Featured Graduate Insight
What is Graduate School? Why Would I Want to Go to a Master's in Science Program?
There is life beyond undergrad. Graduate school is a great opportunity for students to explore more specific areas of study through research and teaching. The course of graduate study culminates in a Master's degree or a doctoral degree (Ph.D.). Depending on the degree and the area of study, a graduate degree can be from one to eight years in duration. It is important to remember that specific graduate degrees differ in significant ways. Some degrees involve an intensive series of courses, as well as a major research project (thesis). Other degrees include passing comprehensive exams designed to evaluate the extent of students' knowledge in a specific area. In scientific fields, the focus is research, as opposed to course work.
Graduate education is obviously quite different from undergraduate education. While undergraduate degrees essentially provide an "overview" of a wide variety of fields of academic research, graduate degrees focus on fairly specific areas of study, usually derived from topics studied during an undergraduate degree.
Upon entering graduate school, it is evident that the academic and personal demands are also distinct from those of an undergraduate degree. Students are expected to be both focused and highly motivated. Additionally, they are expected to have acquired superior research skills during their undergraduate education. Graduate students are required to present their research or participate in seminars. Therefore, it is imperative for students to become comfortable with communicating ideas effectively to others who may, or may not, have a similar level of knowledge in an area of study.
Being Inquisitive and Defining Your Goals
Given that a significant time commitment is required for both types of graduate degrees, it is important to identify the goals you wish to achieve and to be realistic with regards to the occupations made possible by graduate school. Therefore, it is wise to ask graduate students and faculty members to share their experiences. Students often feel they are not prepared for graduate school. After speaking with professors, however, students often realize that they have had misconceptions regarding the grades or experience necessary to make them a qualified candidate. Students should not feel embarrassed about not already knowing all the answers. Professors are pleased to speak with students about their interests and goals and also have a great deal of knowledge about graduate school. They can help students contact other professors who may know more about a given area of study. In order to gain a realistic perspective about graduate school, students should speak to a number of different people, as each professor has subjective views based on their own experiences.
Passion for Your Studies
Many graduate students claim that passion for their field is the main reason for their pursuit of a graduate degree. Making a contribution to a particular area of study is an exciting idea. This can be personally rewarding and can also lead to larger discoveries within a particular discipline. However, graduate education can result in more tangible benefits as well. These include pay increases, promotions, career shifts, increased expertise, openings within the job market and potential for entry into a field requiring an advanced degree (e.g. university professor).
Components of a Master's Degree
A typical Master's degree requires one to two years of study. For an M.A., coursework consists of in-depth coverage of a specific area of study, usually one that was touched upon in undergraduate courses. This type of degree may also involve a thesis or research project and/or qualifying exams. Alternatively, an M.Sc. usually involves some coursework and a research project/thesis. A Master's degree is required for positions in education, social work and public health. For jobs in mathematics, computer science, engineering, architecture and business, a Master's degree provides an advantage.
" Your Thesis
Before completion of the degree, the original thesis/research project is presented to an evaluation committee. While this is thought to be a grueling experience, it is rare for a student to "fail" a thesis defense. Providing the student has demonstrated adequate knowledge, appropriate research skills and original ideas, he/she is usually successful. The evaluation process may consist of a presentation of research or experimental results. Because the committee may consist of individuals from slightly differing fields, the questions posed by these individuals can be quite challenging. Frequently, the committee members themselves do not know the answers. Therefore, it is imperative that students remain calm and attempt to answer the questions in an articulate and meaningful way.
" Is it Financially Possible?
A major consideration in choosing to enter a Master's program is the financial burden it can impose. Universities have established financial aid packages, bursaries and scholarships to help students address their financial concerns. Financial aid and bursaries are usually considered for students experiencing financial hardship. However, students have the opportunity to apply for numerous scholarships. These may be based on academic excellence, ethnic/cultural heritage, extra-curricular activities and specific research areas. In scientific fields, however, students may be required to gain financial support from a supervisor before registering in a program. This support may be in the form of money from a supervisor's grant or another outside agency (government, charitable organization etc.). This type of financial support is termed a stipend for graduate work and is designed to prevent student exploitation during the course of graduate work.
" Investigate Your Career Goals
Before entering into a graduate program, it is necessary to investigate your career goals. A Master's degree alone will not allow you to hold a teaching position in a university. However, an M.A. in English may allow students to teach in public and private high schools, and perhaps some community colleges. The onus is upon each student to identify his/her specific career goals and determine if a Master's degree is required, recommended or unnecessary. For example, because of the large number of qualified individuals wishing to enter into the pharmaceutical industry, a Master's degree may not be considered an advantage. Many successful Ph.D. students are seeking employment in this industry. Therefore, the additional research experience afforded by a Ph.D. is essential.
" A Good Taste Before the Ph.D
However, many students are uncertain if the intensity of a Ph.D. is appropriate for them. With this in mind, a Master's degree is a good indication of what the world of academia is like. Without the commitments of a Ph.D., students can determine if academia truly suits their interests. Some schools provide the opportunity for students to reclassify into a Ph.D. program after a certain amount of Master's degree work. This requires the student to demonstrate superior research skills and potential for a Ph.D.-worthy thesis. Other schools require that students complete their Master's degrees before applying for a Ph.D. If a student wishes to continue his/her research in the same field, with the same supervisor, it is a good idea to reclassify. Reclassification can eliminate one or two years from the final Master's/Ph.D. process. Students may also wish to complete their Master's degree in one area of study and subsequently switch to an alternate area of study for their Ph.D. This would require application for a Ph.D. program upon the completion of a Master's Degree. It is important to note that this may require students to take prerequisite courses either before or during their Ph.D.
Finding the Right Program
While it is important to be adequately qualified for a particular program, it is also imperative that the program suits your interests, abilities and values. Ascertain what it is you hope to gain from a graduate degree.
Graduate programs are highly specialized. Therefore, you should determine what type of research you hope to conduct prior to applying. For example, in the sciences, you could participate in clinical or basic research. It is necessary to know what type of research suits your interests and abilities. Clinical research requires an ability to interact well with people, especially those who may be ill. Conversely, basic research involves intensive laboratory work, which requires good concentration and experimental accuracy.
In the arts, you can choose a program requiring you to do an extensive research project with an advisor. Alternatively, you may want to participate in a program offering intensive coursework in a particular area. Again, determine which of these options would best suit your interests and abilities.
" Finding a Supervisor
With these things in mind, seek out professors with whom you share similar interests. Read journal articles they have written so that you are informed about their research. This is especially important if you set up a meeting with them. Most academics are pleased when students take interest in their work. Upon meeting with professors of interest, you may wish to explore the possibility of working with them. They will inform you whether or not they are interested in taking on a student. It is wise to meet with a number of different professors. Your relationship with your supervisor can have dramatic effects on your graduate school experience. At the Master's level, it is important to find a professor with whom you can freely exchange ideas. Furthermore, your supervisor should be someone whose research and experience you respect. Regardless of the specific research project, you should expect to learn a great deal about research from your supervisor. Make certain it is someone with whom you work well.
" Evaluating Different Programs
The Internet is a great way to seek information about a program and to contact people in a given department. However, you will need additional information to find the right program. Ask people who are involved in your field of interest. They may be able to recommend a particular school or professor. Some universities may have better reputations with regards to your field of interest than others. Therefore, anecdotal information from students and professors is valuable for your decision.
" Visit Schools if you can
After gathering information about different schools, it is a good idea to visit schools that may be of interest. This will give you an indication of life as a student at a particular university. Some campuses are located in small towns, while others are in larger urban centres. Determine what type of environment would be ideal for you.
Visiting schools will also allow you to determine what types of resources are available for your research. A well-funded department may increase your chances of getting financial compensation for graduate school. Faculty members with grant money will be willing to take on more students and provide them with stipends. Ideally, it is better to work in a lab with no limitations on supplies. This is not often the case. However, it is important to ascertain whether or not you will be able to obtain all the supplies necessary to conduct a good research project.
" Considering Your Future
Career possibilities are a large consideration when choosing a program. I order to determine if specific programs meet your career needs, you may wish to organize the research you have obtained. For this task, you should answer a number of questions with regards to each program.
" Am I certain this field interests me?
" What types of opportunities will this program provide after graduation?
" Will this program lead me to my career goals?
" Do I have the qualifications to enter into this program?
" Are there faculty members whose work appeals to me?
" Will this program allow me to make meaningful contacts in the field?
" What are the financial considerations (housing, tuition, etc.)?
" Am I eligible for financial aid or scholarships?
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