What to Expect in Graduate School

Being admitted to a graduate program is the first indication that your roles and situation are changing. You are no longer "just" a student; you are now a junior colleague. Furthermore, your success in graduate school will not depend solely on your ability to get good grades--it will also depend a great deal on your ability to schedule, plan, and motivate yourself in what often is a very unstructured environment.

Core Program

Many programs have a core program (1-2 years) that is designed to bring all of their graduate students up to speed in basic subject areas. If you are well-prepared before entering graduate school, you may be quite disappointed at the quality of these courses and may feel as if these requirements are a waste of time.

Instead of complaining about these aspects, however, think of this period as a gift--a chance to really dig into topics that you didn't have time for at the undergraduate level; a chance to beef up your knowledge in areas that you missed at the undergraduate level; a time to settle in and figure out what graduate school is about--what the rules are; whom you should work with for research projects; how expectations have changed. Use this time to plan your course of research and study over the next 2-5 years; to get acquainted with faculty with whom you are interested in working; and to hang out with older graduate students who are willing to pass on their wisdom.


For both the master's and doctoral degrees, a certain amount of coursework is required. The idea is to get through your coursework so you can concentrate on your research, your internship, and your thesis and dissertation. The coursework is important to the extent that it can be an effective way to gain the knowledge you need for the qualifying exams to come. When you are choosing courses, then, choose appropriate courses to fulfill the requirements for your major and minor (Ph.D. only), but also to provide yourself with a solid background for your qualifying exams.

As a side note, the grade scale is often truncated in graduate school: A, B, and C, where C is failing. In one program, if you got Cs in two courses, you were expelled from the program. On the other hand, one might argue that the grading scale is inflated as a result; a student who got Bs and Cs at Westmont got all As and Bs in his graduate program.

Course Load

Course loads may be lighter in graduate school than they were in college. Check to see how "full time" is defined. It may be as little as 8 units (where 1 course is usually 3 units). In addition, the assignments in courses may appear lighter. There is often a great deal of reading to do but students are frequently evaluated by just a midterm and a final exam, or just a final paper or final exam.

Graduate courses may be scheduled in the afternoon and especially seminars will meet just once a week for 3 hours. This leaves time in the mornings and evenings to be a teaching assistant (TA).

Types of Courses

Core program courses are often lecture courses; they are also the largest courses. After the first year or so, more courses will be seminars. They often focus on the newest material in a specialized area. You will read published research, present a coherent summary of a number of articles to the rest of the group and be ready to initiate and guide discussion of issues that are raised (and that you've identified and thought about beforehand). Seminars often involve massive amounts of reading. The idea is not necessarily to read all of it thoroughly. Learn to scan the material for what you don't know; get the basic ideas from each chapter or article or book; and move on to the next source.

A good strategy for both lecture and seminar courses, when the amount of reading is great, is to get a group of students together to discuss and summarize material with each other and to prepare for tests.