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Applying to Graduate Schools in the USA

The term “graduate school” is applicable to both masters and PhD degrees, the PhD sometimes being an extension of the research-based masters. Schools in the US offer a lot of diverse masters and PhD degrees, many allowing you to study beyond the organized curriculum system with the freedom to study what you want. PhD admissions are generally handled in the same way as master degree ones by most US schools with the only difference being that students can continue with research after finishing their master’s coursework. Many schools allow applicants to apply for the doctoral degree right after their undergraduate studies. The graduate degree generally takes two years (with thesis) whereas the doctoral degree can take anywhere between 4-6 years.

Why choose USA?

The US advantage gives the student the choice to opt for diverse subjects and develop his/her interest accordingly. Unlike many other parts of the world, there are no tight and binding rules to your graduate education in the US and one is allowed to switch fields as well. It’s not necessary that a student should opt for a graduate degree in the same field as the undergraduate. Schools offer a choice of interdisciplinary curriculum and research specialization intensive courses.

Choosing the right school

Graduate admissions are tricky in the respect that an applicant is expected to identify his/her interest BEFORE applying. A single school or department may offer multiple specializations. Unlike undergraduate degrees, a graduate applicant is expected to decide the core area or specialization before applying, because transferring to other majors/specializations after admissions can be a lot of hassle (and many schools don’t allow it).Your core area needn’t be from your undergraduate degree; US grad schools allow the versatility of switching fields; I switched from chemistry to environmental science myself.

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Graduate programs are offered in two modes- with research or without research. A research-based masters includes both coursework and a project under a professor in the students’ area of interest. This is usually for applicants looking for a career in research or academia. A non-thesis master’s degree is a more professional program after which a student can enter the industry.

When selecting graduate schools it’s important to look at the curriculum and courses offered by the program because your future depends on it. After spending considerable time and money you should be able to build a personally satisfying career. School rankings are secondary to career goals. The overall ranking of a school does not necessarily apply to its individual programs. More important is the career and job opportunities that a degree from the school will lead to. I have shared some information regarding choosing schools in the posts Choosing the Right University: Part 1 and Choosing the Right University: Part 2.

PhD Applications

Doctoral degree applicants should look at the research aspect of a program, looking for faculty with research groups and funding opportunities. Keep track of the financial aid opportunities (TA, RA, Scholarships) that the school offers to its students (especially international students) which could ease your financial burden. Graduate funding opportunities are generally more common than undergraduate funding opportunities and it’s advisable to get in touch with faculty before applying.

I shall talk more about PhD applications in a subsequent post.

Good luck with the school hunt! 😀

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