Differences in style:

In general, as an undergraduate, you acquired knowledge and skills; as a graduate, you will apply knowledge and skills. As Tara Kuther stated in her book Graduate School,

“Graduate education entails a critical transition from consumer of knowledge to producer of knowledge.”

You attended an undergraduate program to acquire the basic liberal arts skills of reading, writing, quantitative reasoning, and critical analysis, as well as a general foundation in a field. In graduate school, you will put those skills to work, applying and producing knowledge within a specialized area of your field.

Because graduate programs vary so widely, there really is no “typical,” but in general, graduate school:

  • Is more flexible. Sometimes there are no textbooks or even no specific course requirements. Courses may not have a clear structure and may consist entirely of seminar discussions or of individual research.
  • Requires research. Graduate programs frequently, but not always, require writing a thesis or dissertation and many courses require final papers. Courses are sometimes based on the research students bring to class and may even provide the foundation for a book or article the instructor is writing. On the other hand, some programs require very little research, while others focus on practica.
  • Offers current, often cutting-edge topics. Unlike undergraduate curricula, graduate course work does not necessarily provide an overview of the field. Courses may instead reflect the specialties and expertise of the faculty. Courses may also reflect the expertise of a visiting professor, of an opportunity available that semester in the community, or of a new publication.
    Situates instructors as experienced colleagues. In graduate school, instructors tend to teach less and collaborate more. At the doctoral level, instructors are often seminar facilitators, co-researchers and co-learners with students in pursuit of new knowledge.
  • Expects students to be apprentice colleagues. Graduate students need to be more independent and better able to learn on their own than they were as undergraduates. Participation, engagement, and initiative all become essential.
  • Is more expensive. Most graduate students need financial aid of some kind, whether in scholarships, teaching assistantships, or loans. For more information, see below.

Because graduate programs are so different, what professors expect of students is also different. In graduate school, you will need:

  • Exceptional reading skills. Graduate courses require considerably more reading than undergraduate courses. Students need to be able to read quickly, accurately, and critically, and be able to grasp nuances in writing. Students planning on attending graduate school should read as much, as often, and as widely as possible.
  • Excellent writing skills. Student who plan to attend graduate school should take as many writing courses as possible during their undergraduate years. Some graduate programs expect publishable, or at least near-publishable writing skills, and few graduate instructors will spend time teaching students the basics of writing.
    Strong analytical/critical thinking skills. Graduate schools are looking for exceptional students, and analytical/critical thinking skills often distinguish exception students from the average.
  • Strong communication skills. Graduate students must be able to communicate clearly and concisely, not only in writing but also verbally, in seminar courses, in presentations, and at conferences. Good communication skills are also valuable when collaborating with colleagues, working with professors, and socializing with the department.
  • Independence. Graduate schools value personal, intellectual, and emotional independence. Students need to be self-sufficient enough to persevere without hand-holding.
  • Initiative. In graduate school, students must be internally driven to succeed, to finish, and to graduate. Students should approach their graduate studies with the intent to learn and experience as much as possible.

In addition, doctoral programs expect:

  • The ability to formulate research questions,
  • The ability to conduct research, and
  • Students who have something new to contribute to the field.

Because of all these demands, students considering graduate school might want to consider whether they are, or can become the following.

Independent Hard Working Mature
Dedicated Self-disciplined Detail-oriented
Persistent Self-sufficient Adaptable
Intellectually curious Creative/innovative

It also helps to have the abilities to see the “big picture” and to question “the way things are.”