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Graduate School

Graduate vs. Undergraduate School

Graduating from college and moving on to pursue a master's or doctoral degree is not the same as going on to college after high school. Earning your bachelor’s degree allows for exploration and study of multiple subjects before majoring in one, while graduate school is specific, in-depth, and rigorous from the get-go. If you are not passionate about the field of study or are unsure of your decision, it will be much harder to succeed – and you will likely end up dissatisfied. Graduate school is a significant investment of time, energy, and money, and there is no switching of majors if you change your mind. An even higher level of commitment is required to pursue graduate work, as compared to undergraduate. 

Why Go?

Good Reasons:

  • You are excited about the intended discipline of study!
  • You are confident in your career direction, and a graduate degree is required to pursue your profession of interest.
  • You have had related internship or research experience, and graduate school is the next step in achieving your goals.
  • You have gathered information about different degrees and potential programs and feel you have found a good fit.
  • You have spoken to faculty members about pursuing graduate work and they have expressed confidence in your ability to succeed academically.

Not So Good Reasons:

  • You want a higher salary.
  • You'd rather stay a student than go out into the real world.
  • You are thinking, "I need to go now or I will never go back."
  • You are concerned about the economy/job market and the possibility of not finding employment.
  • You think everyone needs an advanced degree to get a good job.
When to Go

It is common to hear students say, "If I don’t go now, I never will."  For those students who have had relevant internship or research experience, and know that further education is right for them, going directly into a graduate program may be the right decision. However, there are benefits to waiting. For some more professionally-oriented graduate degrees, like an MBA or an MSW, taking time to work in the field can enhance your credentials, and help you get into better or more competitive programs. Additionally, there is a possibility that your entry-level employer may be willing to fund your graduate degree as you continue to work. So-called gap-year programs also exist that allow students to take a year (or two) between degrees and help build on their qualifications; these programs may even offer education stipends. Finally, trying out the world of work may help you realize whether graduate school is really for you, and it will give you the confidence to start a program as an experienced, assured professional.

If you feel your motivations for pursuing a graduate degree align with the good reasons suggested above, the next thing you want to consider is the types of graduate programs available to you.

Defining Graduate Degrees

What Graduate Degree is Best for Your Career Goals?

Because of the time, effort, and money it takes to pursue graduate school, it is VITAL to determine your career goals and choose the graduate degree program — graduate certificate, master's, or Ph.D. — that will actually help you achieve them.

When you review graduate school websites, make note of the different kinds of graduate degrees that those programs offer. PLEASE NOTE: there is a huge variety of degrees, which makes it impossible to present a comprehensive classification. It is critical to understand the differences in degrees and how they affect career options for each field. In-depth research in degree options for your field of interest is crucial for making a successful decision.

Academic Master's & Doctoral Degrees

Academic degrees are intended to prepare students to carry out independent research in a specific field.

Master of Arts/Master of Science (M.A/M.S.):
Master's degree programs provide a comprehensive education in a particular field. They typically require between 30 and 60 credit hours as well as a thesis (sizable research paper), comprehensive exam, or capstone project that involves applying classroom learning to a real-world issue.

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.):
Graduate degree programs that result in a Ph.D. typically require 4 to 8 years of extensive coursework and research in a discipline, and culminate with the writing of a dissertation (extensive research paper.) You might need to earn this degree to pursue a career as a professor or researcher at a college or university, a research institution, or a government agency. You might also want to acquire a doctoral degree to remain marketable in a highly competitive industry or to obtain a managerial position.

Professional Degrees

Professional degrees are intended to prepare students for employment in a specific career. Samples of professional degrees are listed below.

Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.):
A Master of Business Administration is a professional degree that prepares students for careers in business. The core subjects include accounting, marketing, operations and human resources, though specialization can be achieved in one of these areas. Acceptance to an M.B.A. program requires a bachelor's degree, though the student's major can be from a number of disciplines, including history, economics, or English, for example.

Master of Social Work (M.S.W.):
A Master of Social Work degree prepares students for advanced social work practice. It provides students with the needed theoretical and practical expertise to function with maximum competence at different administrative, clinical, or policy levels in the social welfare fields and/or in the provision of direct services to individuals, families, groups, and communities.

Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.):
The M.F.A. is a concentrated professional degree for students seeking advanced education prior to becoming practicing artists or designers. The M.F.A. is considered a terminal degree in fine and applied arts majors. That is, there is no higher-level degree available or required for the practice-oriented student.

Professional Doctoral Degrees:
While all doctorates require the completion of a dissertation, some have less emphasis on research, and more on practice in a particular field. Examples of more professionally oriented doctoral degrees include the Doctorate of Psychology (Psy D.), Doctorate of Education (Ed. D.), and Doctorate of Social Work (D.S.W.).

Law and Medical Degrees:

Please visit the following sites for information about these degrees:

Pre-Health Advising
Pre-Law Advising

Graduate Certificate Programs:

Degrees are not the only items graduate coursework can furnish. If you don't want to quit your job or commit to full-time study to obtain a graduate degree, a graduate certificate may be just the option for you. You can receive a graduate certificate after successfully completing an integrated course of study in a specific field. Graduate certificate programs are generally 12 to 18 months in duration and consist of 3 to 12 courses.

If you have a bachelor's degree, you can earn graduate certificates to advance your career or launch a new one, to meet licensing requirements, or just to learn about a field that is of interest to you. Because many colleges and universities allow students to apply credits earned in graduate certificate programs toward graduate degrees, it can be viewed as the first step toward earning a master's degree.

Sample Certificate Programs at Stony Brook:

  • Africana Studies
  • Art and Philosophy Program
  • Women's and Gender Studies
  • School of Professional Development Certificate Programs
Exploring & Focusing
Occupational Research

When thinking about what degree to pursue, you need to start with the end goal – what profession or career you want to achieve. Some professions require graduate degrees to start – e.g. school psychologist or counselor. Others prefer experience before further education, as business, and some fields allow you to enter at both undergraduate and graduate levels, such as nursing, social work, or education. This information is not simple to understand. That means that you have to start with occupational research.

  • Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH)  - Published by the U.S. government, this website has information about thousands of professions and industries, with salary statistics and educational requirements.
  • Professional associations – Some occupations are governed by professional associations, and many associations offer the most reliable career and graduate school information (for example, a list of accredited doctoral psychology programs is only available from the American Psychological Association.)
  • Talk to professionals in the field (conduct informational interviews) about which degrees are valued.
  • Consult a career counselor!
Finding Programs

The next step is to find a program. You will need to review what programs exist, their locations, their costs, and their admission criteria.

  •,,,  and  are examples of websites that provide general information.
  • Talk to professors and grad students in the academic field you are interested in (informational interview.)
  • Professional association websites often have a section called Education which lists programs.
  • Individual program websites – study admission criteria and the classes you would be taking.
  • Contact programs directly, request more information, and schedule a meeting if possible.
Identifying Your Choices

Doctoral Programs

One good way to find a fit for students considering Ph.D. programs is to speak with your faculty mentors/potential recommenders about your chances and programs they recommend.

Also, hopefully if you are interested in a doctoral degree, you are already involved in some type of research. Whenever you come across an article which is interesting for you, always pay attention to what universities the authors come from, and look up these programs.

Master's-Level Programs

These programs often offer open houses, would welcome inquiries, and offer appointments when possible. Although they won’t tell you what your admission chances are, you can get a sense by asking questions, such as "What can I do to make my candidacy stronger?"

Consider combinations of all or some of the following factors:

  • Admission Requirements, which may include GPA, test scores, strength of undergraduate coursework, prerequisites, and/or experience. Take an honest look at your credentials and compare them to the admission criteria and statistics on accepted students. Keep in mind that minimum requirements do not reflect the profile of the typical admitted student. We suggest using the notion of   reach, target, and safety programs:
    • Target  schools are schools where your credentials fit right in the middle. We understand you may not know your GRE scores yet, but you probably have an idea of how strong you are with standardized testing. It’s a good idea to take a practice test to estimate your performance level.
    • Reach  programs are programs where your credentials lie below the median of the school’s admission statistics, but you really want to be there and are passionate about the program for valid reasons.
    • Safety  programs are graduate programs where your credentials are clearly superior to the regularly admitted class.
  • Expertise of the Faculty  - What are their academic degrees/credentials and research specialties? Do these align with your interests? Can you see potential mentor(s)? Look at faculty CVs and personal websites, if available.
  • Available Course Offerings  - Are courses you need to fulfill degree requirements frequently offered? Will the course offerings help you meet your professional or educational goals? Are these the classes you want to take?
  • Quality of the Program  - This is measured by many different factors, some of which are mentioned below. You may choose to look at graduate school rankings to help you assess a program's quality; however, the rankings may be based on criteria that are different from your own. What's more, many scholars, deans, and advisors question the validity of such rankings.
  • Accreditation  – This is another rather confusing category, since there are national, regional, professional, and all other sorts of accreditation. It can be very important or even required for licensing in one field, and not significant in another. Go back to occupational research.
  • Financial Costs  - What are the opportunities for fellowships, assistantships, or scholarships? What other sources of financial aid are available?
  • Employment  - Where are graduates of the program working, and how much are they earning?
  • Geographic Location   and Facilities - Will studying in a particular location help you meet personal or professional goals? Sometimes people also consider the quality of on-site amenities such as libraries, computer labs, and research facilities.
  • Student Life  - Consider the diversity of the student body, available student organizations, and available housing for graduate students.
Preparing & Applying
Standardized Testing: Graduate Admissions Exams

When applying to graduate programs, one thing you want to check is whether or not you are required to submit test scores from a standardized test for admission. Admissions exams include the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General & Subject Tests and the Graduate Management Admission Tests (GMAT), among others.

Some programs (particularly at the Master's level) do not require exams, so look at prospective programs before registering and preparing for an exam – you may be able to save yourself time and money.

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE):  The general test (typically for graduate programs in the arts and sciences) will measure verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing. It is not related to a specific area of study. The GRE Subject Tests measure knowledge and skill level in a specific area of study (e.g. Chemistry, Psychology). Some programs may require that you take both the general and subject tests.  
To register for the GRE: Click   here.

The Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT):  This exam measures verbal, mathematical, analytical, and writing skills that you’ve developed over time, and helps graduate programs assess your qualifications for advanced study in business and management.  
To register for the GMAT: Click   here.

For Pre-Health & Pre-Law Students:

Test Preparation

Not everyone agrees about test preparation. Some people prefer one company over another. Others doubt whether or not taking a review course really helps, or they think it helps only as a confidence-builder. But it is safe to say that most students try to fit in some sort of focused, intensive review before taking an admissions test, and a variety of companies offer test prep. Many of them have discounts for Stony Brook students. Some of these companies also offer several practice tests throughout the year, which you can take for free. See below for test prep links and resources.

NOTE:  Information provided on this server relating to goods and services offered by third parties is provided solely for information purposes and is not intended as an endorsement or expression of support by Stony Brook University or its agents and employees. Neither the University nor the State of New York assumes any liability for the acts or omissions of such third parties in the provision of those goods and services.

Recommendation Letters

It’s never too early to start thinking about letters of recommendation, which you’ll need for graduate and professional schools. The following advice is adapted from interviews with faculty and written from your instructor/recommender’s perspective.

Before you actually need a letter:

  • Get to know me outside the class!  It is very hard to write a letter for a student I don’t know very well. Particularly in larger classes, if you don’t make a point of coming to see me during office hours or review sessions, I won’t know very much more about you than whatever your final grade turns out to be – and that’s not enough information to write a letter.
  • I need to know more about you:  what your interests are, what kinds of things you’re involved with, your goals and aspirations.
  • Let me know as early as possible that you are interested in graduate education and might be asking me for letters,  even if it’s still a couple of semesters before your actual application process.
  • Ask for my advice about which programs would be a good fit for you.  It shows your interest and respect for my expertise; I am always happy to offer advice, and our conversation will help you to get a sense of my opinion of your potential.

When you’re ready to apply:

Here are some rules I want you to observe when asking for the letter. Please make sure that you make the process:

Personal:  Ask me directly, in person, rather than by email. Understand that you are asking for a favor, and that I may have to say “no.” This might be because I don’t have enough (or the right kind of) information to recommend you.

Organized:  Provide me with an electronic file that has all the information on all your programs and deadlines, the requested formats for letters, and how letters should be submitted. For hard copy letters, get all the forms, with clear instructions, deadlines, and postage for each and turn them in to me in a single packet.

Timely:  When your application deadlines get closer, let me know what to expect – how many schools you will be applying to and when the deadlines are. It doesn’t hurt to remind me as deadlines are approaching (email is fine for this.)

Convenient:  Please recognize that it’s easier to do all the letters for a given student at once. So though your deadlines may occur over several months, anything you can do to compress the window in which I have the information to submit your letters, the better.

Customized:  Ask me what information I need from you – a transcript, a resume. Also, ask me if I have any other preferences in this process.

Courteous:  If you decide not to apply to a given school/program, let me know. It’s really frustrating to have spent the weekend sending out letters of recommendation only to learn that a student decided not to apply after all. Let me know how your application process is going. I took the time to write your letters, and I’d like to know how it all came out. Don’t forget to THANK me (and all your recommenders)!

Stony Brook University recommends an online credential service called Interfolio to keep track of your letters.

Personal Statement

What is the purpose of the personal statement?

The purpose of the personal statement (also referred to as Statement of Purpose or Candidate’s Admission Statement) is to gather information about you outside of your academic performance. In addition, it shows the admissions committee how you think and how you explain your thoughts logically, and allows you to portray yourself as an individual who will be an asset to the program.

The personal statement is your opportunity to distinguish yourself. Remember – your personal statement should be a genuine reflection of you and why you are interested in the program, not merely what you think the admissions committee wants to read.

What do committees ask?

Some personal statement topics are open-ended. For example: “Tell us anything about yourself that you think we need to know.” Whether the topic is specific or open-ended, there are two main goals of the personal statement:

  • To create a portrait that is persuasive
  • To create a portrait that is personal

You want the readers to gain a better perspective on you, one that is interesting and memorable. Admissions wants to know why you seek entry to the graduate program, and what contribution you will make to the field.

Possible topic areas:

  • Your motivation for seeking entry to the graduate program
  • The influence of extracurricular, work or volunteer experiences on your life
  • Personal philosophy as related to your goals
  • Personal challenges and how you have overcome them

Compile information on the following:

  • Personal history
  • Personal life experiences
  • Academic life
  • Work life

Remember: like everything you write, there should be a common connecting theme.

Avoid common mistakes:

  • Writing one statement for all schools
  • Writing what you think someone wants to read
  • Appearing unrealistic
  • Getting too personal or dwelling on crisis
  • Grammatical errors
  • Reviewing your resume

It is important to get feedback from several people before making any changes. Make an appointment to have the personal statement reviewed by the Writing Center and a pre-professional advisor.

Tips for the writing process:

  • Get started by writing the first draft.
  • Write an outline.
  • Be positive in your personal statement.
  • Share a story that most defines you.
  • What interests you about the specific program?
  • Obtain feedback from another person.
  • Revise, revise, revise!
  • Proofread.

Please be advised – Even if you have the best qualifications and the highest numbers, DO NOT neglect your personal statement.

Financing Graduate School
  • Assistantships  are usually campus-affiliated work assignments that provide an individual a stipend and often waive tuition and/or other matriculation fees. These positions are usually called by their initials:   TA  – teaching assistant,   RA  – research assistant,   GA  – graduate assistant (GA responsibilities can vary greatly depending on department.) Assistantships can be offered at both the master's and doctoral levels.
  • Fellowships  are typically granted to individuals to cover their living expenses while they carry out research or work on a project. Awards may span multiple years. Awards are usually based on an individual's merit. Fellowships are typically reserved for students in Ph.D. programs.
  • Scholarship awards  are based on one or more aspects of several criteria - merit, financial need, discipline of study, career goals or membership within a minority group.
  • Loans  are available from the government and private sources.

Web resources for financial assistance:

Suggested Timeline

The graduate school selection and application process typically takes a year and a half to two years prior to your desired start date. The following is a suggested timeline for students choosing to pursue graduate school directly after college. Not sure when to go? Click on Contemplating above.


  • Begin visiting the websites of colleges and universities that you may be interested in attending.
  • ACTIVELY pursue research opportunities, internships and other experiences related to your goals.
  • Have informational interviews with faculty and graduate students in your field of interest to learn more about graduate programs.
  • Identify potential recommenders among faculty. Most graduate programs want two or three letters of recommendation. It is important that each recommender can speak to your abilities and academic strengths.
  • Set up an appointment with a career counselor to discuss your professional goals, as well as the details related to selecting and applying to graduate programs.
  • Set up an appointment to review your academic progress with an academic advisor.
  • Attend educational programs that provide good information on the graduate school process and/or program options.
  • Begin focused investigation of graduate programs. Review the school websites, request additional information & try to identify your choices. Click on Exploring & Focusing above for more information.


  • Speak with faculty directors of prospective programs and begin visiting schools you are considering.


  • Continue to visit graduate schools, especially those close to where you live.
  • Register & prepare for the appropriate standardized exam if/when required; you can also sign up for a practice Graduate Record Exam (GRE) or Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). Both Princeton Review and Kaplan offer free practice exams on campus.
  • Select at least three graduate schools to apply to and discuss your choices with faculty/professionals in the field and/or career counselors.
  • Create a checklist to ensure that you have all the information that the graduate programs require. Remember, graduate school applications are not all the same. Make sure you create a checklist for each school that you plan to apply to.
  • Complete all your applications by the appropriate deadlines, ensuring all relevant materials are submitted to each school (e.g. letters of recommendation, personal statements, undergraduate transcripts, etc.)
  • Thank your recommenders and inform them of your acceptances!
  • Before graduating from Stony Brook, have the registrar’s office send a final official transcript to the graduate school which you plan to attend, with your complete academic record and the date of graduation posted on the record.


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