General Education

How Grad School Is Different Than Undergrad

How Grad School Is Different Than Undergrad
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Yonah Korngold profile
Yonah Korngold September 19, 2014

Just because you’re back in the classroom and library doesn’t mean things will be the same. Here’s what you can expect when you go back for grad school.

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When the first 11 graduate students in the United States walked into their classroom in 1847, at what would become Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, it can be assumed that they all shared the same thought as every grad student who would come thereafter: “I’m in way over my head; this is completely different than undergrad.”

Yes, the campus may look familiar, but something feels inherently different. That’s because grad school is a whole other ballgame.

The Differences

Here are the differences you can expect:

# The classroom is a more intimate environment.

Grad school is an individual experience, though you will develop a “we are in this together” mentality with the other students in your program. Class size will be smaller and more participatory. Your professor will not be spending time determining if you are up to date with your readings; he will assume that you are and are ready to add to the conversation.

# Your social life will consist of only your classmates.

If undergrad is like a reality show social experiment (take a group of 18-year-olds from very different backgrounds, throw them into the same living situation, and watch them figure out life), then grad school is like a Japanese-style game show (place 11 contestants in a small room stacked with countless books and ask them to not only retain all of the information, but present original ideas before time runs out). Even though your fellow students may no longer form the basis of your social life, they will be the only ones who truly understand what you are going through, leading you to forge bonds.

# There’s a new definition to student life “on campus.”

In undergrad, the college campus could be locked into a huge invisible dome, and most students would never notice. In grad school, the campus is much more like your office. There is a bridge mentally, and often physically, between the campus and the rest of your world. The exception, of course, is the library — which will serve as your main connection to campus life.

Tips and advice to help you succeed in grad school

When your car starts to resemble a library and you find yourself calculating the risk/reward ratio of taking an hour break to watch something on Netflix (with a book open on the coffee table, of course), it becomes easy to feel overwhelmed. Use these tips to gain perspective and power through the years in graduate school.

# Master time management.

Unless your graduate thesis is updating the space-time continuum, graduate students are only allotted the same number of hours in a day as everyone else. Managing your time will be your top priority.

Generally, if you feel prepared to participate in class discussions and find things in your readings that spark your interest for further research, then you are on the right track. Many programs will not have deadlines until the end of the semester, so you should set your own personal goals. With less structure and greater autonomy, you will have to manage your own day.

Some helpful ways to do that are:

  • Use daily and monthly to-do lists.
  • Get into a daily rhythm and don’t forget to schedule time for yourself.
  • Some students will need to learn to say “no,” but others will need to learn to say “yes.” Find a healthy balance.

# Don’t let impostor syndrome bring you down.

There is something about grad school that makes every student at some point feel like he is Frank Abagnale in “Catch Me If You Can.” You have to convince yourself that you are not alone and that it is normal to feel like you do not belong. Have confidence in yourself and your abilities, and always remember that your goals made you want to apply to grad school in the first place. You are one step closer to accomplishing them!

If you are looking for more guidance about impostor syndrome, check out our article: Do I Really Belong in Grad School? Managing Impostor Syndrome.

# Spend quality time with your advisor.

In undergrad, students often take the “tell them what they want to hear” mentality when speaking one-on-one with professors and advisors. They think that they are being judged and graded, and pass the time nodding their heads or taking copious notes. In grad school, you should learn how to utilize this time with your advisor to determine your own academic, research, and career goals. Your advisor will be able to help you get there, but you need to meet her halfway. Your advisor will provide the fuel, but you have to build the car.

# Learn to read like a grad student.

Any moment that your eyes fall outside the margins of a book can sometimes feel like a wasted minute. This doesn’t have to be the case, as you will need to learn how to read not only efficiently but for analytical purposes. You are reading not only for comprehension but to critique and spark your own research interests.

There is a lot of advice out there on how to read faster and smarter, but the best advice is that reading and writing should become one and the same. Your reading should inspire your writing and vice versa. If you are able to engage in a dialogue with the text by writing notes that correlate to other readings, lectures, and research, then you will be well prepared for class.

Read the introduction and conclusion to get a sense of the author’s main points, and then strategically dig in and engage with a critical perspective. A wine critic does not need to drink the whole bottle in order to describe the taste.

# Dive in headfirst and remember to enjoy it!

There will never be another time in your life when you can devote your complete self to one area of focus. Dive right in! Even professors, who have to spend much of their day deep in administrative tasks, wish that they could go back to their grad school days when the only thing that mattered was the pursuit of knowledge in their chosen field.

When it feels overwhelming, remember that you will one day feel lucky to have been overwhelmed. Your sole purpose in grad school is to absorb knowledge, analyze, critique, and be creative. It is a great way of life! Try to enjoy the ride, and always remember that your estimated time of arrival is closer than you think.


How Grad School is Different from Undergrad. (n.d) Retrieved from Idealist

Academic demands. (n.d) Retrieved from The University of Michigan Health System

DuVernet, A., Behrend, T., Hess, C., McGinnis, J.L., Poncheri, R., & Vignovic, J. (2008). Adapting and Transitioning Throughout Graduate School. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 45, 85-89.

Shorter, D. Welcome to Graduate School. (2014). Retrieved from The Chronicle of Higher Education

Croxall, B. An Open Letter to New Graduate Students. (2010). Retrieved from The Chronicle of Higher Education
Happy Birthday to the Oldest American Graduate School. (1997). Retreived from Yale News

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