General Education

Climbing the Academic Ladder: Moving From Undergraduate to Graduate School

Climbing the Academic Ladder: Moving From Undergraduate to Graduate School
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Kelley Walker October 2, 2014

Many students choose to continue their time in academia after they graduate by going directly into graduate school. Find out what you can expect as you move up the ladder.

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You have finished your undergraduate program and are ready for graduate school. As you prepare for your new journey, understand that this new level of education will be quite different.

You will conduct extensive research, read voraciously, and write more than you ever have, but the rewards of earning a graduate degree are invaluable. Graduate school opened my mind in ways I could not imagine, and after graduation, I landed my dream jobs — teaching at the university level and writing professionally. Here is what you should expect.

Prepare for Rigorous Coursework

Graduate studies require a greater level of productivity, so be prepared for a heavier workload. You will conduct highly involved research projects and experiments for your courses, your thesis or dissertation, and your final portfolio. Some programs also require you to pass final exams.

Moreover, with additional research comes an abundant amount of writing. Your supervising professor and peers will review and comment on your writing for revision ideas. As explained by Richard L. Boyce, “What the [supervisors] are most interested in is your potential to design and execute a project in a reasonable amount of time and your abilities to write and talk about it coherently." You will convey your ideas in writing often to present them verbally later in presentations, so the stronger your writing abilities are the better you will fair.

Next, you will choose a supervising professor. Let her know your academic goals in the beginning. For example my program was designed to educate future teachers of secondary-level education, but my supervisor knew I intended to teach in higher education, so she allowed me to tailor my projects to my goal.

Work Well With Others

During your program, be conscious of your actions and the persona you present as they will create your reputation as a scholar in the academic community. This reputation will follow you through your program and into the workforce, so always present your best self. Show respect to your professors and peers by coming on time to classes and assistantships and preparing any assignments that are due. Your classes will not be in auditoriums that hold hundreds of students; your class sizes will be small. You will also learn from a small group of professors, so expect close collaboration with your teachers and peers.

In addition, you will have the opportunity to work in assistantships. The two common types are research assistantships (RA) and teaching assistantships (TA). However, be wary about becoming overly involved. You must be able to manage your time to fulfill your core responsibilities. Haggerty warns, “If you are going to get involved, do so to the best of your abilities, but remember to partition your time and energy in light of your responsibilities to write and conduct research."

Your graduate studies will take up extraordinary amounts of time. You will work most days of the week, and you will take summer courses. Although you will have time for holidays and short vacations, you will not have a three-month summer vacation, Heinz Reiske explains. Thus, you must fully dedicate to your academic pursuits.

Take Care of Yourself

As you can imagine, you will not have as much time to spend with family and friends because your work will involve solitary time spent researching and writing. Expect stress and less sleep. Take care of your well-being during this intense time. Talk with others about your stress. Finding a close friend in the program or talking to a professional counselor can benefit you more than you can imagine.

During my program, I fought stress with counseling, exercise, a balanced diet, and planned time once a week to do something I truly enjoyed, such as hiking or reading for pleasure. Despite the stress and intense work load, don’t give up!

Kevin D. Haggerty assures, “You will be embarking on an intellectual adventure where you absolutely immerse yourself in the field. You will become an expert in your chosen area… It will be intense but rewarding."

Persevere in your endeavor, give the work your best, and remember that this time will change your life in the most amazing way.


Boyce, R.L. (2009). Thinking about graduate school? Bios 80(1), 35-40.

Haggerty, K.D. (2010). Tough love: professional lessons for graduate students. The American Sociologist 41(1), 82-96.

Reiske, H. (2001). Getting into and surviving graduate school. Bios 72(3), 100-102.


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