Is graduate school for you?

Let us answer the questions you might have

By: Aaron Richardson


What do I need to do to apply?

If you’re thinking about grad school, the first thing to consider is the application. The application process will be different for every school, but here are some things that are important to think about before you apply:

  • Reference letters
    Along with your application, you must include a couple of reference letters. Although it can change from school to school, the typical number you need is three. Your referee must be capable of attesting to your academic abilities in great detail. The most common source of these letters are professors you have previously had, preferably ones that marked your work and/or knew you personally. When asking for a reference letter, it is always a good idea to ask early so that your referee has plenty of time to write it.
  • Grad school readiness exam
    This exam is not required for all schools (most schools in Canada do not require you take it). However, if you wish to apply to a school in the United States, it would be best to check if this is one of the requirements. This is a difficult exam. Like the Medical College Admission Test or the Law School Admission Test, it acts as an indication of your promise in grad school. If your school requires it, the mark you receive will act alongside your GPA as the first considerations when looking over your application.
  • Applying early
    Applications are often due between six months to a year in advance of your first semester. As the application itself takes time, this is not something to put off until the last minute. Start getting your application ready as soon as possible.


How is graduate school different from undergraduate?

  • Research
    One important thing to keep in mind is that grad school is about research. This is perhaps the biggest difference between the two forms of schooling. “During your undergraduate schooling, you’re primarily absorbing knowledge, but in graduate school you’re expected to create new knowledge,” explains Derek Sahota, a current PhD candidate in SFU’s physics department. Instead of having knowledge be given to you, and then being tested on your ability to absorb what you’re learning, you are responsible for adding  knowledge to your field in one form or another.  
    Regardless of the discipline, your time in grad school is mainly spent conducting research. If you’re in the sciences and social sciences, oftentimes it is in the form of experimental research. You design and run an experiment, followed by analysis and interpretation of the data. In other programs, such as the humanities and arts, research takes the form of reading, reviewing, and compiling current literature on your topic. You work towards becoming an expert on that topic, and start asking questions that have yet to be answered. Either way, both of these are very different from the way in which undergraduate school is designed.
  • Autonomy
    Another difference is that as a grad student your work is much more autonomous. You are responsible for your own time and your work is much more self-directed. This can act as both a blessing and a curse; it allows for much more freedom than can be found in undergrad, but it also increases responsibility. Depending on how capable you are of managing your own time, the autonomy can make grad school easier or more difficult.


What is the course load like?

Coursework in grad school is slightly different from that in undergrad. Firstly, while your undergrad is mainly coursework, this is generally only a part of being a grad student. Depending on the program, you may be required to take between four and six courses throughout your degree. Once those courses are done, you won’t need to take any more and can focus on your individual projects. Many grad students often finish up coursework in the first couple of semesters, then spend the rest of their degree just working on their main project.


What employment opportunities will I have during grad school?

Unfortunately, grad school is essentially a full-time job, which means it can be difficult to find outside employment to fund your tuition. Thankfully, there are multiple ways that you can still pay for school.

  • Grants, bursaries, and scholarships
    All of these sources of funding are common for grad students. You shouldn’t count on these sources to pay for all of your education, but it’s safe to say you will receive at least some outside support through one of these throughout your degree. However, receiving these awards is not a guarantee. Even if you receive one, it won’t be paying for all of your expenses.
  • Teaching assistant (TA)
    The most common form of employment as a grad student is being a TA. Being a TA is not a required part of grad school, but it is an almost guaranteed form of employment. The responsibilities include attending all of the classes you are a TA for, hosting tutorials once a week, holding office hours, and marking any papers, assignments, or exams that the students are assigned. If you are a TA, you’ll find it has a similar work distribution throughout a semester as in an undergrad. As a student who takes multiple courses, it is often the case that workload increases in the middle of the semester during midterms, and at the end during finals. This is the same for a TA. During those times, they are responsible for helping any students that need assistance in that class, and grading their papers and exams once handed in. Check out our story from last week on what it’s like being a TA.
    Salaries differ across universities, but with an average salary of $5,800 per semester and an average tuition of $1,800, being a TA at SFU generally leaves you with approximately $4,000 left to live off of for a semester. One issue is that if you’re going to SFU, chances are you live in Vancouver — the city with the highest cost of living in Canada. Although it is likely to have your tuition paid for in one way or another, being in grad school is not a prosperous time in life. Grad students are still students and, like undergrads, money can sometimes be an issue.


How long will it take?

Many undergrad students are under the impression that a master’s or PhD would take around two years. While it is possible at some universities, that is not what you should expect. At SFU, the average time it take for a student to complete a master’s is three years, while the average for a PhD is six.


What is it like to work so closely with a professor?

A very important part of grad school is that you are working under a supervisor. This supervisor is a professor in your field of study who acts as your first point of contact. When you are picking your grad school, you are also picking the professor you will be working under. This is an important decision, as the professor you pick — and the relationship the two of you have — can make or break your graduate experience. Every supervisor is different, which means that every experience can be different. Some are very hands-on, guiding you very directly on what you need to be doing, and taking a very close interest in what you are working on at any time. Others can be much more hands-off, letting you be responsible for your own time and work. It’s possible for either of these teaching methods to become harmful at one extreme or the other. If you’re interested in working under a particular professor for your degree, do as much research as you possibly can. One way to find out what working under any particular supervisor would be like is to ask their current or previous grad students. Grad students love to complain about their supervisors. If you want to know what they are like, this is the best source you’ll find.


What can I do to improve my chances of getting into grad school?

If you’re interested in grad school, find a way in which you can get experience in a more graduate setting. If you’re in an experimental field, volunteer in a lab. You get the opportunity to see what it is like to conduct a research experiment. If you’re in the arts and humanities, approach a professor and try a directed studies class. Often this is a much more self-directed method and is similar to the real grad school experience. In many programs it is possible to volunteer or work as a research assistant at the undergraduate level. If you’re interested, look up the opportunities in your program. They are a great way to get a taste of the graduate experience at the undergraduate level.

Something that can always help improve your chances is to establish a connection with the professor you hope to work with and have as your supervisor. The reason for this is to set you out from the mass of applications that a professor would receive in any given year. When a professor reads through the applications, they are much more likely to choose a student they know and can personally attest to their competence. If a professor knows who you are and has seen how well you perform, that is a very important factor in getting into grad school.


Do I want to go to grad school?

This is the most important question that you can ask yourself if grad school is something you are considering. More important than any of the previous questions, this is something you need to be sure of. Don’t choose to go to grad school just because you’re not sure what to do next. Grad school is difficult, and shouldn’t be considered lightly. Keep in mind, this article is far from an exhaustive account of grad school. Every school is different. Every supervisor and department is different. If you are interested in grad school, make sure to do the research. Research everything: the program, the supervisor, how long it will take, what kind of funding options you’ll have, what the cost of living is in the area, etc. If this is research that you don’t want to bother with, then grad school might not be for you. Because that’s ultimately what grad school is — research.

“It’s OK to wait a year,” says Jennifer Chutter, a PhD candidate in liberal studies at SFU. If you’re not sure, take some time off after you graduate. See what the working world is like, and what kind of job you can get. When you go to grad school, make sure that it’s what you want to do. You need to be passionate about what you are doing, otherwise, the experience can be painful.