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How grad school is different from undergrad

Many prospective graduate students—especially those going directly from undergraduate to graduate school—harbor some preconceptions about the "college lifestyle." While certain aspects of undergraduate and graduate study are similar, some of the preconceptions of university life based on the undergraduate experience have to be dispelled. These can be grouped into a few general categories:

Age and experience

Unlike your undergraduate years, in grad school your fellow students will have a much wider age range. (If you attended community college, this aspect of grad school won't be so different.) This translates to a different study environment, with grad students generally being more experienced and mature both professionally and personally than your undergraduate peers might have been. For instance, some of your classmates may already have years of work experience in the very field you are studying, adding the practitioner's real-world take to classroom discussions. They may even be currently working in the field while in school.

You're also likely to be closer in age to (or even older than) some of your professors—something that initially surprises some grad students. It's also worth noting that your fellow students are far more likely to have spouses, life partners, and/or children than they were in your undergraduate years. If you attend a graduate program with a high percentage of local students (as opposed to a larger number of people who have relocated to join the program), the preponderance of existing networks and relationships will be all the more pronounced. It may take you more time than expected to feel "welcome" in such scenarios, but once you're in, you will have strong links with the local community.

Greater autonomy and less structure

Obviously, administrative and academic advisors still play a part in navigating degree programs and their requirements, but don't expect your advisor (or worse still your program's director!) to be too much of a "hand-holder." There's a general expectation that grad students will be mature self-starters who can navigate the ins and outs of the program, from administrative tasks to academic pursuits. Depending on your program, this may mean making a lot more decisions about course choices and how to structure your studies than you ever did at the undergraduate level.

It's not that advisors won't help you—they certainly will (and many campus services, from financial aid to crisis counseling, are still available to grad students). But as a grad student you will have more autonomy and less guidance. You will be primarily responsible for ensuring that you finish assignments and meet deadlines, plan your thesis/dissertation or final project, and maintain enrollment status, while also handling all the non-school issues, from relocation adjustments to, yes, keeping the rest of your life in order. In fact, many grad students view their graduate studies as a full-time job. For more on this topic, see our article on the general lifestyle changes confronted by grad students.

Campus life (or lack thereof)

As a grad student, your time on campus will be different.
While grad students use some of the same facilities as undergraduates, their campus experience is very distinct. It depends on the school and the surrounding community, but generally, grad students are far less likely to live on campus (in student housing) than undergrads. Instead, grad students tend to live in their own off-campus residences, commuting to school for classes, administrative tasks, and meetings with professors. And given the topical focus of most grad programs, even when grad students are on campus they tend to gravitate toward their department, bypassing the wider campus ambience and activities. This means your interaction with the college campus and all it offers will be different: you will have less time to explore student life than you might have had as an undergrad.

This pattern holds true even when school isn't in session. Although graduate and undergraduate programs follow a similar academic calendar, rarely will grad students spend their breaks socializing as they may have done in their undergrad years. Many grad students use their summers to take another class or perform some form of work (internship, short job related to studies, research trips), while winter holidays and spring breaks are typically more about writing papers and catching up on readings than working on a sun tan or seeing friends and family.

The major exception in this discussion of campus life is the library: Although the internet and the advent of electronic publishing have made it possible to access vast collections of literature from the comfort of your couch, as a grad student you will become intimately familiar with the interior of your university library. Expect to spend a lot of time there, taking advantage of the accumulated knowledge in the stacks as well as the quiet corners where you can concentrate and avoid the distractions of home.

Similarities between the undergrad and grad lifestyles

Obviously, every student's experience is unique, and ultimately each grad student's lifestyle is determined by how they allocate their time, resources, and energy toward different activities. On the lifestyle front, grad students still make friends with their fellow students (and perhaps with their professors). Likewise, grad students still try to maintain a social scene together. This can include everything from forming study groups and joining campus clubs, to attending lectures and film screenings, to squeezing in a soccer game, a café chat, or a beer night every once in a while. These activities round out the grad school experience, and thenetwork of friends and acquaintances you make can be an important asset once you complete your studies and move on from grad school.

While differences in age and experience of students are more pronounced at the graduate level than in undergrad, grad students' motivations and professional and academic interests also tend to be much more closely related. This commonality can help you connect with your fellow students even though, at first, their backgrounds may seem quite different from yours. And while you will be more on your own in making decisions about the structure of your studies, the underlying idea remains the same: you still have to go to class and do the work in order to make the passing grade and learn the discipline.

Conclusion and further resources

Whatever the similarities, there's no escaping the fact that grad school is far more academically intense than undergraduate study. Whether you're a recent undergrad student or a mid-career professional, you'll need to set aside some of the preconceptions you have about the college lifestyle and prepare for the rigorous and rewarding experience of grad school.