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Guide on Getting Into Grad School

Helpful information and exercises for prospective graduate students

Graduate Degrees Awarded at Stanford 2022-23

  • 411 MBA
  • 2,103 MA/MS
  • 270 JD, MD
  • 799 PhD, DMA, JSD

If you’re considering grad school for your future, you are probably asking yourself many questions:

Debra Satz
Photo by Richard Morgenstein
  • Is grad school the best option for me now? 
  • What are the benefits and challenges? 
  • What’s the difference between undergrad and grad school? 
  • Should I seek a master’s or doctoral program? 
  • Which grad programs should I apply for? 
  • What’s involved in an application to grad school? 
  • What are admissions committees looking for? 
  • Who can help me? What resources are available? 
  • What are some alternatives to grad school?

These are all important questions to consider, and they should be considered carefully. This guide is organized around the main aspects of the decision-making process and application, which can help address many of your questions. 

Because these decisions and your application for graduate school are complex and time-consuming, this guide was prepared to provide critical information and advice. This guide  also contains questions to ask yourself and exercises to help you prepare your application for graduate programs. Be as honest as possible with yourself, and talk about your answers with close friends and family. You may need to adjust the wording of your answers for your application, but it’s important to begin with an honest self-assessment as you prepare your application.

Using this guide and working on these exercises can help you get started in the right direction. Additional resources and tools are incorporated within this guide. However, remember to also seek help from other people: faculty, advisors, grad students, postdocs, peers, and career counselors. This guide is meant to provide an overview and does not cover everything. Your specific situation can only be addressed by close friends and mentors who know you personally. 

As you address multiple decisions, this can be a stressful time period. But it may help to realize that you are not alone, and that many others have approached these decisions and have  successfully embarked on new adventures. So, remember to find friends to encourage you in this process. We wish you the best in these new adventures.

Undergraduate vs Graduate (PhD) Programs

The experiences of an undergraduate and graduate student can appear deceptively similar. They are both at a university doing coursework and research. However, there are significant differences. Not understanding the depth of these differences can hinder your chances of being admitted and succeeding in grad school.

Undergraduate Programs
You are a student “at school X”
• Focus on courses and grades 
• More objective evaluations of performance from exams and homework
• Feedback is relatively frequent
• Most activities and performance evaluations are individualistic

You apply to a university or college
• Your interests can be very broad
• You apply to a discipline or major
• Extracurricular activities are valued

Graduate (PhD) Programs
You are a student of “Dr. Z” (research advisor)
•  Focus on research
•  More subjective evaluations and longer periods without concrete feedback
•  Collaboration and independence are valued together, which will likely appear to be counter-intuitive— most activities and performance evaluations are individualistic
•  Relationship-driven

You apply into a specific graduate program
•  Your interests need to be much more specific
•  You apply into a specific field within a discipline
•  Some programs require you to apply to work directly with a specific professor
•  Extracurricular activities are valued less, unless they demonstrate critical skills related to your field

Master’s vs Doctoral Programs

While a typical 4-year undergraduate program refers to pursuing a bachelor’s degree (often a BS or BA degree), a graduate program can refer to pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree.

Master’s Programs (MS or MA)
•  Master’s programs usually provide much less financial support. 
•  Master’s programs usually last about 2 years, but there are shorter and longer programs, with the range usually between 1 to 3 years.
•  All master’s programs require coursework, and only some require research that leads to a thesis (a write-up of your research).
•  Requirements for master’s programs are usually less than those for doctoral programs.

Doctoral Programs (PhD)
•  Doctoral programs usually provide financial support.
•  Doctoral programs have a wide range of typical lengths, from 4 to 8 years. The length of the program is very specific to the field.
•  In some doctoral programs (e.g. some engineering programs), you earn a master’s degree before earning a PhD. But in many other programs, the master’s degree is not required before pursuing a PhD.
•  All doctoral programs require research that leads to a dissertation (longer than a master’s thesis, a write-up of multiple years of research).
•  For some doctoral programs, if you are not able to complete all of the requirements, you might be allowed to exit with a master’s degree.