GradNews

This week we take a look at the main differences between graduate and undergraduate life.

The life of a graduate student is different in many ways from that of an undergraduate. First there is the matter of experience. Graduate students are older than undergrads, they already have a degree, and they’ve taken three or four years of college.

The transition from 4th year undergrad to 1st year grad isn’t always an easy one. Many will take time out between degrees, either to take up a career or just earn money to pay off student loans. On returning to school, many find that things have changed.

From the outset there are some basic differences between graduate school and undergraduate life. To be “full time” means taking nine credit hours per semester (three classes). Any grade below a B is considered a failure in many graduate programs. Graduate courses also cost about twice as much undergraduate ones ($156.35 per credit hour as opposed to $79.88 for undergraduate).

One of the major differences you will notice is in the people around you. Grads at FAU average around 32 years of age while undergrads average around 26. Most grads actually chose to come to grad school. Freshmen at age 18 don’t really have much choice about going to college. Parental pressure aside, it’s hard to get ahead in life without some kind of college education. Going to graduate school is (for many) a conscious decision, which means that Grads are more likely to be motivated and focused on working rather than partying. Your fellow grads are going to be (on average) smarter too. Grad schools have GPA requirements to get in and to stay in. Those with GPAs below 3.0 need not apply, and if your GPA slips you risk getting thrown out of grad school.

Smarter, more focused and more motivated people in class might seem great to some. Professors usually prefer to teach graduate classes. One reason why grad students end up teaching large survey classes at FAU is because professors don’t want to teach “Introductory Basket Weaving” for the twentieth time. Professors prefer graduate classes because they’re smaller, involve more discussion and more advanced (and therefore interesting) material.

Some professors prefer to run “seminars” which are more like discussion groups than actual classes. Sometimes the students end up giving presentations and leading discussions, blurring the line between student and teacher. This has left some students wondering whether some teachers get away with putting less work into their “seminars” than perhaps they should.

Graduate school is a long-term commitment. While it’s possible to get through some Master’s programs in 18 months (those on fast-track MBA programs can sometimes do this), most of the time it’s going to take at least two years-and longer still for part time students-to get through a Master’s course. For PhDs it’s even longer. At FAU you can do one in just over four years, but six years is regarded as a “normal” duration for a PhD. This is all time spent in addition to undergraduate college. When you consider that the typical undergraduate degree is around four years in the US, a PhD will have done about ten years in college before finally graduating. For many grads (teachers and MBAs), the degree will enhance their employability and (hopefully) their pay.

Many grads in education and business study in the evenings while working in their career. This is different to undergraduate life where many are working in “jobs” just to earn money. Many of those pursuing MBAs are working in business, and many Education grads are working as teachers. These “students” are already working in their careers while grad school provides extra skills and qualifications.

For grads in the sciences and humanities things are a little different. Some students are pursuing Master’s degrees in order to qualify for entry-level positions while others are hoping for a career in academia. For most PhD students the eventual career goal is a position doing research and/or teaching, normally in a University or other seat of higher learning. For these students, things are a bit more like “normal” school.

For PhDs (who are usually in school for a long time) there is a gradual transition from being a student to being a professional in one’s own right. Some have described the PhD as a trial by fire, an initiation ritual. Whatever the description, most programs have formal entrance requirements (courses, GPA, academic interests) and comprehensive exams which provide “admission to candidacy.”

A little-known fact is that while you may be accepted into a PhD program, you often have to fulfill extra requirements before you can begin your dissertation, a study that will run to be over a hundred thousand words in length (imagine 200 pages of typewritten text).

One might imagine that, since grad students have more experience of student life than undergraduates, that they’d find things easier, harder courses notwithstanding. It may come as a surprise that dropout rates among grads (especially PhDs) run very high-in some cases as high as two-thirds. Work and family responsibilities make things harder for some.

Finances are also a problem. By your mid-twenties it’s less likely that your parents will be providing you with financial support. Those not blessed with rich parents can be left shouldering the debt of a four-year undergraduate degree and additional grad school debts. There is also the issue of seeing your friends who didn’t go to grad school have careers, get families, settle down and do all the stuff that “normal” people do.

Many PhDs find themselves just starting their working careers by the end of their twenties, which means their less-qualified peers have had 6 years to pay off their student loans, buy houses, get married and so on. For many of those in MBA and teaching programs-almost all of which are commuter students-there is the added complication of factoring in a full time job with your classes. This can leave little time for any kind of life outside of classes and working.

For some there is a profound sense of disassociation in graduate school. You aren’t a “real” (undergraduate) student so it’s unlikely you’ll be hanging out in the student bar. You aren’t likely to be earning wads of money either, so you may find yourself with less cash than your friends with “real jobs.” Graduate classes are smaller, so while it’s easier to know everyone else, you’re less likely to meet new people in class. While there are many undergraduate clubs, there are only a few clubs and associations for grads.

Graduates have less time (if any) to “hang out” than undergrads. By the time you’re in your late twenties or thirties you might start to think “hanging out” is getting a little “old.” This makes things harder socially. If you end up working as a teaching assistant you really start to notice that you are “different” from the students in your class. Some might start calling you “professor,” and every year the freshmen look younger.

Graduate school is far from being an easy option and those who decide to “stay in school for another couple of years to decide what to do” are usually disappointed. In the modern economy, where employers want relevant qualifications and experience, education does not come cheap, and student loans do not pay themselves, graduate school is not an easy option or a way to avoid having to get a real job. It’s probably cheaper and certainly more fun to take a good holiday or travel around the world.

So why do it? Well, for some it’s a logical step towards an academic career (MAs, MScs or PhDs for example) and for others the qualifications are necessary for promotion (MBAs, Accounting, Teaching degrees etc.). Some just love to learn, while others seek a change in their career and want to retrain. An increasing number of retirees are starting to look towards graduate school as something to engage their minds and keep mentally active. A few do it just because “it’s there,” as a challenge to themselves, and there are a few who just “end up in grad school” almost by accident, who didn’t really know what else to do.

Regardless of the reasons for entering grad school, the decision to pursue a graduate degree is a conscious one made by an adult. It is not “what everyone does,” nor is it a decision taken because your parents told you to do it. More importantly, the decision to stay or not to stay is one that you make on a regular basis. Grads don’t “drop out,” they “leave the program.” The pressures to stay in school stem more from the individual than from parental or societal pressure.

Graduate school is different from the Undergraduate college experience. The courses are more difficult and life is subtly more complex. It’s easy to get isolated given people’s odd schedules and specialized courses. In the end it pays to make an effort and stay in touch with your fellow students, even if it means just sharing email addresses and sending class notes or having a chat before or after class. Getting involved, starting a study group or joining a club are also good ways to get connected with other students. Making friends and connections are great benefits from graduate school. After all there is more to life than study.

Next week we’ll be looking at graduate clubs – where to find them, how to build them, and how to make them succeed.