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Students asking questions

Frequently Asked Questions

What kind of credentials must I have to be accepted?
Should I contact faculty in the graduate program and, if so, how do I do that?
Do I have to take the GREs?
How long does it take to get an advanced degree?
What is the difference between MA and MS degrees?


What kind of credentials must I have to be accepted?

Graduate programs provide a description of requirements either in brochures or on a web site.

You need to have an appropriate undergraduate degree and/or course background to enter a graduate program. For example, to enter a graduate program for a Masters in biology specializing in a BCMB track (Biochemistry, Cell & Molecular Biology), you need a BA/BS with a major in biology with appropriate courses in biology and chemistry for a BCMB foundation. If, for example, you have an undergraduate degree in psychology but want a PhD in biology with a specialization in an EEB track (Ecology, Evolution & Behavior), then you would need a sufficient foundation of biology and chemistry courses, with some upper level courses in the EEB area. In that case, if you did not have the foundation courses, then you would have to fill in the gaps by taking undergraduate courses at your own expense and which would not count toward the PhD degree.

Most graduate schools require that you maintain a 3.0 GPA for a graduate degree; therefore, they expect evidence at the undergraduate level that you can do that. Consequently, the undergraduate GPA should be 3.0 or better. If yours isn't, then you could take graduate courses as a non-matriculated student (meaning that you simply register for graduate courses (and pay) without being admitted to the graduate program). If you do well in the courses, a graduate program may decide to waive the GPA entrance requirement. If you obtain approval ahead of time, the graduate program may accept those courses as part of your work toward a degree.

You need to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), and if you are an international student from a non-English speaking nation, then you must take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam. Exceptions to this may be certificate programs.

Usually you will need to have at least two people write letters of recommendation for you and/or fill out evaluation forms. Give the people writing letters for you advance notice of at least two weeks. Be sure to provide them with stamped addressed envelopes, required forms and waiver of confidentiality. We advise that you sign the waiver of confidentiality because it indicates to the graduate school and to the letter writer that you are confident of a strong evaluation. If you aren't sure whether the letter writer can provide a strong evaluation, ask; if the person says he/she can't do that, then ask someone else to write on your behalf. Also, the letter writers need to know you well enough to be able to say more than you did well in a course and you seemed like a nice person. So choose these people carefully. They must have the expertise to evaluate your ability to succeed in graduate studies and they must know you well enough to be able to write a page about you in some detail. It helps greatly if these people supervised a research project conducted by you or you worked for them on some research endeavor. Letters that indicate that you have research experience and/or can handle difficult intellectual and other kinds of challenges can be especially persuasive, even to the point of convincing graduate programs that marginal GPAs and/or GREs can be overlooked.

In addition, usually you will have to write a short essay about your background and career aspirations. Be as specific as possible. Have someone else read your essay, and then revise it. You may also wish to submit a resume, in which case send a hardcopy with your application materials.

Should I contact faculty in the graduate program and, if so, how do I do that?

Yes, you should contact faculty whose research interests you. Many programs require that a faculty member sponsor an applicant, meaning that the faculty member is willing to take that person into his/her laboratory group. Often financial aid from the department is contingent upon the applicant having made such a connection because part of the financial support comes from the research grants of faculty. It is okay to contact several faculty in a particular program while you are trying to sort that out. Email is an efficient way to make initial contact. Tell the faculty member about yourself and what your research interests are. Ask whether he/she has room in his/her laboratory to take on a new student. You can also ask whether he/she can provide a summer or academic year research stipend. Ask if you can contact his/her graduate students to find out more about the lab group, the graduate program, etc.

Do I have to take the GREs?

Unless the graduate program indicates otherwise, yes, you do. Graduate schools use the Graduate Record Exam scores as an indicator of aptitude for graduate studies. You should take the GRE at least a couple months before application deadlines. MCATs and DATs are not a substitute.

How long does it take to get an advanced degree?

Certificate programs are usually 1-2 semesters, if you work at it full-time.

Non-thesis Master programs are usually 1 year, if you work at it full-time.

Master programs requiring a research thesis usually take 2 years because typically students work part-time as teaching or research assistants.

Doctoral degrees usually take 4 years, with students usually working part-time as teaching or research assistants. These assistantships help develop necessary skills.

What is the difference between MA and MS degrees?

In terms of pay scale by an employer, there is no difference. Instead, the employer will adjust salary of someone with a Masters based on experience and background that the person has and which is desirable to the employer. Some universities have a research versus a non-thesis option within the MA program; others have a non-thesis MA and a research thesis MS. If you are preparing for a career that requires substantial research experience, then you should opt for a research thesis MA or MS.


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Last Updated: 1/7/09