General Grad School FAQ


Deciding to attend grad school can be a very scary decision to make. This is especially true if you are the first in your family to do so. I was. I knew nothing about grad school. I didn’t even know it was an option for me until more than half way through my college career, yikes. Yet, somehow, here I am.

Nevertheless, finding answers to all my questions was quite difficult. Either it was personal and I didn’t want to open up that much to my colleagues or I just thought the answer was so obvious that I would look like, for lack of a better word, a dumbass.

Welp, fear no more. Here are some commonly asked questions I’ve found are commonly asked about grad school, yet never truly discussed in pulic. If there are any that you feel I’ve left out, please leave a comment below and add to the conversation!

1. Is grad school going to cost me anything? 

Yes and no. It really depends on your field. I know some Humanities students that are going to school and have to work part time or take out loans. I can’t speak for them, though. I can however tell you that for STEM, most schools actually pay us to go to school.

Most STEM programs actually provide their PhD students with a stipend (in California, I’ve seen somewhere between $18 k – $35 k, depending on cost of living). This is of course in exchange for doing other things as part of an assistantship, but the deal is usually a monthly paycheck, free tuition and (sometimes) health insurance. For Master’s students, this usually isn’t the case and tuition is out of pocket. Again, though, I can’t speak for them.

You can also apply for fellowships, which are merit-based awards that can fund your graduate career for a 1-3 years on average. Check out this post to see some fellowships students usually apply to!

2. Do I have to apply for fellowships as a senior in undergrad? 

Short answer is no. I find that not many undergrads apply to fellowships in their senior year. However, it certainly doesn’t hurt and it gives you great practice on how to write an actual research proposal (which you will probably do a lot of in grad school). Also, if you get a fellowship, this tends to open up the possibilities for who would be willing to take you on as a student. You can find a more detailed answer, as well as some insight to the application process find here.

3. Will I have to get a part time job?

Again, that depends on what you’re going to school for and which degree you’re planning to get. It also depends on the cost of living in your area or if your school will even allow you to get a part-time job. I know at Caltech, they give a good enough stipend where in order to get a part-time job you have to get a bunch of paper work signed from by the Dean and even then, it’s not really encouraged.

4. What is the GRE and when do I take it?

The GRE is a standardized test and is equivalent to the SAT/ACT that one would have to take to apply to colleges (assuming US applicant). It is a nearly four-hour computer-based test that consists of three major sections: quantitative reasoning (i.e. math), verbal (i.e. vocabulary) and analytical writing (i.e. essays). This test is typically taken early in the quarter that you begin applying to grad school. For most, this would be early in the fall semester. You can learn more about the general set up of the test and test-taking dates by going to the ETS GRE Website.

5. What is a grad school application like?

Much similar to college applications, grad school apps are usually an online application form that requires you to type in some information about your academic background and work/research experiences. The main difference between the two is that grad school applications are typically sent to specific departments, rather than the university as a whole. This means that each department can have different deadlines and requirements, which you should read up carefully before you begin an application. Additionally, the personal statement of grad school applications become a place for you to brag about all your academic achievements and explain why you chose to continue your education. Lastly, grad school applications also require you to have at least 3 recommendation letters from professors, supervisors, etc.

If you are interested, I have some tips and tricks on how to both organize and prepare for your grad school applications. Hopefully it helps!

6. Would I have to come up with my own research project?

If you can that’s great! Find a grad school that does something similar and email professors to see if they’d be willing to work with you. You’re ahead of the curve!

However, I find that most grad students start of with a research project that has already been started by an older student, or something the professor already had in mind. I feel eventually, once you get more experience you can then come up with your own or take the project given to you in a completely different direction.

7. How do I even choose where to apply?

Though many factors should be taken into consideration when choosing a grad school, here is a list of some factors I thought of or should have thought of when I was deciding where to apply/accept!

8. Do I have to email professors before I apply? What do I write? 

I have a great post about writing emails to professors which you can check out by clicking here. However, short answer is that though it is not exactly necessary, I personally think it gave me a nice edge over other applicants. You have to remember that professors also go through your application, since they will essentially end up being your boss. Therefore, name recognition is always a good thing. After all, if they can put a name to a face (or email address) I can’t think of any downside to that. Of course, always check their website to make sure that they didn’t a) specifically ask not to be emailed or b) didn’t answer any questions you were thinking of asking in the email.

9. How do I become a competitive applicant? 

Well, your undergrad grades definitely get you in the door. Most programs require at least a 3.0 (B). However, having at least one experience outside of the classroom can always make up for a shitty semester or two. I would say the best way to become a competitive applicant for STEM grad school programs is to have some sort of research experience under your belt, be it undergrad research at your school or a summer internship. I feel like this lets the school know that you are perfectly aware of what you’re getting yourself into when your applying. It also can lead help you find someone who can give you a kick ass recommendation letter, which is also very important.

10. How early do I have to prepare for grad school and what can I do?

Like I mentioned above, I didn’t even know grad school was a part of my plan until late in my junior year. Yet, somehow here I am. However, early preparation is always a good idea in my opinion. So, if you do wish to prepare early, my best advice is to not only focus on keeping up your grades, but to use college as a way to explore different topics both within and outside of your field of choice. In grad school, you will be studying one niche of a subject for quite a few years. Therefore, being sure that grad school is the write choice for you is the best thing you can do before applying. Not to mention, college is a place for discovery and finding out what interests you. Use that to your advantage. Also, it’s always good to start early when it comes to research and internship experiences, so if you can, get involved early!

11. How much research is enough? Does it have to be in a lab? What if I haven’t done undergrad research? 

I feel that there isn’t an exact number and varies a lot depending on your field. I feel like an organic chemist or physicist may need to have more lab experience than let’s say a geologist and an engineer may need an internship experience for their application to be noticed. However, I say at least a summer worth of research is probably needed across the field. And it doesn’t always have to be traditional “in front of a fume hood” research, either. As long as your experience shows that you can think critically about a scientific problem outside a classroom setting, I think your fine. Like I said, it depends on the field.

12. How’s your first year going so far? 

Well, as I am only in my first year, I cannot give much insight into the whole shenanigans that goes on during your grad school career. The short answer is that it’s pretty fantastic once you get over all the weird emotions and feelings of incompetence that grad school can give you. I do have some personal posts about my experiences here and here, that talk about some feelings and other things I have been going through that I never truly expected. Admittedly, however, these posts could potentially give you the wrong idea and scare you off. That’s not my intention at all! Regardless of how chaotic my first quarter went, I am very happy with the fact I came to grad school. So, to make up for it, I’ll also add this Tumblr ask, which gives a brief answer about what I do love about grad school.

13. Ah crap, I got an interview/acceptance letter. Now I have to meet professors! What do I do now?

Congrats! The hard part is over (even though you may not think so). I will be making my own post about how to prepare for grad school visits within a few weeks. Though I don’t have any personal experience with interviews, I do also have some other advice which you can find here and here which talk about how to prepare for meeting professors face to face. You can also check out this post if you are having a little trouble thinking of what to ask during your meetings.

14. What if I don’t get in? What now?

That sucks, and I’m sorry if that happens! However it’s key to remember that a lot of people don’t start grad school right after undergrad! A good number of graduates take gap years where they do pretty much whatever they want, be it work in their field or just travel the world. If you didn’t get in the first time, you always have the option of trying again next year after improving your resume during your time off. Don’t give up!


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