Planning for Graduate School

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Dana Hartley, Ph.D.
Director Undergraduate Studies

If your student is considering graduate school to pursue a master's degree (MS) or doctoral degree (Ph.D.), the following guidelines can help your student navigate through the selection and application process.

To begin, letters of recommendation are critical. Students need to get to know faculty well throughout their time at Tech. Just getting an A in a course doesn't mean the faculty can say great things about the student - except that they have an A. Graduate schools are looking for evidence in these recommendation letters that a student is inquisitive, intellectual, self-motivated, works well individually and in groups. To get these types of letters, students need to be fully engaged and talking to their faculty about the course content in a meaningful way, not in a "will this be on the test" manner.

To get the strongest letters, students should actually work with faculty on projects, especially research. As mentioned, this is the best way for a student to really interact with a faculty member, and for the faculty to be able to comment on the student's abilities. Going to graduate school in pursuit of a MS or Ph.D. degree is mostly about research; hence, graduate schools are looking for students who already have research experience. Students considering graduate school really need to determine if they even like research. Research experience and other internship experience as an undergraduate will really help a student determine if he/she wants to go to graduate school and how best to focus his/her interests. An excellent means for students to gain this exposure is through Undergraduate Research Programs, at

Once a student decides on a course of study as a graduate student, the next step is selecting where to apply. This is not always about the top universities. Strong departments can be located at schools that may not at first be an obvious place to look. In order to know the best places to go, students really need to talk to the faculty at Tech who work in that area of interest - they are the experts and have the connections. The next step is to research these schools. Who is doing research in the fields of interest to the student? What does the faculty at Tech know about this person?

Next, a student should contact and talk to faculty at potential schools. Because graduate school is very specific, each program does its own admissions decisions. Making a personal connection with a faculty member with whom the student is interested in working can make all the difference. Basically, an email with a resume attached is all that is needed at first. The student should be specific about why they are interested in that faculty member. Also, it is best not to ask if they have a position, but rather to ask more about the research. This contact should be made in the fall, one year before the student plans to start graduate school.

Once a student has a good idea of where to apply, the application process should begin. Applications are usually due in the late fall the year prior to starting graduate school. The GRE, the standardized test for graduate school, is required. It is best to sign up to take the GRE in the summer before the student's last year of undergraduate school. If a student waits until fall to sign up, spots are often full. We encourage students to take practice tests to get familiar with the mode and style of the questions. A biographical sketch is also required as part of the application process. This is the written statement that a student writes to describe why he/she wants to go to graduate school. It is also an opportunity to be specific about his/her interest. A student should start this essay early in the planning process and ask advisors and/or faculty members for comments.

In regards to funding... for science and engineering graduate schools (particularly for Ph.D. programs), a student is usually paid a stipend to live on, and tuition is covered. This is something to inquire about after acceptance if it is unclear in the letter. There are many great fellowships available for graduate school. We encourage students to be looking into these opportunities the summer before their senior year since applications are often due a full year before the student plans to attend graduate school. Students can ask an academic advisor and/or faculty to point them in the right direction.

Once the student is accepted, it is very important that the student visits the school to ensure that it is a good fit. Most graduate schools will have a sponsored recruitment weekend where all accepted students are invited to meet the faculty and other graduate students. If a school does not offer this visitation opportunity, encourage the student to plan a visit anyway - it is that important!

If your student is interested in applying to graduate school, suggest that he/she makes an appointment with his/her academic advisor to help begin the process and answer any questions.


  • Workflow Status:Published
  • Created By:Rachael Pocklington
  • Created:04/01/2009
  • Modified By:Fletcher Moore
  • Modified:10/07/2016