Graduate School Life & StudyGraduate school is quite different from your experience as an undergrad. The focus of graduate school is training in research: it is for people who are highly interested in a specific area of study and who want to delve deeply into the chosen topic.
The following information is an introduction to a generalized graduate student lifestyle and study program, including:
- Undergraduate and graduate programs differences
- Graduate student life
- MA degree outline
- PhD degree outline
For a more specific snapshot of what your life as a graduate student might be like, check out the graduate school culture and degree plan of the universities and departments of interest to you.
Undergraduate and Graduate Differences
What is the main difference between an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree?
The Bachelor of Arts degree is designed to provide students with a strong knowledge base in the chosen major while also providing a well-rounded education in a variety of fields, from science to math and language to art. It is for this reason that as a government major, for example, you are required to complete significant course work in the area of government but you must also complete study outside of your major.
As a graduate student, on the other hand, you will focus on your area of study (i.e., International Relations), with special attention on your specific topic that you will research and write on for the master's degree or doctoral dissertation (i.e., international law in post-Communist Eastern Europe).
Is a class in graduate school different from my classes in the undergraduate program? And is preparation different?
Your current classroom experience is quite different from the graduate program norm. In graduate school, most classes are much smaller than those that you may be used to: grad classes may have less than 15 people, in a seminar format. The seminar format allows students to participate in in-depth discussions, debates and analyses. This format requires that students have a high level of participation, which in hand requires that everyone be very well prepared before each class. Preparation for class is quite comprehensive and can be very time consuming. It is not unusual to be required to read a book from one class to the next or to write a large research paper.
Do graduate students have responsibilities in the department other than going to class and studying?
In addition to studies, students may have teaching assistant responsibilities in the department. TAs teach discussion sections, hold office hours to meet with undergraduate students and grade exams or papers for professors and instructors who teach courses with large enrollments. Once students are further into the program, they may be appointed as an assistant instructor. AIs serve as the instructor of record with teaching duties. Depending on the program, some students may also work outside the university; this may be more common with master's degree programs than doctorate programs.
Graduate Student Life
Do grad students have a life outside of school?
Graduate school is extremely time intensive, however with good time management skills graduate students are able to enjoy life away from their studies. Graduate students take breaks from studies to socialize with other students, play sports or have dinner with friends and peers. Many students elect not to take classes in the summer so that they can take a breather, visit home, conduct personal research or travel to exotic destinations like India or Egypt for fun and to conduct research.
What is a master's degree program?
The master's degree is a two-year program during which students study a particular topic at an advanced and in-depth level. During the program, students conduct and write graduate-level research or take advanced comprehensive exams to demonstrate a proficient knowledge in the chosen area(s) of study.
The MA degree may be earned en route to the PhD degree, or may be terminal. The terminal degree is one in which the student completes the MA and graduates from the university with no plans to continue study. Terminal MA programs are generally intended for students interested in careers outside of academia, working in a variety of industries. The majority of liberal arts MA programs are not terminal, they are intended as a stepping stone to the PhD program. At the appropriate time in the degree plan, students either transition to or apply to the PhD program.
What is a master's degree program like?
Master's degree programs vary from university to university, and from department to department. The following information is intended as a general outline of a master's degree program.
Similar to your experience as an undergraduate, MA students also have required coursework and number of credit hours to graduate. In partnership with their faculty advisor, graduate students create a degree plan in line with the requirements of the department and the department's course offerings. Compared to the undergraduate program, students have much more discretion in designing their academic program to focus on their particular area of interest. For example, a graduate student in government may decide to focus on the area of political economy in international relations.
The majority of courses are taken in the department, however most programs allow students to add an interdisciplinary element to their studies by taking courses outside of the major; many departments recommend or require this. For example, a student of South Asian Studies may also take courses in Religious Studies for a new perspective on religion in literature.
MA programs generally require 30 to 33 credit hours of coursework, of which the majority of hours are taken in the major area. Other hour requirements are fulfilled by taking classes in supporting areas. Supporting work, or minor, will generally help the student explore his/her area of interest from a wider perspective. For example, a Spanish literature graduate student may select supporting coursework in Latin American studies to focus on political fiction during the Pinochet era.
In most graduate programs, students must maintain a minimum 3.0 GPA in both departmental courses and courses taken outside the department. Any course in which a student earns less than a C will not be counted towards the degree.
Report, Thesis & Comprehensive Exam
Near the end of the master's degree, students must complete a report, thesis or comprehensive exam. Master's degree programs most frequently offer the report/thesis option: students must choose one of these options.
Thesis & Report:
The thesis is generally a two-semester project for which students earn six credit hours towards the degree. Students who take the thesis option will analyze or interpret a body of material to demonstrate their ability to do an extended piece of research beyond the normal graduate seminar term paper. A thesis is usually 75-pages in length.
The report is generally a one-semester project for which students earn three credit hours. Students who take the report option will write on a given topic or body of material that the student has researched. The report is usually 50-pages in length.
Once completed, the student will present the report or thesis to a committee for review. The committee will make one of three decisions based on the student's work: approval with authorization to proceed to the PhD program, satisfactory for a terminal degree (no PhD study allowed), or unsatisfactory. If the work has been deemed unsatisfactory, the student has a short period of time (2 months) to rewrite the thesis or report for terminal degree consideration.
The comprehensive exam is designed to test the student's comprehensive knowledge in the area of study. The exam is based on a reading list provided by the department as well as the student's study program. Exams are prepared and graded by faculty committees. As with the report and thesis options, the exam will have one of three outcomes for the student: pass with permission to continue towards the PhD, pass as a terminal MA degree (no PhD study allowed), or fail. Students may be able to retake the exam for a terminal degree.
What is a doctorate degree program?
A doctorate degree is generally a five to eight year program designed to build upon the comprehensive knowledge achieved at the master's level. The program allows the student to develop advanced expertise in a chosen field of study needed to publish scholarly research and to be successful in a future tenure-track professorship.
What is a doctorate program like?
Doctorate degree programs vary from university to university, and from department to department. The following information is intended as a general outline of a doctorate degree program.
For the first two years in the program, students complete coursework in line with their degree plan. PhD programs generally require 10 courses, or 30 credit hours (beyond MA coursework and not including credit hours for dissertation). Hours may include coursework for one major area of specialization, a minor area, and methodology so that students obtain broad knowledge in the discipline as well as expertise in particular fields. As with the MA degree, students must maintain at least a 3.0 GPA in the coursework.
Preliminary (or Comprehensive) Exams
Upon completing coursework, usually in the third year of the program, students take preliminary examinations in the field(s) of specialization. The preliminary written examination is designed to determine a student's knowledge and proficiency in the chosen fields of specialization. The oral exam is taken soon after the written exam. The oral exam generally serves as a follow-up to the written exam, allowing examiners the opportunity to clarify and explore points from the written exam. The oral exam may also serve as the time for the student to present the dissertation topic and for examiners to explore the student's preparedness for the dissertation and knowledge of the topic.
Program of Work
After successfully passing the Comprehensive Examination, the student will submit a Program of Work. Similar to your undergraduate degree plan, the Program of Work is a checklist of coursework and other degree items used to confirm that the student has completed all requirements before proceeding to candidacy.
Within a year of successfully passing the preliminary exams, and in some programs before taking the oral exam, students prepare a dissertation prospectus (or proposal). The dissertation prospectus generally presents the main argument and research focus, the methodology to be used, the survey of existing research and the preliminary structure of the paper. The prospectus must be approved by a faculty committee, after which the student can apply for doctoral candidacy.
In most cases, a dissertation is a lengthy (typically between 150- to 300-pages) independent research paper that offers a new interpretation of an aspect central to the student’s chosen field. As the culmination of a doctoral student’s formal education, a dissertation often becomes the basis for the scholar’s first book. In the humanities, including Slavic & Eurasian Studies, the dissertation offers insight into a theme, document, literary work, or time period that is relevant to the field. Many programs provide timelines for the completion of the dissertation; it is common to require students to defend the dissertation within three to five years of advancing to candidacy.
Review examples of dissertations by clicking [Dissertations and Theses: Full Text] at the UT Libraries site.
Upon successful completion of the prospectus, students apply to candidacy and select their dissertation committee. Once accepted to candidacy, students are considered ABD (all but dissertation) and focus entirely on the dissertation research and writing.
Following the acceptance to candidacy, students spend the next three to four years enrolled in dissertation hours while conducting their own research and writing their dissertation. The dissertation represents an original contribution to scholarship within the discipline or area of study and the result of independent research. During this time, students work with their dissertation committees to develop and improve the dissertation. The committee determines when the student is ready to defend the dissertation.
Many programs require students to defend the dissertation before consideration for graduation. The defense is an opportunity for dissertation committee members to further explore the student's dissertation. The student provides an overview of the work after which the committee cross-examines the student. The committee may point out flaws in the work and it is up to the student to defend the work in a skillful, academic and professional manner. The committee then votes on the success of the student's work and ability to graduate.
Completion & Graduation
Once the dissertation has been successfully defended and accepted, students earn the Ph.D. and begin an academic career.