Dopers with Grad School Experience, help!

Hey, as some of you know, I will soon be graduating from college. Yay, me! After much consideration and confusion, I have decided that I do indeed want to go to grad school. I’m going into the Peace Corps in the fall so this isn’t incredibly urgent, but I would be very happy if those of you who have been to grad school could impart any advice. When I was applying to college as a HS senior, I knew exactly where I wanted to go. I didn’t feel ready to be leaving Northern California at the time, but after living in Israel for a year, I’m ready to branch out (I’m kind of intimidated by the thought of going someplace snowy, though). I feel like I have no direction, which is very uncomfortable. So…any advice?


“You couldn’t fool your mother on the foolingest day of your life if you had an electrified fooling machine.”

It’s useful to have some idea of what you want when you apply to grad schools. If you truly have no idea, it’s probably a better idea to wait a few years to see what you want to do.

At the same time, if you want to get a degree, sometimes the fact that you have that degree is more important than what you have it in. I teach computer science labs at Siena College. They require all their instructors have at least an M.A. I have one – in English.

Grad degrees, BTW, are most important if you want to work at a college. For other jobs, experience is usually much more important than the degree.

Here’s the rule if you ever plan to teach for a living. If you plan to teach college, a master’s is a must. If you think you might end up teaching K-12, just take the grad classes you need for your credential. Wait until you’ve found a secure job you love before you go for your master’s. The reason for this is that school district pay scales are based on your education level. A school district will never hire a new teacher that has to be paid the master’s degree rate.

Advice? Do LOTS AND LOTS of research before, during, and after applying. With each school, carefully examine the faculty roster and study the areas of interest of each of the active members, and, if available, their CV’s. Find out what courses are being taught this term and next- while a department may list 300 classes offered on the books, only 5 percent of them are ofered with any regularity. Apply to schools with good funding records (this info can be found in oe of those big fat So-and-So’s Guide to Grad Schools book)- the last thing you want to do is borrow 200,000 dollars to get a PhD. Consider things like geographical location and whether you wish to live in a Huge city or a small college town. If you find that certain faculty member’s interests coincide with yours, get in touch with them and ask them what they’ve taught lately, what their current projects are, etc. Ask the director of grad studies whether they can put you in touch via e-mail with a current student who shares your general area of interest, because s/he can answer more candid questions about university/department atmosphere, frustrations and joys of the particular department. Ask faculty members (especially younger ones) from your alma mater whom you trust to give you some advice about choosing a school and applying for grants. Spend a LOT of time on your statement of interest and be sure to tailor it to each school to which you apply. Don’t just spell check it, give it to AT LEAST 2 different literate people for proof reading. Get reading lists from potential programs and look at them carefully. Try to attend at least one large conference in your field. If that’s not possible, read some scholarly texts, because this is what you’re planning on spending the next 3-7 years of life doing and it’s advisable to be certain that you can stomach it.

VISIT the campuses and programs that you are seriously considering, and let the department know. They SHOULD organize a big song and dance around impressing you and introducing you to facilities and people.

Remember that, in most cases, the quality and rep of the department itself is MUCH more important than that of the university. In my field, for instance, UCLA is a MUCH better school than Harvard.

Deadlines are very early- some as early as Nov 15 of the preceeding year, and deadlines for grants can occur more than a year prior to the time you plan to enter school. So take your GRE soon, plan to give your profs time to compose good letters of rec, and allow plenty of time for transcripts to be sent.

If you’re planning on going to grad school straight out of the PC, see if the school is willing to accept your app. materials in advance, since deadlines will inevitably occur before you return to the states. Applying to gradschool from a foreign country is a bitch.

If one school offers you a fellowship, and another offers you an assistantship, take the fellowship, for Christ’s Sakes. There will always be time to teach later.

Various suggestions- disregard them as you wish, because everyone’s situation is different.

Since you have a year to think about it, I’m sure you can get an idea of what you want to do. Once you’ve figured out WHAT you want a degree in, the hardest part is the damn statement of purpose section of the Apps. This is always the most stressful part for me (I’m in the midst of this myself for the third damn time, now) because other than that I want to teach somewhere I’m pretty unsure of where I’m headed. So when they ask “what do you want to do” I start making things up and then playing out the next two years like I meant it (ok, I really only did that the first time for my MA program; now I have a clue, although now they are asking questions about my methodology and scary things of that sort). The feeling like you are suddenly forcing yourself to make life-changing decisions is natural.

Apply to school based on real criteria, not just because they’re located where they are or you hate the thought of living in New Jersey or whetever. College towns to a great extent are all the same, relatively-- even if they are in a creepy part of the country they will tend to be oases of reason. You will also probably hate yourself when you realize that, when the fellowship offers arrive, you are considering money an issue. You will consider money an issue in the end. Try not to be too self-loathing about it.

Have you taken the GRE? Do it NOW.

Also, I have recently learned that people who read the essays on the apps hate essays where the student explains how they always loved X and knew they wanted to be a Y when they grew up, because their dad, who was a small town barber, once told them etc, etc. I think this approach must be acceptable for Law and business schools or something, as on the ‘suggestions’ that prep services give they include that sort of clever anecdotal essay. For an academic field, though, they don’t want it to be cute. “But how do I make myself stand out from the crowd?” I ask my advisor. “If you sound serious about things and don’t have a “cute” essay, you WILL stand out,” he explains.

Also, (and this might sound snotty or elitist to some, but it’s reality) apply to the best schools that you can. I used to assume that I couldn’t get into/ wasn’t cut out for the more competitive programs, but now I’m coming into my own and I regret not aiming higher (a current project is fixing this situation). Many people apply to good schools and one school they know they can get into; do the opposite as well and apply to a school that you think is perfect for you but you could never dream of getting into. After a BA, or an MA it’s possible to move upwardly, but after you’ve chosen to get a PhD at a very safe school that you were certain you would be accepted by, there’s no going back and re-doing the same degree in the same field at a better school after you’ve realized you were capable of it and had more motivation than you thought you did.

Also make sure the department you decide to enter is stable. I have been abandoned by two advisors now and left in crumbing departments-- departments that were good when I entered but underwent a sudden exodus of the best staff for various reasons. If the advisor you want to work for is 64 years old and looking at houses on Thera, beware.

Good luck! Where ya’ going in the PC?

Thanks for the advice, people. Here’s the thing: I know WHAT I want to study, and I have an idea of what I want to do with it even. I plan on getting an MA, and maybe eventually a PhD in Religious Studies, and teaching it at either a community college or private high school level. (Not a lot of public schools have RS, and it’s what I’m most interested in.)

I haven’t taken the GRE yet…I was just looking at some practice stuff and it scares me so much…how important is it for a RS student to be able to figure out the angle of a triangle? I was lousy in geometry six years ago when I took it…someone expects me to remember what little I knew then?!

When it comes to placement…I’m thinking it might be a good experience to study someplace new and different. So…not California. Besides, I want to actually be able to afford this, not spend everything on rent (like now).

And I don’t know where I’m going in the PC yet…still in the application process. Anyone want to say they’re my work supervisor and write me a glowing letter of recommendation? >g<


“You couldn’t fool your mother on the foolingest day of your life if you had an electrified fooling machine.”

Here’s my two cents (made it into grad school with a fellowship, FWIW):

  1. Talk to your professors! Ask as many of them as possible for advice, especially the young ones who have recently been through grad school, the ones who share your academic interests, and the ones you get along with best on a personal level. They will be more than happy to offer advice, and they can warn you about stuff that’s not in the guidebooks (e. g. University X has a history of exploiting teaching assistants). It’s also a good idea to get a prof who has worked in admissions to take a look at your application before you send it off.

  2. Make friends with the GRE before you take it. Get ETS’s official prep book, which will have real GREs from previous years, but also get the lowdown from an independent test prep company like Kaplan or Princeton Review – both are excellent. Also, keep in mind that you may have to take two exams, the general GRE and the subject test in your field. Don’t schedule them for the same day if you can help it. (This takes planning, as they don’t offer the GRE all that often – usually your choices are April, October, and December.) Don’t sweat the math section, by the way; usually the applications committee won’t even look at your math score if you’re applying to school in the humanities.

  3. Don’t stress too much. There is no such thing as the perfect application. It helps if you have friends who are going through the same process and can keep you from going insane; otherwise, it’s a long lonely ride.

Best of luck!

2 things:
1)You can now take the GRE general test at any time of year, since the paper format has been eliminated. Preparing is a good idea- I never would have done as well on the math portion as I did without poring over that book for weeks teaching myself highschool math, but you really should take it as soon as possible.
2)I disagree with M.K. about “location” not being a valid aspect of criteria. Grad studies don’t leave very much room in your life for anything else, and with that precious little free time you have, you’ll want to be in a place you don’t hate. This from both personal experience and personal communications.

This is a difficult issue for me to answer, since I have so much emotional baggage with this. I mean, I don’t want to dissuade anyone from going to graduate school who might conceivably benefit from it. I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble of optimism or taint anyone’s plans with a seed of fear or mistrust. So I don’t know how to say this.

During graduate school, I lost an important part of myself. I came out of grad school with very little self-esteem and no interest in the field that had drawn me to grad school in first place. I got the shit kicked out of me way too many times by professors, officious administrators, and the virulent snakes in the grass that made up a large portion of the student body.

I know it sounds stupid and whiny, but a lot of how I have felt since grad school matches the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. For the first two years, I had fairly frequent nightmares and difficulty sleeping. I have difficulty trusting people. Occasionally I forget that I ever finished grad school (I did finish, but I can barely remember how). Technically, this isn’t PTSD, since the latter necessarily involves an actual death or injury (mere turmoil doesn’t count).

Anyway, I’ve just been informed that my insurance will no longer pay for my anti-depressants, so I’m kind of a lousy mood. Actually, the truth is, I probably have no health insurance at all, since I think my parents have cut me out of their plan (they won’t actually come out and say this, but then again, they won’t say whether or not they have health insurance). I haven’t been able to pay my psychiatrist in several months so I can’t keep going to her. It was much easier in grad school in a way, since they had a support network hooked up to the meat grinder - cheap therapy, cheap prescriptions, etc.

So I guess my advice, don’t consider grad school unless your psyche is made of laminated titanium. I was far too frail for grad school and far too stubborn/stupid to drop out. You might also want to interview some current students off the record (i.e. not with any administrators of PR people lurking around) about how many times they have been fucked in the ass by faculty, staff, and fellow students.

Any similarity in the above text to an English word or phrase is purely coincidental.

Reading my post I realize it is pretty lame. I didn’t mean to ramble. I was just trying to point out that, in my admittedly narrow experience, the slings and arrows of graduate education are pretty thick. For me they included peer grading (I fell in a very tight clique on a group project, and they didn’t feel that I had contributed my fair share), not knowing what “extra credit” means (different class; I got in real trouble for thinking I could skip the extra credit and work on the term paper), and pretty much constant harassment from administrators I had somehow pissed off and who miraculously kept “losing” important forms I had filled out. I’m done now.

In general, you’re going to have to go to go to a university with a department that’s one step above the one where you’d like to end up teaching. If you want to teach in one of the top twenty departments in your field, you’ve got to get a Ph.D. in one of the top five departments in your field and do modestly impressive work there. If you want to teach in one of the top fifty departments in your field, you’ve got to get a Ph.D. at one of the top twenty departments. At the absolute top this works slightly differently, of course. The top five departments hire mostly each other’s Ph.D.'s, but they only hire the absolute best of those. People occasionally do move up, but if you get your Ph.D. from the 45th best department and want to eventually end up teaching at the 15th best department, you’d have to do your first teaching job at the 60th best department and start researching and publishing like crazy to impress people in your field.

If you’re looking for lower-level stuff (you say that you would like to teach at a community college or at a private high school), go to some of the colleges and high schools that are the sorts of places that where you’d like to teach and ask the people teaching there where they got their graduate degrees from. Talk to the ones who were hired fairly recently, not those who’ve been there thirty years. Frequently the standards for who gets hired is much tougher recently.

As to whether you can stay in roughly the same geographical region or the same climate, remember that you’re going to be considered part of a national pool now. Yes, it’s possible to be born, go to college, go to grad school, and teach without ever moving more than two hundred miles, but it’s not likely. You’ve got to realize that there’s a good chance that you’ll be moving a long distance into a different climate.

Incidentally, how big is the market for your field? How many private high schools teach religious studies? How many community colleges teach religious studies? Is there a realistic chance that they will be hiring anybody five or ten years from now when you finish your degree?

One more thing: Even though you want to work at a place where you will be teaching and doing very little research, you will have to do a fair amount of research in grad school.

You do not want to end up as a 3rd or 4th year grad student with most of your courses under your belt and only THEN realize that not one single person on the faculty really shared enough of your perspective on the subject to work with you and still allow you to pursue your own choices of topics and angles of inquiry for your thesis!

Make appointments. CHAT with your potential professors about the theologists, theorists, and schools of theological inquiry that you find appealing. Make sure you won’t be an intellectual orphan wherever you end up going.

Unlike undergrad credits, grad school credits earned are seldom transferrable if you decide at some point you have to go somewhere else in order to be with more compatible advisors.

Speaking from sad experience.

Designated Optional Signature at Bottom of Post

First, remember that acceptance to grad school depends not only on the school’s standards (like undergraduate admissions), but also on the department’s acceptance of you! To get into State U. or Private U. to work on your Bachelor’s, all you have to do is have the right H.S. (or transfer) GPA, SATs, and fork over the cash… For graduate school, State/Private U. has minimum standards they require for admission to the graduate school (GRE general, undergrad GPA, etc.), but once you’ve passed them, it’s up to the department to accept you! The dept. may have additional requirements (classwork, GRE subject, major field GPA, etc.)–and more importantly, the advisor who’d be most likely to work with you may or may not be willing to take on new graduate students. This is especially true at the PhD level… Master’s students generally know that they want to study in a certain subject, but seldom are firm on a specialty. I’d advise that you personally contact faculty members that are potential advisors, talk about what you’re interested in, ask what sorts of projects they’ve got going, and make sure they’re not about to retire!

Second, once you’ve found yourself in grad school, START YOUR THESIS IMMEDIATELY!!! After you’ve hooked up with your advisor, find out what s/he is interested in AND what s/he has currently funded. You might be more interested in other projects, but if they don’t have the support–finacially, but mostly intellectually–from your advisor, then you’re on your own. This is what I’ve seen shoot down more students than any other–striking out on their own with only marginal help from faculty. After you’ve finished your degree, you can pursue things that YOU are interested in. In the meanwhile, take the advice of your advisor and do what s/he is doing! And start right away… I can’t count the grad students I’ve known who’ve sat on their hands for a year or more before starting a thesis–they invariably find themselves taking 5-10 years for a stinkin’ Master’s!

BA, 94; MS, 97; PhD–2001, no later, I hope, than 2002!

Well, what I mean about location, and because you’re on the West Coast, like me, this will make more sense, is that you are probably going to have to go East. When I applied for MA programs, I was sort of creeped out by that idea, so first I checked out all the schools west of the Rockies which have great humanities grad schools. And guess what? There aren’t many, relatively speaking (there just aren’t as many schools out here. I’d guess that, say, Ohio has far more schools than California. So I bit the bullet and applied to some midwest schools (was still too chicken to try the east coast, which would have exponentially increased the possibilities), and ended up going to school in friggin Bloomington, Indiana, which to a northwest kid sounded similar to Mars, but with corn or something. I had these visions of, well, something like “Deliverance”. And I discovered that it wasn’t that bad-- it was roughly the same as Eugene, or Berkeley, or Missoula, or Arcata, or Claremont, or Madison, et al. It is true that you won’t have much free time. Depending on how little free time you have, location may or may not make a huge difference. Your town will have a decent coffee shop, many pizza places, at least one brewpub, a theatre where they show snobby foreign films, and a bowling alley, as well as a porn shop, head shop, and tattoo-piercing parlor.
That is not to say that there aren’t places I would personally avoid (I’m not going to ellaborate on which corners of the country); just don’t make location a primary issue (Some people do).

I’ll clarify what I said about location by using myself as an example:

  1. I hate big cities, which is something I should have thought about a little longer before deciding to relocate to a university in a big city.
  2. I have a pathological need for sunlight and a deep attachment to the ocean, which are two things I might have considered before moving to the Midwest.
    3)I’m the sort of person who benefits from having a stable support system in times of change and challenge, which is something I should have thought about more before moving to a location 1000 miles away from my friends and 300 miles away from my family.

That being said, I gain a lot from the fact that my department rocks (though not enough to keep me at this particular school past the end of this year) and these factors may nt weigh as strongly for all people. I belong to the “Boris B.” group of grad students.

That being said, I strongly advise AGAINST entering any school located in a place that you’re certain you’ll hate. However. you seem to be up for adventure and sound like you will really thrive.

NOW: Go talk to people in your field. There is really no more useful advice you can garner from us.

Just a sec… While you’re taking Grad school seriously, planning, and getting good advice [incl. the above], it appears you’re not taking the Peace Corps too seriously since the same questions you pose as present concerns for grad school apply equally, if not more, to volunteer service. Without some proper sense of self/direction/career path, you might not make it past the selection process (much less tolerate sitting in a hut in East Ubu-Ubu wondering “Why am I here ?”) and certainly will gain nothing from the experience (not to mention leave a mess of people overseas shaking their heads and dumbing down the curve for folk who actually intend to attempt something with their service as the departure point for their self-searching, not the goal - hard enough for committed entrants). Peace Corps is not (and shouldn’t be) a free vacation while you ponder what to do with your life.

Think carefully about what you wish to accomplish, specifically. As in “teach English, manage a park interpretation program, etc…” as opposed to “help the poor”. Please put as much htought into that choice (PC service) as you are into your someday grad school plans.

O le mea a tamaali’i fa’asala, a o le mea a tufanua fa’alumaina.

I’d like to reemphasize the importance of selecting a school based on your major professor. Find out who’s good in your field, find out if they are good to their graduate students, find out if they can get you assistanceships or jobs.
I am surprised to hear that many people can teach college with only a masters. Maybe community college–but not at a university.
About the GRE–I took it about 20 years after my last math class. I took a 2 day review. I still did lousy on the math but I made so high on the english portion I came up to the required minimum. What really got me into grad school was finding a professor who wanted me as a student and who found me a good assistanceship. He is also the top guy in my field so he had loads of contacts and made sure I met people and got published. He got me work when my assistanceship ran out, too. BorisK is right–you can really get screwed. I have friends who went through hell because they had an asshole for their major professor.

There is a direct correlation between the number of years of education a person has and the amount of money they earn in their lifetime. Lifespan is longer for those with the more education, too. Those are some reasons why I got a Master’s degree, and would like to get a PhD if I can get in.

Some good advice in here that should not lie dead on the pruning floor.

Blah, blah, blah…

One of the first hings you’ll learn in Grad school is which long paragraphs to skip over. So, maybe someone’s said this before me. Nevertheless:

If there is some scholar you particularly admire, write them. Write them again, and then write again. Ask them about their research. Tell them you are curious about the same thing. There is nothing academics like more than fawning grad students. Learning how to lick boots will become second nature.

Having a good GRE is important, but, it is immaterial if you have a professor who will sponsor you, fight for you, and work to get you funding. Don’t let these others tell you that it is the worms in the cheese.

I will also give you the best advice I have ever gotten. In Grad school you will have to write a lot. Here is the advice: Good writers use two types of sentences, short and medium-length. The best writers know how to use them together.

Good luck