What is Graduate School?

Exploring Graduate School

Graduate education is different from undergraduate education. These differences are observed in 1) the scope and breadth of knowledge and skills developed, 2) the level of commitment expected from students, and 3) the activities and daily life of students. If you are thinking about graduate school, these are important factors to consider!

1) Scope and breadth of knowledge and skills

Undergraduate studies give students a broad, general education on an area (think of the many diverse courses you have taken!) However, graduate studies are more advanced and focus on a discipline or sub-discipline. In graduate school, students typically take a few courses, but these are all centered around a specific program or discipline. This is different from undergrad where students must take prescribed courses even if they are not of their interest. Something similar happens with theses and major research projects: they are narrow in scope and highly specialized but reflect the unique interests of graduate students and their advisors. The focused nature of graduate school also means that students cannot change majors or specialization like they would do in undergrad; if graduate students are not happy with the discipline they chose, they have to switch programs.

Graduate school will also teach you more advanced skills such as providing solutions to problems, thinking critically about current evidence, integrating complex concepts, and communicating clearly and accurately. While undergraduate students normally attend classes to learn about the content that others have developed, graduate students are trained to produce new knowledge and to critically assess knowledge produced by themselves and others. As a result, graduate school is more rigorous, and students are expected to produce robust, logical, and evidence-based work.

Your level of cognitive understanding and your disciplinary knowledge will be greatly advanced during graduate school!

2) Level of commitment and expectations

Graduate students are expected to be more proactive and independent compared to undergrads. If you are going to conduct research (thesis or major research project), you will need to demonstrate autonomy and self-directedness to design and carry out your project, conduct yourself professionally with professors and collaborators, and keep abreast of new evidence in your field. Advisors will be there to provide guidance and mentorship, but in graduate school you are your own leader!

Graduate students also have their work evaluated on a regular basis (e.g., through courses, performance reviews, advisory committee meetings, journal reviews), so it is expected that you will learn to accept feedback, defend your work, provide solid arguments, unlearn and relearn, and persevere as part of your learning journey. Graduate students are also expected to contribute to novel discoveries, knowledge, and perspectives in their field. Academic achievement expectations are also higher: graduate students pass courses with a 65, not 50 like in undergrad.

Graduate students sometimes have to juggle multiple responsibilities, including courses, teaching assistantships, and their own research, so it is likely that you will be multitasking. Because of this, you will need to exercise good judgement and time management skills. While most graduate students have an advisor, students are still responsible for their work and must maintain impeccable academic integrity and seek out any additional services and supports they may need. The level of expectations and commitment is greater for Ph.D. students than for Master students, but all graduate students must be prepared to take control of their education.

3) Activities and daily life

The daily life of a graduate student will vary depending on the type of graduate program they are in. Course-based students spend most of their time taking courses, searching the literature, engaging in discussions, and completing assignments. Thesis-based students spend most of their time in their office or lab conducting research, in classrooms teaching undergraduates, and in lab meetings discussing research progress with their advisor and other students.

In terms of courses, classes are often much smaller at the graduate level compared to undergrad, so students engage more directly with professors and other students. In terms of research, graduate students spend a lot of time learning to use equipment, conducting experiments or observations, analyzing their data, and writing about their findings. It is very common for graduate students to have to re-do analysis or experiments —not everything works out the first time around! In a way, graduate school feels more like an apprenticeship, where training and work are weaved into one experience.

Several students also engage in extracurriculars! Because graduate students work on their own project for long periods of time and classes are smaller, many students seek new connections and friendship beyond the walls of their own labs. For example, graduate students can attend college or departmental seminars, develop their professional skills through workshops or conferences, and participate in committees or professional associations. In addition, graduate students can benefit from all services and supports available across campus for undergrads (e.g., Athletics, Career Services, Library, Student Wellness), as well as others specifically designed for grad students (e.g., Graduate Pathways, Graduate Student Association events, Graduate Student Support Circle). There is opportunity for students to tailor their graduate experience to activities that they really enjoy and wish to pursue.

What to do next?

If grad school sounds like a good fit for you, you can:

  • Keep your eyes peeled for Graduate Preview Day, where you can chat with current faculty and graduate students across campus.
  • Read more about our programs and requirements.
  • Explore our Before You Apply page for tips on how to secure an advisor (this is required for thesis-based programs and for the HHNS MSc course-based program).
  • Ask your Teaching Assistants about their experience —they are all graduate students!
  • Volunteer or work in a research lab to witness what research is firsthand.
  • Follow faculty on social media to discover more about their research and upcoming opportunities.
  • Explore our Current Opportunities page for quick links to available grad student positions.
  • If you are in third or fourth year of your undergrad, check out the CBS Research Readiness Courselink site to prepare yourself better for research roles.