7 Common Myths about Graduate School Debunked
We all get to that point in life where we feel higher education is a viable option to take a break from working life, to gain new qualifications for a promotion or to expand your horizons of knowledge. Whatever it might be, graduate school is no doubt an interesting liminal space between work and study that will surely help you learn new things about the world and about yourself. While university prospectuses will likely give you all the more reason to apply, this article offers you a self-assessed reality check by explaining 7 common misconceptions about graduate school to show what it could be like for you.
#1 Life as a graduate student is the same as life as an undergraduate studentReality: Well, more often than not, it is different. As an undergraduate student, most likely you left home for the first time. You and your peers enjoyed your newfound freedom, and people seemingly just clicked with one another because everyone was in the same kind of situation. You made great friends and tried to be there for each other while living life to the fullest.
In graduate school though, people return to school for different reasons and under different circumstances, so everyone is on a slightly different page of life. If you have been working for a while, you will have recognized changes in your motives and needs as well. Your classmates will be friendly, but their personal concerns and priorities might make it easier to connect with some students more than others. This does not mean you will not have a great time, though! You are now a different person who has had a taste of the world outside of campus and dormitory life. Therefore, how you define a good time and how you choose friends to spend time with will also be different.
#2 If you struggled with classes in undergraduate school, you won't be able to handle graduate schoolReality: Unlike undergraduate studies where you’re supposed to explore a broad range of subjects to discover what you like, graduate school is where you concentrate on your interests and explore them deeply. If you have a clear sense of purpose within your chosen field from the beginning, you will likely find that the major courses enable you to make progress with your own research, as subjects are interconnected and complementary. Since you no longer need to spend your time and energy on subjects that don’t relate to your interests and research, many graduate students find that their studies are more fulfilling and manageable.
#3 There are way fewer classes to take, so schoolwork is a piece of cakeReality: Remember how you ‘accused' your teachers of dumping a ton of homework on you because they seemed to think students only had their classes to work on? Well, in graduate school nothing has changed. On top of that they now see you as a future scholar and colleague, so the bar is placed higher with more intensive reading assignments, higher expectations for better writing, and more eloquent articulation of ideas and arguments. Everything you produce by default should be better than what they see in their undergraduate students. So brace yourself. Graduate school will not be easy, but you will be able to make one of the most important transitions in life: from a student to a professional researcher, networker, and thinker.
#4 Your thesis topic can be changed later, so it doesn’t really matter what you choose when you applyReality: 2-3 years go by fast. While your research will change and evolve over time, the best time to figure out what you want to study is before you apply. Once you join the program the clock starts ticking, and you are expected to have a pretty good idea about what kind of research you will be conducting. You are asked to submit a research proposal or study plan with your application because it not only helps identify your future advisor, it also shows how capable you are of completing your chosen program.
Another issue involves your relationships with professors. At high levels of research advising, each supervisor is usually specialized in a specific field. While minor adjustments are welcomed, switching divisions or radically changing your thesis topic would not only put yourself but also your advisors (current and new) into difficult situations. If you’re not sure where to start, your four years of undergraduate studies should tell you what you are good at and interested in, as well as give you a grounded foundation of knowledge and skills in a particular field. These are fine clues to help you determine what direction you want to take for graduate school.
#5 Graduate classes have fewer students, so professors have more time to work with you on your researchReality: The majority of professors you meet in graduate school also teach large undergraduate lecture courses and hold their own seminar classes while simultaneously grading your 5,000 word papers. As a result, there are times when it is hard to meet with professors for consultations outside of class. However, this does not mean you can’t ask for help. Just bear in mind that, like you, professors are busy. So before you approach them after class or with emails, make sure you consult with your advisor first. Know exactly what you wish to ask and show that you have done sufficient research on your own.
Essentially, all professors welcome questions and discussions from students. But they also want students to know that a big part of the process of becoming an independent professional in your field involves how well you train yourself to be resourceful and to take advantage of available tools from the library and other technologies. And by doing so, this will make any exchanges you have much more productive and efficient.
#6 It is easy to work and study full-time simultaneouslyReality: Although you may have been working full-time up until now, many students start part-time jobs once they enter Graduate School. But, as even part-time jobs can be hard to keep up with, you may be advised against taking them so that you can spend more time studying and doing research. Try to follow this advice as best as you can, because you don’t want to find yourself constantly being chased down by deadlines and never having enough time to do anything outside of work and school.
If you do take on a part-time job, don’t let this worry you. Working part-time can be a wonderful opportunity to learn about the local people and culture, to extend your social networks, and to find out more about employment options if you wish to stay in Japan after graduation. In the end, it’s all about future investments!
#7 Graduate students can’t learn anything from undergraduate coursesReality: Once you take a step up the ladder of education it can be hard to look back. However, while it might come across as a sequential process as you move up from undergraduate to graduate, knowledge does not actually work that way. Knowledge and education, in the purest sense regarding learning and growing, are not linear nor are they fragmented. Rather, knowledge and education are interconnected and multidimensional.
While the number of courses available to graduate students is rather limited, undergraduate courses offer a good diversity of choices as well as professor teaching styles. It could benefit you in various ways to identify relevant undergraduate courses and request permission to attend them. Not only will you have a teacher to walk you through the basics of your research interest, offer new perspectives of understanding, and provide you with useful materials for further research, there will also opportunities to work with professionals in your field as teaching assistants or research assistants.
Everything has two sides. A public side that appeals to popular expectations, and a personal side that is formed by adjusting your expectations to real-world experience. Just as in any real-world scenario, life in graduate school will present you with both opportunities and challenges, but these won't define you. What will, though, is how you make yourself ready to catch those opportunities when they come and how you turn the challenges into even more chances to learn and showcase your capabilities. In conclusion, don’t be daunted or dissuaded from entering Graduate School due to any misconceptions you may have. If graduate school is the right path for you, have confidence in yourself and apply!