Are you thinking about continuing your education after completing an undergraduate degree? How can you start preparing for grad school during your undergrad?
We asked deans, professors, and program directors to answer the following question:
If an undergraduate student approached you for advice about how they could start preparing for graduate school, what is one tip you would share with them?
Thirty-two deans, professors, and program directors contributed to this article with their best advice on preparing for grad school.
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Start with Your Goals and Work Backwards: Why Do You Want to Go to Grad School?
Reflect on and review your intentions to attend graduate school: Do you have a clear goal and purpose, or are you biding time because you don’t have a clear career pathway?
If the later, graduate school is not the place to bide time. Graduate programs require students to have a focused intentionality, a maturity of mind with advanced skills in research and writing. Most programs move rather quickly, hence you need to enter with clear intent and the ability to activate your passions and intellect with original research and performance.
If the answers to these prompts are clear and affirmative, then I suggest the following:
Do research on the graduate programs and the faculty who teach in those programs. Find a faculty member or cluster of graduate faculty who are doing work that interests you and could inform the nature of your very particular intentions.
Graduate programs look for students who will fit within the realm of what current faculty are teaching, and students who can and will push/advance the discipline – even beyond their own (faculty) contributions. Hence, Graduate Programs are interested in training and nurturing the next professoriate.
Is that you?
When completing your application for graduate programs – write letters that are specific to your research goals and interests with a clear articulation of how your goals fit in the mission and curriculum of that program (personalized to each application for each program). In the process, make allusions to the faculty and your knowledge of their research, and how it dovetails or informs your goals.
And if you are interested in a teaching or research assistantship state that in your letter; and state how such an assistantship will advance your educational and professional goals beyond merely financial assistance.
Please remember that your letter of interest is also a writing sample (in addition to the scholarly paper or essay that they request). So, this should be your very best writing—indicative of your voice and abilities in engaging graduate level work.
Bryant Alexander, PhD
Professor and Dean, College of Communication and Fine Arts
Loyola Marymount University
If an undergraduate student seeks advice on how to prepare for graduate school, my first question would be to ask them why they want to go to graduate school, given that getting into top programs is difficult, they need to invest two years (mostly) of their lives, and pay hefty tuition and/or carry student loans.
The idea is not to discourage them from grad school but instead to have them think deeply about their motivation and have a compelling case for themselves and have clarity about their decision.
My second question will be to ask them in which area they want to pursue a graduate degree…and again, why? What is their motivation: love for knowledge, don’t want to grow up and leave the university, get a lucrative job after graduation?
Again force them to have clarity about the discipline they want to pursue.
Third, ask them what they want to do after graduate school: what is the career path forward, job prospects, salary, etc.
Fourth, they should learn which are the top schools offering graduate degrees in the discipline they have selected and identify the admission standards (GPA, GMAT,LSAT, GRE, essays, other requirements).
They should be thinking about these issues during undergraduate year and working hard bolstering their GPA, preparing for entrance exams, improving interviewing skills, and even visiting their top choice school or two and talking to their admission staff and faculty in their preferred area of study.
Arvind Mahajan, PhD
Associate Dean for Graduate Programs & Professor of Finance
Texas A&M University
Work backwards: What does the student want to do with the degree (research-academic, teaching-academic, government/policy, business/corporate)?
Based on past hiring at the desired institution, the undergrad knows the type/quality of grad program they need to target. Once you know this, a little research tells the student what is needed to gain admittance to the desired program (math requirements, undergrad research experience, work experience, etc).
Sam Allgood, PhD
Edwin J. Faulkner Professor of Economics
University of Nebraska – Lincoln
The most important tip I can give is conduct research right away about the requirements of the programs you aspire to attend.
Not only should you pour over the graduate school website but you should try to contact admissions, current students and faculty. You should have focused questions prepared. Always be polite and respectful of everybody’s time.
You might learn something like the program only accepts students with perfect math scores on the GRE or that grades on specific advanced courses carry the most weight. This facts will help your planning and goal setting.
It is not a secret that getting into a top graduate school is extremely hard to do. You should thoughtfully plan out your undergraduate course schedule as a freshman once you know what courses are required and valued.
That said, I benefited greatly from working in finance before pursuing my Ph.D. Depending on the specific discipline that you plan on pursuing, practical work experience in the field before graduate school may provide you valuable research insights later on in your academic career.
Make sure to consider that path before making your final decision.
Julie Agnew, PhD
Professor of Finance and Economics
College of William and Mary
It’s a fairly obvious tip: take a significant number of classes in the discipline in which you plan to pursue an M.A. or Ph.D.
James Faubion, PhD
Professor of Anthropology
How to Set Goals and Stick to Them
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Seek Advice from People Who Have Successfully Achieved the Position You are Hoping to Get
As an undergraduate student, I would focus on speaking to individuals who are working in the career I hope to pursue. I would ask them about their own path, preparation, and current responsibilities.
I would also seek opportunities to intern or work in the area of interest prior to applying to graduate programs.
If possible, I might look for assistantships to work with faculty at my institution and to work on research projects or potentially publish or present with full time faculty, so that I could add that to my experience and preparation.
Terese Aceves, Ph.D.
Professor of Education
Loyola Marymount University
My advice would be to interview people who are in positions like the ones you think you may ultimately want.
Ask about work/life balance, job stability, and projected changes in the field.
Tasha Souza, PhD
Professor of Communication
Boise State University
Find Out What You Are Getting Into Before You Even Apply
For business education, pursuing an MBA versus a Ph.D. are very different experiences, with different outcomes. Both are considered terminal degrees, whereas in some fields, a Masters is a natural step on the way to a Ph.D.
An MBA is designed to prepare an individual for a career in the business world. A Ph.D. in business, while used in business, is typically pursued for a career in academics as a professor.
Since my son has been applying for Ph.D. programs in Marketing this year, I will focus my comments to Business Ph.D. programs. Given the difference between Masters and Ph.D. programs, it is critical that prospective students understand the distinction.
In my own Ph.D. program, we had an individual that left within his first two weeks, since he expected more of a glorified MBA, which it was not. Understanding what you are getting into is critical for success in the program and enjoyment of the experience.
To better gain this understanding, talk with current and past students, as well as faculty in your field and at the schools you are interested in.
The best advice I was given when I started researching pursuing a Ph.D. was to identify the top journals in my target field and randomly read articles from recent issues.
I was to ask myself whether this was something that I was interested to do throughout my career?
Is the research interesting?
Do I have questions or issues that I would like to pursue?
This was important because research is such an important part of an academic career. Tenure and promotion decisions are heavily influenced by your research productivity. As a result, you should try to go to the best school you can get into, so that you received the best training possible.
Your job placement as a professor will be heavily influenced by the reputation of the school you attend, the advisors your work with, and your research productivity/momentum while in graduate school.
Whether pursuing an MBA or PhD., fit with the school is important. While this may only be for a few years of your life, it is an important part of your life.
While I just said to go to the best school you can, the “best” school is not just a function of the highest ranked. While this is important, you want to attend an institution that will provide the best training, experience, and subsequent opportunities for you.
You may be better served attending a solid school with young, eager research active faculty than a more highly regarded school, with older and less research active faculty. This related to not only your training, but opportunities to get involved with research projects early on.
Brent Allred, PhD
Professor of Strategy and International Business
The College of William & Mary
Don’t Go Straight into Grad School – First Get Some Work Experience in Your Chosen Field
My recommendation is “Don’t”.
1. It is almost impossible to know what you really want to do with your career when you are 20 years old and in college.
I would strongly recommend getting a job in the field or one of the fields that you think might be interested in, and trying it out for a couple of years. So, make money while learning about your future career before investing time and more money for graduate education.
2. If you actually work for a couple of years in a related field, then you often have a better chance of getting into a prestigious graduate program.
Once you graduate, then you will get a better job than your peers because you have work experience.
Parents will like it too – they don’t want to pay more in tuition after they paid for your college.
David Choi, PhD
Professor of Entrepreneurship
Loyola Marymount University
I think students should be planning for two to three years of work before graduate school wherever possible. It helps you build skills you’ll want when pursuing your masters, and can be remarkably helpful in increasing your focus and knowing what you want.
Students probably already worry too much about that first job out of college, but one way to prep for graduate school is to seek a job that helps round out skills you might think you need, and gives you a glimpse of a world in which you already think you are interested. Then, while in that job (or while still in undergrad), follow the advice one of my mentors gave me:
Pay attention to what you read, what you talk about with friends, what you listen to and think about in your spare time.
That can tell you a lot about your passions and where to go next.
Professor of Macro Practice
Improve Your Academic Writing Skills Through Practice and Feedback
If you know you are going to graduate school, my advice is (in descending order of importance).
1. Start working as an undergraduate research assistant as early as you can and tell your faculty supervisor you want to work on project that will result in authoring a journal paper.
2. Learn to write well. This would be #1 if #1 did not already imply this.
3. Take graduate school oriented classes, such as advanced math, physics, and engineering courses. In many cases, you can take introductory graduate courses for elective undergraduate credit.
4. Find your passion, or at least strong area of interest (catalysis, energy, controls, bioengineering, etc.) and the type of work you can do (modeling, theory, experimental work)
Larry Baxter, PhD
Professor of Chemical Engineering
Brigham Young University
Get a solid foundation in math, as it is foundational for many graduate programs.
Also, practice writing and solicit critical feedback on samples of your best writing. If you can write well and do math, then you have the basic tools to be successful in nearly all graduate programs.
Michael Kinney, PhD
Assistant Dean for Graduate Programs & Professor of Accounting
Texas A&M University
Get Involved in Student and Volunteer Organizations During Your Undergrad
Have excellent grades and get involved in one or two good students organizations, eventually attaining a leadership position in the organization(s).
During the Junior year (or Sophomore year if the program to which you are applying is at your university and has a “4+1” graduate program) start working on preparing for the GRE or GMAT (depending on which one the school requires) – doing well on one of these tests is very important.
Stephen “Dr. Mac” McDaniel, Ph.D.
Professor of Marketing
Texas A&M University
My advice to students aspiring to get a Master’s or a PhD is to do volunteer work for worthy organizations and any other type of volunteer work that would be rewarding to them and enable them to make a difference in other’s lives and put this volunteer work on your CV.
Professor of Art
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You Need to Be Passionate About Your Field So You Can Thrive in Grad School
I think anyone who wants to go to graduate school must have two things that are inseparable: focus and determination.
You should know what you are passionate about, and you should be determined that you will do your best to succeed no matter what.
It is very important that you like what you will want to do, and know what makes it appealing for you. It does not mean, of course that you should know the exact details of your interest, but the ability to convince yourself and others that it is the best way for you is indispensable.
Istvan Kecskes, PhD
Professor of Educational Theory and Practice
University at Albany—SUNY
As a general suggestion for any student, I would advise to follow only the passion and to not care about the actual final job.
The passion will make the PhD studies doable. They are, in fact, very challenging and only a big passion can help in overcoming the issues.
In Aerospace Engineering the students should start focusing immediately on the mathematical foundation, essential in engineering.
Luciano Demasi, PhD
Professor of Aerospace Structures and Aeroelasticity
San Diego State University
A must for any undergrad who is planning for a Masters or Doctorate program is to have a passion for their subject. However, this should be tinged with having expectations that are not cast in stone.
Actually, for most students, doing a Masters or a PhD often turns out to be a far different experience from their original expectations, and one that hopefully makes for a much more successful and satisfying endeavor.
Students encounter new subject matter and courses that interests them, faculty who unexpectedly surprise and motivate them in ways unimagined and exciting, and faculty who might sadly disappoint.
In all likelihood, the graduate program that they started out with ends up materially different to the graduate program they finish on.
One piece of advice that I always give prospective students – have a good idea of what you want study or work on, have a good idea of the places where you can pursue your interest, and most importantly, talk to the graduate students there.
If a student specifically wants to work with me, I always ask them to first talk to my graduate students. They should only apply if they are convinced that I am still the ‘best’ person for them. Even then ….
I don’t know if this answers your question. Beyond the usual preparations for graduate school – i.e., having an exemplary academic and test record – in a nutshell –
1. Have a serious interest (one for which they have shown a degree of preparedness through their undergrad course selections)
2. Find a grad school that would enable them to pursue that interest
3. Find a faculty who can mentor them there
4. Convince themselves first by talking to graduate students already there.
Ramesh Krishnamurti, PhD
Professor of Computational Design
Carnegie Mellon University
Don’t Get Too Specialized During Your Undergrad – You Need a Broad Foundation
Do not become too specialized in your undergraduate studies.
Certainly, to be successful in graduate school, you must learn the foundations in your selected area of study in your undergraduate studies, but do not neglect the broader areas of study available to you.
If you are in a STEM major, then take those courses that create a liberal experience in your undergraduate education including the humanities, the arts, and those studies associated with the broader population.
If you are focussing on the liberal arts, then do not neglect the STEM courses available to you, broad overviews of the sciences, both the hard sciences (chemistry, physics, and math) as well as the sciences associated with sociology and psychology.
In this manner, you will not neglect the broader aspects of having a life and interests outside your chosen area of graduate education.
James Adair, PhD
Professor of Materials Science & Engineering,
Pennsylvania State University – University Park
You Need to Be Prepared to Work Hard to Succeed as a Graduate Student
Great question… For me, I would say that we look for students who show high levels of intrinsic motivation.
The most successful PhD students are often those who are willing to persevere in the face of adversity and not necessary the ones who knocked it out of the park on the GRE. You have to be able to show that you have that persistence and drive.
Some work experience in a lab/ in the profession can be useful in demonstrating that you have an idea of what the graduate degree is preparing you for.
To the first point, here is one of my pet peeves… if you are required to take a calculus course for your undergraduate program and you are planning on graduate school, don’t take the lowest level calculus that just barely gets you over the hurdle. It won’t help you as much when you get into graduate school. Take on the challenge of the more rigorous Calculus course.
I would caution that if you follow my strategy, you have to be mentally prepared to work your fanny off. If you don’t and you are taking the more rigorous class, it might backfire and your GPA will suffer.
I would also be prepared to take more courses in the fundamental areas. For example, if you are considering getting a PhD in Marketing, then I always encourage undergraduates to consider picking up a minor in Economics, Statistics, or Psychology (depending on your particular interest).
Developing that basic knowledge will help you understand the origins of your graduate field.
Meg Meloy, PhD
Professor of Marketing
The Pennsylvania State University
Get Involved in Research as Soon as You Can to Develop Necessary Skills and to Connect with Professors
My tip is to find professors with research programs that are interesting to you and try to get some undergraduate research experience. If possible, stay long enough that you can be a co-author on the manuscript if the work leads to a publication.
Interact not only with the graduate students, but also get to know the professor.
Personal experience will help provide the faculty member with more context to write a very strong letter of recommendation for the application process.
Guillermo Ameer, Sc.D.
Professor of Biomedical Engineering & Professor of Surgery
My advice to an undergraduate student who wishes to pursue an advanced degree is to engage in research opportunities on campus as early as your first year if your schedule allows.
Identify an area of interest, consult your university’s undergraduate research program and find a match with a faculty member doing the work you are interested in.
Starting out as a volunteer in a research lab is a great way to get your feet wet. Look for summer research opportunities and when you are connected with a faculty member’s research program work hard to find a piece that you can carve out as something you can present at an on-campus research conference and a regional/national conference sponsored by your discipline.
Give yourself the opportunity to work on research projects that involve multiple disciplines so you get a real ‘taste’ for what it means to collaborate and think about different disciplinary perspectives on the questions being asked and answered.
Stay engaged and if there is an opportunity to write about your collaborative work with your research team – go for it.
Graduate programs are looking for students who are critical thinkers, resourceful, independent, collaborative and can understand perspectives beyond their own. Undergraduate research engagement is a great way to establish your pathway to a successful graduate experience.
Patricia “Patty” Prelock, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, BCS-CL
Dean, College of Nursing & Health Sciences & Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders
University of Vermont
In physics the one tip is the obvious one: while you are an undergrad do a research project with a professor, preferably one who is doing significant work (publishing, getting cited, funded,…)
Another tip for physicists and engineers: while you are an undergrad learn to use a powerful math tool like Mathematica (it can help you check and even solve homework problems) and learn to program in a useful language like Python.
Mark Alford, PhD
Professor of Physics
Washington University in St. Louis
Get involved in research at the undergraduate level.
Evangelyn “Vangie” Alocilja, PhD
Professor of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering
Michigan State University
I would advise them to get involved in a research project.
Terry Blum, PhD
Professor of Organizational Behavior
Georgia Institute of Technology
Take the most challenging and advanced courses available in the area(s) of interest that you can handle, and start doing research, the sooner the better.
Zlatko Bacic, PhD
Professor of Chemistry
New York University
Develop Your Innovation Skills – Aim to Create Value Through Your Research
In graduate school, aim for innovation, not just R&D.
Innovation – or value -creation – is the indispensable asset not only in our globalized economy but in today’s Fourth Industrial Revolution on the melding of the physical, the digital and the biological.
R&D is not the end, but it is a powerful platform and means for creating value by way of sustaining or disruptive innovation in every field of study.
Thus, approach and learn R&D with a view to creating value — and immerse yourself in and imbibe the science, mindset and culture of innovation.
Innovation readiness of graduates is the premium outcome of every 21st-century world-class graduate school today.
Joel Cuello, PhD
Professor of Biosystems Engineering
The University of Arizona
Spend Time and Energy on Building Relationships with Your Professors
Make sure you develop relationships with your undergraduate professors.
Work with them on research, attend office hours, and make sure the professors know that you want to attend graduate school. This way your professors will be able to help you find a school with a good fit for your scholarly interests.
In addition, the professor will know you well enough to be able to write an excellent letter.
Debbie Dougherty, Ph.D.
Professor of Communication
University of Missouri
One of the biggest decision is whether to attend a Master’s-only program, typically called “terminal Master’s,” or a program that also includes doctoral students. There are several advantages to beginning graduate work at an M.A./M.S. only program.
First, you do not have to compete with higher level Ph.D. students for assistantships or in classes you take. Combined Master’s/Ph.D. programs typically give funding priority to Ph.D. students, often leaving few assistantships for M.A./M.S. students.
Second, you are able to build close mentoring relationships with faculty members and advisors in an M.A./M.S. only program. You will have a graduate committee chair who will supervise your thesis or professional paper. Many Master’s program faculty engage in research and are interested in working closely on joint projects with students.
Not only is this a great opportunity to work closely with a faculty member (which may be offered or limited to Ph.D. students), it can provide you with an opportunity to gather data for your thesis. Again, you won’t be competing with Ph.D. students for faculty members’ time and energy.
Third, because you have worked closely with graduate faculty in a terminal Master’s program (who are typically well-known in the field), you can request letters of recommendation from them. These faculty members can often speak more specifically about your academic qualifications and research experience than faculty from your undergraduate institution. This will serve you particularly well if you decide to pursue a Ph.D.
Dawn O. Braithwaite, PhD
Willa Cather Professor & Chair of Communication Studies
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
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Take Ownership of Your Career By Actively Pursuing Your Goals and Interests
1. Recognize that at age 18, you are already an adult.
You actually need to think about your own future and make decisions after identifying and evaluating alternatives, on your own or perhaps with personal effort to reach out for advice from professors, teachers, or people in jobs related to fields that might interest you.
So, don’t be passive!!!! Take active steps to talk with people, knock on doors, introduce yourself.
2. While interdisciplinary programs are increasingly popular and increasingly making solid contributions to science, knowledge, society, and human well-being, don’t be attracted so deeply to interdisciplinary “studies” or “affairs” that you fail to become strong in at least one of the supporting disciplines.
It is easy to become a “Jack of all trades, but a master of none.”
It is critical to be more than someone who can communicate across disciplines, we also need someone with talent, skill, and depth – able to recognize when they need contributions from more than one discipline, and how to spot individuals who really are not strong in any discipline and who might actually know just enough to be misguided (and dangerous or overconfident).
For example, frequently in environmental economics people think that economics is all about profits and money, when in fact it is only about the implications and consequences of the opportunities and constraints facing people when they make decisions in pursuit of their own happiness or well-being. Some misunderstand that measuring an economic value of the environment is not perverting the existence of a beloved ecosystem, but simply recognizing the reality (the dismal truth from the dismal science) that everyone (even environmental advocates) make choices that reveal value, and value is always finite for anyone who expects to continue living at some reasonable standard and quality of life (as judged by themselves).
3. Don’t let your favorite uncle or a parent convince you to avoid math, science, or the dreaded Calculus.
The freshman and sophomore level of many math and science fields is actually accessible to nearly any thinking, breathing adult who is willing to think critically and address the concepts as clues to solving puzzles. And the ability to solve such abstract, concept puzzles will become critical to becoming someone who can identify problems and steps toward solutions that other people don’t even see.
This raises your potential to make a difference in the lives of others, even if you never meet them.
Stephen Swallow, PhD
Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics
University of Connecticut
I have no particular insights, other than to take responsibility for their own learning, seeking to deeply understand the issues and areas of particular interest to them.
Kevin Welner, PhD
Professor of Educational Policy and Law
University of Colorado – Boulder
Don’t Hastily Choose Your Path – Get an Internship First to Test Whether You Want to Pursue Getting Into the Field
I would encourage undergrads to balance depth and breadth in their coursework, meaning that when they submit a grad school application they should be able to demonstrate real curiosity about, and expertise in **something**, but also that they understand how their narrow interest relates to the broad sweep of human knowledge.
I would further recommend that undergrads do summer internships in a few different areas to test out alternative career tracks. It is better to determine early whether you like a field, rather than experiencing an existential crisis in the middle of grad school.
Clinton Andrews, PhD
Associate Dean & Professor of Urban Planning & Policy Development
Often times, graduate programs have different specialization tracks, leading to different career paths: which one is right for you, and why?
Be sure to do your research; if you do not have a lot of experience in the field in which you wish to pursue, get some – whether it is volunteer or paid.
Not only will speaking and writing about this experience allow the Admissions team to see that you have taken serious steps to pursue the field, but this experience will give you a new perspective with which to approach graduate school – and any scholarly or professional interests within your chosen graduate program.
Sheri Atwater, PhD, P.P.S.
Professor of Counseling
Loyola Marymount University
If you plan to go to graduate school, then you need to start preparing for it today.
The professors who contributed to this article shared some fantastic advice for how to get ready for grad school. Their advice is based on years of experience in the academic world, watching their students succeed or fail because of their decisions.
My challenge to you is to choose one or two of these tips and apply it to your own life.
Looking to Upgrade Your Grad School Efforts?
Check out our Resources page. The resources include helpful websites, books, and proven study tools to give you every advantage in your graduate school program.
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