5 Tips for Pursuing a (Graduate) Degree

By Tony Ricks

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(The following is adapted by the author from an original blog post he wrote on April 21, 2013  and published at www.therhetor.com)

Thinking about taking “the next step” after your bachelor’s degree? Or just after high school?

Recently, I offered advice to a college student at Athens State on the pros and cons of grad school. I hold a Master’s from Boise State and a Doctorate from Florida State. (Combining mascots, this makes me a Seminole on a Bronco). My particular area of expertise is in Rhetoric & Composition.  Today, I regularly work with college writers at Athens State.

If you are considering a career path in higher education–at any level–I offer these five tips from my own experiences about things to consider before entering a new (graduate) program. I put “graduate” in parentheses because, although these tips are based on my graduate school experiences, they can be adapted and applied to an educational journey at any level.

The 5 Tips:

1. Research programs/mentors. The internet makes this a breeze! Most programs have detailed descriptions and faculty bios online. Look closely at the faculty’s research interests. Look for people you’d love to work with and learn from.

2. Apply to multiple programs. If you’re interested in finding the best “fit” and you’re willing to move, then this step can’t be overstated. (Choosing to stay where you live and apply to a nearby school is fine, too; but if you can apply to multiple programs, I do recommend it). I applied to one program for my Master’s degree and five for my PhD. I was accepted into my Master’s program, but I had to cover my own costs and was not awarded one of the coveted Teaching Assistantship positions. However, I was accepted into a Ph.D. program where my tuition was waived and I was paid to teach two courses each semester for four years.

3. Know the application deadlines and apply early. In my experience, most graduate programs require application submissions during the Fall in order to attend the following Fall. Many academics take summers off and spend Spring deciding who to accept as graduate students for next year.

4. Wait for funding (if necessary). In the humanities, funding usually comes for grad students in the form of a Teaching Assistantship”–often called a “TA position.” The TA position often comes with a full tuition waiver. My advice: don’t go without having a TA position secured (unless you’re independently wealthy, of course, and you aren’t looking for “teaching experience” on your vita). In most cases, it’s worth waiting a year or two for the tuition waiver and TA position combo.

5. Meet the people you want to study with. It’s easy to contact the director of a graduate program: particularly if you mention you’re “considering” attending. This shows initiative. Most people want to attract great people to work with them. And it helps you see what the program is like. If feasible, although it’s often not feasible, a campus visit can be highly beneficial. Graduate programs are small communities. I contacted each graduate school’s director by phone before attending; I did not make a live campus visit. But the phone call proved useful to me in both cases: prior to attending at Boise State and also at Florida State. Both program directors were generous with their time and seemed genuinely pleased that I had called.

My through-line with these five tips is research, research, research!!! In graduate school (and undergraduate) you’ll do tons of research. But program and faculty research is time well spent if done before attending a new program. Learn about the people who will, in that particular program, become your mentors and (hopefully) your close friends!

Which of these tips is most helpful in thinking about your “next step,” whether in school, career, or elsewhere?

Feel free to comment in response to the questions below.

2 Responses to 5 Tips for Pursuing a (Graduate) Degree

  1. Belinda Krigel says:

    Meeting people helps with decisions. Meeting a graduate of a school you are considering gives you an opportunity to ask questions and be inspired.

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