How to get into Graduate School: 3 Secrets to Success

March 10, 2014 at 10:46 am  •  Posted in Education by  •  2 Comments

Since I started blogging about careers in GIS and graduate programs in geography I’ve received many emails and comments from people who want to get into grad school. Many of them don’t really know where to start. When I started thinking about grad school back in 1991-1992 I didn’t know where to start either. If I could go back in time, here are the three key insights I’d share with my younger, better-looking self.

Before I get into the 3 insider secrets let’s define what I mean by grad school. The type of grad school I’m talking about here is a research-oriented Master’s or PhD program. I’m not talking about Medical School, Law School, B-School (except if you’re going for a PhD in Business rather than an MBA). Engineering school may well be a completely different world as well.

My PhD is in geography so my experience is most relevant to those considering a Master’s or PhD in geography. That said, geography is unique and I’m a bit of an oddity as well. Geography cuts across social sciences and physical sciences and shares some sliver of an academic Venn diagram with Computer Science, Statistics and perhaps even Visual Art and Graphic Design (via Cartography). In my case, I had a Professor of Computer Science on my dissertation committee. I took grad level courses in Economics and Business Statistics and for 5 years I worked closely with PhDs in Operations Research and Supply Chain Management. I also worked for the USGS and interacted with environmental science types for 2 years. So I think it’s safe to claim some ability to provide guidance outside the realm of geography. However, you will need to decide for yourself how applicable my experience is to your particular field of study.

Secret Tip #1. Grad school is an apprenticeship. If you think about grad school as another set of courses to take with a project or thesis to write at the end, similar to the typical undergraduate college experience, you’re missing the mark. The best way to approach grad school is to think of your advisor as a mentor who will help to train you in a particular area of research. This is most certainly true at the PhD level and you’ll get more from your studies if you treat a Master’s degree the same way.

In addition, this has implications for selecting target academic departments. Rather than exploring different programs you should be evaluating different professors as potential mentors. Most students, I think, spend a lot of time weighing the pros and cons of various programs, departments, and Universities. And I don’t mean to dismiss this approach all together. In fact, it’s critical to find a department and a University where you can be successful. But, in my opinion, your choice of advisor is more important than any other consideration. This means that in searching for the right graduate school you should focus first and foremost on finding the right professor to become your research mentor. Turns out that this is good practice for graduate school generally and for research specifically because you need to start by conducting a literature review. This forces you to read research articles and identify an area where you’d like to make a contribution. Along the way you’ll begin to identify key players in your field of interest. Write down their names. Find out where they teach. Look at their CV. Read their papers. Send them an email. Try to reach them by phone. Meet them at a conference. Offer to buy coffee or lunch. Ask if they need a hard-working grad student to help advance their research agenda. Don’t be annoying but be persistent. This will put you on their radar screen. And, as you’ll see below, you don’t want to be anonymous when you apply for admission.

Secret Tip #2. Standardized scores are critical. It’s not really fair but it’s the reality facing admissions committees in any department that receives far more applicants than spots available. It’s not fair because standardized tests are culturally biased. If your cultural background is markedly different than most of middle America it can be a challenge to achieve a good score. If you’re a lousy test taker coming from middle America you’re in even worse shape because members of the committee won’t be able to excuse a low score.

Why are test scores so important? Because the logistics of admissions make it so. Here’s the reality. A graduate department admissions committee might consist of 2-3 faculty and 1-2 grad student assistants. Let’s say the committee has 20 spots available for new students and receives 120 applications. First the committee will likely have a few slam dunk candidates (try to be this type). Maybe a professor has already expressed a desire to bring in 1 or more students (see Secret #1 above to join this crowd) or maybe a student has already secured their own external funding (via NSF grant or comparable). These applicants, let’s say 5 of them, are already in and now you’re down to only 15 spots available from 115 applicants. Wouldn’t it be nice at this point if the committee read each and every application package word for word and thought long and hard about how successful the candidate might be? Yes, it would be nice. But it would take too much time. So, what does an admissions committee do? They rank the candidates. What’s the easiest/best way to rank candidates? Standardized test scores.

Wait, why don’t grades matter as much or more? Well, because how do you compare a straight A student who graduated with honors from East Tennessee State University to a student who graduated with a 3.1 GPA from Dartmouth? How do you compare a Film Studies major with a 3.8 GPA to a Mechanical Engineering major with a 2.9 GPA? You tell me who’s the better prospective grad student. Not so easy is it?

And what about the applicants personal statement? Doesn’t that matter? Yes, it’s the tie-breaker. So, after the insider admits (again, see Secret #1) the committee will likely group the remaining applicants as follows: (1) top candidates, (2) middle of the pack and (3) no chance. So the “no chance” group is tossed out right away. No one probably even bothers to read their entire application packet because their GRE scores are so low. It’s sad, yes, because some of these applicants may have been very successful. But do you think the tenured Associate Professor who chairs the admission committee is going to get promoted to full Professor based on diligent student admissions efforts? Nope. Let’s say there are 25 applicants in the “no chance” group. So now we’re left with 90 remaining candidates in the “top candidates” and “middle of the pack” groups. Who are these top candidates? They are probably the applicants who scored highest on the GRE, with a few exceptions. So the committee will scrutinize this top group looking for reasons to exclude someone. Maybe they toss out a few but 10 applicants in the top group are given the green light for admission. That leaves 5 spots to fill from a pool of 80 remaining applicants. So now the committee members go to work combing through these applications to see who rises to the top. Let’s say each member of the committee dedicates a full 15 minutes to each application packet. That’s 20 hours of work. Or 5+ hours each for a 4-person committee. Maybe they have a week to come up with recommendations and meet again for another hour or two to make decisions.

So, you can see that it’s difficult to stand out. Your personal statement is absolutely critical. Your GPA is critical too. It helps to have attended a well-respected undergraduate institution. But, due to ease of use in the ranking/sorting process, I would argue that your GRE or GMAT is the most important factor if you are applying “anonymously”, meaning you failed to take my recommended approach in Secret #1.

Secret Tip #3. If you’re not offered funding you probably should not attend. If you’re going for a research Master’s or a PhD your studies should be funded by the department in exchange for teaching or research and/or related administrative work. This is the standard arrangement. If you’re admitted but expected to pay full tuition my advice is don’t go.

This is perhaps the biggest difference between research-oriented grad school and MD, JD, MBA and other professional programs. The best MA/PhD candidates don’t pay tuition. This is one reason why I think the PhD is a great path even if you aren’t after a tenure track professor gig. The education is outstanding and it’s “free” or at least you walk away debt free. This is in stark contrast to the high-flying doctors, lawyers and bankers who make bigger bucks but typically must pay off big grad school debt as well.

There are certainly exceptions to this rule. Sometimes it makes sense to pay full-fare for a Master’s degree that will set you up for the best possible PhD opportunities. But, generally speaking, if you are granted admission but the department doesn’t consider you worthy of a teaching or research assistant position, you’re better off waiting a year to try again or going elsewhere.

It’s not just the financial part of the equation; there is also an important perceptual difference. You won’t be thought of as a colleague by faculty if you’re paying tuition and attending classes like an undergrad. On the other hand, if you’re helping to teach or do research and you’re involved in department activities the faculty will think of you as part of the starting line-up. And when you’re a starter you get to play (and learn) more than those sitting on the bench.

There are certainly other considerations and probably many more insider secrets that I don’t know. But, these 3 tips just might set you far enough apart from the field to grab the attention of a professor in your field of interest. And finding the right advisor can make all the difference.

I was lucky enough to find a great mentor who was willing to give me a chance. His gamble and guidance certainly made all the difference in my career.



  1. T S B / May 8, 2014 at 3:43 pm / Reply

    I think things may be changing a bit, specifically due to the internet. More and more universities are offering online courses, specifically for graduate programs. Due to this many are making accommodations for prospective and attending students; GRE requirements and research are two points that I see institutions easing.

    Not all students are interested in research or gaining higher ed. employment, specifically tenure. Many see higher ed. with the same view as they saw the undergrad environment, to gain a degree/skill with which to gain employment, hopefully using said degree.

    I am a GIS grad student. My undergrad is in social studies education. I have zero prior experience in GIS. I wanted to change my career and life trajectory; grad school was the only viable option – it was now or never and with a family and responsibilities, I do not share the freedoms nor opportunities of a twenty-something freshly graduated with a bachelors. Furthermore, it had to be online. I found a school that did not require a GRE for admittance and offers a sound GIS program, that while requiring a capstone, is not necessarily research-centric. Yes, it’s more expensive for me, but the route you recommend was both not possible for me nor of interest to me. I have a year left and am on track to graduate with a MSGISc. Right now I am focusing on gaining employment using the GIS certificate and educational status as leverage/experience to find an entry-level position. It’s a tough slog, but I will succeed.

    • Justin / May 8, 2014 at 6:06 pm / Reply

      Thanks for your comments! Yes, things are changing in many ways. What you describe is what I would consider a “professional” program as opposed to the research-oriented graduate school experience I was writing about above. For many, it’s much better to pursue studies with more of an applied focus because they have no intention of doing research or becoming a professor and this provides a more efficient path to a job. It sounds like you’re one of these people and I applaud your effort. I is indeed a tough slog. For others I worry that on-line programs serve as a “fast-food” solution, tasty and filling near term but lacking adequate nutrition for the long haul. The key is knowing what you want after grad school. One size does not fit all. Best of luck! Justin

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