Grad school for dummies?
October 22, 2007 11:15 AM   Subscribe

So I'm thinking about going to grad school...

I recently graduated with a bachelor's degree (the first generation in my family to do so) and I am thinking about going on to graduate school. I really don't know where to begin; my family knows nothing about grad school and none of my friends have gone. What are some good resources for somebody in my situation? How does one find out what the best schools are for my interests? What are some good resources for financial aid? Any help or advice would be appreciated.
posted by entropicamericana to Education (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Which field?
posted by mr_roboto at 11:17 AM on October 22, 2007

What are your interests?
posted by Jahaza at 11:17 AM on October 22, 2007

I went back to grad school eight years after completing undergrad. I was the first person in my family to do that kind of graduate work, and most of my grad-school-attending friends were in other parts of the country and in the process of finishing, rather than starting, their schooling, so I felt out of step and overwhelmed.

One thing that helped a great deal was attending schools' open houses. I knew that I wanted to stay in the same geographic area, which made it easier to narrow down schools to check out, but the few open houses that I attended were so hands-on practical "Here are your next steps" that I think going to any school's open house would likely prove helpful for you right now (even if just to start listing things that you don't want from a school).
posted by occhiblu at 11:22 AM on October 22, 2007

PhD or Masters?

Check out the applyingtograd LJ community.
posted by nasreddin at 11:23 AM on October 22, 2007

The bests thing to do is probably to talk to a professor that you had a good relationship with. Email someone whose class you did well in and ask if you can come by and chat about grad school possibilities.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:27 AM on October 22, 2007

Are you applying for Fall '08? Be quick; some schools have deadlines December 1st! You need to

1) take the GRE (some schools don't require this, but most do)
2) write a statement of purpose
3) get recommendation letters (usually three); it helps to have your SoP done when you do this, so they can read it and get letter ideas

Of course, before you do any of this, you should know where you're applying. You can look at the NRC rankings for various fields; you should also google around and see if there isn't already an online community of people applying to grad school in the same field you are(e.g. EconPhd forums) - they'd be helpful in recommending schools and what you should do. Good luck!
posted by pravit at 11:29 AM on October 22, 2007

What *are* your interests? Are you from the US or abroad? Are you willing to relocate? Do you imagine yourself teaching, doing research, or doing something else entirely with your graduate degree? Will you be paying your own way, or will you need to find funding? We need some details, here.

A somewhat basic way to find a good lab is to go on google scholar and look up your field of interest. And not just botany, be specific (or whatever). You're interested in the dispersal rates of aphids in community gardens? Find (and read) papers people who are interested in the same thing write, then google them, check out their lab's home page, and see what else they're interested in. This is the best way to find matches. Also, ask your botany (or whatever) teacher that you really liked during your BS work for advice- they will be writing your recommendation letter, one hopes, and may recommend people they know personally.

One thing that will likely be as scary for you as it was for me: you need to come up with a coherent and well-thought-through plan of what to study. You aren't sure? Fine. But you need to *act* sure on the application. Being unsure or casting too wide of a net is a sure-fire way to get your application rejected. Both the school and the faculty want to accept students who know where they're going and will get cranked through quickly, so as to add esteem and recognition to your program and your advisor. It's ok if you change your mind once you get there, just act like this is *the* plan in your application.

The right school for you may not always be the school that has the best program. It may be in an area you're not willing to move to, the lab you're interested in might not be taking new grad students, or the school might not be able to provide you the funding you need.

Securing funding is vital. I'm a second-year, and very few of my cohort came in with funding. Here, the school obliges itself to provide the first year of funding and then obliges your advisor to basically promise that he will find you funding for another 1-3 years. By taking you, they're taking on an onerous financial responsibility because while they expect you to be gung-ho applying for fellowships and scholarships and grants, you might be entirely unsuccessful and they'll be forced to find money for you.

However well funded the lab you're interested in is, if you can bring money to the table, you instantly become a better candidate. Even if you just say you've applied, it makes you a better candidate (if you apply this year for the Hertz, NDSEG, EPA STAR, or NSF, you won't find out if you got the money until after the school decides if they want you)

If you were being very intrepid, you could start applying for those fellowships now. The application deadlines are coming up fast (think: now to two months from now). Try the NSF, the EPA STAR, the NDSEG, one of NASA's fellowships, or, if you're feeling especially brave, the Hertz.

There is great advice for applying for most of these here and here. Both sites also have advice on how to get into grad school.

Good luck!
posted by arnicae at 11:35 AM on October 22, 2007 [2 favorites]

In many fields, a master's degree may do little to make you more marketable. I'd recommend determining why you would want to go to graduate school first.
posted by garlic at 11:53 AM on October 22, 2007

mrroboto & Jahaza: Urban Planning or Public Policy.

nasreddin: Master's

Pater Aletheias: My undergrad degree coordinator and I have a good relationship, but she was really pushing for me to pursue my Master's at my undergrad school (CSU system). I'm not sure that's the best choice for me.

arnicae: I'm from the US, I'm willing to relocate (though I've never had to do that, so it is more than a little daunting for me). Teaching has its appeal for me, but the reason I'm considering grad school is that it seems a Master's is necessary to break into the positions that interest me (urban planning and/or redevelopment). And good lord, yes, I need funding. :)
posted by entropicamericana at 11:55 AM on October 22, 2007

I'm not sure- it seems like in public policy positions, acronyms on the back of your name help a) secure better pay and b) can be used as equivalence for years of actual work experience. It is really important to ponder why you're going to grad school (heck, I'm pondering it right now) and may not be a good choice if, say, you're finding the job market difficult (I noticed that a past AskMe question centered on finding jobs. . .

Stanford has an urban planning grad division, as does UC Berkeley- just schools in the Bay area. I still think the best way to do this is to find people whose research fascinates you and then find out where they teach. . .
posted by arnicae at 12:07 PM on October 22, 2007

Berkeley also has a public policy program - looks like you can do a combined planning/policy kind of thing there. More here.
posted by rtha at 12:19 PM on October 22, 2007

You may have looked here already, but there's some good general grad school advice archived on MeFi.
posted by chrisamiller at 12:26 PM on October 22, 2007

read getting what you came for.
posted by k8t at 12:34 PM on October 22, 2007

I'm afraid I don't know much about grad programs in your area, but I do know this: graduate programs are extremely different for different fields. For instance, advice for going to grad school in, say, English is in no way applicable to advice for going to grad school in the sciences.

Make sure you get advice that is specific for your field. Take any generic grad school advice with a grain of salt.
posted by Ms. Saint at 12:51 PM on October 22, 2007

In general it is a good idea to do your grad work at a different place from your undergrad, if only to get more breadth of exposure to different ideas. If you can, tell your professor that you are excited to pursue grad school but intend to do it in another department. Ask him/her to help you plan out an application process and see what schools would fit with your interests. If he/she can't or won't do this, speak to the Director of Undergraduate Studies in your department.

Basic procedure:
In graduate school typically you'll have some component of coursework (a year or two) and then you'll do a big project (a research experiment, a written document around 100 pages, a mockup of a city plan). You will work with one faculty member in doign your big project, so you want to try to find someone you think you can work well with, and whose research interests align with yours.
To decide where to go:
1. Try to articulate your interests. You don't have to know perfectly what you want to do, but it's helpful to know whether -- for example -- you are interested in economic aspects of policy or some other aspects. Your professor should be able to help talk you through this.
Think about what kinds of project you would like to get involved with in the next two years. Are you interested in economic policy, health policy, education policy, housing, traffic regulation, crime, etc? Are you a great numbers person, or a great negotiator/people person; do you have a good science background to help with water-system planning, etc?

2. Find out which programs are strong in the things you want to focus on. Again you need to talk to a professor to get help here. Or you can look in a roundup of "best public policy master's programs", but those are often hard to interpret. The "best" program may not focus on the thing you're interested in, so the best program for you may be a more obscure one. Professors are the people who have this info.
Another thing you can do, if your professors are not being helpful, is to pick 5-10 departments at major schools, and pore over their webpages for the relevant program. Read the research statements of people at each and see if you can tell where each department is strong.

3.Once you have a list of places that are strong in your area of interest, you'll see which of those are in places you'd be happy living for a couple years, and which of them -- if any -- offer funding.

4. Then you'll apply. This will involve GREs maybe, essays, etc -- and most importantly, will involve asking faculty members to write you letters of reference. Typical etiquette demands that you give the recommender lots of notice - the VERY MIMIMUM notice would be 2 weeks; it's much better if you can give more notice than that. See other AskMe threads for advice about asking for letters of reference. In your applications, you may want to specify which faculty member at the school you want to work with (ask your professors whether this is a good idea for a public policy MA).
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:55 PM on October 22, 2007

Another way to decide on a place you'd like to go:
If you already know what job you're hoping for after grad school, look up people who already have that job and see if you can find out where they did their grad work. (This will be most useful if you have a very specific position in mind, like "traffic economist" or "education policy analyst specializing in teacher training" or whatever. If it's just "city planner" or
policy analyst" generally, this approach won't be useful.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:00 PM on October 22, 2007

Call up nearby graduate programs that interest you and tell them exactly what you told us. They are huge experts on answering the questions you have, because why? They want good graduate students who know what they're getting into. Every program that interests you has a prospective student advisor who's eager to talk to you.

Sure, they'll sell their particular program to you -- but that's why you should contact several programs.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by gum at 1:10 PM on October 22, 2007

Look on MeFi for other advice, but in short: don't just go to grad school because you are good at school and want to continue being in school. Those are the folks that usually end up unhappy or drop out. You need to pick a field and research it intensively. I would start with talking with professors in that field who can tell you what graduate school is like, what job prospects are like when you are done, how long it will take in your field, what kind of degree is appropriate for what you want to do, and where the good and appropriate programs are. But to reiterate, start with a goal (I want to get a career in X) and see if grad school can get you there, don't just go to grad school without a plan.
posted by Tallguy at 1:14 PM on October 22, 2007

It's also worth noting that it is quite common (bordering on expected) for a person to work for at least a year or two before getting a graduate degree in planning. That work experience will hopefully allow you to be able to better evaluate the claims and ideas you will encounter in books and in classes. If you plan to focus your academic work internationally, you will want to get that work experience overseas before going to grad school.

Moreover, in planning, unlike in physics or english, it is most common to get the masters (in planning or an allied field), work for a couple more years, and then return for the doctorate -- although many people do go straight from the masters to the phd. The masters is the professional degree, and the doctorate is the research-specific degree -- only put yourself through that kind of pain if you are sure you want to be a professor, work at a thinktank, or similar. Working in the field before grad school, and between the masters and the doctorate, is a way to make sure that you know what the field is actually like, and that you are sure that this degree is the right one for you.

Here is the Planetizen guide to planning graduate programs, with their (perhaps controversial) ranking of departments here. They want $35 for the book -- see if your university library can scare up a copy for you; if your school has a planning department, you may be able to get access that way, too. Spend some time looking at the websites of the "top ten" departments -- they may not actually be best for what you want to do (the list for places that are good for transportation planning is rather different than the list for international development planning, for example) but it is a place to start, and the schools on that list are not shabby.

The APA and ACSP both have a fair bit of "so you wanna be a planner" information on their websites.

But that is just planning -- you can approach the same, or at least similar, questions through geography, public policy, and other fields. So you might want to think about where you want to be in a few years, and work backwards to see what kind of degree will best get you there.
posted by Forktine at 2:12 PM on October 22, 2007

this website is the closest i've seen to a "grad school for dummies" type document. i was in the same situation a few years back and my adviser became my go-to person. she was somewhat difficult to work with so i made sure to only ask about things when absolutely necessary, but i got into a program after only deciding to apply in november of the year prior. and, the whole first-generation-college-student thing came up in my grad school interview and seemed to impress the faculty i talked to, at least minimally.
posted by lxs at 5:21 PM on October 22, 2007

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