Oregon State University

Graduate School FAQs

Graduate school is a big decision and should be researched thoroughly before applying. Below are some frequently asked questions to get you started in evaluating your interests and needs for graduate school.

What is Graduate School?

Graduate school constitutes an advanced program of study focused on a particular academic discipline or profession. Traditionally, graduate school has been "academic" (centered on generating original research in a particular discipline), but it may be "professional" (centered on developing skills and knowledge for a specific profession), or a combination of both.

How is Graduate School different from undergraduate studies?

Compared to undergraduate studies, graduate school is a more concentrated course of study and expectations regarding the quality and quantity of your academic work are greater. Graduate programs also entail:

  • focused studies in a specific discipline with fewer elective possibilities
  • rigorous evaluation of your work by professors and peers
  • smaller classes with much student interaction
  • work experience via internships, teaching, or research
  • production of original research is often required

Is Graduate School for you?

Below are some questions to ask yourself when evaluating if graduate school is right for you:

  • Do you want to enter a profession that requires an advanced degree?
  • Do you want a higher salary? (Will a graduate degree really affect your salary ?)
  • Are you stalling on making a career decision?
  • Are you applying to graduate school because "everyone else is doing it?"
  • Are you applying to graduate school because you feel like you have no career options?
  • Are you delaying entry into the work world?
  • Do you know what your short and long term goals are and how a graduate degree can help you achieve them?
  • Are you willing to invest the time, energy, and money associated with going to graduate school? Have you thoroughly investigated these costs?
  • Are you prepared to spend the majority of the next 2-7 years studying while living in near poverty?
  • Can a single topic or narrow range of topics sustain your interest for the next 2-7 years?
  • Do you need a break from school?
  • Will career-related work experience help you get into graduate school?
  • Are you comfortable initiating and carrying out independent research?

What graduate degrees are available?

Graduate degrees are available in almost any subject and come in three levels-Master, Specialist, and Doctorate. Depending on the graduate school program and degree level you desire, your program requirements and length will vary.

  • Master's degrees are offered in many fields of study. Some are designed to lead to a doctoral degree while others are the "terminal" degree for a profession (e.g., Master of Library Science; Master of Business Administration). For full-time students, completing a master's degree usually takes 2 years.
  • Specialist degrees are usually earned in addition to a master's degree and will require additional coursework, training, or internship experience. This type of degree usually prepares students for professional certification or licensing requirements (e.g., Ed.S. for school principal).
  • Doctoral degrees are the highest degrees possible. They usually require the creation of new knowledge via independent research - be it basic or applied. Including the time it takes to write and defend a dissertation, this degree may take anywhere from 5-7 years to complete.

How do you choose a school?

It is critical that you select the right program and the right institution for your graduate studies. This requires careful study, researching and comparing programs and, often, a visit to the school.

Understand that academic disciplines at the graduate level can become tremendously specialized, and certain institutions that offer superb facilities in one sub-discipline may be sadly lacking in other areas. Equally, you cannot simply select an institution based upon it's overall reputation. Sometimes, the finest departments of a particular sub-discipline are found at institutions with which you may not be familiar. Presume nothing! Like a good researcher, approach this task with an open mind, sifting through ALL the evidence before arriving at a conclusion.

While you may have some particular preferences that will limit the institutions which you are prepared to consider (e.g., only schools in the Northeast), there are many other criteria which you need to factor into your decision. Some of these are listed below.

What if my GPA is low?

Before you rule out applying to grad school because of your GPA, do some research to make sure your information about GPA requirements is accurate. Most graduate schools provide a profile of last year's entering class, including average GPA and GRE or other test scores. Also, check to see if your school of interest has an absolute cut-off GPA that is required for application. If you don't meet this absolute cut-off and have extenuating circumstances (illness, family crisis, poor performance in an unrelated major), check with an admissions officer to find out if exceptions are allowed. If you are eligible to apply but are below the average GPA accepted, most applications include a space where you can address other concerns. This provides a chance for you to mention any extenuating circumstances. Keep these explanations to a minimum. Also, on your application and personal statement, you can accentuate your strengths, such as work experience or leadership positions. Finally, consider applying to several different tiers of schools, including a few you know you can get into as well as those that are top choices but more competitive.

What if my admissions test scores (GMAT, GRE, etc.) are low?

Before you apply to schools, find out which schools automatically screen applicants based on test scores. Some do, while other schools will consider lower test scores and look at multiple admissions criteria (GPA, personal statement, recommendations). You can find this information by looking at a graduate school's web site or by contacting the office of graduate admissions. Also, find out how the school views test retakes. Some schools consider only the highest test score, while others average multiple scores. Typically, admissions test scores are consistent when taken multiple times unless there were extenuating circumstances the first time you took the test (e.g. illness).

What if I can't afford graduate school?

Most students require some financial assistance in graduate school. This usually includes either working as a teaching or research assistant (many schools waive tuition and fees for TAs and RAs) or securing grants, loans, fellowships, or scholarships. Individual graduate schools can tell you what kinds of financial aid they offer. Also, check our links to financial assistance information.

What if I want to study in a different area than my undergraduate major?

It depends on the type of graduate program you wish to attend. Some fields are broad and do not require any particular undergraduate major (ex. law or MBA school). Others require only a few courses in the graduate field of study (ex. psychology graduate programs often require statistics and experimental psychology courses). Some programs require a core set of prerequisites (ex. medical or physical therapy school). Some very technical programs may require a degree in the field or substantial coursework (ex. engineering) . In many cases, you can be admitted even if you haven't taken the prerequisites; you will complete them the first few semesters of graduate school. Sometimes, you will need to go back to school as an undergraduate to take your prerequisites. This is usually the case if you are switching academic fields to an unrelated area and need to show aptitude in the new field (a history major wanting to get a Ph.D. in biology).

How do I go about getting letters of recommendation, if I am not planning on going to graduate school immediately?

Ask your professors to write letters for you before you graduate. Tell them you will be attending grad school at a future date and will send them the addresses later. The professors can keep the letters on file for you until you apply. Many professors will give you a copy of the letter even though you waive the right to see it. To help the professor tailor a recommendation for you, give him or her a resume or list of highlighted activities and skills that you would like mentioned in the letter. Also, remember to send the professors a thank you note! Check out Letters of Recommendation for more information.

Can an employer write a letter of recommendation?

Yes, especially if your job is relevant to the program to which you are applying. However, most graduate programs prefer to see academic recommendations which comment on your intellectual accomplishments and skills. We suggest that you include two academic references and one non-academic reference. We do not recommend using relatives or friends as letter writers.

How do I find a mentor in graduate school?

Some programs provide a structured mentoring program; ask about this when you are gathering information about schools. Think about what you want from a mentor. For example, how much independence do you need? What do you want out of your grad school experience? How much time are you willing to spend on school and research? A good way to find a mentor is to talk to lots of professors and older graduate students your first semester of grad school. Attend departmental information panels, picnics, and other events. Ask professors about their research and pay attention to how they react to you. Are they attentive? Do they seem approachable? Ask other grad students what their experiences with this professor have been like.

What is graduate school like?

It's generally less structured than college. You'll have to figure out a way to get along and work with your advisor, carve out an area of research and find a thesis or dissertation topic, and make the professional contacts that are essential to advancing in your field and getting a job after graduation. All too often new grad students wait for someone to tell them what to do. The longer they wait without answers or direction, the more fearful they become about their futures. Needless to say, stress and fear aren't conducive to studying! Conquer your fears by learning about graduate school now, while you've got time to prepare. If you're considering graduate school because you're doing well in college and like school, be aware that grad school is essentially an apprenticeship. Instead of sitting in class for a couple of hours a day and then being free to play, grad school is more like a job that occupies all of your time. You'll spend a great deal of your time working on research in your advisor or mentor's lab.

What if I am interested in a graduate program at OSU?

OSU's Graduate College provides a lot of information on their web site about graduate study at OSU. They can direct you to graduate advisors, graduate students, and professors.

What are some important things to include in a personal statement?

Most schools will specify the content in the application. Usually it is some variation on "Where have you been? Why are you coming here? Where will you go after this?" Write an essay that reflects who you are as a person and accentuates what makes you different from other applicants. Consider including information such as educational milestones, important influences in your life, how your career/academic interest evolved, what motivates you, your accomplishments, and your research. Try to make your first sentence or paragraph engaging and inviting to the reader. Check out Graduate School Statement for more information.

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