How to Prepare for an MA or PhD Program

How to Prepare for an MA or PhD Program

If you’re planning to apply to or attend an MA or PhD program, you may be wondering what—if anything—you should be doing now in order to prepare yourself.

In this post, I’ll talk about two scenarios—continuing with your schooling or returning to it after taking a break—and share some general advice on what people in these situations can do to:

  • strengthen their applications if they have not yet applied;
  • plan out their application timelines in accordance with their current obligations;
  • prepare themselves for the transition.

Scenario A: You’re currently doing undergraduate coursework and plan to attend graduate school right after you finish.

First off, spend some time thinking about whether going straight through to graduate school is the best idea for your given field. Most students benefit from some time in the real world beforehand. It gives them a chance to develop self-discipline and try out other professions before committing to several expensive years of graduate work and whatever career comes out of it. Taking a year after college to explore options and speak with professors, current graduate students, and other professionals about how they got to where they are and whether their path (or something similar) might be the right one for you to pursue.

If you are certain you want to go straight from your undergraduate work to graduate school, there are several things you can do to strengthen your profile and make the application process easier.

  • Be sure to develop solid relationships with potential recommenders and mentors while you are in college. This way, they’ll have great memories of you when it comes time to write your recommendation letters. They may even be able to make introductions to their colleagues at other schools for you and give you advice about which programs to target for graduate school.
  • Take on independent research projects whenever possible. Your success in these types of projects will be the clearest demonstration of your ability to plan and execute high-level scholarship. So, commit to that senior thesis! Sign up for an independent study. You’ll also probably need to submit a sample of your work with your graduate applications, and this type of work can fill that requirement well.
  • Spend your summers effectively. Have some fun, but also work on language skills, research, or fieldwork with your time off. You could also take a job over the summer in order to save up some money for grad school (trust me, you’ll need it) or explore other career options before committing to academia.

You should also stay cognizant of your timeline for applications in order to plan other obligations accordingly. You should finish your testing process for whatever standardized tests are required for your program by the late summer/early fall of your senior year of college. Essentially, you want to get the testing out of the way before you have to write your applications, which is a challenge all on its own. Writing the statement of purpose, requesting recommendations, gather writing or research samples, etc. will take you a few months, so set aside some time in your schedule for it.

Finally, you’ll also want to do things to prepare for the social, financial, and intellectual changes that come with graduate school. Probably the most important thing you can do to help yourself in this area is to get serious.

Put yourself on a routine and create habits that help you stick to your plans.

Learn to work 9–10 hours a day, straight (small, disciplined study breaks are okay). Figure out when to fit exercise into your daily schedule, and make that time sacred. Learn how to set boundaries for and motivate yourself when you are feeling low or lazy. Developing this kind of resilience will go a long way towards keeping you sane in graduate school.

Scenario B: You are currently working and planning to go back to school after an academic break.

If you are in this situation, you are likely worried about having been out of “school mode” for some time. Don’t worry; graduate school is an adjustment for everyone. The good news is you can take steps now to ease that transition.

  • Play nice with your colleagues. Even if you plan to leave your job soon, maintain good relationships with your officemates and supervisors. You may need a recommendation from one of them, and when you’re drowning in your own sorrows about that term paper, you may welcome a visit with Bob from accounting.
  • Go above and beyond in everything that you do. Your proactiveness and initiative in the work environment can speak volumes about your potential for independent advanced study. Once you’re in graduate school, you’ll notice that the most successful grad students are always striving for improvement. So, start practicing now.
  • Maintain your work ethic and schedule. Solidify good work, exercise, eating, and sleep habits. Life in graduate school may seem like less of a grind than a 9–5, but in reality, graduate work follows you everywhere you go. You can’t leave it at the office for the weekend. Your research, reading, and writing obligations will always be hanging over your head, so it’s important for you to maintain balance and slot things into a stable schedule. Otherwise, they could overwhelm you completely.
  • Take an evening or online class to gradually reintroduce your brain to scholarly work. This can also be a great way to brush up your skills and get prerequisites out of the way.

As for when to apply, remember that graduate applications are submitted in the fall or winter almost a full year before the graduate program actually begins. That means you’ll be stuck in your job for a while after you’ve finished your applications. Take precautions so that you don’t become disheartened. You’ll be looking ahead to the next step in your career, but you may feel like you are treading water for a few months.

Make the most of this time: keep up your relationships, enjoy your social life, and leave a meaningful legacy at your job.

Like those in Scenario A, you’ll need to finish testing by the late summer and work on your applications through the fall and winter. Because you will still be working, and because it’s probably been a while since you’ve had to study for anything, you might want to give yourself extra time to prepare for your tests and work on applications.

From my own experience of going to graduate school after two years in the working world, I’d say that the best thing you can do to prepare yourself for the transition to graduate school is to read. And I mean really read. You’ll need to build up both your reading speed and retention/comprehension levels, and the best way to do this is to read everything you can get your hands on: foundational texts for your field, journal articles, theoretical manifestos, and even popular literature on the subject. Practice taking notes, too.

No matter which scenario you find yourself in, do yourself a favor and think about what you can do now to make your future easier, more successful, and more manageable.

And, as always, we’re here for you if you need us.

Picture of Sheila A.

Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.

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