To state it simply, graduate school is the opportunity to pursue an advanced degree in a specific area. Through rigorous academic courses, personalized, independent research, and additional experiences a graduate student receives the training to go on and pursue careers that would not be possible without that higher degree.
This kind of general, overarching description is nice, but it lacks the individualism that is really crucial to understanding graduate school. A graduate degree in the sciences differs from an undergraduate degree in that it is almost always extremely personalized. Sure, there are some basic rules everyone has to follow, but for the most part, each individual student will take classes, receive training, and perform novel, independent research that is specially tailored for that individual student. What that means is that what you get out of graduate school is almost entirely dependent on the decisions you (and your advisor) make, the experiences you undergo, and ultimately what you put in to it.
There are some general differences between graduate and undergraduate education that can be helpful to point out, especially if you come from a background without much exposure to graduate studies. Please note, that in this instance we are talking about a research-based graduate degree which itself is very different than a Professional Degree such as the Masters of Natural Resource Management.
In a research-based graduate program, you still take classes, but they are usually a few relatively small and specialized classes that address things at a higher and more specialized level. However, the important thing to realize is that graduate classes are a fairly small portion of your overall graduate experience. They are still important, and hopefully help provide you with an important foundation, but are a much smaller part of your time and experience.
This is where you are going to be spending the bulk of your time. The idea here is for you to design, implement, and communicate novel and independent research. If you had a capstone class or senior research experience, it's like that, but on steroids. Besides doing research for your own training, this research will also make a contribution to the scientific community. The skills you develop while doing the research (reading, logic, planning, writing, etc.) will be a huge part of your ability to pursue any career you choose.
Graduate school is demanding. You will be challenged mentally and physically, you will learn new things, work long hours, be stressed out, etc., so you should have some important reasons for pursuing an advanced degree. Plenty of people think about attending graduate school just because they've always been pretty good at school and they don't really know what to do next. The people who get the most out of their graduate degree usually went for reasons that were professional and/or personal.
An advanced graduate degree does allow you to pursue potential careers that you cannot pursue without that degree. While it is not essential to know exactly what you want to do with a degree when you are starting out, it is good to have at least some ideas of things you want to try. This lets you tailor your program so that you can have the best chance to succeed once you are done with graduate school.
In graduate school you will really narrow your area of focus, so it is helpful to pick an area that you enjoy and find rewarding. Hopefully you get some level of satisfaction in the work you are doing, perhaps because you are really curious about this area or perhaps because you can see how it helps benefit people or the scientific community. Graduate school can be extremely rewarding personally. If we're doing our jobs right, you are going to push yourself in new ways, you are going to learn new things, do new things, and ultimately expand yourself in a way that many people find really rewarding.
Another difference between undergraduate education and research-based graduate degrees in the sciences, is that you are usually paid to be a graduate student! Instead of having to pay your own tuition, oftentimes graduate students have their tuition waived and also receive a regular stipend (usually referred to as an assistantship). You're not going to get rich off the stipend, but it is meant to be enough to live off of so that you can focus your time and energy on being a successful graduate student. Not every program works this way, but in SNRS students are usually only admitted if they are going to receive funding of some type (see below). This model does make it a lot more affordable to attend graduate school; however it also makes graduate school a LOT more competitive than undergraduate education. In SNRS, getting in to a graduate program is not like applying to an undergraduate college, it is like applying for a job. There are only a few of these positions available and since the advisor is the one paying you, s/he is going to make sure they find the best candidate for the position.
Please note, that our professional graduate degree program (MNRM) is a tuition-based program, meaning students plan on paying their own tuition (like undergraduate degrees), but it is much less competitive and students do not have the burden of finding an open assistantship or fellowship.
There are two primary ways students are paid to attend graduate school:
The most common way graduate school is paid for is by the student receiving a research assistantship. A research assistantship is fundamentally a job. You are receiving the tuition waiver and stipend from your faculty advisor and in return you are working on your research, advancing in your graduate program, and working on research projects for your advisor. This is part of why you are going to be much closer to your faculty advisor when doing a research-based graduate program. In most cases, the faculty member is not only training you and advising you, but s/he is also your boss who will have specific expectations about what you need to do to keep receiving your assistantship. Moreover, assistantships are often associated with specific research projects, so receiving that particular assistantship means that you will be working on that project either as part of your own research or in another capacity
Another way to pay for graduate school is for you, the student, to receive a type of graduate fellowship. A fellowship is sort of like an undergraduate scholarship, but again, on steroids, since the fellowship is meant to cover tuition and a stipend. Whereas assistantships primarily come from your advisor, fellowships come from other entities but are awarded to you, sort of like a scholarship. There are a number of competitive fellowships that students can apply for, and if you receive one, you are fundamentally your own boss. The fellowship usually gives you the ability to work on whatever type of project you like (if you receive the award to work on that), and it gives you the ability to work with almost any faculty member since they don't have to worry about finding money to fund you. These are normally pretty prestigious and competitive, but they are really beneficial to you and your advisor if you receive one.
Again, the process is very different for professional degrees like MNRM and research-based graduate degrees. For professional graduate degrees, we encourage you to learn about the program as much as you can, and make sure it’s a good fit for you. Then follow the steps to do a formal application to the program. For research-based graduate degrees, please keep reading.
Because of the job-like aspect of the funding for research-based graduate programs, because of the tight relationship with your advisor, and because of its extremely competitive nature, getting in to a research-based graduate program is very different than getting in to an undergraduate program. Below we've tried to address how things work for our research-based degrees (MS or PhD in Entomology, NRM, Range, or Soils) while giving you some specific advice about how to proceed if you are interested in applying to graduate school.
How graduate students in research-based programs are chosen.
One of the most common questions asked is "How do I get in?". There are a large number of people who want to get in to graduate school, have the minimum qualifications, and would probably work extremely hard to succeed, but there just isn't enough space or funding to admit them all. Again, think about this more like trying to get a job as opposed to what you went through to get in to your undergraduate institution. You might have the "minimum requirements" to apply for this job, but there are probably dozens of others applying for the same job who also have those same minimum requirements. At the end of the day, the boss (the advisor) has to pick the one person that s/he thinks will do the best at that job.
So, what is it that the advisor will be looking at? Decisions about admissions to the Entomology Graduate Program and who will be awarded a research assistantship are made based on a number of factors, including:
1) Minimum requirements set by the graduate school:
- Hold a baccalaureate degree from an educational institution of recognized standing.
Meeting these requirements DOES NOT mean you will be admitted. You also need:
2) A faculty advisor who has an opening in his/her lab and funding for a new student.
3) A very good match between you as a prospective student and a potential faculty advisor. It is very difficult to say exactly what makes a good match between student and advisor, because things will be different depending on the advisor and even depending on what kind of opening the advisor has. However, the bottom line is that the advisor is trying to find someone that s/he thinks is going to be successful as a graduate student. To determine that, the potential advisor will probably look at why you want to go to graduate school, what kind of research/science you are interested in studying, what experiences and schooling you've had, and what you are like as a worker and as a person.
Contacting potential faculty advisors.
Since you have to find a faculty advisor who will accept you and offer you an assistantship, the usual first step to applying is to contact potential faculty advisors. There are two approaches you can take to figuring out who you might contact.
Faculty with positions.
There are a number of web sites that list faculty members who are looking to find students to fill research assistantships (or similar positions). The benefit of searching through these sites is that you know that these particular faculty members are looking for new students and you usually find a bit more information about what kind of opportunity there is and what kind of student s/he is looking for.
If you are contacting someone about an advertised position, make sure that you carefully address everything that s/he asks you for. Again, think about this like applying for a job and take the time and energy to impress them and show them your ability to effectively communicate.
Faculty that match your interests.
The other approach is to identify faculty members who have interests and experiences that match what you are looking for as an advisor. They may or may not have openings, but the idea is to find ones that could be a good match for you if an opportunity arose. As you are looking for potential advisors, make sure to look for lab research pages and other web sites that will tell you more about them, you may get lucky and find that s/he is actually looking for students.
If you are contacting faculty that may be a good match first ask if they have an opening for a graduate student. Then briefly communicate why you are interested in working with this person. If you are contacting this person for the first time, you don't need to write pages and pages of information, but you do need to tell a little bit about yourself, why you would like to work with him/her in particular, and give them a taste of why you are going to be a good graduate student. Attaching a CV can provide good information, but you need to personalize your communication so that the advisor knows why you are interested in working with him/her. If it looks like you sent the same email to dozens of potentially faculty members, you are very unlikely to get a positive response.
Whichever route you choose (feel free to do both!), we STRONGLY urge you to put some time and effort in to your communication. As faculty members, we receive numerous emails from people looking to work with us. If we put out an advertisement looking for students that number exponentially increases. If you want to stand out from all the rest of these people it is important that you effectively communicate with your potential advisor.
If the advisor does have a position and is potentially interested in you, s/he will likely communicate more with you and ask you for more information and/or ask to talk with you more. However, your first communication will go a long way in deciding whether or not the advisor chooses to invest more time and energy in talking with you further.
Formal applications to graduate school.
To get in to graduate school, you must complete a formal application to the North Dakota State University Graduate School and be accepted as a new graduate student in a program. As stated above, to be accepted in an SNRS research-based graduate program, a faculty member must agree to be your advisor and be willing to work with you to make sure you have funding. Therefore it is crucial that you make that connection with a potential advisor.
After completing the formal application, all our faculty members will have the chance to read your full application and will determine whether s/he has the opportunity and interest in working with you. However, we encourage you to contact faculty members directly either before applying or while you are in the process of completing the formal application.