Applying to academic graduate programs – MA, MS and PhD degrees – is very different from applying to college. (And, applying to professional graduate programs – MD, JD, M.Arch., Ed.D., MBA, and so on – is itself very different from applying for academic grad degrees.)
What are MA, MS, and PhD programs? And what makes the application process so different from others?
The master of arts, master of science and doctor of philosophy programs – in academic subjects such as history, Asian studies or chemistry – typically require coursework, research and graduate teaching to complete the degree, culminating in a thesis (for MA and MS) or a dissertation (for the PhD). Programs vary from university to university. In some schools, a student may only apply for a PhD and receive an MA or MS after finishing courses and passing comprehensive exams en route to the doctorate. At other schools, a student must complete the master’s degree first, and then apply to the doctoral program.
With academic graduate studies, it’s important for applicants to have a clear sense of what they want to study and why. When applying to college, it wasn’t exactly a necessity. Applicants could check the “undecided” box and then figure out, after a year or two, what their major was. While college admissions offices like to know if an applicant has particular academic bent, it’s not critical. At the graduate level, though, an applicant needs to show commitment to a field of study – through research, work experience or undergraduate coursework.
For PhD applications, the admissions committee is typically comprised of departmental faculty members – professors comprise the admissions committee. For MA/MS degrees, either dedicated admissions staff or faculty members will review applications – it just depends on the university structure.
Admissions committees consider many factors: the GRE score; undergraduate academic performance, including institution attended as well as courses taken; and letters of recommendation from faculty. The letters from faculty at other universities can weigh very heavily in the admissions process – since faculty at one school trust their colleagues at another.
The personal statement, sometimes called a statement of purpose, is critical. What does the student want to study and why? With which professors does that applicant want to study? Other factors include work or research experience – neither is typically required, but both can certainly help applicants gain maturity, perspective and experience.
Graduate studies entail dedication and hard work – for MA and MS programs, the duration to degree is typically two to three years, while PhD programs typically last from four to eight years, depending on the field of study. It’s a big investment of time – applicants need to do their research to land in the best-matched graduate program.