The Grad School Forum FAQ (Check here first!)

Hey everybody!

So here in the Graduate School forum, we get the same questions very frequently! Questions are - of course - always encouraged, but I thought I would start an FAQ just to address some of the ones that pop up very frequently.

Everyone feel free to add additional ones and additional nuance/detail/dissenting opinions!

I don’t know what I want to do for a career. Can you help me pick a graduate program?

Really, if you don’t know what you want to do, don’t go to graduate school. Graduate school is expensive: master’s programs usually are actually financially expensive, requiring and outlay of money (and loans). PhD programs may not require money outright, but you are paying in time: a lower income for 5-6+ years plus less time to save for retirement (two words: compound interest) plus all the stress that comes with it! More importantly, graduate school is not designed for you to figure out what you want to do. It’s designed to train you for a specific career or set of careers. It would be terrible to think you wanted an MA in art history, spend 2 years and $120,000 paying for it, only to realize that what you really needed was an MPA or an MA in Japanese pedagogy or whatever.

So if you don’t know what you want to do…go find a job! Graduate school will always be there, waiting, when you’re ready to return.

Here are my stats. Can you tell me my chances?

No, not really. Chances are an inexact art even in undergraduate admissions. Graduate admissions are much less numbers-driven and rely more on the holistic entity of your application package (statement, fit with the department, work/research/internship experience, GPA, rigor of your program, letters of recommendation, GRE scores). They also rely on a lot of factors outside of your control - such as who you are competing with that year in the application pool; the state of funding in the department; the future plans of professors to retire/move to a different university/apply for grants; and other things. So we can’t tell you your chances.

What someone could comment on is, broadly, how competitive an applicant you are within their field (or others they’re familiar with) and perhaps for some specific programs or tier of programs. But, for that, you really need to provide more than your GPA and GRE scores - you should also give some general indication of the quality of elements I mentioned above. For example, how many years of work/research/internship experience do you have? What were you doing?

What’s the best program in [field]/Can you suggest programs for me in [field]?

There’s no one best program. For example, if you asked what the best program in psychology is, I’d have to ask you what subfield. Social? Developmental? Cognitive? Even that’s not enough, because the best social psychology program for a person who wanted to study intergroup relations is going to be different from the best one for someone who wants to study romantic relationships and attachment. And even if you specified that, there are other factors. So you are unlikely to get a really good answer to this question unless you provide very specific information about your wants AND there is someone intimately familiar with that field who browses these forums.

Suggesting programs is also very difficult. The person would have to be in your field - and honestly, in the same or a very closely related research area, or at least familiar with the area. For example, I could suggest some good programs to study stereotyping and prejudice in social psychology, but I couldn’t really suggest the best places to study memory and emotion in cognitive psychology, much less good places for social stratification (or anything) in sociology or particle physics. The best answer to this question is honestly doing a lot of your own Internet research and asking some trusted mentors in your home department. This takes a lot of time, but it’s really the only way to get good ideas about where to go.

How much does my undergraduate school matter for graduate admissions?

This is a tricky question to answer, and opinions are going to vary a bit. The general consensus seems to be “Some, maybe a lot, but what you do in undergrad is way more important than where you go.”

Let’s be honest - professors, like most people, can be swayed by prestige. But it’s not the sparkliness of the name; it’s the familiarity with the department, the faculty, and the work and rigor that go into that program. If your field has excellent departments at Wisconsin and Duke and Michigan and Stanford, then if you come out of one of those universities the professors at your graduate schools know that you had good training at the department. They know the faculty members there - maybe they went to grad school together, or collaborated on past projects, or were postdocs together - and they trust their word in letters of recommendation. They know that the cutting-edge research is coming out of so-and-so’s lab, which just happens to be where you did your RA job. So when your application crosses their desk, a lot of the things you discuss are known quantities.

However, this does not mean that if you go to East Carolina University, Cal State Northridge, UNC-Wilmington or Loyola Marymount that you have worse choices of getting into graduate school. This also does not mean that “a 3.3 at Stanford is the same/better than a 3.7 at CSUN.” This also doesn’t mean that you should go deep into debt to attend a more prestigious school, or transfer away from your current undergrad. It’s simply a data point - one that’s taken into consideration. There are lots and lots of people who go to excellent graduate schools from these schools and other smaller regional publics and lesser-known privates. What’s more important is what you do. So get involved in research (yes, there is research going on at places like these), form relationships with professors (yes, they still count even if they don’t know Professor Fancypants at Harvard), try to do a summer research internship at a different university, and take the most rigorous courseload you can (consider taking graduate courses if you are able).

Should I go straight to graduate school after undergrad, or should I take some time off in between?


Seriously, there’s really no one answer to this question. It depends on your needs and desires and wishes. Personally, I advise taking a couple years off, simply because I feel like one is in a better position to decide what one really wants to do with one’s career when one has a bit of work experience. But others might accurately say that’s a somewhat hypocritical stance, since I went straight to graduate school after college. (I would counter and say it is because I did so that I would advise others not to do the same thing.) If you don’t know what you want to do, see #1.

There are some exceptions. If you want to get a professional master’s (MPP, MPA, MIA, MPH, etc.) then you probably should take some time between college and grad school to gain experience because these programs value work experience. The average age at these types of programs tends to be 24-26, indicating 2-4 years of work experience. Another reason is to gain competency - like if you want an MIA but don’t know another language, taking some time to learn one is a good idea.

I want to get a graduate degree that is unrelated to my undergrad degree.

There’s a reason they call it graduate school. For academic programs at least (programs in a discipline - like English literature, philosophy, physics, computer science, math, etc.) as well as some professional programs (like engineering and nursing), the expectation is that you have a foundational base of disciplinary knowledge that you learned in college that you will build upon in grad school. The way things will be taught in your graduate classes will assume that you have a basic shared knowledge of the theories and research/scholarly techniques of your field. For this reason, most academic MA and PhD programs expect a major or the equivalent of the major in the field.

Is it possible for people with a BA in an unrelated field to get an MA in a different one? Well, sure, but with a few caveats. First of all, you have to do the work to get up to speed in the discipline. That usually involves taking some coursework, sometimes as a non-degree or post-baccalaureate student. How much you have to take will vary - 5-7 courses is usually a bare minimum, with the equivalent of a major (10-15 classes) being the ideal. It’s not just any 10-15 classes, either; you need to build some breadth and depth in the field. Some programs will have prerequisites posted on their website. If not, you should probably model the classes you take upon a major in the field, perhaps scaled down a few classes.

Do also note that prerequisites are often minimum standards. For example, a competitive economics PhD program might say that you only need three semesters of calculus and linear algebra to be admitted, but the most competitive students may have also take differential equations, real analysis, and advanced econometrics before admission. Or a program may say that they sometimes admit students with a major in a different field, but they have a specific definition of that (e.g., an MA program in physics may take a math major but not an English major; a comparative literature program might take a classics major but not a biology major). Or “sometimes” could mean “once every five years, if they are also Einstein/Chomsky/Hawking/Bandura/[insert other disciplinary genius here].”

Also, beware the “conditional admit” advice. Yes, MA and PhD programs do occasionally admit outstanding students without stated prerequisites as conditional admits - the conditional part meaning that they have to spend about a year taking coursework that they’re missing before they can take graduate coursework. Be wary for two reasons. One, these admits are usually otherwise outstanding students who are missing a few courses in the area. If you majored in history, for example, but now want to get a PhD in physics (and haven’t taken any physics courses), you are very unlikely to be conditionally admitted - the courses you’d have to take to catch up will take you longer than a year to complete. Two, being conditionally admitted puts you behind your cohort by default. While they are all taking the first-year graduate courses in your field, you are stuck taking classes with undergrads. You may also be unable to start the research you want to do (because of lack of foundation). This delays your time to degree as well!

However, professional programs are a different kettle of fish. International affairs, public health, social work, public policy, public administration…those master’s programs don’t expect you to have a major in a specific field (although they may prefer certain majors - like MPH programs prefer social and natural sciences majors). Exceptions are nursing and engineering, which usually require an undergraduate major in the field.

I have a low GPA but high GRE scores. Can my GRE scores balance out/make up for my GPA?

No. Your GRE scores are, arguably, the least important part of your application. The old adage is “they can keep you out, but they can’t get you in.” Having GRE scores that are too low can get your application cut in a first or second-round pass. But having really high GRE scores is unlikely to have a big impact - once you are past a certain threshold the department usually turns to other aspects of your application. And GPA, especially your major GPA, is a better indicator of your knowledge and potential than GRE scores.

I have a GPA that is less than a 3.0. Can I get into a good graduate school?

Maybe. It depends on what you are willing to do and how much time you have.

If you want a master’s program, a GPA between a 2.7 and a 2.9 might not completely preclude you from some mid-tier MA programs IF your application is otherwise outstanding, particularly if there has been a gap between your degree and now (think at least 3 years). I would say anything less than a 2.5 is a really hard sell for any graduate program, even an undesirable one. At a PhD program, you’re unlikely to be offered admission with anything less than a 3.0.

That said, there are things you can do to improve your appeal. You can take some graduate-level classes as a non-degree student and get As in them, proving you can handle the work. You can take some time off and work in the field or a related one, putting some distance between you and that GPA. If your last 60 credits or major GPA was much higher, you could explain that too. And of course, if you have a lowish undergrad GPA, you need to make sure that the rest of your application is absolutely fabulous.

But the best way to mitigate a low undergrad GPA might be to get an MA in the field and prove you can do the work.

I want to explain my low GPA in my statement of purpose. How do I do that?

First of all, make sure that your GPA is actually low enough to explain. I would not explain any GPA higher than a 3.5 - that’s a good GPA. Frankly, I’m not sure I would explain anything in the 3.3-3.5 category, either, unless you had something really, really good to say (like you’d have a 3.7 if you didn’t fail one semester’s worth of courses due to an alien invasion in your college town).

If your GPA is lower than that, the only time you should explain is if you have a good, compelling, and finished reason why your GPA is low. By “finished” I mean that the issue is unlikely to threaten your grad school progress, because it is either under control or doesn’t exist anymore. A death in the family is an example - that’s something that is very stressful and very compelling for tanking your grades, but also does not happen that often and is unlikely to have a big impact on graduate performance. A newly discovered illness is another - before you got the illness controlled it wreaked havoc on your life, but now that you know better and are in treatment you are controlling it, and look, you even got a 3.6 for the last three semesters in college.

If your reason is that you goofed off earlier in college but got serious later, or you didn’t realize you wanted to go to graduate school until junior year, or you just had a difficult adjustment to college that wasn’t due to any particular illnesses…I wouldn’t explain. Those are all really common things, but they’re also not terribly compelling partially because they ARE so common. Moreover, they are not necessarily “finished.” Who’s to say that you won’t also goof off the first two years of your PhD or that you may have a hard time adjusting to your new city for the MA program?

There’s also the reason that you changed majors or were pre-med and dropped it. I’d be careful with this. For example, being pre-med and dropping it can maybe sway an English or classics program, but a chemistry (obviously) or even a psychology program may be less sympathetic to that excuse. You don’t want to convey the message that you can only excel in classes you like, because graduate programs have requirements too, some of which you may not like.

Honestly, the best way to handle this might be to ask a trusted recommender to address it for you in their letter. They’re more likely to have the language to be able to convey this information well, and they are less likely to come off self-serving or whiny (since the episode didn’t affect them directly).

props to Juillet for an awesome thread!

How does financial aid work for PhD programs?

It’s going to be different everywhere. There are really no hard and fast rules. Here are some general guidelines, but really, ask professors in your field, read the websites of the departments you’re applying to, and ask the departmental secretary and/or admissions office if you are unclear.

Really, most PhD programs are/should be funded. What “funded” means is that you should be awarded a package that covers your tuition and required fees, your health insurance, and pays you a stipend that allows you to cover your living expenses. As of 2017, I’ve seen PhD stipends that range from around $18,000 to $35,000 and up. It depends on the field: humanities programs tend to pay the least, followed by the social sciences, then the life sciences and finally the physical sciences and engineering. It also depends on the university and program: elite programs tend to pay more money in stipend than less elite ones, and programs in urban/high cost areas tend to pay more than ones in rural or suburban areas that are lower-cost. But even that’s not universally true: The $18,000 program I’m familiar with is in an expensive urban area.

Usually, you are considered for funding simply by applying, and typically at the best programs if you are accepted you are accepted with funding. There are a few special fellowships that may require an additional application - for example, if the school you’re applying to (like the School of Public Health or Graduate School of Arts and Sciences) has a special school-wide fellowship or even university-wide fellowship that spans several departments, you may need to complete a separate application. Generally speaking your department will contact you if they think you’re competitive, ask you to apply, and tell you what to fill out. Occasionally they don’t, though, so you may have to scour the website for these opportunities.

There are permutations within. The holy grail is a fellowship, because theoretically you don’t have to do anything for the money - you just do your work and they pay you as long as you’re in good standing. (In practice, you’re still going to end up doing research and potentially teaching, but typically you have more control over how and what you do.) Next best is a research assistantship (RAship), for which you get paid in exchange for ~“20 hours” a week of research. “20 hours” is usually a bit of a lie, since you will very often end up doing more than 20 hours a week of work, especially if the RAship is not with your primary advisor (which happens sometimes).

Then there are teaching assistantships (TAships), which require you to “assist” a professor in teaching a class for “20 hours” a week. Again, the “20 hours” may or may not be true. The “assist” part also may or may not be true. I’ve seen everything from glorified grading positions (in which you don’t even have to attend all the lectures; you only have to grade papers and tests) to positions in which you are basically the instructor or co-instructor (you teach half or more of the lectures, create the assignments, grade all of the work, and are essentially the instructor despite being labeled an “assistant.”) If you get a TAship, talk to some current doctoral students to get a sense of what TA expectations and experiences are like in the department.

Then there are the pretty uncommon graduate assistantships (GAships), which are a panoply of weird positions. Examples of GAships I’ve seen are doing administrative work in the office of a dean or provost; working in the office of fraternity and sorority life helping to oversee Greek activities on campus; advising students in a special scholarship program; or working as a residential hall director. These are unlikely to be offered to you automatically; they usually require a separate application, and often aren’t widely advertised. For that reason they are likely to be occupied by current or advanced doctoral students. They also tend to pay less and/or may not cover as much tuition as fellowships, RAships and TAships.

There is the odd/occasional PhD program that doesn’t offer funding or only offers partial funding, or does something else weird (like doesn’t offer any first-year students funding, forcing you to compete for it your second year). My personal opinion is that you should pass on those programs and focus on programs that offer full funding. But of course this depends on your personal goals and desires, your financial circumstances and the chances you have of securing funding later.

There are some programs that do the reverse - they’ll fund you through coursework (2-3 years) and then expect you to find your own funding after that. Even those I would be a bit skeptical of, but these are better bets than the former type because there’s a lot more funding available for advanced doctoral students than there is for early doctoral students; you have more time to find it; there’s always the option of simply working as an RA or even in an unrelated job while you write your dissertation; and worst case scenario, you could just leave with your non-terminal MA and go to another program. (I went to a program like this, and I was successful at finding funding for my last 3 years.)

How does financial aid work for master’s programs?

This is where all the chaos comes in.

Again, it’s going to be different everywhere. There are really no hard and fast rules. Here are some general guidelines, but really, ask professors in your field, read the websites of the departments you’re applying to, and ask the departmental secretary and/or admissions office if you are unclear.

Generally speaking, funding for master’s programs is relatively uncommon. Most people self-finance master’s programs through loans, personal funds, or employee tuition assistance programs. When it is awarded, it is rarely on the basis of financial need and far more often on the basis of “merit,” whatever that means for the specific department in question.

You are most likely to get funding for academic master’s - think research-based MS/MA programs that require a thesis and are more or less designed to prepare people for PhD programs. From what I know, this kind of funding is 1) much more common in the life and physical sciences than in the humanities and social sciences; 2) much more likely to be partial funding than full; and 3) much more likely to be based on a TAship or GAship than an RAship, although this is going to vary a lot. (See the PhD funding question for a description of the difference between RAships, TAships and GAships.)

Sometimes the application for funding is separate and sometimes all students are considered for funding when they apply. And sometimes it’s both: there are certain sources of funding that you are considered for through the regular app and others you have to apply for separately. Read the website thoroughly and ask the departmental secretary and/or the admissions office if you have any questions.

Occasionally professors will have some RA funding and will be willing to take on a master’s student as an RA. If there’s a professor you’re particularly interested in working with in your MS or MA program, don’t hesitate to ask them if they have RA funding, if they know someone who does or if they know if any sources of funding in the department that are not widely advertised.

If you are applying for a professional master’s program - think programs that are designed for students to go straight into the workforce afterwards, like M.Eng, Ed.M/M.Ed, MPH, MPA, MBA, MSW, MPP, etc. - funding is a lot less likely. Sometimes schools have limited scholarship awards. These almost never cover the full cost of attendance - probably the most you can hope for, in most cases, is half-tuition - and there are usually very few of them. Sometimes they have very specific requirements, like they are for students from groups underrepresented in the field, or students from the state of New Jersey, or students who want to work in the public schools or a rural area after they finish.

Much like academic programs, some of these consider everyone who applies and some of them require a separate application. Occasionally these scholarships are based on financial need, so you should complete a FAFSA.

You should always ASK about what scholarships are available, of course. You may be surprised by what’s on offer. However, if you are applying to professional master’s programs, you should probably expect that you are responsible for financing most of your degree - and select programs accordingly.

Also, look for outside scholarships, too! I’ve got a few friends who got professional master’s degrees who had part or all of their degrees financed by outside scholarships. There are foundations like The Consortium (full scholarship for African American, Latino, and Native American students who want an MBA at select schools), but then there are also local, state and regional scholarships (like the NYC Department of Education funded a friend’s speech-language pathology M.Ed in return for 2 years of work in the NYC school system).