A common misconception voiced by people who have never been to graduate school is that those who do apply to grad school are trying re-live their college years.

In reality, anyone who applies to grad school with that goal in mind is in for a big disappointment. Graduate-level studies are a completely different experience than the one undergrads go through. Prospective grad students should think about these differences, and what they mean to them, before committing themselves to a course of graduate study.

Some of the major differences between the graduate and undergraduate student experiences are:

– Graduate students are expected to produce original research and analysis. Absorbing a body of knowledge is not enough to get you through a graduate program. You need to show that you can put information and ideas together and come up with a new (to you, at least) finding or insight.

– Graduate study is more focused than undergraduate study is. You’re expected to have a fairly specific educational goal in mind when you begin a graduate program, and to work diligently toward achieving that goal. While there’s some room for academic exploration, you won’t have the same opportunities that you did as an undergrad. Transferring to another program or school is difficult. Make sure you’re happy with your program before you matriculate.

– Your relationships with professors will be more like relationships with senior colleagues and supervisors than like student-teacher relationships. You’ll be expected to take more responsibility for your learning. That means taking more responsibility for organizing your workload and managing your progress toward your degree. It also means not going to your professors with every minor question you have. You’ll be expected to develop good judgment about which issues are worth bringing up in class or in an office visit and which ones are not.

– You will work harder and probably socialize less. Graduate students have a heavier and more complex academic workload than undergrads do, which leaves less time for socializing. In addition, many graduate students live off-campus or have family or work obligations in addition to their studies. All of those factors mean that graduate students tend to have fewer opportunities to socialize than undergrads do. That’s not to say that people don’t establish life-long friendships with fellow grad students – many do. But if the social aspects of being a student are important to you, you should research this side of the schools you’re considering applying to carefully, and be prepared to take the initiative in shaping a strong and active student community.

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