Grad School 101: Why grad school? Emily explains.

By Emily Elia: My journey to grad school - and lessons learned along the way.

Emily Elia, Rice University graduate student

Why Grad School?

The decision to go to grad school is a big decision to make! I decided to apply to graduate programs during my senior year of college because I knew that I wanted a career in academia, and obtaining a PhD would be necessary. However, I came to the realization that I wanted to pursue a career in academia pretty late! During the summer between my junior and senior year of college, my career plans totally changed. Perhaps it was the impending doom of college graduation, but by my senior year I realized that I loved being in an academic environment more than anywhere else. I had a lot of questions about why the world operated in certain ways and how it did so, and I wanted to keep learning. I admittedly knew little about the nuts and bolts of research, but I was drawn to the idea of investigating and analyzing problems of interest to me.

I also felt that I would love to teach at a university level. In undergraduate classes, I often found myself looking over course syllabi and thinking about how I would design the course if I were in my professor’s shoes. I had experience teaching as an English Second Language tutor and a substitute teacher in elementary and middle school throughout college, and while I knew that those experiences differed greatly from teaching at a college level, I loved the teaching experience overall. During my junior year of college, my plan was to attend graduate school in order to get a Master’s degree that would allow me to pursue a government career in foreign policy. However, by the beginning of my senior year, my interests had pivoted away from policy careers, and I found myself wanting to do what my professors do. I asked to meet with a handful of professors that I had had multiple classes with throughout the years and who had gotten to know me as a student, and, upon talking with them, decided that pursuing a PhD after graduation was what I wanted to do.

Once the decision was made to pursue a PhD (watch: Why a Ph.D.?), I jumped right in and quickly began preparing application materials. I toyed with the idea of trying to work for a bit first after graduating college, but I decided that I likely would not be able to find a job that did more for my academic aspirations than beginning grad school would. This feeling was bolstered by advice from the professors I turned to for help during the application process. My professors felt like there was not a good reason for me to put off graduate school if I knew I wanted to get my PhD. Furthermore, because I knew that pursuing a PhD was going to be a lengthy process, I liked the idea of entering a program while on the younger side. For other people, though, spending a few years pursuing some other kind of work before beginning their PhD can be highly beneficial, so it is important to remember that everybody’s “grad school timeline” will be unique and personal.

In hindsight, there was a lot I did not know about PhD programs when I began the application process! I did not realize that PhD students receive yearly stipends, and that these stipends would be enough to support myself financially. I also did not realize that PhD students receive fellowships to cover tuition until I was advised by a professor that I should not attend any graduate program that did not provide a fellowship. I realized that there were so many logistical details of pursuing a PhD that I was completely ignorant to. When many people hear grad school, they probably picture a mountain of student loan debt, but that is not the case with PhD programs. I quickly learned that getting a PhD was going to be more similar to entering a full-time job than I had originally thought. I also became aware that many people without any connection to the world of academia knew very little about what a PhD program entails, and that can admittedly be isolating at times. Once I had committed to a graduate program, I had many, many conversations with relatives and friends explaining exactly what it is that I would be doing in graduate school and how long my degree would take me.

Despite making the decision for myself to attend graduate school directly after graduating from college, I do firmly believe that one should not pursue graduate school unless they truly want to and/or need to for professional purposes. If you do not want or need a graduate-level degree, trudging through the work will not be easy. Grad school is hard! Obtaining a graduate degree can provide you with next-level expertise in an area of interest, and this expertise can get you a leg-up in many job sectors. A graduate degree can help you secure more prestigious jobs in industry or qualify you for a significant salary increase in your field. It is important to investigate if getting a graduate degree will help you in these ways in your career, because graduate degrees are not always universally beneficial. When I was deciding what to do after undergrad, one of my professors told me that if I didn’t feel like grad school was the best path for me, then it was best to wait a year and then revisit the decision. Now as I enter my third year of my graduate program, I still feel strongly that this was a great piece of advice. I was confident about my decision to apply to grad school, but I also cannot imagine motivating myself through graduate school if I felt that I did not want or need a graduate degree.

Why Apply to Rice?

During the fall semester of my senior year of college, I spent a lot of time researching which graduate programs would be a good fit for me. I had a lot of guidance from a handful of professors, and I also made appointments with my school’s Career Center to talk about the grad school application process. The internet is also a great resource, as always, and I spent time reading about how to go about applying to PhD programs. It became clear that one of the most important aspects of a graduate program was whether or not it had good faculty matches for what I was interested in studying. I spent time looking through graduate programs and selecting the ones that had faculty members whose research agendas matched my own interests.

To create a list of schools to apply to, I systematically narrowed down the many grad school options out there. First, I looked at graduate program rankings, and I picked a chunk of schools that I felt I had a fair chance of getting into based on my undergraduate GPA, my GRE score, and my overall undergraduate resume. I eliminated schools I knew I had no chance of getting into, with the exception of a few “high reach” schools I decided to apply to anyways because I would rather do so and get rejected than never apply and wonder what might have happened. (But that is just my personal philosophy!) Then, I went through that chunk of “fair chance” schools and eliminated programs that I knew I likely would not choose to attend (were I to get in) due to issues like undesirable location or program design. Yes, location does matter! (Read more about living in Houston). You do not want to spend 5+ years in a place that you detest. I knew the kind of places I would and would not enjoy living in, and I avoided programs in places where I knew I could not be happy. Lastly, I went through the remaining schools’ faculty lists and looked for faculty whose research agendas were similar to my own interests. This process is time consuming, but highly worth it for putting together a smart, informed list of schools. I wanted to apply to schools that I believed would be a good fit for me. (Pro-tip: copy our grad school comparison chart here!)

I eventually compiled a list of ten schools. I do not know how many schools one should apply to, and I do not think there is any universal recommendation. I had some professors tell me ten was fine while one professor said it wasn’t enough. The number is likely going to depend on your personal situation. Keep in mind that applications are time-consuming and also expensive. Some programs do offer application fee waivers, though, so always feel free to ask about waivers! But without application fee waivers, the fees can add up very quickly. You do not want to spread yourself too thin by applying to such a large number of schools that you cannot handle the application process well. At the same time, though, you want to hopefully have options! Remember that applying to graduate school is highly competitive, and incoming class/cohort sizes are often very tiny relative to undergraduate programs’ accepted classes, so you have a high chance of rejection no matter who you are.

Rice made my list for several reasons. First, I felt that the research interests of some of the faculty within my department matched up well with my own interests. On paper, Rice seemed like it would be a good fit for me. Second, I had always heard very positive things about Rice University as a whole. Rice has had a good reputation in my mind ever since high school when the college application process took place. In high school, though, I wanted to attend a large university for undergrad, so I had sworn off all small schools then. Now, after four years of college at a big public school, I liked the idea of experiencing a very different collegiate culture for graduate school. Third, I wanted to live in or close to a city, so being in Houston would be a big perk. I had spent the past four years living a plane ride away from home in a very different part of the country from where I was raised, so the prospect of moving to a new city that was also far from my roots did not worry me. Rice seemed like a good academic fit for me as well as a good lifestyle fit.

Why Pick Rice?

I decided to attend Rice for two main reasons: first, because I knew it was a good fit for me from the application process, and, second, because I had a very positive experience during my visiting weekend (read: Make Visiting Weekends Work for You). After my acceptance to Rice and during my program’s visiting student weekend, it was clear to me that Rice cares a lot about its graduate students. I knew that grad school would be challenging, and I did not want to spend five years at an institution that provided only minimal support for its grad student community. At Rice, it seemed like the grad student community was vibrant, and this observation has been proven true in my experience at Rice. Within my program specifically, I also got the impression during visiting weekend that faculty members were sincerely invested in their graduate students. Graduate students seemed well-supported, both in terms of academic/professional resources and stipends. (Don’t feel weird for viewing stipends as a major decision factor. Grad school is stressful enough without having to also stress about making ends meet!) The graduate student culture within my program was collaborative and supportive, not competitive and cutthroat, and that was a big appeal to me as well. I did not want to be in an environment where it felt like I had to fight my peers for resources and time with faculty. At some graduate programs, such competition is commonplace. I knew I would not do well in that kind of environment, and so Rice’s supportive community was a big selling point for me. Visiting weekend allowed me to get a glimpse into the grad student life at Rice, something that is hard to truly pick up on via university websites alone.

For me, selecting a graduate program that had a positive graduate student culture was important. I knew that Rice was a good academic fit for me, and I knew when I got accepted that there was a high chance I would end up attending Rice right off the bat. A positive experience during my visiting weekend helped solidify my feelings that Rice would be a good choice.

Further Reading:

Grad School 101: Approaching the application process

Grad School 101: Writing the personal statement

Grad School 101: Asking for letters of recommendation

About the author: Originally from Massachusetts, Emily Elia is a second-year Ph.D. student in political science. She graduated from the University of Alabama in 2018 and currently studies comparative politics with a focus on Latin America.