Getting Into Graduate School: 101 ““ Q&A

In the last Grad School: 101 post, I opened myself up to questions and comments, and you Persephoneers delivered! In this installment of Grad School: 101, I answer three good questions from the comments.

I highly recommend going into the comments section of that post and reading what other Persephoneers said in response to these comments as well, and look at any comments they had about the piece. Also, two of my answers here are modified from responses I made directly to the question. They’re more generalized answers than specific to the original commenter’s question.

1. Can you provide some more information about your major and where you went to/will be going to school? (From Soitgoes)

Sure! I am a Psychology major with a Human Resources minor. I am pursuing a Ph.D. in Human Resources and Organizational Behavior (HR/OB), and I’m attending a large state school in the Southeast U.S. So yes, my information is more geared toward doctorate programs, but the information I’m giving can easily be modified or disregarded based on your program. This is a general guide for a multi-faceted subject, so while my advice (I think!) will be helpful, you can confirm any concerns or questions you have with an advisor or the program coordinator of the program you’re considering applying to.

2. Will my horrible grades from my first year and a half of bio classes affect my grad school apps? I’ve am currently working in my field (anthro/archaeology) in hopes that my work experience will make my grad school apps awesome. (From Lirael)

Work experience will definitely be great, as will having good (read: really good) test scores, to help counterbalance your poor grades at the beginning. My first semester in Comp Sci resulted in a C average, but it didn’t end up hurting me, though, because I got into the exact program I wanted along with half of the others I applied to, and I do think it’s because I excelled in the classes related to the major I am graduating with. I think it would be good to explain the tough first couple semesters in Bio in your personal statement ““ explain that it wasn’t because you were lazy or didn’t care, that it was because your first major didn’t “click” with you and you had a hard time staying motivated and understanding something you weren’t interested in. But, I do not want to give you false hope, either. As one commenter in the last post mentioned, nothing can really make up for lacking in basic requirements, such as GPA or GRE scores. A good explanation and excelling in your testing and research will counterbalance a poor GPA, but you’re really going to have to kick it up a notch with those two things in order to round it out.

3. I’m finishing my undergrad in one field and looking to switch to a completely different one. I am”¦ apparently screwed?  (From whatimages)

Definitely not. I’m a psychology major going into human resources and organizational behavior. Granted, I did skew my classes towards human resources by being an HR minor, but really, if you can show your knowledge of whatever field you’re interested in going to grad school for and demonstrate how your undergrad degree will be applicable to the field, I think you will be fine. As other commenters mentioned, it’s particularly easy in softer sciences ““ English or history to sociology, sociology or psychology to anthropology, etc. If you can show the relationship between the two and show how your background makes you a good candidate, then go for it. Bringing the perspectives of other fields and majors to the department is something good grad programs will do, because it prevents stagnation in research ideas and groupthink. Intersectional and cross-field research is also really increasing right now ““ I think being in a different undergraduate major from your graduate major will definitely be considered more of an advantage than it was in the past.

And now, some words of advice from our commenters:

I’m finishing my PhD in English and, let me tell you, my undergrad education, while excellent by any standards (Ivy League), did not prepare me for what my discipline actually means on a professional level. I basically had to relearn how to come up with arguments and play major catch-up with theory. ““ Firstmute, on adjusting to grad school academics

It’s also never too late to go back to school after some time away. Sometimes taking a break from school really clarifies your long-term career interests. I did four years in undergrad, a one year post-grad college certificate, and then worked for three years. Now I’m going back to school in September at UofT for my Masters in a field I didn’t even know existed when I was in undergrad. ““ Maggiemay, on waiting to go to grad school

However, I also want to offer a slightly different perspective. Like you, I am about to start an MA+PhD program (albeit in English), with good funding. However, I started off as a science major, then switched to a different science major, then added on English as a second major in my junior year. I didn’t decide to apply to graduate school until about a year ago, when I was a senior. Thus, even though I too “wrote out my ideal schedule for my entire undergraduate career with my course catalog and degree requirements”, my “ideal schedule” changed a lot. Similarly, most people I know from college switched majors, and about half of them are going to grad school or medical school now. So, while I think your advice is pretty much perfect for the people that start college knowing they want to do grad school in a certain subject, I’d like to remind people that it’s fine to change plans. ““ Flowers, on changing plans

Also, Marrella has some interesting information about graduate non-matriculated credits and how they can prepare you for graduate school as well as make you a better candidate.

In our next installment, we’ll be talking about the importance of research and extra curricular activities, with a strong emphasis on the research. Really strong. Really really.

Leave your comments and questions below, P’neers!


4 replies on “Getting Into Graduate School: 101 ““ Q&A”

Woohoo! I’m famous!

I second maggimay’s comment about waiting. Speaking from the humanities, taking a year or two off before gradschool is a really good idea. You’ll get a little perspective, make a little money, probably mature a little, and just be better off. Grad school isn’t like undergrad, especially after the first year. It’s hard, isolating, competitive, and, frankly, not as much fun in the same ways. Rewards come far less frequently. Faculty are harsher, even when they’re encouraging.

I’m not saying it’s not worthwhile or rewarding, or that it isn’t ever fun. I’ve made a lot of really great friends, and my work is satisfying. But it’s a long road, and a little time off is a good thing. (Not to mention that given the shitty job market, it’s a good idea to have, well, a backup plan, and some backup experience and contacts.) Your professors aren’t going to forget you, and you’re not going to forget how to read or write–and you might even unlearn some bad habits!

I’ve been thinking/hoping to go back to school now that my husband’s doctorate is wrapping up and part of me finds it funny that 3 years off to work is framed as a long time before applying to grad school. I’m in my mid-thirties. Though I got my BA later, I’m rounding out at 6 years in the work force and it’ll be at least 7 before I even start applying. All things are relative and all of that.

My sort of fears about being too far out of school aside, I think time off in between undergraduate and graduate school to be a wise thing. Dealing with the work force and the working ‘world’ is generally a big difference from the insular world of college and there are some people who could really do with a grounding outside of academics. Plus, you know, paychecks. They’re always nice.

For #3, I wouldn’t say you were screwed, but I would say, consider really, really carefully whether you have the basics you need before you go in right away. A student in my program was admitted after having another undergrad major. Other students in our program had other undergrad majors, but had had a lot of experience in my field (a humanities) and were fine. This girl had majored in another humanity, but had had only one class in my field, and probably a specific one that wasn’t a component of our program but was more related to her major anyway. She was completely unprepared. She didn’t know how to handle the reading, she didn’t know how to give presentations, she didn’t know how to write papers. It’s not a good position to be in for her and it’s frustrating to the rest of the students because humanities graduate programs can be heavily focused on collaborative learning–leading discussions, presenting information, sharing your research. And here was this person in a small program who contributed nothing and ignored the contributions of everyone else because she was scrambling to finish her work during class instead of taking part.

So what I’m saying is, if you majored in something else, think hard about how many classes you took that were in or strongly related to the field you want to go to graduate school for. If it’s not that many, consider taking a year off and doing some community college courses to bone up. Grad school is not the place to acquire the basics. If you want a PhD in comparative literature, you need to have tackled Chaucer and the Beat Generation before you start trying to apply heavy lit theory to them. If you want to be a biochemist you should take organic chem before you’re staring down a microscope, completely lost. It’s not a lost cause but you might need to take a slightly longer path to make sure you have everything you need to be successful in grad school.

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