Considering Grad School
Is graduate school worth it? Should you go directly into the workforce instead of continuing your studies? No one can answer these questions for you. There's always value in expanding your knowledge – either for personal or career incentives. Likewise, after many years of studying, perhaps you may wish to take a break from academic life and gain work experience.
When debating attending graduate school you should consider all your options, including:
- How much it will cost to attend grad school?
- Is it worth pursuing further education and delaying entry in to the workforce?
- What have graduates in similar fields done after graduation?
According to Howard Greene’s book Making it into a Top Graduate School*, pursuing your studies is legitimate when a graduate degree:
- is necessary for your desired professional field
- may improve your career
- may increase your options and professional prospects
- serves to satisfy your intellectual curiosity and sparks passion
Take some time and reflect on Greene's questions. Consider talking with current grad students, potential supervisors, or someone in a potential career you envision yourself in. Career Services and the Student Success Centre offer the STRONG inventory and Meyers Briggs assessment. These tools measure your personal interests and strengths, which may help you decide an appropriate career or academic goal.
Learn more about the STRONG Interest Inventory and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) at UCalgary.
A graduate degree involves advanced research in a particular discipline. Within this category there are terminal and non-terminal degrees. A terminal degree is one for which for there is no subsequent doctoral study and is usually professionally-focused. Non-terminal involves a master's degree that's intertwined with doctoral studies, so students may enter directly from undergraduate studies. The latter are common in Europe and the U.K., and are often referred to as the ‘1 + 3 scheme.’
Professional programs involve training for a specific profession, such as medicine, speech pathology, and architecture (among many other examples). Many professional programs require standardized tests as part of their admissions. In a professional program, students generally move together within their cohort following a prescribed curriculum. Graduate programs at the master levels vary from nine months to three years, although two years is the average. A PhD also varies between three to seven years, depending on the project, and time it takes to write and defend the thesis.
MA, MSc, MEd, MBA, MPhil, LLM and MTh are all examples of the acronyms given to master-level degrees. Most MA and MSc degrees include a classroom instruction and a research project and/or thesis. There are also an increasing number of master's degrees that are entirely course-based. Make sure you know the consequences of your academic choice.
A PhD or DPHIL (Doctor of Philosophy) is an advanced degree. Obtaining this degree demonstrates research competence, insight, mastery of your subject, and capacity for independent research. In North America, this degree ranges from three to seven, whereas in the UK it takes an average of four years to complete. At UCalgary, the aim for a PhD is four years. In the past, a PhD was the route taken to become an academic in university. Now, this advanced degree has become a gateway for many other careers outside academia.
Students pursuing a thesis-based master's degree will be required to submit a thesis (scholarly article) that ranges from 50 to 200 pages (13,000 – 50,000 words) whereas a course-based master's degree involves submitting a research project. When deciding which route to follow, it's important to ask yourself what is your end goal? If you're contemplating a PhD or an academic career, a thesis-based program may be more suitable as it emphasizes original research and research methodology.
The PhD requires a dissertation. It usually includes an introduction, literature review, methodology, analysis/results, assessment/discussion of work, and summary conclusions. Some PhD dissertations entail manuscripts that have been submitted and published in journals. This varies by discipline and this practice is more common in European than North American universities.
Some factors to consider include:
- Availability: Not all schools offer both full-time and part-time options. Always check with the prospective school in case you can only pursue one route.
- Time: Full-time students are expected to see their degree as the main focus in their lives. Part-time students typically commit 12 hours weekly to in-class work. This excludes time for the research project/thesis. Many find the part-time option appealing as it is flexible and gives time during the week to continue their job. When funding is not possible, this route is something to consider.
- Money: Some awards and scholarships require students to be full-time. Likewise, as a part-time student you may not be able to access specific resources such as bursaries or subsidized bus passes.
- Learning style: Have you considered how you'll manage your time effectively, especially if you're working in the day and studying at night?
Completing graduate studies outside Canada provides a wonderful opportunity to diversify your studies, learn about other cultures, live in a different locale, and enhance your employment prospects. Foreign universities often have different application processes, so it's critical you do your research and contact the schools well in advance. The deadlines are occasionally different (rolling as opposed to fixed) and in some cases an interview is required. You should also consider your eligibility for scholarships and awards. Not all Canadian scholarships can be used for international education.
Some good points of reference for reviewing international programs:
- GradSchool.com: Search for graduate programs in different countries, the degrees offered and contact information.
- StudyLink.com: Details of worldwide postgraduate programs
- Association of Commonwealth Universities: Listing of commonwealth universities
- World rankings: Times Higher Education lists university world rankings
Should you go to the most prestigious university that you are accepted to? Although that may be a priority for many students, others feel that what ‘fits’ their learning style, research interest, supervisor and grad community are more important reflections. Ask this question: how motivated are you in a course where you are impassive or apathetic about the subject? Typically, a student does better in a course (or degree) where they find the subject interesting.
Consult program information in depth, look at funding models, as well as department and supervisor success. A supervisor or discipline reputation/ranking may be greater or lesser than the institution as a whole.
Most Canadian universities offer internal awards and have a financial aid office to assist prospective and continuing students. Contact either the department or program's grad school coordinator or fellow grad students as they are a good source of information on internal funding. Prospective grad students at the University of Calgary may review the list of awards and scholarships via an online database. Ensure that you have read the eligibility criteria, deadlines and application instructions. Certain scholarship deadlines may be different, if you wait you can miss out. It is important that you reflect honestly on your financial needs against these available funds. The most prestigious awards involve detailed selection criteria that look at:
- Academic Excellence: past scholarships and awards, and their prestige within the field or university
- Research Abilities: publication history, familiarity with methodologies in the field, originality and enthusiasm for the research
- Leadership and Communication Skills: examples of professional and extra-curricular experience (TA, project management, tutoring, organizing conferences, etc.)
Learn more about the Government of Canada's eligibility and process to obtain government student loans.
Learn more about external awards.
Learn more about creating strong funding and scholarship applications.
Features of a Graduate School Application
All degrees and universities have their own admissions criteria. Read admission information thoroughly and give yourself plenty of time to write, review and submit your application. Below are common components of the graduate school application.
Most universities require applicants to fill out a general form online that typically asks for standard biographical data. You may be required to include the names and contact information of references, and relevant employment, professional and/or research experience. There is frequently a waiver form and some degrees will require proof of residency. Lastly, there is a non-refundable fee for each application submission which ranges up to $150 depending on the institution and program.
Your academic CV provides a complete profile of your experience (academic, work, and volunteer) in addition to the skills developed through academic degrees and related teaching or research experience. Your CV should also highlight training (such as quantitative and qualitative tools), languages and publications.
Although there is no standard template for an academic CV, basic visual and layout rules should be followed. Don't use a font that's difficult to read or smaller than 11 point size. Language and style should be consistent and headings used to highlight categories. Common categories in the academic CV include:
- Education: List your most recent degree then institution name. If you completed an honours thesis, you may wish to include your thesis title and supervisor's name.
- Experience: Include all of your experience related to academics, research, administration, clinical work, teaching, practicum(s), co-op and internship, work and volunteering. The most relevant experiences should be listed first.
- Scholarships and awards: Highlight the awards and scholarships you've received during your undergraduate studies. The funding body and dollar value may also be included, particularly if it's a prestigious award.
- Publications: This section should showcase the type of publication such as peer-reviewed, non-peer reviewed, works submitted and works in progress, reports, book chapters and conference papers.
- Academic associations, affiliations, and services: If you're a member of associations in your field, you can list them here.
- Additional skills: List things such as languages (fluent, advanced, intermediate), additional non-formal training (lab, computer, first aid), sports (coaching, athlete), musical training (level, performance), and so on.
- References: If you're providing the names of your references, include their title, department, phone number, email and relationship ( e.g. current honours supervisor).
The personal statement (sometimes referred to as statement of purpose or letter of intent) is your opportunity to sell yourself to the admissions committee by describing your ambitions, skills, interests and motivations. Some business and graduate school applications may ask specific questions that your statement should critically address.
When beginning your personal statement, think about the following questions:
- What's unique, impressive and/or distinctive about you or your life?
- When did you become interested in your current field? Have you gained any insights?
- Which professors, classes, seminars or work experiences have influenced your thinking?
- What are your career goals?
- What skills do you possess?
- Have you identified any gaps in the field or new developments that you'd like to research/explore further?
Most prospective PhD students, and many prospective master's students, will be required to submit a research proposal. The purpose of this document is to:
- Review your intended research project and ensure you have a grasp of the literature and major issues within the field. It may also be important to include the type of research (strategic, experimental, applied) and methodology you'll use.
- Indicate whether field work will be required or if you'll need additional training (e.g. lab, ethical, or statistics) for your study.
- Show that you've created an appropriate timeline to complete your thesis in a timely fashion.
- Confirm there's a faculty member within the department who can supervise you.
Most programs require two or three letters of recommendation. Typically, two of those letters should be from an academic (supervisor or lecturer) who has a good knowledge of your academic achievement and can confirm you have the skills and qualities necessary for graduate school.
Do letters of recommendation matter? Short answer: Yes. As Dr. Krishnamurthi, Professor of Computer Science at Brown University states, 'We do, rigorously, sometimes as carefully as we read a research paper: pen in hand, circling comments, annotating margins, noting what the letter did and didn't say.'*
*S. Krishnamurthi (personal communication, July 6, 2013)