Tips for Getting into Grad School: Building a 2023 Roadmap

Tips for Getting into Grad School: Building a 2023 Roadmap
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

There are many reasons for people to get into grad school. Firstly, it offers the time and resources to learn more about the fields and topics of interest. Secondly, it will open doors to research and job opportunities. However, there are many ways to get into grad school. Finally, initial expectations do not always conform with reality.

In this article, we are going to get into some tips for getting into grad school to help you succeed. These also include some facts and statistics that can help you understand the state of graduate education better.

All About Grad School

Most high school and college students have a general idea of what a graduate school is. Mostly, they see it as a more advanced program in a certain field of research or profession. However, there are important nuances that prospective grad school students should know. The many different types of college degrees and graduate degrees are one of them. A graduate school usually confers three types.

What is a graduate school?

Traditionally, graduate schools are centered on academics (University of California-Berkeley, 2021). This means that the programs are focused on creating original research in an area or discipline. Graduate schools, however, have expanded to also cater to professional education needs. This type of concentration is for the building of knowledge, skills, and expertise for a particular profession or trade. There are also graduate schools that are a combination of both.

The usual types of degrees that you can earn from a graduate school are:

  • Master’s Degree
  • Doctoral Degree
  • Professional Degree

As mentioned, these degrees awarded by particular graduate programs are of many kinds. Professional degrees include a Juris Doctor (Doctor of Jurisprudence) and a Medicinae Doctor (Doctor of Medicine). These have more specific tracks in terms of employment and practice.

However, it seems that the most common idea that drives people to get into graduate school is to earn a Ph.D. degree, which is the typical terminal degree, being the highest academic rank that a particular school or discipline can confer.

There are several ways to achieve this. Firstly, the more traditional route is to have a master’s degree first before you can apply to Ph.D. programs. But there are also programs out there that let students apply straight after graduating from a bachelor’s program to a Ph.D. program. The more traditional one is popular in Europe, while the latter is more popular in the United States (Academic Positions, 2018).

The Traditional Route: Master’s to Doctoral

Several advantages of going the traditional route include (Academic Positions, 2018):

  • Less time commitment
  • Less competition in the admission process
  • More time to explore interests
  • A chance to experience multiple universities (if not continuing with the home institution)
  • Could be a requirement for target Ph.D. programs (so, check target schools’ requirements)

However, mind that funding is less available to incoming master’s students than doctoral students.

Straight to Ph.D.

On the other hand, the advantages of the straight-to-Ph.D. route include the following:

  • Bypass years spent on a master’s degree
  • Earn a master’s degree by doing course work (some institutions)
  • Have long-term projects and collaborative research work
  • Start research work right away
  • Move only once to another institution (if not continuing with the home institution)
  • Have more chance at funding

Pressure Can Be Tough: Especially for Grad Students Employed Off-Campus

The pressure in Ph.D. programs is much higher. This is more so when students are also dealing with their personal lives like relationships, jobs, and family. Withdrawal from Ph.D. programs is quite common.

And withdrawing permanently may result in students not earning a degree at all. Again, depending on the program, you may leave with a master’s degree through partial coursework completion. But this can be a true waste of time and money. Moreover, there is one significant factor at play here.

In a study by Bekova (2021), the results show “that on-campus employment increases the chances to defend the thesis and off-campus employment is negatively associated with the completion.” So, finding a job outside of the institution will more likely lead to withdrawal. If this is statistically the case, those pursuing a professional degree working outside the academic institution are more likely to withdraw.

In fact, in 2008, the completion rate was low at 56% for all doctoral programs (Sowell, Zhang, Redd, & King, 2008 in Grasso, Barry, & Valentine, 2009). The highest was in engineering (63.9%) and followed by the social sciences (62.9%). The completion rate in the humanities was just shy of 50%. Just imagine the time, effort, and resources lost here. This is not only limited to that of the students but also to the institutions and professors that have also invested in them.

Source: Sowell, Zhang, Redd, & King, 2008

Why graduate school?

There are many reasons for applying to enter grad school. These include:

  • More in-depth pursuit of interests
  • Contribute knowledge to your discipline and beyond
  • Collaborate with other researchers
  • Be an expert in the field
  • Have more job prospects and increase salary potential

If you have one or a combination of these reasons, maybe graduate school is right for you. Now, let us get into some tips for getting into grad school. But perhaps, the greatest driver among them is financial freedom.

One simple statistic attests to having a graduate degree’s attractiveness. Those with graduate degrees can earn a median usual weekly wage north of $1,880. The figure for people with a bachelor’s degree is only $1,305.

median weekly earnings of graduate degree holders

Increasing Returns on (Educational) Investments

As Posslet and Gdosky (2017) noted in their study, “Graduate Education and Social Stratification” published in the Annual Review of Sociology, “The economic returns to graduate credentials constitute a nontrivial—and increasing—portion of the returns to higher education more generally. Since the 1990s, economic returns to college have increased modestly compared with the returns to graduate and professional degrees. The earning advantage of college graduates over high school graduates increased only 6% from 2000 to 2013 versus a 17% increase in the relative earnings of those with a graduate degree. Among women aged 40–65 in 2012, those with a master’s, doctoral, or professional degree enjoyed median salaries 25%, 60%, and 108% greater than those of bachelor’s degree recipients, respectively. Among similarly aged men, the benefits of advanced degrees over bachelor’s degrees for median salaries were 17%, 30%, and 100%.”

Moreover, the researchers added that in addition to having better income levels, “people who hold graduate and professional degrees are increasingly overrepresented among the wealthiest Americans.” They pointed out that from 1989 to 2010, “the share of people with a master’s degree or higher in the top 5% of the wealth distribution rose from almost 30% to around 45%. People with a professional or doctoral degree are mostly responsible for driving this trend, and their share of the top 1% of the income distribution is greater still at 62%.”

Tips for Getting into Grad School

Many people who have stepped into graduate school will tell you that it can be harder than you can imagine. There will be financial, social, professional, and of course, academic pressures. Given all these, many can crumble. One can only do their best in preparing for these. Thus, arguably, the best among the tips for getting into graduate programs is to plan early.

Most good plans don’t go exactly as planned. But having no plan can end worse. The best thing to mitigate unwanted surprises is to have a comprehensive plan surrounding key areas. This is regardless if it is a master’s, doctoral, or professional degree program.

Have an End Goal

Yes, this may be cliché but you should have an idea of what you want to accomplish by entering and after completing grad school. If it is not clear, then have a list of what you think you can be. Of course, this should be aligned not only with your personal interests but also with your career interests. This is usually much easier for those who want to take a specific professional graduate degree but is more difficult for those who want to pursue an academic degree, especially as disciplines can converge in certain research areas.

Maybe you are not clear on this yet but as you refine your end goals and ideas, you will be in a better position to choose your major and your degree among important educational decisions to align with your goals. With this, you will have more steady ground as you move along.

In the U.S., the top field of research by the number of degrees conferred is the health profession and related programs (National Center for Education Statistics, 2020). In 2020, the number reached 82,895. The field with the second most doctoral degrees conferred is legal professions and studies. It is a far second, with only 34,387 recorded in 2020.

Have a Shortlist, Do Your Homework

Now, if you have a general idea of what you are going to do, you can scout for prospective graduate programs and institutions that you wish to enroll in. Do some research into them and look for the following information:

  • Accreditation and reputation. Choose a program that is offered, at the very least, by an accredited institution so that your credentials will be more solid. Of course, the stronger the reputation of the particular school or program, the better.
  • Requirements. Remember that each institution has its own unique requirements. Thus, you have to be diligent and take note of them so you can comply even in the middle of your undergraduate studies.
  • Faculty. Browse the faculty members of your target program and check on their research interests and contributions. Maybe, you can find the ones that you can work under for your dissertation.
  • Tuition and fees. Of course, you really have to mind the financial requirements and your current and future situation. If you know what graduate school education will cost you, you can certainly plan ahead.
  • Available funding and grants. Look into funding and grant-giving institutions. There are many financial aid opportunities for virtually everyone. This is, of course, if you make the cut.

Maintain good grades. Invest in the future.

Speaking of making the cut, you really have to maintain good grades during your undergraduate career. This is because doctoral degree programs can have a very competitive admission process. Top universities only want to spend time with the best and committed graduates. So, maintaining a GPA of 3.3 to 3.5 or higher can help your case.

Moreover, if you already have a solid plan as to what program to enroll in and in what school, you should consider taking graduate classes during your undergraduate years. However, choosing them can be tough, especially if you want to continue your education in a different institution. This is because different institutions can have different policies for transfer credits, especially when they do not belong in the same state.

Build a network. Find mentors.

Finding success in research and in employment is greatly affected by whom you know rather than what you know. Given more thought, whom you know can also help you refine and increase what you know. So, it is best to find the right people to associate with during your grad school years. Even in your undergrad years, you can start doing this.

You can approach researchers and professionals and ask them questions about their work. Many times, they will be gracious enough to share with you more personal and actionable tips. Maybe even tips for getting into grad school with a low GPA. They might even point you towards quality online graduate education or graduate schools without Graduate Record Examinations (GRE).

Also, look to guidance counselors as mentors. They give you valuable tips and insights, as well as connect you with the right people and institutions, especially for financial aid.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, 2020

Execute the Plan

As mentioned, most good plans do not go exactly as they are expected to. But there is no other choice but to execute. Once you have a roadmap, this is the time to do it. However, you should be open to the fact that your plans can change and most likely will change. So, you have to come up with some contingencies or even alter some parts of your plan (or everything altogether).

The most important thing, however, is to concentrate on what you can control. Largely, these are your grades and fulfilling the entrance requirements. Other things could just fall into place given that you are actively seeking ways to increase your likelihood of getting accepted.

Maintaining your grades and working on your requirements requires grit. And grit is essential to graduate school success. It may take you the long way or the short way, both of which can be very stressful. But both can be very rewarding in the end.



  1. Academic Positions. (2018, June 12). Master’s first or straight to PhD? Academic Positions.
  2. Bekova, S. (2019). Does employment during doctoral training reduce the PhD completion rate? Studies in Higher Education, 46(6), 1068-1080. Taylor and Francis.
  3. Grasso, M., Barry, M., & Valentine, T. (2009). A data-driven approach to improving doctoral completion. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools. CGS.
  4. National Center for Education Statistics. (2020, June 30). Digest of education statistics 2020. Statista.
  5. Sowell, R., Zhang, T., Redd, K., & King, M. F. (2008). Ph.D. completion and attrition: Analysis of baseline program data from the Ph.D. Completion Project. Washington DC: Council of Graduate Schools. CGS.
  6. Posselt, J. R., & Grodsky, E. (2017). Graduate education and social stratification. Annual review of sociology, 43(2017), 378. NCBI.
  7. Torpey, E. (2021, June 22). Education pays, 2020. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. BLS.

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