10 Things Grad Schools Won’t Tell You (Part 1)

After writing about grad school in my last post, I went online to get some more material that might be beneficial to those of you who are currently contemplating your applications. Surprisingly, I found several articles entitled “10 Things Grad Schools Won’t Tell You,” with publication dates varying from 2010 to 2014. But it turned out that they’re all the same, and I’m not really sure of the original source! That being said, I’ll provide this link to the one with the most detail and give a summary here and in the next few posts. I’ll also add some information based on my own experiences, both as a former grad student myself and as a professor involved in admissions and teaching in more than one graduate program.

1.“Expect empty seats.” According to this research (but keep in mind, it is now probably several years told), enrollments in graduate programs are dropping. They interpret that as meaning that programs may disappear, and it’s true that if enrollments for a particular program do drop over time, the university may consider eliminating the program. But if the career path you have chosen requires a graduate degree, you’re likely to find multiple good programs, and in some fields the number of programs is growing. What this warning says to me is that you need to think carefully about (1) the type of program you want, (2) the necessity of that degree for the career you want, and (3) the reputation of the programs and the universities that you are considering.

2. “But you’ll still be competing with the whole world to get in.” Even though fewer U.S. students are applying to grad school (if that is, indeed, still the case), our programs are very popular with international students. In recent years, we have seen an increase in applications from international students for the MS in Technical Communication at my school, North Carolina State University. And universities like to accept those students because typically they are going to be paying full tuition and not asking for any type of financial aid. What this means is that you need to make sure your application materials are strong—that you have researched each school’s preferences/expectations with regard to GPA and GRE (or other test) scores and prior work experience, that you meet those requirements, and that your personal statement or writing sample is polished and relevant.

3. “Prepare to write a bigger check.” Absolutely true. Tuition and other fees are only likely to increase, and financial aid in the form of teaching or research assistantships may be cut. Even if you get financial aid, it’s unlikely to be enough to cover your expenses.

4. “Our resources are dwindling.” Closely tied to the previous warning, the article says this means that you could have larger class sizes and less-experienced instructors. The article cites students whose instructors are not actually tenured faculty, but instead adjuncts, many of whom work in the relevant industry for the program. In my program, only full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty are allowed to teach graduate programs, but this is something you should ask about before you apply. In some programs, such as MBAs, it may make sense to have some of the classes taught by industry specialists. But you still need to make sure that there are sufficient full-time faculty who can oversee theses and give you a fully-credentialed academic experience.

5. “Grades alone won’t get you in.” As I discussed in the previous post, it takes more than a great GPA and good test scores to get into graduate school. When reviewing application packets, we closely read resumes to see what applicants have done since college—and we’re hoping to see that they have a few years or experience in the field. While this doesn’t mean that we don’t accept students straight from a four-year program, they’re rarities for us. We also read personal statements and recommendation letters closely, looking for a consistent, thoughtful demonstration of true, lasting interest in the field.

I’ll pick up with the next five items on this list in my next post.