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Grad School Stuff for Undergrads. Dr. Alfred Dufty Associate Dean of the Graduate College Boise State University September 20, 2011. Why?. 1. Should you go to graduate school? 2. How do you get into the right graduate school? My motivation Nobody else is likely to tell you these things

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Grad school stuff for undergrads
Grad School Stufffor Undergrads

Dr. Alfred Dufty

Associate Dean of the Graduate College

Boise State University

September 20, 2011


  • 1. Should you go to graduate school?

  • 2. How do you get into the right graduate school?

  • My motivation

    • Nobody else is likely to tell you these things

    • Maybe you’ll attend graduate school at BSU

  • After Graduation

  • Your choices:

  • Get a job

  • Join the military

  • Go to grad school

  • Other

  • Types of Degrees

  • Master’s Degrees

  • (MS, MA, MEd, MBA, MM, MFA, MPA, MSW, etc.)

  • Coursework only:students complete a required set of courses (rare)

  • Comprehensive exam:students complete coursework followed by an examination

  • Thesis:students complete coursework and must also submit a thesis (an original piece of research)

  • Proficiency requirements:many of the creative disciplines (music, dance, theatre, art, film) require a demonstration of proficiency in order to graduate

  • Types of Degrees

  • Doctoral Degrees

  • (PhD, EdD, DHA, DDS, MD, JD, etc.)

  • Research doctorates:PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) - students complete coursework and submit a dissertation (original research; must make a significant contribution to the discipline)

  • Professional doctorates:students complete a required set of courses and gain expertise in a profession, such as dentistry (DDS); no research expectation

  • Some Things are Obvious

  • If you aren’t enjoying college, don’t go to grad school

  • MS == More of the same

  • PhD == Piled higher and deeper

  • If you aren’t doing well in college, don’t go to grad school

    • You’ll have a hard time getting into a good one

    • It’s more competitive than being an undergrad

    • Grad school can be satisfying and a lot of fun

      • But it’s not for everyone

Median income by education level

Data from 2003 on

Median lifetime earnings by educational attainment 2009 dollars
Median Lifetime Earnings by Educational Attainment2009 Dollars














< H.S.




Modified from Fig. 1 of Carnevale et al. (2011) The College Payoff – Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Lifetime earning trajectories 2009 dollars
Lifetime Earning Trajectories2009 Dollars




Earnings (median)




Modified from Fig. 2 of Carnevale et al. (2011) The College Payoff – Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.


Less Obvious…

  • You will invest 2-3 (MS) or 4-7 (PhD) years of your life

    • If PhD, often an additional 1-2 years as a postdoc

  • In some disciplines you may have to write a thesis or dissertation

    • You MUST be able to write clearly

      • MS –50-100 pages

      • PhD – 100-250 pages

    • Grad School Tradeoffs

    • Costs

      • Time

      • Effort

      • Expense

      • Opportunities

      • Potential for failure

    • Benefits

      • Enjoyment

      • Intellectual stimulation

      • Possible increased earning power

      • Opens doors to different kinds of jobs

    • Essential Graduate Student Information

    • Being a graduate student is very different from being an

    • undergrad:

    • As an undergrad your job is to get good grades

      • As a graduate student your job is to learn your specialty and (especially for a PhD student and some master’s students)to do research and write papers

      • Classes important, but may be less so than for undergrads

      • Often develop a much closer relationship with faculty members in grad school

        • your major advisor, maybe others

    • Parts of an Application

    • Grades

      • Bad grades hurt but good grades don’t get you in

      • Should have As and Bs in core courses

    • GRE/GMAT scores(Graduate Record Examination / Graduate Management Admission Test)

      • Bad scores hurt but good scores don’t get you in

    • Prior research experience

      • Required at top graduate schools

      • Makes any application (possibly much) stronger

    • Personal statement

    • Letters of recommendation

    • Personal Statement

    • Sometimes called a “research statement”

    • Include:

      • What general areas of the discipline interest you and why

      • Experience in the field - research projects you have worked on, job experience, volunteer work, etc.

        • Approaches that you tried

        • What worked, what didn’t; what did you learn?

      • Why do you want an MS / PhD?

      • Why do you want to attend the particular school?

      • What professors might you want to work with?

    • Personal Statement

    • Take this seriously

      • Get people to read over it, especially professors

      • Point out your strengths, but bragging, exaggerating, or cheesy stories do not help

      • Will be used as a gauge of how well you write

    • Letters of Recommendation

    • Perhaps the most important part of your application

      • Everyone will have decent grades and GRE/GMAT scores

      • Often the difference between two good students is in their letters

    • Letters from professors count the most

      • Letters from lecturers, employers, etc. are a distant second

      • Letters about your grades and exam scores are of little use

        • If someone wants to know how you did in class, they’ll look at your transcripts

    • Letters of Recommendation

    • If a professor doesn’t know you well, he/she cannot write you a strong letter

      • A good letter says things like:

  • “independent thinker”

  • “motivated and driven”

  • “strong research potential”

    • Personal anecdotes are useful because they show the professor really knows you

  • This is one reason why research or independent study experience at the undergraduate level is so important!

    • How to Ask for Letters

    • Ask in person

      • Be specific: “Can you write me a strong letter?”

    • Provide each letter writer with a packet containing:

      • Your resumé

      • Your personal statement

      • As much paperwork filled out as possible

      • Anything else that may be helpful

      • Specific instructions – Which letters are due when?

      • Addressed, stamped envelopes, email address, or URL

      • Request for email confirmation when letters are sent

    • Assume professors are overworked and forgetful (they are!)

      • Give them at least three weeks to write and send letters

      • Check to see if schools have gotten your letters

    • Getting Into a Good School

    • Basic problem:

    • Acceptance decisions are not entirely objective

      • Professors are committing 2-7 years of their time, too

      • They want to make sure a student is a “good fit” for themselves and their lab or graduate program

      • Getting into grad school is a much more personal endeavor than getting into undergrad school

        • You may be looking at an individual faculty member as much as the school itself

    • Getting Into a Good School

    • Solution:

      • Identify potential programs or thesis/dissertation advisors early

        • Ask current professors to recommend good advisors/schools

          • Visit the school’s/advisor’s website

            • There is a lot of information there

            • You’ll be perceived as a serious applicant the more you know about a graduate program or a professor’s work

            • And you’ll be able to ask better questions

    • Getting Into a Good School

    • Solution (cont.):

      • Let potential advisors know you’re interested in their work and ask if they are taking on new students

        • Meet them, or at least talk with them on the phone

          • It’s nice to be able to put a face to a name

          • Talk with their current grad students

            • How do they enjoy the experience?

            • Are students finishing? Getting jobs?

            • Follow-up calls never hurt

    Financial Support

    • There is more money available to support graduate students than you may think

      • TA – Teaching Assistantship

        • You help teach a course, usually the labs

        • about 20 hr/wk

        • 9 months; you’re on your own in summer

    • RA – Research Assistantship

      • Paid from your advisor’s grant

      • You contribute to the goal of the grant

      • May dictate the topic of your thesis/dissertation work

    Financial Support

    • Fellowships – rare; some offered by school, some applied for

    • Grants

      • Lots of sources, depending on your discipline

      • Usually to support your work, not yourself

    • Student loans (representatives of the BSU Financial Aid Office will be available later)

    • Application Timeline

    • Freshman, sophomore, junior year:

      • Get good grades

      • Get research experience

      • Find an academic area that excites you enough to devote 2-7 years of your life to it

    • Early Fall of your senior year (at the latest):

      • Decide where to apply

        • Do lots of web surfing

      • Take GRE/GMAT, if necessary

    • Late Fall of your senior year:

      • Fill out applications

      • Request letters of recommendation

    Undergrad Research at Boise State

    • Check university websites for opportunities

    • STEM Station

    • Individual departments

    • Ask a professor who is doing work that interests you

      • You can get college credits (Independent Study)

    • It does pay dividends:

    • From the BSU Materials Science & Engineering website (March 5, 2011):

    • “Lead Undergraduate Research Assistant Stephanie Barnes has been accepted into Caltech’s Bioengineering Graduate Program. Congratulations to Stephanie!”