What to Expect in Grad School

Thinking about grad school - pursing a PhD? Beginning a doctoral program? Prepare yourself for several years of intense research, studying, and professional growth. Like anything else in life, realistic expectations will be critical to your success. What should you know?

Successful Graduate Students are Autonomous 
Expect much less structure. Grad school requires independent thinking and initiative as you'll be responsible for guiding your own professional development. You may have to choose your own advisor, and you definitely will have to have to figure out a way to get along and work with him or her. It will be up to you, with a little guidance, to carve out an area of research and find a dissertation topic, as well as make the professional contacts that are essential to advancing in your field and getting a job after graduation.

Accustomed to undergrad, new grad students often wait for someone to tell them what to do. Many wait without answers or direction and become fearful about their futures, which can lead to paralysis. For success in graduate school, be prepared to take control of your own education.

Graduate School is Not Like Undergrad 
I've said it before but it's worth repeating. Doctoral programs are nothing like college. If you're considering graduate school because you're doing well in college and like school, be aware that grad school will likely be very different than the last 16 or more years of school you've experienced. Graduate study, especially at the doctoral level, is an apprenticeship. Instead of sitting in class for a couple of hours a day and then being free to play, grad school is more like a job that occupies all of your time. You'll spend a great deal of your time working on research in your advisor or mentor's lab, as a formal research assistant or simply to get experience.

Research Rules in Graduate School
The purpose of doctoral education is to learn to do research. The emphasis is on learning how to gather information and construct knowledge independently. As a researcher or professor, much of your job will consist of gathering materials, reading it, thinking about it, and designing studies to test your ideas about it. Grad school, especially doctoral education, is preparation for a career in research.

Don't Expect a Speedy Finish
Typically a doctoral program is a five to eight-year commitment. Usually the first year is the most structured year, entailing classes and lots of reading. Most students are required to pass a set of comprehensive exams at various points in the program in order to continue. For example, in my graduate program, students took a set of comprehensive exams at the end of the first year to receive their master's degrees and then another set after completing all coursework (at the end of the third year) to progress to doctoral candidate status (often informally referred to as ABD - all-but-dissertation status).

The Dissertation Determines Your Fate 
The doctoral dissertation is the basis for earning a PhD. You'll spend a great deal of time searching for a thesis topic and advisor, and then reading up on your topic to prepare your dissertation proposal. Once the proposal is accepted by your dissertation committee (typically composed of 5 professors who you and your advisor have chosen based on their knowledge of the field), you're free to begin your research study. You'll plug away for months or often years until you've conducted your research, made some conclusions, and written it all up. Then comes your dissertation defense: you'll present your research to your dissertation committee, answer questions, and defend the validity of your work. When your presentation is complete you'll be asked to leave the room while your dissertation discusses your candidacy. Who knows? They might really be gossiping or dissecting Game of Thrones. Finally, your mentor will emerge and, hopefully, say, "Congratulations, doctor!"