How to apply to grad school

Dolph Briscoe IV

College goes by quickly, and students soon find themselves contemplating what they will do after they graduate. Many will consider graduate school. I have had the privilege of being a graduate student in the history department at UT for several years, and will be finishing my degree this fall. Pursuing a graduate degree is an intense and rewarding process I encourage students to consider. Choosing a university for graduate school involves some of the same steps high school students take when looking at colleges, such as preparing for standardized tests and visiting campuses. Yet the process of applying to graduate school requires even more preparation. The following is advice I hope prospective graduate students will find helpful.

First determine if a graduate degree will aide you in pursuing the career you desire. In today’s world, an advanced degree is more and more a necessity, for both financial and professional advancement. Choose a field of study that will benefit you in your occupational goals, and also one that you find interesting. You will be spending a lot of time studying and researching in your subject, so make sure it is one that will hold your attention.

Talk to your professors and teaching assistants about their experiences in graduate school. They will give you good perspective about the application process and the rigors of successfully completing a graduate degree. The insights provided by my undergraduate professors especially helped me determine that I wanted to attend graduate school. Furthermore, professors and TAs most likely will write your letters of recommendation for your application, so you will want to make sure they know you and understand your career hopes. 

Reach out to faculty members and graduate coordinators at potential schools. Your relationship with your faculty adviser will be critical to your success in graduate school, especially if you pursue an advanced research degree in the liberal arts or sciences. Look for professors with similar research interests to your own. Visit campuses and make appointments with prospective faculty advisers. Many departments host recruitment events for potential graduate students. Attend these, and talk to faculty and graduate students about the program and life at their university.

Be aware that graduate school requires a significant time and financial commitment. Most master’s degree programs are at least two years, while doctorates take several years longer to complete, depending on the program. Recently, schools, including this University, have come under pressure to decrease the amount of time students take to earn degrees. Familiarize yourself with degree requirements, including time limits for completion. Ask questions about courses, examinations, laboratory work, theses and dissertations. Perhaps most importantly, do research on funding opportunities for your time in graduate school, including the availability of teaching assistantships, fellowships  and grants. You will be spending money on tuition and books in addition to living expenses, so talk to graduate coordinators and other students about costs. Also discuss subjects such as health insurance, on-campus medical services and what life is like at the school and in the city that may soon be your home. This is especially important if you have a spouse or children.

Most graduate schools require completion of a standardized test, such as the GRE or GMAT, in the application process. Consider taking a test preparation course or buying a study guide for the exam. I took the GRE, which consists of language, writing and mathematics sections. I found the Princeton Review guidebook very helpful in preparing me for the exam. Find out what score requirements particular schools mandate, and dedicate time to preparing for the test, much like you did with the SAT and ACT in high school.

I also would like to note the benefits of working as a teaching assistant in graduate school. In addition to receiving tuition reimbursements and monthly stipends, you gain valuable teaching experience that will serve you well in your career, especially if you want to go into academia. True, grading exams and papers can take up a lot of time, but I have found working as a TA very pleasing. It has given me the opportunity to learn teaching and research methods from so many gifted faculty members. Working as a TA has also allowed me to meet undergraduate students from all over the state, country and world, and get to hear about their exciting plans for the future. The skill and dedication of undergrads at UT have inspired me in my own work and goals. Students should make an attempt to get to know their TAs. We want to help you succeed and make the most out of your time in college. Additionally, if you are thinking about graduate school, we can give you advice and tell you about our own experiences.

I encourage students to consider pursuing graduate education. Graduate school is a lot of work, no doubt, but it is immensely gratifying. Immersing yourself in a subject you love studying and developing relationships with faculty members and other students are experiences that will deeply benefit you in both your career and life.

Briscoe is a history graduate student from Carrizo Springs.