Getting through Graduate School

Part One: Getting through Graduate School

Having gone through an M.A. and a Ph.D. program at separate universities, I found that while grad school presents many challenges, there are a number of ways in which you can help the process go more smoothly and which will assist you in graduating more rapidly. I felt that I learned a lot in my experiences and would like to share some advice with current and potential graduate students.

I feel that grad school, regardless of your planning and decision-making abilities, is a stressful experience. I, as well as many of the students I attended graduate school with, often worried about issues like funding, time to graduation, grades, as well as other issues. In many universities, continued graduate funding is not always certain and can potentially change on a semester-to-semester basis. While it is typically necessary to receive a certain GPA or minimum grade in each class to receive continued funding, other issues can come in to play, such as university or departmental funding issues. Some universities restrict funding to a certain amount of time. For example, in the Ph.D. program I attended, funding was limited to four years in total. After this time, students were responsible for attempting to secure funding on their own. Funding-related issues can make for a very stressful experience, as for many students, their graduate education is dependent upon receiving a tuition waiver and stipend.

While I feel that grades are less of an issue to most graduate students, it was still an important stressor to me, mainly due to its relationship with funding. Many people will likely tell you that grades don’t matter in graduate school, and besides its relation to funding, I would tend to agree with that statement. While your exact GPA most likely won’t be of great concern, you will likely have to meet certain GPA requirements, as well as receive a certain minimum grade in each course, in order to continue receiving funding for your graduate education. While I never had any severe problems with my grades, there were a couple of points in graduate school in which I came very close to having problems. Overall, my graduate GPA was fine, having received an average GPA of 3.6 during my five years in graduate school, but there were two classes in particular which nearly caused me a lot of grief. One was a course in which I received a grade much lower than expected (and, in my opinion, deserved), and if it had been any lower, my overall GPA would have been under the minimum required for funding (which I believe was 3.0-3.3, somewhere in that range). The second was a required course in which I received a grade slightly below the minimum necessary to receive credit for required courses. As I recall the minimum was a B, while I received a B-. In this case, the instructor allowed me to make a series of revisions to my final paper, which bumped up my grade from a B- to a B.

Time to graduation is another important issue which caused me a lot of stress during my time in graduate school. I worried about this issue much more in my Ph.D. program as compared with the time I spent receiving my master’s degree. In the master’s program I attended, which was in the field of sociology at the University of Miami, students generally graduated in two years, which is typical, while some took 2 1/2 years. I began working on my thesis very early on in my second year. Still, there were a number of points in which I was concerned that I would not be able to defend my thesis in time for spring graduation. In order to make this deadline, the thesis needed to proceed on a basic timeline, and I was concerned that the amount or number of revisions required by my committee would cause me to miss this deadline. In the end, I feel that my continued and steady dedication to working on my thesis as well as being patient yet persistent in regard to important issues like the dates of my proposal and thesis defense with my committee assisted me in meeting this deadline.

Worrying about this issue, time to graduation, was a much more salient issue during my time as a Ph.D. student. While master’s degrees very typically take two years to earn, Ph.D.s can potentially take much longer, and it’s not uncommon to hear stories of students who take five to 10 years to receive their Ph.D. (after receiving their master’s). This issue is of concern to me for several reasons. First, I was worried about funding, which, as I mentioned earlier, I would only be able to (probably) receive my first four years in the program. Receiving funding after this point is possible, but very uncertain and would basically be dependent on what research or teaching assistantships I was able to find on my own. Secondly, I simply didn’t want to be stuck in grad school as a doctoral student for half a decade or longer. The second portion of this post will focus on my advice regarding finishing graduate school in a reasonable amount of time.

Part Two: Graduating in a Reasonable Amount of Time

There are a few key factors which I feel really helped assist me finish my Ph.D. within three years of time. I would have liked to have finished my master’s in less than two years, but this was nearly impossible in the program I attended. While the graduate tuition waiver covered three sociology graduate courses per semester, in order to take even one additional course, it was necessary to petition the graduate committee, and if they approved, you had to pay full tuition for the course out of your own pocket (a mere $4000 per course, which was equivalent to 1/3 of my yearly graduate stipend). Due to the number of courses needed for the master’s program, graduating any sooner would have been unlikely, though it would have been possible to graduate one semester early if you started your thesis very early on and paid the $4000 to take a fourth course during one of your three semesters.
While speeding things up was not very likely in the master’s program, I found much more opportunity to do this in my Ph.D. program, which I would say is typical. These are the factors that I feel are most important in regard to time to graduation:

1) The makeup of your dissertation and exam committees
2) The choice of methods for your dissertation
3) Starting your dissertation early, even if it just involves planning
4) Working within departmental/graduate school requirements in order to get things done as early as possible
5) Taking extra coursework if possible

The first item in this list, the makeup of your dissertation and exam committees, I feel may potentially be the most important out of the five. Most especially important is the chair of your dissertation committee. The comprehensive exams are simple: you just need to pass. There is no long series of revisions as with the dissertation. Picking the exam committee I feel can be more tricky as you do not work with them on a continued, long-term basis. Once you start work on your dissertation, you will likely be able to tell within a few months whether things are working out or not. However, with the exam committee, it’s closer to a one-shot deal. You don’t really know how things are working out until the exam is over. My only real advice here would be to ask around and to consult your dissertation chair, assuming he’s helpful and knows what he’s talking about. I didn’t have a great experience with my comprehensive exams. In my Ph.D. program, we needed to take two comprehensive exams, and could choose the area they were in. There were four possible grades: fail, marginal pass, pass, and high pass. My first exam, on social psychology, was simply a pass. I failed my second exam, which focused on social movements. We are allowed to retake an exam only once, and if you fail a second time, you’re automatically out of the program. So, of course, I was quite nervous when taking my third exam, which was on the sociology of religion. Happily, I did very well and received a high pass on this third exam. While I didn’t discuss this in the first part of this post, I would say that worrying about passing my comprehensive exams took fourth place after time to graduation, funding, and course grades.

It is my opinion that the makeup of your dissertation committee is the #1 most important factor relating to your time to graduation. Most especially important is the chair of your dissertation committee. Commonly, and it was my experience in regard to both my thesis and dissertation, that the chair of your committee will make the majority of the requests for revisions, additions, etc., and while the other members of the committee will also make these types of requests, they will tend to be more limited. Additionally, the opinion of the chair of your committee in regard to vitally important issues like when you can hold your proposal and final defense, as well as whether your thesis or dissertation is “finished”, is most important in relation to your committee as a whole. Some committee chairs will require very many series of revisions which can take years, while others will be more reasonable. While both my thesis and dissertation chairs of course required revisions, I felt that overall, they were reasonable. My chairs also allowed me to proceed at a reasonable rate.

While the individual I chose to be the chair of my master’s thesis remained the chair throughout my entire master’s program, at certain points I was worried that things weren’t proceeding as fast as they needed to be in order for me to graduate within two years. So while I never made any changes, I had considered the possibility of changing the topic of my master’s thesis and my committee at a couple of these points in which I was very concerned about my progress in the program. My dissertation chair I in fact changed twice during my time in the program, and I also considered choosing other individuals to be my chair. Initially, I had planned to study sexuality, and chose as my chair a professor who had expertise in that area. While things really seemed to be working out initially, she ended up going on sabbatical during my second year in the program, she didn’t feel it would be best for her to remain as my chair. She suggested another professor in the department, who did not have expertise in sexuality. While I went forward with this initially, it was soon evident that if I decided to keep this individual as my chair, my dissertation would proceed at a snail’s pace. While at that point I already had a complete dissertation proposal, he felt that I didn’t adequately include sociological theory as part of the study. In fact, he had “strongly recommended” [read: required] me to retake a lower level graduate course in the department before proceeding with the dissertation, as he felt that this would assist me in incorporating theory into the project. I wasn’t about to do this due to the major delay it would cause, as well as based on the fact that after doing this extra coursework and revamping the entire proposal, he still may not be satisfied with the result. Additionally, I felt it made no sense. At this point, I approached a professor who had taught a course I had taken early on in the Ph.D. program and proposed the idea of expanding upon the paper I’d written for his course into my dissertation. It was on the topic of anti-Semitism, and I was interested in studying this field in greater detail. This turned out to be a great decision, both due to my interest in the area, as well as based on my decision of my dissertation chair. While there were still a number of points in which I was very concerned about progress, and felt that things weren’t proceeding at a steady pace, overall things turned out fine. Initially my target was to successfully defend the dissertation in the spring of my third year in time for May graduation. At a couple of points, it sounded like this may not have happened until the fall, based on my conversations with my chair. However, in the end, I successfully defended the dissertation in the summer of my third year, which I was very happy about.

Second on the list is the choice of methods for your dissertation. This advice is quite simple. All other things being equal, if you do a mixed methods study (qualitative and quantitative), you will spend the longest amount of time in graduate school. If you do a qualitative study, you’ll spend a slightly shorter amount of time in graduate school. If you do a purely quantitative study, you will have the best chance of graduating in a reasonable amount of time. Unless you’re dead set on qualitative research, I would strongly suggest doing a purely quantitative dissertation, and if you’re also interested in qualitative research, conducting this as part of your coursework as well as on academic papers.

Third on the list is starting your dissertation early, even if it just involves planning. I can’t recommend this strongly enough. One of the major reasons why many students in my Ph.D. program took so long to graduate is because they waited until after completing both their comprehensive exams (which is about two years time, if not more) before even beginning their dissertation. Coursework takes a certain amount of time, and in my program, the exams need to be completed after coursework is done. This can be done in two years time. The only thing that makes graduation take longer is the dissertation. If you start early, you will likely be able to graduate in a reasonable amount of time. Also, by having a head start, you’ll have the time in case you need to change your topic or dissertation committee, like I did. Also, by having a head start, you have some extra time for unforeseen events or work like additional revisions or professors being on vacations, sabbatical, etc.

Fourth on the list is working within departmental/graduate school requirements in order to get things done as early as possible. In my Ph.D. program, all coursework had to be completed before you could take your second exam. The dissertation proposal defense could only be scheduled after the second exam had been completed. I did my best to schedule things in accordance with these requirements so that I could graduate earlier.

Finally, fifth on the list is taking extra coursework if possible. While, as mentioned, it wasn’t realistic for me to take extra coursework during my master’s program, this was easy to do during my Ph.D. program. The tuition waiver we received was a real tuition waiver, meaning that we could take any course at the University, and as many as we liked (up to some high limit, like six or seven courses in total) for free. Additionally, there was no committee to petition, and it was only recommended that we get approval from our advisor in regard to our course schedule. While the typical graduate load is three courses per semester, I always took at least four. This assisted me greatly in regard to speeding things up and allowing me to take my exams earlier, and hence defend my dissertation proposal earlier, and therefore graduate earlier. If it is at all possible, and you can do so without jeopardizing your grades or running into any other problems, I would recommend taking an additional course per semester if you’re able.

While this post ended up being much longer than I originally thought it would be, I hope current and prospective graduate students find it helpful. I found graduate school to be a very stressful experience, and seriously considered quitting many, many times. While I probably worry more than most people, I do know many, if not most graduate students, have the same concerns and worries. I hope that this advice will assist you in making graduate school an easier (and shorter) experience.

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