Category Archives: Graduate School

Final Thoughts on Graduate School

Do not let the scenic views fool you, grad school is alot of work

On May 4, I graduated with my Master’s degree after two years of hard work. Over the past two years, I have written about the courses I have taken and the books I have read, but in this post, I will try to wrap everything up and offer some advice to those interested attending graduate school in the near future.

One of the first things I learned at James Madison University was that graduate courses are very different from undergraduate courses. Of course, I was told this by all my professors at Missouri Southern State University, but there is really nothing to prepare you for the change. The work is more intensive and the expectations are much higher. The courses are also structured differently as most are seminar style in which a different book is read each week. Grades are handled differently as well. An “A” is still an “A”, but an “A-” might be considered a “B.” A “B” indicates that something was wrong, and anything below a “B” is a failure. In fact, at JMU if you received two “C’s” during the two years, you were placed on academic probation.

Writing is more intense as well. Papers are longer and expected to be more polished. This means that writing a paper the night before is no longer an option. I liked to allow myself several days for proofreading and editing.

With the increased reading and writing, it is important that you be very disciplined and have the ability to make the best use of your time. Most professors will give you a full semester schedule on the syllabus with due dates for all assignments and outline the readings. For me, I liked to keep a copy of each course calendar at my desk and from that I would make a to-do list for the upcoming week. This ensured that I had enough time to go through a book, look up a few reviews, and explore the author’s information. With papers, this gave me plenty of time to research, write, and edit my papers before they were due.

One thing to always include in a schedule is to make time for yourself. Free time is the best stress reliever. Whether you spend the free time at the gym, watching tv or a movie, or going out with friends, it is important you make this time for yourself. Graduate school is hard work and if you devote every waking moment to it, you will burn out quickly. Graduate school is not for everyone. There is a good chance that some of the people you start with will not be around at the end. Do not let that discourage you, however.

Article and Books – the readings for one semester of grad school

Then there is the capstone project….the thesis. Not all majors have this a requirement, but I had to write one. Most students enter graduate school with an idea of what they would like the research and who they want to work with. This will make things much easier moving forward. If possible, try to have a topic picked by the end of your first semester. Talk to your advisors and a possible director to determine the feasibility of your project. That will give you the second semester to begin gathering sources that you will then go through over the summer before your second year. I was lucky at JMU because we had HIST 673 in our second semester, and this allowed us to “test” our thesis topics. Use the summer before your second year to read the secondary literature and begin exploring the primary. Chances are, you will have to write a prospectus shortly after you return in the fall of your second year. In your third semester, you should begin to outline your thesis and put the pieces together. By Christmas break, having at least one chapter done is optimal, but each director has different deadlines and expectations. For example, I had three of my four chapters done before January 1. After you have written all your chapters, you will have a few weeks to edit. Hopefully your director is a punctual as mine was. I always had my chapters back quickly, with comments. The editing phase will be stressful, but you want to submit as complete a thesis as possible to your committee. This will make your final edits much easier. After the text is written, you will then have to put all the parts together along with a title page, table of contents, etc. All of which will be strictly outlined by the Graduate School. After you finish formatting you will feel an immediate release of tension!

As if the the thesis was not enough, there was one last test before I could graduate….the Oral/Comprehensive Exam (JMU’s comprehensive exam was oral, but some schools will have written exams). This consisted of sitting in a room with three professors of my choosing and discussing everything from my thesis to two years of course work and readings. It is certainly difficult to prepare for. Comprehensive exams is why you should take good notes in class and also as you read each book. Most comprehensive exams last about an hour and a half, and they will cover a great deal of information. Some of the information covered depends on who you choose for your committee, however. Some opt to have their comprehensive exam committee to be the same as the thesis committee. I did not go with option because I never had class with them. My thesis director was on my comprehensive exam committee, but the other two members were professors with which I had several courses. This gave them more information to pull from and gave me more to talk about for nearly two hours. The concept of oral exams seems terrifying, but once you are seated in the room, you will get comfortable because you will realize, as long as you studied well, that you know the information well enough.

I almost forgot to mention that while you are juggling courses and writing your thesis, it is very likely you will have an assistantship as well. Teaching assistantships can vary in their degree of difficulty. You may only have to grade and work with students, but some programs require that you also teach discussion sections. This means preparing for two mini-lectures per week. Again, this is all part of the concept of time management. I really enjoyed my TA positons with World History in the fall semesters and working with History Day it the Spring. Whether you have a teaching assistantship or a graduate assistantship, you will have to budget time for that as well.

One of the greatest aspects of graduate school is the people. You will become good friends with a number of the professors, but more important is your cohort. At some schools, the students in your cohort are competitors, but not a JMU. We were encouraged to work together (again, HIST 673 helped with this). It is important to remember that they are going through the same processes that you are, and if you are feeling overwhelmed, and you will, it is very likely they are as well. One of my favorite stress relievers was going out with them and having a drink or two and playing a game of darts. Again, have some fun. Do not let the school work take over your life for two years.

The last two years were full of ups and downs. There were weeks I was overwhelmed with everything, but there was always of the gratification of completing whatever task was causing my stress. Perhaps the most gratifying moment of the last two years was walking across the stage and being hooded at commencement on May 4. I feel that over the past two years I have grown as a historian, but more importantly, I have grown as a person. And I would not trade the experience for anything. 

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Grad School Applications

After choosing the grad schools you wish to attend, the process of applying to the schools will take a great deal of time and effort.  Although the requirements vary by school, most grad schools require the following materials:

APPLICATION

This will be required for all schools.  This is probably the easiest part of the application process since it requires mostly standard information such as legal name, address, major information, etc.  Many schools have digitized the entire application process making it simpler for the student and the institution.  When you fill out the application, you will be required to submit the fee which will range depending on the institution.

WRITING SAMPLE

This is probably the most difficult aspect of applying to grad school.  Most school want a sample that is 10 – 20 pages in length and displays a depth of research.  The first thing to consider is which of your papers to choose.  Choose a paper that has well researched, and, if possible, displays originality.  Once you have chosen your writing sample, edit, edit, edit.  The paper I chose was edited by three different papers and two fellow students.  This gives you a wider audience to help you clarify points that may not be common knowledge to those in your field.  Finally, it is important to choose a stopping point.  At some point, you have to say enough editing; it is ready.  You should then be ready to submit the paper.

STATEMENT OF PURPOSE

When researching schools, you should consider which members of the faculty you wish to work with.  It is important to write a slightly different statement of purpose for each school to which you are applying.  This will show the school that you have researched their institution.  Your statement of purpose should list your intent at each institution, including which professors you would like to work with.  You should also write about what you would like to do after you graduate from that institution.  Do you plan to go on for a PhD?  What type of career are you looking into?  Most importantly, have several people read this as well.  They can find simple error and issues with clarity.  Having a professor read your statement of purpose is a great idea since they probably wrote a statement of purpose during their graduate career.  Again, once you are happy with it, stop editing and consider it done.

LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION

Most people find this to be the easiest part of the application process, but it is probably the most important. Choose professors who know your research habits, classroom participation, and graduate intent.  Most schools require three letters and not all the professors have to be from professors within your major.  However, the majority should be from professors within your chosen major.  It is okay, therefore, to submit one letter from a professor within your minor field.  Once you have chosen the professors, provide them with all the address information they will need to submit their letters and be sure they get them in before the deadline.  Today, most schools accept letters online as well.

GRE SCORES

Perhaps one of the most dreaded aspects of applying to grad school is taking the GRE.  Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to take the test a few times if necessary and have the scores submitted to your chosen institutions.  Registration is all online and the test itself is given on the computer.  Before taking the GRE, purchase a preparation book and study it closely.  There are many books available and it is best to only choose one and follow their methods for preparation.  GRE scores are not the most important aspect to a graduate school when choosing from applicants, but it can make a difference in a competitive program, so take it seriously.

TRANSCRIPTS

This is fairly simple as well.  Have your current and previous institutions send official transcripts to all your chosen grad schools.  Some institutions may charge to send transcripts for you, but these are required to be considered.

DEADLINE

This is the most important!  Be sure everything is submitted before the application deadline.  This deadline will vary by institution and can also vary by program within an institution.  It is important to know all the deadlines for you schools well in advance of the date.  There is nothing wrong with having everything submitted in advanced of the deadline or calling the program to ensure that all your materials have arrived.

Applying for grad school can be very stressful, but it will not be near as stressful as the wait to hear the school’s decisions.

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How to choose the right Graduate School

After a year of graduate school, I decided to look back and share my experience of choosing James Madison University and the process I will use to narrow down my choices of PhD programs.

When choosing a grad school, there are many things to consider.  The school, surrounding community, and cost are just a few.  Here is a more comprehensive list in no particular order.

COST

When choosing a grad school one of the first questions asked is how much will it cost.  There are many aspects to grad school that we often do not think of.  Moving expenses, security deposits, utilities and bills.  The most important, of course, is the cost of the university itself.  How much is the tuition?  Is it by credit hour?  Are you eligible for in-state tuition?  Most schools will include a breakdown of your cost per year including room and board, tuition, books, and fees.

FINANCIAL AID

Most schools will offer some form of financial aid to assist students.  Unfortunately, federal grants are not available to grad students, only federal loans.  Many schools offer different types of scholarships and you should apply to any scholarships you are eligible for.  The most common form of aid offered to grad students comes in the form of assistantships.  There are three types of assistantships.  Research assistants assist professors with varying types of research.  This type is often used for the sciences.  Graduate assistants hold various types of positions including office positions and study groups.  Teaching assistants work with a professor with a large survey class.  TAs may or may not having teaching responsibilities, but will have grading responsibilities and are usually required to hold regular office hours.  The best thing about having an assistantship, however, is that most schools will offer a tuition waiver (for some or all your tuition) as well as a stipend.  This can greatly reduce the amount of loans necessary.  Not all schools or departments offer assistantships and it is important to check with all schools you are considering.

SIZE OF PROGRAM

When talking with graduate coordinators for your specific majors, you should find out how many students are in the program and how many professors are in the department.  If the department only has 10 professors and 50 grad students, it may be difficult to get one-on-one assistance with your thesis/dissertation.  At JMU, the ratio is approximately 1/1, but even a 2/1 ratio is fairly common.

FACULTY

In addition to finding out how many professors are in the department, you should also look at each professors biography provided on the department’s website.  This will provide a lot of information.  Where they went to school, publications, and their concentrations.  It is important to find a school that has a professor with a concentration similar to yours.  That person will likely be the director of your thesis/dissertation and be able to direct you to the correct sources.  You can also look up professors on ranking websites such as ratemyprofessors.com.  Knowing whom you want to work with can help you when you are writing a statement of purpose.

ACCREDITATION

Most students assume that all universities and all programs within a university are accredited, but they are sadly mistaken.  There are stories of students going through a programing and getting their degree only to be told that their degree is unaccredited.  It is important to know, medical programs and other programs are accredited separately from the university since there are different standards.  Luckily, there is an easy way to check accreditation of the schools you are interested in by visiting the Department of Education.

SCHOOL RANKINGS

There are several different ways to check the schools rankings.  The most common is US News & World Report, but there are many other online sources as well as print sources.  Be careful, however, because there are separate ranking systems for undergrad and graduate programs.

LOCATION

We often get excited about a school that we forget to look at several key factors of the schools location.  Is it in a large city?  Rural setting?  What types of stores are in the city?  All this can be discovered by looking at the city’s website or the local Chamber of Commerce.  Often either source will list what is available within the city.

COST OF LIVING

If you are looking at a school in New York City, you are going to pay a lot more for an apartment than someone living in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  There are several websites that list apartments available for rent within a city and you should look into this before considering the school.  This will give you an idea of what types of apartments are available and their cost per month.  Also be sure to find out what utilities, if any, are included in the rent.  Including in cost of living is the cost of movies, groceries, etc. in the city.  This should all be a part of your decision.

CAMPUS

The other thing to consider is the campus itself.  Is it large? Small?  In the middle of a large city?  What building is your department in?  What dining options do you have?  Is there a recreation center?  A campus should be a self contained city.  If you live on campus, you really should not have to leave to do simple tasks.

CAREER ASSISTANCE

Eventually you will get your degree and want a job.  Does the school help you with job placement?  Resume building?  All this professional development should be included within the price of your tuition.  Most universities have a career development center to help with these tasks and also provide job listings.

Graduate school is a serious decision and there are many factors that should look into choosing the right program.  The program is only a part of the full experience of the graduate school experience.  As I mentioned last week, your work load will increase and it is often easy to forget all that is offered to you by the university.  Next week I will look closely at the process for applying to graduate school.  Until then…

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