion of a masters thesis in addition to completion of advanced coursework. No matter the program, the first year usually involves completion of a wide range of advanced coursework intended to develop breadth and depth of knowledge in your field. Students studying for a masters degree usually take the same courses that doctoral students take. If a thesis is required, masters students usually begin work on their research during the spring or summer of their first year and continue this through the second year of the program.

Checklist:
You should apply for graduate study if you have:

  • a strong undergraduate record in your major,
  • a strong interest in and aptitude for independent research,
  • a strong internal drive and motivation to succeed
  • a temperament to work on complex, challenging problems, and
  • high personal expectations for career opportunities and professional success