How Grad School is Different From Undergrad

The first days of the semester are always busy, but the first days of grad school will likely pass in a blur of classes, orientations, and meetings. I remember little of my first day of grad school a couple of decades ago. What stands out is an orientation speech by the chair of the department who explained that grad school entails a critical transition from consumer of knowledge to producer of knowledge. That’s what it’s all about, but I had never thought of it that way. I was to become a producer of knowledge? I went through the rest of the day in a daze.

Totally overwhelmed, I got home, changed into comfortable clothes, and discovered that I put my shirt on inside out and backward. Stressed? Those first few weeks of school I learned that graduate school was way different than I expected. In the coming years, I would put in intellectual sweat, emotional equity, and much more time than I ever expected. Despite this, I wouldn't trade my time in graduate school for anything. And, if grad school is right for you, I suspect that you will feel the same way.

So, how do you make a smooth transition to graduate school? Here are four major differences between college and grad school.

It's Not Just Classes 
Classes are a big part of master's programs and the first couple of years of doctoral programs. But grad school entails more than completing a series of classes. You will take courses during the first couple of years of your PhD program, but your later years will emphasize research (and you probably won't take any courses during those later years). The purpose of grad school is to develop a professional understanding of your discipline through independent reading and study.

Apprenticeship Model
Most of what you learn in grad school will not come from classes, but from other activities, like doing research and attending conferences. You'll choose and work closely with a faculty member on his or her research. As an apprentice of sorts, you'll learn how to define research problems, design and carry out research projects to test your hypotheses and disseminate your results. The end goal is to become an independent scholar and design your own research program.

It’s a Job
Approach grad school as a full-time job; it's not "school" in the undergraduate sense. If you soared through college with little studying, you're in for a big culture shock. The reading lists will be longer and more extensive than you've encountered in college. More importantly, you'll be expected to read and be prepared to critically evaluate and discuss it all. Most grad programs require that you take initiative for your learning and demonstrate a commitment to your career. Remember that no one will hold your hand and walk you through. You must provide your own motivation. Also note that if you’re receiving funding from your department or program, you’re probably expected to put in full-time hours – and are probably forbidden from outside work.

You'll Become Socialized to Your Field 
Why is graduate school so different from undergrad? Graduate training teaches you the information and skills that you need to be a professional. However, being a professional requires more than coursework and experiences. You'll be socialized into your profession. In other words, you will learn the norms and values of your field and you will learn to think like a professional in your field. Are you ready?