Graduate School Overview

Do you think further academic study beyond Grinnell might be part of your career plan? Graduate schools and professional schools offer advanced degrees to prepare students for careers in research or higher education, with an emphasis on skills necessary to advance a particular field of study, or for careers as practitioners in professional fields such as law, business, and medicine. Some major types of graduate degrees include:

  • Research master’s degrees: A master of arts (M.A.) or master of science (M.S.) provides experience in research and scholarship. These degrees may be pursued as a final degree or as a step toward a Ph.D. A research master’s degree typically requires one to two years of full-time study. In addition to coursework, a final comprehensive exam or thesis is typically required.
  • Research doctoral degrees: The doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) is the highest earned academic degree and primary credential for college-level teaching. The Ph.D. involves coursework and an extensive original research project (the dissertation). Completion of a Ph.D. program usually requires a minimum of four years of full-time study, but discipline-specific requirements (foreign language fluency, fieldwork expectations, and more) can add many years.
  • Professional master’s degrees: These provide specific sets of skills needed or desirable for practice in particular fields (e.g. M.B.A for business administration, M.Ed. for education, M.F.A. for fine arts, M.S.W. for social work). Professional master’s degrees typically require one to two years of full-time study, but because these degrees are often pursued by working professionals, accelerated, part-time, and hybrid options are frequently available.
  • Professional doctoral degrees: These are the highest degrees for areas such as medicine (M.D.) and law (J.D.), where practical applications of knowledge and skills are required. Coursework and practicums prepare students for successful entrance to their professions, which typically involves passing additional state- or national-level certifying examinations.

What’s on a grad school application?

  • An online application (usually with a fee)
  • CV or résumé
  • Letters of recommendation
    • Who knows you best? Who can speak to what the program cares about?
    • If you are applying after graduation, talk to professors before you leave campus and keep in touch in the interim
  • The essay or personal statement: tell your story
    • What is your primary goal? What will you do with this degree?
    • What is the evidence that you are prepared to do the work?
    • Why is this the perfect program for you?
  • Transcript and, sometimes, admission exam (such as GRE)
    • Look out for required or recommended GRE subject test (mostly in sciences)
    • Test scores and GPA go together: a great score can balance out a low GPA, and a strong GPA can give you leeway on your test score

Timeline for applying to graduate school: 

  • First–second year: explore! Take classes, try research, do internships, talk to people with interesting careers (especially alumni).
  • Third–fourth year: focus! Develop your interests, seek depth of knowledge and experience in a topic, discuss your goals with faculty and other advisers.
  • Think about when to apply: directly from Grinnell, or after a “gap year” (or a few years)?
  • Twelve to eighteen months before you want to start a grad program:
    • Think about what matters to you in choosing a grad school
    • Gather information on best-fit programs and their requirements: are there prerequisites you don’t have yet? Do you match what they are looking for? ºEmail potential advisers at these programs
    • Make a list of where you’ll apply and each program’s deadline and requirements
    • Prepare for the necessary admission exam

Deciding where to apply: what matters?

  • For academic degrees (M.A., M.S., Ph.D.): support for your research question and interests
  • People, resources, connections (the best program might be in an unexpected department)
  • Funding: How will you pay for the degree? If you are taking on debt, can you reasonably expect to earn enough money post-degree to pay back the loans? Does the program offer funding? Is it guaranteed for the duration of the program?
    • Ph.D. programs are often fully funded (i.e., your tuition is waived and there is usually funding to cover your living expenses.) Do not go into debt for a Ph.D.!
    • For sciences: apply for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP)
  • Location and other life considerations