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* Academics

Undergraduate Program

Graduate School Guide

What is graduate school all about?

A Master's degree can take 1-2 years. It's mostly courses, and may or may not include a thesis.

A Ph.D. may take 5 years or so, but the time is quite variable. The first year or two will focus on courses, but the later years are spent doing research. Because of this, PhD study is not just a more advanced version of what you are doing as an undergraduate but is quite different in nature. Research means working on a problem that has not yet been solved. Thus, the path to the answer is not known. It may take longer than you expect. You may work on one approach for months, only to conclude it doesn't work. In research, it's not enough to just do what the syllabus says, and you can't expect to neatly finish everything in one semester. You have to take initiative. Maybe you'll find that you need to know more linear algebra for your research, so you'll go get a book and teach yourself linear algebra. You spend many hours a day for years focused on one research problem, so you have to really love what you are doing.

If you have taken advanced courses and have a high GPA, that does not necessarily mean that you will enjoy or succeed in graduate school. If you are considering pursuing a Ph.D., you should get research experience as an undergraduate. This will give you a chance to find out whether you will like Ph.D. work, and will also improve your chance of admission.

One difference between undergraduate study and graduate study is that often, you will be paid to go to graduate school. In many cases, your tuition will be paid and you will get a stipend for living expenses.

For more information about life as a graduate student, follow some of the links at Advice on Graduate School.

Application timeline

  • Things to do throughout your time as an undergraduate:
    • Do a URP (or several).
    • Get to know your professors so they will be able to write good recommendation letters for you.
  • Things to do by the end of your junior year:
    • Identify the research area that interests you.
    • Talk to your professors about graduate school.
    • Identify some schools to consider.
    • Make plans to prepare for and take the GRE.
  • You will need to complete your applications during the first semester of your senior year.
  • If you are applying for fall admission, you can expect application deadlines between December 1 and January 15
  • It is good to submit applications well in advance of the deadline.

Identifying schools to consider

  • Talk to faculty members in your research area. Ask them which schools have good research in that area.
    • They are the best source of information on the reputation of programs in your specific area.
    • Helps with recommendations - you will get to know faculty who could become your recommenders.
  • Check out who wrote interesting papers in your research area.
  • US News and World Report ranking.
  • National Research Council ranking
    • Data is old.
    • Faculty seem to like it - academic rather than commercial source.
    • Allows you to rank on various criteria, e.g. percentage of faculty who published, percentage of PhD graduates who are female.
  • Peterson's Guide. Hard copy book or searchable database on web.
    • Does not have rankings, but allows you to search by field of study, degree offered, and location.
    • Provides program overviews and links to university web sites.

Deciding which schools to apply to

  • Look at the web sites of the programs you have identified.
  • Read publications by faculty who might become your advisor.
  • There should be more than one interesting faculty member for you to work with. You may go intending to work with one person, but that person may go on sabbatical, have a personality clash with you, etc.
  • Contact schools with any questions. You may contact the admissions office, department staff, and/or faculty members, depending on the nature of your question.
  • Apply to schools that you think are at your level, as well as to safety schools and to schools that it would be a stretch to get into.


  • Schools may require online or paper applications.
  • Decisions are made by the academic department, not the admissions office. However, the admissions office may receive and process the application. Follow the instructions about application submission.
  • Required documents are typically the application, transcripts, statement of purpose, 2-3 recommendations, and GRE scores.
  • Particularly for top-ranked schools, it's assumed you will have good grades and good GRE scores, and what will really be of interest is your research potential, as demonstrated in your statement of purpose and your recommendation letters.
  • Applications are processed by humans and by computers. Both are fallible. Many programs, especially the top ones, receive an overwhelming number of applications. Don't assume that everything will be received and processed correctly. Check each school's policy regarding when/if they will send confirmation that they have received your materials, whether you can check your application status online, and how they want to receive inquiries from you. Follow these instructions to make sure that all required materials have been received.
  • If you submit your application well before the deadline, it is more likely that people will take the time to read it, and that admission and aid will still be available.
  • If your transcripts, recommendations, GRE scores, etc. arrive before your application, they are more likely to get lost because there will not yet be a file to associate them with.
  • Some schools will allow you to apply for fall or spring admission. Others only allow fall admission.

Deciding which admission to accept

  • Visit the schools which have admitted you and meet with faculty and students who will be in your research group.
  • Which do you think is the highest quality program?
  • Which is the best match for your research interests?
  • Which offer aid packages you can survive on?
    Note that you might not necessarily choose the most generous offer. Better to live frugally and love your work than to get better aid but then be unable to finish the degree because you hate it.
  • Will the aid continue at the same or better rate for the duration of your studies?
  • Does the aid package cover health insurance? If you have to pay your own, how much will it cost? What does the health insurance cover?

* Return to main Undergraduate Program page