Why Are You Here?

You may have heard this more than once as you prepared for graduate school: "It’s a job!" But it’s not that simple. Graduate school is more than a job. In graduate school you learn to be a professional in your field. You extend your professional understanding of your discipline through independent reading and study, and you learn to communicate that understanding through the development of important teaching and research skills. In short, you learn to think and act like a physicist or a sociologist or an economist. So it’s more than a job. It’s your future. And because it’s your future, you need to be clear about why you’re here, what you want to achieve and your plan for achieving your goals.

If you’re a degree-seeking student in graduate school, your objective is either a master’s or a doctoral degree. Here's a brief explanation of the differences, based on information from Kaplan Test Prep (2001).

Master's Degree Programs

Master's programs are generally two years long and focus either on research and scholarship (Master of Arts or Science) or on professional training that qualifies the degree holder to enter or advance in a field such as architecture (M.Arch.) or education (M.Ed.) If you're following the first path, you'll be required to write a 50-to 150-page thesis demonstrating your grasp of scholarship and research in your field before you can graduate. If you’re on the applied
track, you won’t need to write a thesis, but you will be expected to take additional coursework and probably complete an internship or a practicum.

Doctoral Programs

A doctoral program is an entirely different matter. If you’ve been admitted to a doctoral program, you should expect to become a scholar “capable of independent research that will add new and significant knowledge” to your field. As Lee Schulman (2008) explains, the Ph.D. signals that “its recipient is now ready, eligible, and indeed obligated, to make the most dramatic shift in roles: from student to teacher, from apprentice to master, from novice or intern to independent scholar and leader. The Ph.D. marks its holder as one charged to serve as a steward of the discipline and profession." (page x of the foreword). 

So what does it take to be a steward of the discipline? Chris Golde (2006) identifies four key strategies:

    • Ask interesting and important questions, formulate appropriate strategies for investigating these questions, conduct investigations with a high degree of competence, analyze and evaluate the results of the investigations and communicate the results to others to advance the field.
    • Develop an understanding of the history and fundamental ideas of the discipline while learning how to determine which ideas are worth keeping and which have outlived their usefulness.
    • Represent and communicate ideas effectively, through teaching in the broadest sense of the word.
    • Appreciate other disciplines and the differences between disciplinary views of the world, and learn how to appreciate and communicate across traditional boundaries.

During your first two or three years in a doctoral program you’ll focus on coursework, delving deep into the ideas of your discipline. Once you complete your coursework, you’ll take comprehensive exams to demonstrate a wide-ranging understanding of your chosen field. Then you’ll move on to “candidacy” and begin independent research that will culminate in your doctoral dissertation. At some point during your doctoral study, you may be assigned to teach an undergraduate course, lead a lab or mentor undergraduate students. Through these processes and experiences you’ll become an independent scholar and a steward of your discipline.

Whether you’re a master’s or doctoral student, graduate study is serious, hard work. You can expect more reading than you were assigned in undergraduate studies. You’ll also write more. You’ll be expected to maintain at least a B average and make progress toward your degree objective at a satisfactory rate. Graduate study also is exciting and challenging. If you don’t believe us, talk to a master’s student who has just completed her second semester of study. Talk to advanced doctoral students. If you listen closely, you’ll hearthem describe with passion how rewarding it is to discover new ideas, how graduate school has changed them, and how exciting it is to share their subject knowledge with undergraduates.

Where Are You Going?

This wisdom applies to graduate school, too. What are your professional goals? Will you pursue a tenure-track position at a large research institution? If so, you’ll need to focus on developing your research skills and building a research agenda. If teaching at either a liberal arts college or a community college is for you, then 

you’ll want to build your classroom teaching skills. Perhaps you’re seeking a career in government, business, or industry. Whichever path you wish to follow, you’ll need to develop the knowledge, skills and abilities that will make you a competent and confident professional. If you haven’t explored the various employment
options available to graduates in your field, get started now. Talk to your faculty adviser, do some Internet and library research or visit with a career adviser. Once you’ve identified some possible career paths, you’ll be ready to develop the major skills needed to be a successful professional.

Making Progress

Alexes Harris(2009) notes that you need a “solid game plan” for getting through graduate school: understand the process, learn what is expected of you, develop a plan of study and, finally, map out a professional development plan. Understand the process. Graduate school is very different from undergraduate studies. Most of
what you learn in grad school will come not from classes, but from other activities. You'll work closely with a faculty member on his or her research, learn to design research projects, develop hypotheses, gather and analyze data, interpret results, and share your knowledge at professional conferences. The goal is to move from being a student to becoming a scholar. Graduate study is a process; you’ll need to achieve milestones and meet requirements while making progress toward the degree.

Milestones include establishing a supervisory committee, completing qualifying exams and filing required paperwork. Learn what is expected of you. Consult UNL’s online Graduate Studies Bulletin to familiarize yourself with policies for course requirements, preliminary and qualifying exams and admission to candidacy. Your department also may have specific expectations, requirements and deadlines regarding academic performance, progress toward degree completion, teaching and/or research assistantships, graduate examinations, etc. These may be spelled out in a detailed student handbook. Develop a plan of study. If you’ve been admitted to a master’s degree program, you’ll eventually be required to complete a Memorandum of Courses. Doctoral students will complete a Program of Study. The study plan serves as a contract between you and your graduate committee and the graduate dean and spells out requirements for completion of your degree. Both forms are available online. Download the appropriate form and begin thinking now about how you want to build your graduate program. It’s never too early to start planning.

Write an individualized professional development plan. An IPDP outlines your career goals and the steps you need to meet them. Think of it as a road map or action plan. What skills, knowledge or abilities do you need to teach effectively? To conduct research responsibly? To serve your campus, professional organization or community?
For more information on developing an individualized professional development plan, see the February 2009 Graduate Connections.

How Will You Know When You’re “There”?

Your ultimate goal, of course, is to graduate. When you receive your degree, you’ll know you’re “there.” You’ll be prepared to think and act like a member of your academic discipline or profession, conduct innovative research, teach effectively, work collaboratively with diverse groups and behave ethically.
If you understand from the start why you’re here, where you want to go and what you need to get there, you’ll be able to tailor a graduate degree that meets your specific abilities and career goal.


Harris, A. (Sept. 4, 2009) Staying motivated. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved July 8, 2010.

Golde, C. (2006). Preparing stewards of the discipline. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Retrieved July 16, 2010.

Kaplan Test Prep (2001). Master's or Doctorate?

Shulman, L. S. (2008). Foreword. In: G. Walker, C. Golde, L. Jones, A Bueschel, & P. Hutchings (Eds.). The formation of scholars: Rethinking doctoral education for the twenty-first century. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.