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How Hard is Graduate School?


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36 replies to this topic

#1 thedig13

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Posted 24 August 2011 - 08:31 AM

I've been talking to a few friends who've completed graduate school and others who are just starting. One, who has a PhD in Psychology, says that graduate school is easy breezy, and, if you have the right attitudes and time-management skills, it's just as easy as undergraduate work. Another, who just started doing some graduate work in Asian Literature, has been assigned about 30 books of reading over the next 3 months, has 9 quarter-hours of class, and has two 20-page papers to work on, and feels like she's getting overwhelmed. Basically, there's a lot of disparity in terms of opinions about grad school from the various people I'm asking.

I was hoping for some insight on your own experiences in graduate school, particularly in terms of how hard it was compared to your undergraduate experience. Right now, as an undergraduate student, I'm juggling about 16 units a quarter, completing a fair amount of written papers (about 15 - 25 total pages of final draft per quarter), studying enough to maintain a 3.9 GPA, as well as doing some research for a Professor of Ethnic Studies. I'd like to get some idea of what I can expect from graduate school and how much more day-to-day work I'll have to take on in order to succeed at that level.
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#2 neuropsych76

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Posted 24 August 2011 - 02:32 PM

Well I think you already found your answer in your question, it varies. :)

It depends on the type of program and type of student. Generally, it is more work than undergrad because you have heavy teaching and research duties on top of coursework which may also be more difficult.

Each person will give you different anecdotal evidence like in this thread: http://forum.thegrad...-find-time-for/
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#3 StrangeLight

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Posted 24 August 2011 - 02:36 PM

Another, who just started doing some graduate work in Asian Literature, has been assigned about 30 books of reading over the next 3 months, has 9 quarter-hours of class, and has two 20-page papers to work on, and feels like she's getting overwhelmed.


that's actually not a terrible amount of work. in my history program, we take 3 courses a semester. those are usually seminars (although some people lighten their loads to 2 seminars and a language course, they end up adding a semester or a year to their coursework to meet their requirements). 3 seminars, 14-15 books each (one a week), sometimes a book and two articles a week. all mandatory reading. so in 3 1/2 months, we'd read over 45 books. the writing assignments varied for each seminar, but they all added up to around 30 pages of written work per class (sometimes a big final paper, sometimes multiple small papers, etc.).

i read slowly when i don't skim: 20 pages/hour. 3 books a week, roughly 400 pages each, is 1200 pages, which is 60 hours of work a week just to complete my readings and notes. this doesn't take into account the time spent in the classroom, the time spent on my research, the time spent writing assignments, the time spent teaching (if applicable), the time spent commuting to school. you get the idea. it's a lot of effing work. so now i just don't read things as carefully. i skim. i skip chapters that don't seem interesting or relevant to my work. many people will tell you that you should do this, and i do it, but i don't like it. i don't feel like i have command over the books. but at some point, i need to sleep and to leave my apartment and all that other stuff.

if you're taking the number of classes required, actually reading most of what you're assigned, and working on your research along the way, you'll put in 60-70 hours a week. i know a lot of people that start work at 8 am and work hard until 7 pm and then have the rest of the evening to themselves. it's rough, but it can be managed. you just need to be disciplined. but, unless you're just not getting your work done, in a history program you will have a lot of hours of work ahead of you.

Edited by StrangeLight, 24 August 2011 - 02:38 PM.

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#4 ktel

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Posted 24 August 2011 - 04:19 PM

You're hearing a lot of disparity in terms of opinions, because obviously everyone is different. I know from undergrad that I work more efficiently and faster than some people. I often study less, spend less time on homework, and write tests more quickly than a lot of my peers. So adding in a varsity rugby schedule on top of my engineering course work was manageable for me, but wouldn't have been for some others.

People also have different programs. I'm going into Aerospace Engineering. I don't anticipate having to spend many hours reading, where a History or English student will spend the bulk of their time reading.

I personally think grad school will be fine. I'll let you know in a couple of months how it actually goes...
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#5 Eigen

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Posted 24 August 2011 - 05:50 PM

In my mind, comparing graduate school to undergrad is really difficult to do- they're just different.

Undergrad is, well, semesters full of coursework. Maybe a little research, some volunteering, etc. The courses are the main thing- the main source of difficulty and time committment.

In the sciences, at least, graduate school is very different- your time is spent mostly on research, with some teaching requirements (if you're not on an RAship or Fellowship), and then courses here and there. The material in the courses is more difficult, but most teachers assume they don't want you consuming your life on the course- they'd prefer you be doing research. At least that's been my perception.

Where the large time and difficulty factor comes in for us is the research- usually, you block in your day in the lab (a normal 7-10 hour work day) and then try to fit in time for homework, grading, etc. Research can either be evenly paced or insane- depending on the time of year, the phase of the moon, etc.
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#6 thedig13

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Posted 24 August 2011 - 10:37 PM

that's actually not a terrible amount of work. in my history program, we take 3 courses a semester. those are usually seminars (although some people lighten their loads to 2 seminars and a language course, they end up adding a semester or a year to their coursework to meet their requirements). 3 seminars, 14-15 books each (one a week), sometimes a book and two articles a week. all mandatory reading. so in 3 1/2 months, we'd read over 45 books. the writing assignments varied for each seminar, but they all added up to around 30 pages of written work per class (sometimes a big final paper, sometimes multiple small papers, etc.).

i read slowly when i don't skim: 20 pages/hour. 3 books a week, roughly 400 pages each, is 1200 pages, which is 60 hours of work a week just to complete my readings and notes. this doesn't take into account the time spent in the classroom, the time spent on my research, the time spent writing assignments, the time spent teaching (if applicable), the time spent commuting to school. you get the idea. it's a lot of effing work. so now i just don't read things as carefully. i skim. i skip chapters that don't seem interesting or relevant to my work. many people will tell you that you should do this, and i do it, but i don't like it. i don't feel like i have command over the books. but at some point, i need to sleep and to leave my apartment and all that other stuff.

if you're taking the number of classes required, actually reading most of what you're assigned, and working on your research along the way, you'll put in 60-70 hours a week. i know a lot of people that start work at 8 am and work hard until 7 pm and then have the rest of the evening to themselves. it's rough, but it can be managed. you just need to be disciplined. but, unless you're just not getting your work done, in a history program you will have a lot of hours of work ahead of you.


Has there ever been any point in time where you've skimmed reading and there've been palpable consequences? (i.e.: totally blew it in discussion, did poorly in a course) Or have you more-or-less been able to keep up with things academically whether or not you skim?
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#7 CageFree

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Posted 25 August 2011 - 05:25 AM

Well, skimming can be done with understanding :P Take a speed reading class if you're afraid that you won't be able to read everything... they are totally worth it :)
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#8 thedig13

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Posted 25 August 2011 - 05:35 AM

Well, skimming can be done with understanding :P Take a speed reading class if you're afraid that you won't be able to read everything... they are totally worth it :)

So, if I already have a knack for just flipping through pages and recognizing the stuff that's important in a document/book/article, will I still do well if I skim through, focus on main points, and just use deduction/induction to fill in the blanks?

Edited by thedig13, 25 August 2011 - 05:39 AM.

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#9 StrangeLight

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Posted 25 August 2011 - 07:15 PM


Has there ever been any point in time where you've skimmed reading and there've been palpable consequences? (i.e.: totally blew it in discussion, did poorly in a course) Or have you more-or-less been able to keep up with things academically whether or not you skim?

it's been fine. i'll get an A or A- instead of an A or A+. i'll take a lot of notes in the discussion because there are chunks or ideas i miss. a prof will ask a very pointed question and i won't have the answer (when i usually would have), but someone else might, or we all look like idiots together. there haven't been major consequences, but the overall level of my participation and written work drops when i skim. nothing below an A-, and still usually an A, so it isn't an issue academically. it's just not as good as it could be.
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#10 StrangeLight

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Posted 25 August 2011 - 07:17 PM

So, if I already have a knack for just flipping through pages and recognizing the stuff that's important in a document/book/article, will I still do well if I skim through, focus on main points, and just use deduction/induction to fill in the blanks?


read the entirety of the introduction and conclusion to books carefully. read the entire introduction and conclusion to each chapter. then skim the meat of the chapter, reading the first and last sentence of every paragraph. that'll usually be enough.

if it's an article, you should read all of it.
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#11 CageFree

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Posted 25 August 2011 - 08:28 PM

So, if I already have a knack for just flipping through pages and recognizing the stuff that's important in a document/book/article, will I still do well if I skim through, focus on main points, and just use deduction/induction to fill in the blanks?


I don't know how to say this tactfully, but it seems you're kind of asking, essentially, "how much work you can avoid and still do well." I'm applying to grad schools as well but I'm also a high school teacher, and I get really irritated when I have students ask me things like, "what do I need to do to just get a C," like looking for shortcuts.

I know I'll get a million negatives for this but it just hit a nerve. Sorry.
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#12 rising_star

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Posted 25 August 2011 - 09:40 PM

My first year in my MA program was actually easier, for me, than my senior year of college in a lot of ways. First year of my MA, I took 4 classes a semester (3 of which were seminars) and wrote a thesis proposal while on fellowship. Senior year I took seven course (5 of those were seminars) and wrote a senior thesis with basically no guidance or help from my advisor. My undergrad courses required 200-250 pages of reading per week. In my MA program, only 2 or 3 courses (over the course of the year!) required that much reading. Some would say that adding research into the mix is the complicating factor but, guess what? There's research in a senior thesis too!

At any rate, how hard graduate school is depends a lot on your time management skills, department, and research. I probably could have spent a lot more time on readings for class but, I didn't put as much effort into reading things that wouldn't be on my comps and weren't relevant for my research. You also have to find ways to work smarter, like automating alerts to new journal articles so that you don't have to run searches all the time.
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#13 sandyvanb

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Posted 25 August 2011 - 09:41 PM

I finished my MA in May and I'm applying to PhD programs this fall. I wrote a thesis and I was hired by my department to teach full-time this year. In my experience, a graduate program in history is hard. Very hard, as it should be. If grad school were easy, everyone would have an advanced degree. I was under constant stress to stay ahead and sometimes just on top of readings and papers. The process of writing my thesis was intense and I didn't sleep much while I was finishing it up. That being said, I completed my degree feeling very well trained and prepared for a PhD program.
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#14 thedig13

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Posted 26 August 2011 - 12:13 AM


I don't know how to say this tactfully, but it seems you're kind of asking, essentially, "how much work you can avoid and still do well." I'm applying to grad schools as well but I'm also a high school teacher, and I get really irritated when I have students ask me things like, "what do I need to do to just get a C," like looking for shortcuts.

I know I'll get a million negatives for this but it just hit a nerve. Sorry.


Nah, I understand why you view the question that way. I'm definitely looking to excel and work hard, and pull a few seriously late nights if that's what it takes. I usually won't be satisfied with my comprehension unless I feel like I have a decent-enough grasp of the ideas and concepts behind the reading. I don't really view it as "dodging work," per se -- I hate missing lectures, and I never blow off written assignments (ever). At the same time, I try to recognize my limitations (i.e.: ADD) and pick and choose my battles accordingly, and if that means I'll have to skim over a reading so that I can devote more time to something else (say, a research paper), I'll do it.

Edited by thedig13, 26 August 2011 - 12:16 AM.

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#15 thedig13

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Posted 26 August 2011 - 12:19 AM

My first year in my MA program was actually easier, for me, than my senior year of college in a lot of ways. First year of my MA, I took 4 classes a semester (3 of which were seminars) and wrote a thesis proposal while on fellowship. Senior year I took seven course (5 of those were seminars) and wrote a senior thesis with basically no guidance or help from my advisor. My undergrad courses required 200-250 pages of reading per week. In my MA program, only 2 or 3 courses (over the course of the year!) required that much reading. Some would say that adding research into the mix is the complicating factor but, guess what? There's research in a senior thesis too!

At any rate, how hard graduate school is depends a lot on your time management skills, department, and research. I probably could have spent a lot more time on readings for class but, I didn't put as much effort into reading things that wouldn't be on my comps and weren't relevant for my research. You also have to find ways to work smarter, like automating alerts to new journal articles so that you don't have to run searches all the time.


Sorry, I'm not really familiar with the ins and outs of graduate school. Do professors not supply you with access to reading materials? You have to look for them yourself? If so, are they at-least readily available (i.e. easily-found online and/or at the university library)?

Edited by thedig13, 26 August 2011 - 12:19 AM.

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#16 Sparky

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Posted 26 August 2011 - 02:50 AM


Sorry, I'm not really familiar with the ins and outs of graduate school. Do professors not supply you with access to reading materials? You have to look for them yourself? If so, are they at-least readily available (i.e. easily-found online and/or at the university library)?


I think rising_star was talking about articles for independent research/keeping up with your field, not required reading for classes.

As for required readings, I haven't had any professors actually give out printed handouts. A couple have put articles on e-reserve. More likely there are books on reserve in the library of which we have to read all or part. In general, people in my classes have established a class e-mail list in which a few of people per week scan most of the readings and e-mail them to everyone else.

I've also had a couple of classes where the assigned reading was limited to primary texts, with the understanding that we would all be reading whatever secondary works were necessary to understand and contextualize the context. This includes finding out what those articles are.

A lot of the frustration with having to speed read/skim is more like this: graduate school is this amazing time when you discover all this stuff that you REALLY REALLY REALLY want to read, but you just don't have time. Having to speed read is a tragedy. Sure, in many cases you can "get away with it," insofar as most classes (in the humanities, at least) don't have quizzes/tests and you might not be prepping that field for comps--but that's a completely upside down and backwards way to think about it.
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#17 wtncffts

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Posted 26 August 2011 - 02:55 AM


Sorry, I'm not really familiar with the ins and outs of graduate school. Do professors not supply you with access to reading materials? You have to look for them yourself? If so, are they at-least readily available (i.e. easily-found online and/or at the university library)?


Ehrm... I'm not really sure where you got that. Maybe you misunderstood 'comps' to mean 'computer(s)'? It's short for 'comprehensive exams'. If you're referring to the last part about article searches, I assume rising star was talking about being alerted to new articles having to do with his or her own research, not course materials.

To answer your question, in my experience readings are either from the required texts, in a course reader package, or in journals accessible online. In other words, exactly like undergrad.

EDIT: Ok, sparky beat me to it. Darn Ipad typing...

Edited by wtncffts, 26 August 2011 - 02:57 AM.

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#18 thedig13

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Posted 26 August 2011 - 05:21 AM

Ehrm... I'm not really sure where you got that. Maybe you misunderstood 'comps' to mean 'computer(s)'? It's short for 'comprehensive exams'. If you're referring to the last part about article searches, I assume rising star was talking about being alerted to new articles having to do with his or her own research, not course materials.

To answer your question, in my experience readings are either from the required texts, in a course reader package, or in journals accessible online. In other words, exactly like undergrad.

EDIT: Ok, sparky beat me to it. Darn Ipad typing...


No, I knew "comps" meant "comprehensive exams." It's the "you also have to find ways to work smarter, like automating alerts to new journal articles so that you don't have to run searches all the time" part that confused me a bit. Thanks though. :D
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#19 criscamino

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Posted 26 August 2011 - 09:43 AM

You also have to find ways to work smarter, like automating alerts to new journal articles so that you don't have to run searches all the time.


Wonder if you or someone else could explain to me about how you sort out automated alerts? Sounds useful. Thanks
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#20 natsteel

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Posted 26 August 2011 - 05:44 PM


read the entirety of the introduction and conclusion to books carefully. read the entire introduction and conclusion to each chapter. then skim the meat of the chapter, reading the first and last sentence of every paragraph. that'll usually be enough.

if it's an article, you should read all of it.



This is my approach exactly. I may read one or even two complete chapters if they seem important or especially interesting but generally I will read the first and last two paragraphs of each chapter and the first and last sentence of each paragraph. It was actually tough to do at the start, but I'm getting better at it.

It's easy to feel like you're cheating when you're skimming texts, but all of my professors have told me it is an absolutely necessary skill to develop. If you're unsure, feel out the seminars to see how in-depth the discussions are and whether they focus too much on minutiae (which I doubt is the case if it's a history seminar) to get away with a lot of skimming.

ON JOURNAL ALERTS:
You can go to JSTOR or Project Muse and find the journal's main page there which have links for RSS feeds for the journal's Tables of Content. I keep them in a separate folder in my RSS reader. Often the RSS feeds will also be available on the journal's own websites.

Edited by natsteel, 26 August 2011 - 05:46 PM.

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***All statements above pertaining to the application process are specific to the field of History and my own experience.





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