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Welcome to Graduate School! Now What?

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One common question that students often ask upon beginning their graduate studies is “What is the difference between undergraduate and graduate education?”

Grad school is advanced study in a selected topic and this means:

  • Doing a lot of readings; every week you will be required to do large amounts of reading. You can expect to read between 800-1000 pages over the life of each 8-week course.
  • You should also expect to conduct extensive research; for this it is imperative that you know your way around the online library and its various databases.
  • Additionally, you will engage in in-depth analysis that is designed to challenge all perceived notions; no assumption should go unchallenged, no belief unquestioned.
  • Finally, you will receive a lot of constructive criticism from both your instructors and your classmates. You must be able to receive and give constructive criticism. Our ability to critically assess information is not developed or honed if we’re never shown ways to improve.

A successful graduate student is someone who is able to:

  • Easily discuss the major theoretical frameworks in their field
  • Identify the key thinkers in their field and their seminal works
  • Synthesize complex theoretical approaches while developing one’s own approach
  • Engage with the literature
  • Apply various theoretical perspectives to past and current events.

Should You Take a Comprehensive Exam, or Go the Thesis Route?

The comprehensive exam is recommended for students who will conclude their formal academic training with the completion of the Master of Arts/Sciences program. Students who anticipate seeking further professional training, such as a doctorate or a Ph.D., for example, are strongly encouraged to complete the thesis option. Students in particular sub-disciplines of the humanities may find the creative project option the optimal choice, while business and other professional disciplines may consider the practicum as the best option. The student’s degree program and supervisory professor are the main determinants in each of the available options. Students are encouraged to work with their academic advisors to ensure that they take the correct courses during their degree and to make the correct program choices.

In the end, when you’ve obtained your master’s degree, you’re saying to the world that you:

  • Have mastered the literature in that field
  • Know your subject area so well that you can teach it at the undergraduate level
  • Have well-developed analytical ability
  • Have mastered academic writing

Because your degree will mean so much, you should expect that the work you do in graduate school will be some of the most challenging but also some of the most rewarding you will ever do. Enjoy the journey.

By Patricia Campbell, Ph.D.
Dean of Graduate Studies, Associate Vice President at American Public University

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