Brennan D. Cox, Kristin L. Cullen, and William Buskist, PhD
Auborn University (AL)
Have you ever wondered what it might be like to leave the safety and comfort of your undergraduate institution and begin graduate school? Have you ever wondered just how difficult that first year in graduate school might be?
If you’ve considered these questions, you are probably well aware that there are numerous "advice” books and essays published that will help you prepare for graduate study in psychology (e.g., Buskist, 2001; Buskist & Burke, 2007;
Kuther, 2003; Kuther & Morgan, 2004). This literature represents the accumulated wisdom of faculty who are deeply interested in helping qualified students successfully navigate the admissions process and become competent graduate
students. Nonetheless, for many faculty members the fond experience of the undergraduate to graduate school transition may be a distant, foggy memory. For this reason, graduate students are apt to provide a more accurate and
current perspective on making this transition successfully.
To learn more about the graduate perspective, we surveyed all of the psychology doctoral students at Auburn University regarding their undergraduate to graduate student transition experience. We received feedback from 31 students
in their first year and beyond of graduate school. The respondents represented Auburn’s three graduate programs: clinical, experimental, and industrial/ organizational psychology. These students provided insight into their
preconceptions of graduate school and how their preconceptions changed during their first year. They also offered ample advice for achieving success during the first year of graduate school.
Preconceptions of Graduate Life
As undergraduates, they had mixed feelings toward graduate school. Some respondents believed that graduate school would simply be an extension of their undergraduate education, that most undergraduates go to graduate school, and
that those who do well as undergraduates would perform equally well as graduate students. Others were less optimistic. These respondents assumed that graduate school was only for the best undergraduate students. They also predicted
that graduate school would be more difficult, would demand more time, and required higher standards and more hands-on experience than undergraduate education. These respondents had particular reservations regarding the amount
of reading, writing, and memorization required for surviving in such a rigorous intellectual environment.
The most common preconceptions were that graduate students are smart, hardworking, and dedicated to learning. After all, they voluntarily spend four or more years in school beyond their bachelor’s degree. For a substantial portion
of this time, graduate students are constantly busy, stressed, and caffeine-infused. How else could they complete their infinite string of assignments? These preconceived notions left our sample with the overall impression
that graduate school does not permit a social life of any kind. Indeed, nearly all respondents perceived graduate school as a full-time job.
After beginning their graduate careers, our respondents discovered that only some of their preconceptions were accurate and others were not. Much to their surprise, respondents discovered it was possible to have a social life in
graduate school. Nonetheless, out-of-school activities for graduates differed from those of typical undergraduates. As one respondent commented: "There is still some time to do fun things on weekends, but this time comes at
a price—consistently doing fun activities every weekend means that you are behind in some other area (e.g., class work, research, or thesis).”
Another unanticipated aspect of graduate school is the lack of emphasis placed on class work. "Courses are a side-bar and in some cases almost an afterthought,” one graduate student noted. Unbeknownst to many undergraduate students,
completing research, not coursework, becomes the driving force behind success in graduate school. Depending on one’s research area, this news could become discouraging as 4 to 5 years in graduate school can quickly become 5
to 7 years (and for some graduate students, even longer).
Another graduate student noted, "Most of what you learn will come through experience and self-guided inquiry.” In other words, how you develop as a young professional about to enter the field is truly your responsibility.
Graduate students in our sample were largely unaware of the highly autonomous nature of graduate life before they entered graduate school. They did not anticipate that professors who served as their major advisors would refuse
to hold their hands. In graduate school, students must learn to use their professors as resources. With time, many graduate students became colleagues with faculty and developed close working relationships with them. They became
genuine collaborators in research, teaching, and professional development. For others, establishing a working relationship with a faculty member remained a challenge to overcome. Either way, the data suggest that if graduate
students want a professor’s guidance, they must seek it themselves.
Somewhat unexpectedly, graduate students also varied in terms of work ethic. Some students still procrastinated, partied, and crammed for exams. However, respondents reported that such habits often took a toll by affecting their
ability to complete coursework, earn good grades, and maintain a productive research program. In many graduate programs (such as Auburn’s) a "C” is a failing grade and a "B” is not much better! Thus, although some students
may adopt a work-hard/play-hard approach to graduate school, it is important that they know the potential consequences of their actions.
Interestingly, our sample of graduate students found that they did not have to be the best undergraduate students or the smartest in their class to succeed in graduate school, but they did have to embrace the path they chose. They
had to learn to work harder and longer than they ever had during their undergraduate days. Thus, graduate school is a lifestyle—a sentiment that all of our respondents uniformly expressed.
Our graduate students also agreed that "there are many hats to wear in graduate school.” They are students, researchers, teachers, and colleagues inhabiting a tightly knit academic environment. As the first year of graduate school
progressed, graduate students learned to define themselves using multiple terms. For example, many graduate students became teaching assistants during their first year of graduate school. These students were transformed instantly
by this experience—although they had recently been undergraduates sitting in a classroom, now they were "teachers” standing on the other side of the podium leading discussion, preparing students for examinations, and offering
advice to undergraduates on how they, too, can prepare for graduate study in psychology.
One survey response in particular summarized this shared sentiment among our sample: "Graduate school isn’t hard, it’s hard work. There is not a day that passes by that I think I am faced with a task I don’t know how to do, but
there are days when I wonder how I will get it all done.”
For our respondents, the most difficult aspects of becoming a graduate student included the increased need for time-management skills, the ability to balance a variety of academic responsibilities, and the courage to do Graduate
School so alone. For most new graduate students, the multiple demands placed on them required an entirely new approach to education. There are few preset timelines in graduate school. You must manage your own priorities, but
there always seems to be other people (e.g., professors, students, peers) who need your time or want you to become involved in their projects. New graduate students often struggle to escape from the stereotypic undergraduate
mentality of approaching college casually. As graduate students, they now have to attend class; they have to read; they have study; they have to conduct research; and they have to write original papers (and lots of them)! However,
no one is looking over their shoulders or holding a gun to their heads to force them to get the work done. They must go it alone. As one student explained, "No one is going to get you out of here. You have to do it yourself.”
One of the most pleasant aspects of making the transition from undergraduate to graduate student is getting to know your new peers. Graduate students in our sample enjoyed the opportunity to meet other graduate students and faculty
with whom they shared similar interests. As one of our graduate students noted, "In graduate school, everything becomes about psychology. Breadth of study is now defined within psychology instead of outside of it.” Outside
of class, graduate students actually talk shop without feeling nerdy. Everyone with whom they interacted shared the same love for the field.
Our graduate students were also pleasantly surprised by the rapport they experienced with their professors, the luxury of working in their own laboratories, and working on articles that might one day be published. They also enjoyed
attending professional conferences and getting to meet some of the people who have made major contributions to psychology in the past several decades.
Advice on Preparing for Graduate School
If you are curious about graduate school, you need to know the truth about graduate life. For instance, you should know that there are multiple hurdles required to complete a graduate program, including coursework, a thesis, a
dissertation, and sometimes qualifying exams, major area papers, grants, and internships. Success as a graduate student requires increased self-discipline. Most importantly, it requires a Herculean time commitment.
Of course, you must first get into a graduate program before you ever encounter the complexities of graduate school. Here are some wise words of advice from our graduate students when applying to graduate school.
- Make absolutely certain that a PhD is required for the career you seek. Know, however, that having a need for graduate school is insufficient to make it through graduate school—you must want to be there as well.
- If graduate school is the path for you, make sure you start the application process early. Be aware that this process takes a lot of time and money. You should begin preparing at least a year before your first application deadline.
- Get help from your professors and graduate students when writing your cover letter, your academic vita, and the rest of your application materials. If you don’t know any professors or graduate students, you should! Try to get
involved in the ongoing research at your institution. By becoming a research assistant, you will not only expand your knowledge of psychology, but you may also obtain meaningful letters of recommendation.
- Carefully research the graduate programs to which you may apply. Target and apply to multiple programs. If possible, select schools that have several professors with whom you would like to work. This way, if something does
not work out with your initial choice for an advisor, you can just switch mentors rather than change schools.
- Finally, search for "fit.” Contact (e.g., call, e-mail, or visit) graduate students currently enrolled at schools in which you are interested to find out if their work environments sound like places in which you would feel
comfortable showing up to every day (e.g., level of competitiveness, social environment, research expectation, etc.). You will be spending a lot of time on campus and in collaboration with others, so make sure you are joining
a group to which you feel you will belong. If you don’t fit in, your graduate school experience will be more difficult.
Transitioning from an undergraduate to a graduate student can be a difficult, but truly rewarding process. According to one graduate student, it is a "transformative experience.” In all likelihood, graduate school should change
you: You should not only become smarter, but you should also develop a greater appreciation for the amount of commitment and hard work required to accomplish worthwhile goals.
Graduate school prepares you to be a professional in the field. "As an undergraduate, you learn a lot of ‘facts’ about psychology. Graduate school pulls the curtain back and tells you about the science of psychology.” Although
there is a lot of reading in graduate school, there is also increased opportunity to practice your learning. For this reason, you actually have to remember what you study. You should be prepared to make a life-changing commitment
and expect each and every day to be challenging. However, you will likely experience great pride in each obstacle you overcome. Thus, in and of itself, graduate education is rewarding. You should approach the process as the
first major step towards your professional career as a psychologist. As one respondent aptly noted, "It’s for real now.”
Buskist, W. (2001, Spring). Seven tips for preparing a successful application to graduate school in psychology. Eye on Psi Chi, 5(3), 32-34.
Buskist, W., & Burke, C. (2007). Preparing for graduate study in psychology: 101 questions and answers (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Kuther, T. L. (2003). The psychology major's handbook. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Kuther, T. L., & Morgan, R. D. (2004). Careers in psychology: Opportunities in a changing world. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.