Jul 5, 2022

15 questions to ask current graduate students when you are in the application process

Overview: When I start a new endeavor, I have found it helpful to get the insight from someone who is a few steps ahead and draft off their experience.  This post highlights how you can learn about graduate school and the graduate application process by meeting with a current graduate student for coffee.  It contains a list of questions they can answer for you. 


Post Contributor(s): Marian Kennedy




Photo by Tom Podmore on Unsplash
One way to gather information about the process of applying to graduate programs or the experience of being a graduate student is to interview a current graduate student.  During this structured conversation, you can ask a range of questions.  Since graduate students are busy trying to complete their degrees, the meeting should not take more than an hour, and you should be on time for the meeting and come with a list of questions.  I would suggest planning on a semi-structured interview format where you have a framework of key questions to ask and probe areas with spontaneous questions when needed. Ask ahead of time if you can record the meeting.  If not, plan on bringing a pen or pencil to take notes. Be sure to identify a graduate student in your field because programs can diverge greatly depending on the discipline, and find out what degree (doctorate, master’s degree) they are pursuing. 


Below are some questions that I would want to ask.  While a graduate student’s perspective will be helpful, if time if short you might want to focus on questions related to the benefit of attending graduate school and their experience once enrolled. 


Benefit of attending graduate school

  • Why did you decide to attend graduate school after completing your bachelor’s degree?
  • What were the benefits versus just entering the workforce after your bachelor’s degree or continuing in the workforce instead of going to school?
  • Why did you decide to pursue a (PhD, MS) vs. a (PhD, MS)?
  • Do you know what you want to do after grad school?
  • What do you wish you had done to prepare for grad school? Why did you choose your graduate program?


Experience once enrolled in a graduate program

  • How many classes do you take each semester and how do those classes compare to those you took as an undergraduate? 
  • How much time do you spend on course work vs. conducting research?
  • How did you identify your research advisor?
  • Do you work on research projects with a defined hypothesis, or did you identify your own research hypothesis? 
  • How long does it typically take students in your program/degree to graduate?
  • How do you balance your work and life during graduate school?
  • Do you hang out with other students in your program?   
  • Have you received an assistantship to help with your costs during graduate school?  (Research assistantship or teaching assistantship).  If so, what has your assistantship been like?


Process of applying to graduate programs

  • When did you start preparing your applications for graduate school?
  • What parts of the application were the hardest for you to complete?
  • Who did you ask for letters of recommendation and why?


After the interview, remember to write the graduate student a thank you note for their insight and taking the time to mentor you.  Chances are, you learned a lot from this interview.  Go through your notes (or listen to your recording) to highlight the top 5-7 ideas or suggestions that stood out to you.  You might even let a close friend or family member know what you found out as they are probably interested to hear about your application process.  Finally, write down additional questions that you would like answered as you complete the application process and set up a meeting with a second graduate student in your field.  It is always good to get multiple perspectives. 


Acknowledgements:  This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords.  She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at epsteinwords at gmail.com.


Revised on August 11th, 2022. 


Jul 2, 2022

Funding your graduate school experience- assistantships, fellowships, scholarships or loans


Overview: This post focuses helping you understand how graduate students typically fund their graduate studies.  Students typically see a shift in their financial resources between undergraduate and graduate schools.  In addition, it is becoming more common for graduate students to be supported by a variety of sources during their doctoral degrees.  Often, students will have a combination of teaching and research assistantships over those 4-5 years. 


Post Contributor(s): Marian Kennedy



Money is not something we like to talk about. 

Photo by FLY:D on Unsplash

However, not learning about how graduate students fund their studies can lead some undergraduate students to never even start the graduate application process, to end their application process early to pursue an alternative career path or lead some students to not negotiate successfully for the financial support they need to be successful in graduate school.  The financial resources available to students often change significantly between undergraduate and graduate school.  For example, it is much more common for undergraduate students to receive some type of financial support from their family than it is for graduate students. 


All undergraduates who are interested in attending a graduate program should begin by identifying the cost of attendance (COA) for the institution offering their intended degree. This information should be available on the institutional website, and it includes tuition, fees, housing transportation, etc.  Make sure to pull the COA for the graduate program as the COA for the undergraduate program is typically going to be easier to find.


So, your eyes may pop when look at the first COA for a program you’re interested in. Scrutinize the line items because other than tuition and fees they are estimates. These estimates may not reflect your specific lifestyle.  For example, you might buy used textbooks instead of new for your classes.  In addition, graduate students typically work while attending graduate school and this position can provide a stipend and tuition assistance.   Here are some common assistantships or fellowships for science and engineering graduate students and some and key facts about each:

·       Teaching or Grading Assistantship: 

  • Institutions/ departments select graduate students to participate in the education of undergraduates and their duties range from grading to facilitating classes to even teaching the courses that they have the credentials for.  
  • Graduate students who are provided full-time assistantships (20 hours/week) are referred to as Teaching Assistants (TAs) while those with partial support (10 hours/week) are referred to as Grading Assistants (TAs). 
  • These students typically receive a stipend and either reduced (for GAs) or covered tuition (for TAs). 
  • The primary instructor of the course is not normally the graduate student’s research advisor and selection is typically done by the department chair or graduate student committee. 

·       Research Assistantship:

  • Individual faculty members apply for research funding from a range of agencies and non-profits. 
  • Research Assistants are graduate students paid to work on these funded research projects for a total of 20 hours per week. 
  • Grants run approximately 2-3 years and students often switch between projects during while attending their graduate program.
  • Typically you will work on projects where the principle investigator of the grant is your dissertation or thesis advisor. 
  • These students typically receive a stipend, and their tuition is covered. 


·       Research Fellowships:

  • Fellowships are not tied to specific research projects or an institution. Instead, these are typically awarded by an external organization to a student.   
  • Example of a fellowship would include the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships (NSF GRF) or the
  • Typically, fellowships provide a stipend for the graduate student in addition to covering tuition. These stipends are typically higher than those for TAs, GAs or RAs.
  • Undergraduates and graduate students interested in being supported with a fellowship will need to apply directly to funding agencies either while applying to graduate programs or during their first or second year in graduate school. 


·       Scholarships:

  • A grant or payment made to support a student’s education.  They are often awarded based on academic or other achievement. 
  • Most departments/universities only have a few scholarships for graduate students and a small percentage of graduate cohorts receive scholarships while in STEM graduate programs. 
  • Some scholarships are need-based and require that the graduate students fill out a FAFSA to qualify. 


·       Loans: 


·       Miscellaneous:

  • The length provided by each type of funding source varies and many students use a combination of these sources to fund their program.  For example, students might be supported as both an RA and TA during the duration of their PhD studies or a TA/fellowship. 
  • Instead of working for their department, graduate students can work at other centers on campus.  For example, engineering students within the Clemson University Research Foundation (CURF) Tech Transfer Office can work as interns.  These positions allow these engineering graduate students to spend 20 hours a week within the research office learning about patents and marketing.  The remaining time is spent with their research advisors. 
  • Occasionally, graduate students are also offered tutor positions for certain organizations or the university.
  • With the approval of their advisor, graduate students can obtain an industrial or government research internship at another location.  Although most students would not be working on their own research (some do), such internships allow graduate students to better understand what it is like to work on a research team in industry or a national laboratory.  An example of programs for graduate students offered at Oak Ridge National Laboratory can be found here.


Acknowledgements:  This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords.  She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at epsteinwords at gmail.com.


Revised on August 11th, 2022. 





Jul 1, 2022

7 questions to answer before you start those PhD applications


Overview: Before investing your time and energy into applications for PhD programs in your field, you need to set some time aside for reflection, thinking and planning. A PhD will take years of your life to complete (a limited resource), present you with challenges and will require you to have some grit. Being able to clearly articulate your ‘why’ will help you push through research set back, tough courses and your first journal article reviews. 


Post Contributor(s): Marian Kennedy



Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash
Before investing your time and energy into applications for PhD programs in your field, you should set aside time in your schedule for reflection, thinking and planning. A doctoral program will take years of your life to complete, require financial sacrifice, and challenge you academically. To make sure the investment is worth it and to ensure you have to motivation to complete it, you need to spend time identifying how you will benefit from earning a doctoral degree.

To do this, you need to find large time blocks in your schedule.

Take yourself on a date to a coffee shop, library or just your kitchen table. It should be an area where you are able to work uninterrupted. Speaking of that, you should probably put your phone on silent. Have a pen and some paper in front of you and think of how to answer the following questions. Don’t worry about writing out a formal response, you can just jot words, phrases or short sentences.

  • What will you get out of earning a graduate degree? That is, how will you be different than you are now and how might the degree changes the things you are able to do?
  •  What are the different types of graduate degrees that you could pursue in your field, and which one interests you the most? Why?
  • Are there other ways to get to your goals beyond earning a graduate degree?
  • Most STEM graduate programs require you to conduct research. Do you know what that is?
  • How will a graduate program be different than your undergraduate program?
  • What will you do after you attend a graduate program?
  • What questions would you want to ask someone who has just finished a graduate program (earned a PhD, MS, ME)? 


Another option would be to read these questions before heading out for a run or walk. You can think about them by pounding the pavement and then jot your notes when you return. 


Acknowledgements: This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords. She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at kate at epsteinwords.com.