8 Grad School Tips from the Pros

As Autumn approaches and a new class of seniors are thinking about their futures, graduate school is a viable and exciting option. In the current state of the economy and the ongoing pandemic, it’s a serious adversary to consider. Looking for a job doesn’t sound that great and prospects for humanities majors, like myself, are bleak. Learning new research skills, expanding my knowledge, and altogether just staying in a controlled environment, like a college campus, for a few more years is a comforting idea. But the graduate school applications process is a little different than the process we all went through to get into college just a little while ago, and there are a lot fewer resources out there to answer your questions. Never fear for I am here with great tips for applying to graduate school for humanities majors. Although these are specific to the humanities, most of these tips are useful for anyone applying to further education or other professional schools. On Sept. 28th, the English department at UF hosted an informal open discussion on applying to graduate school. They had all the answers and here are some must-have tips when starting your graduate school application process. 

  1. 1. Consider timing

    Kenneth Kidd, Ph.D. and an associate chair and undergraduate coordinator, describes graduate school in the humanities as “linked to an uncertain future.” Right now, the future is uncertain, and making big decisions is even more daunting. So, really consider if graduate school is for you, and if it is, is now the best time. Graduate school is a serious commitment of time and money, so ensure it’s the best choice for you before you commit. Maybe this application cycle isn’t the best and next year would work better. Maybe getting a job first and saving up for your degree is better. Or doing research first to develop what field you want to get your degree in will make you a better candidate. Kidd also suggests testing the waters of a particular field first with a MA or an MFA before committing to a Ph.D. Plus, usually, those credits can contribute to your next degree if you choose to continue. The great thing about graduate degrees is that, even if it doesn’t work out or it isn’t for you, you already have your undergraduate degree. So, you’re not left with nothing!

  2. 2. You don’t have to go right away

    Graduate school differs from undergrad in that going directly after your last degree is not necessary. Ayanni Cooper, a 33-year-old fourth-year Ph.D. candidate studying comic studies, didn’t follow the traditional route when applying to grad school. She worked for three years as a real-estate agent between her bachelor’s and master’s programs which enabled her to save up for her degree and then go to a great school with zero debt. Cooper does suggest though, if you do choose to go down a different path before graduate school, to keep in touch with your professors from undergrad and update them too, so it’s easier when they write letters of recommendation for you. Corinne Matthews, a 29-year-old fourth-year Ph.D. candidate studying young adult and children literature, didn’t get into a Ph.D. program the first time she applied. So, she instead pursued a master’s degree which she says made her a better candidate the second time she applied to Ph.D. programs. Everyone’s path is different, so just follow your own.

  3. 3. You’re not stuck with the personal statement 

    John Murchek, Ph.D. and an English department academic adviser, describes how you should portray yourself in the personal statement as an “embryonic professional.” He says that its best to avoid clichés about how much you love reading or how literature changed your life, but instead focus on the research path you want to take. However, this research goal is not set in stone. Cooper recalls writing her personal statement on researching 18th century and African American literature, a far cry from the comics that she is currently doing her thesis on. Admissions committees just want to see that you have the capacity to think like a researcher, but things always change. This is also space for you to explain the odd things in your application that would cause an application committee to call yours into question. Matthews says that this is the space she used to explain her master’s in engineering, which she got alongside her bachelor’s in English, to ensure that the committee saw her as a dedicated candidate. 

  4. 4. Think of the best fit

    This is, again, a place where undergraduate and graduate schools differ. Prestige doesn’t mean nearly as much in graduate school as it does in undergrad; Kidd claims that “The top twenty schools all kind of do a musical chairs game” so they’re all kind of great. Graduate programs are much more hands-on than undergraduate ones, so having a repour with the faculty members is more important than it is when applying for your bachelor’s. It is also important that the specific area of study you’re interested in is well represented and given ample attention. Remember, this is a significant amount of time that you’ll be spending at these schools so liking it there is a plus! 

  5. 5. Ask only Ph.D.s for letters of rec

    Cooper suggests that you don’t ask graduate students or teacher’s aides for letters of recommendations, saying, “Graduate students’ letters just don’t carry the same kind of weight if you are going into a master’s or a Ph.D. program.” I know, graduate students are cool and great teachers, but they’re still trying to get their degrees, so your letters of recommendation should come from professors that you have a close relationship with and that know your work well. 

  6. 6. Stay off of The Grad Cafe

    The Grad Cafe is a forum website where students post about graduate school, but the problem is that most of the people posting are not current graduate students or professors. They are just people trying to get into programs, like you. They also spread some false information. Matthews recalls when she was applying to graduate school and went on The Grad Cafe for answers on when she should hear back from a school because her acceptance letter was late, but really her letter was just lost. So, Matthews cautions, “Don’t take the things you read there as truth necessarily.” I know it might be tempting because graduate school information isn’t nearly as consolidated or standardized as it is for undergraduate programs, but it’s better to be sure that what you’re hearing is truthful. 

  7. 7. Funded programs all the way!

    Graduate school is expensive and, unfortunately, the career opportunities for recipients of these degrees are not all that great. Matthews recommends not going into debt for your master’s or doctorate degree because there are great funded programs out there where, usually, grad students teach undergraduate classes in exchange for waived tuition. But Matthews cautions, “Grad student labor is very very cheap and occasionally exploitative.” So, it’s best to make sure the programs you are applying to are fair with the number of classes you would have to teach and provide decent living expenses. But it is important to note that, if you are in the financial position to pay for graduate school out of pocket, then keep those non-funded programs in mind when applying.

  8. 8. The GRE is not as important as you might think. 

    In recent years, the Graduate Record Exam, or GRE, has been declining in importance when examining applications. Now with the safety concerns of testing in person, many graduate programs are waiving the GRE requirement this application cycle. The most important part of your application packet is by far your writing sample and personal statement. Kidd declares “an excellent [score] will bring you praise, but probably not much else.” But it’s important not to discount the exam altogether. Murchek warns that if you do exceptionally poorly on the verbal portion and you’re applying to a program that is heavy in analytical writing, like English or History, that will most likely affect your acceptance decision. So, do a few practice exams and be prepared but if you have to decide between expending energy on your writing or your exam, go for the writing. 

Graduate applications can be a stressful and confusing time, but at UF there are lots of resources to help you answer your questions. Ask your professors during office hours, or attend discussions within your department, like the one I went to. Ask your academic advisor via virtual advising hours. Or better yet, call some of your prospective graduate programs to get your questions answered and get your foot in the door. But just remember that the university is there to help you and you only need one school to say yes. Good luck!