Graduate School Exploration
Take your academics and career to the next level with graduate school.
Learn more about how graduate school can affect your professional trajectory and lifestyle to make the best decision for your future.
What is graduate school?
Is graduate school right for you?
Deciding whether or not graduate school is right for you depends on several factors. Some questions to ask yourself are:
Earn credits toward a Master’s Degree while completing your Bachelor’s Degree at USC.
The Progressive Degree Program (PDP) gives continuing USC undergraduates another path to earning a Master’s degree from USC. Take advantage of the ability to take graduate-level classes during your senior year, and reduce the number of units required for you to earn a Master’s Degree.Learn More
Master’s degrees are typically the first level of graduate study after earning a bachelor’s degree. Master’s degree programs may be course-based, research-based, or a mixture of the two. Most full-time master’s degree programs to two years to complete. Sometimes you are able to attend school part-time to earn a master’s degree. In engineering, most master’s degrees are a Master of Science degree.
The PhD, or the Doctor of Philosophy degree, is the highest academic degree awarded by most universities in the United States. Research is a key component of the PhD degree and PhD candidates complete their own original research as part of their degree requirements. PhD degrees can take anywhere from four to eight years to complete.
Progressive Degree Program at USC
The Progressive Degree Program (PDP) allows USC undergraduates to begin working on their master’s degree while completing their bachelor’s degree. Most PDP students are able to finish their master’s degree in one year instead of two years and are able to reduce the amount of units required for the master’s degree. For more information about the Viterbi PDP program, visit their website.
Junior Year and summer (or 15 to 18+ months before you want to begin school)
» Start researching programs you might be interested in. Your search should be broad to begin with.
» Begin to explore possible sources of financial aid.
» Register for any standardized tests you will need to take to be admitted.
» Take a practice test (or preferably several practice tests, and use a study guide).
» If you are ready, take the test.
» Decide whom to ask for letters of recommendation.
» Check your unofficial transcript to make sure everything is in order.
» Write a rough draft (or drafts) of your statement of purpose.
Fall of senior year (or 9 to 12 months before you want to begin school)
» Meet with faculty to request letters of recommendation.
» Have various people read your statement of purpose and write a final draft.
» Complete your applications and mail them (if paper). Allow plenty of time.
» Ask the registrar’s office to forward your transcripts.
» If necessary, apply to programs for fellowships or assistantships.
» Check with programs to make sure your applications are complete.
Spring of senior year (or 6 to 9 months before you want to begin school)
» Complete and mail FAFSA and any other required financial aid documents.
» Make sure your schools have a number where they can reach you with their decision, so that you don’t miss out on an opportunity.
» Visit campuses, if feasible. Talk to faculty and students in order to help make your final decision.
» Once formally accepted by the program of your choice, contact other schools to decline acceptances. (After April 15, you will need a written release from a school you’ve accepted if you change your mind.) Celebrate! (If you should not be accepted, decide if you can – and want to – improve your application for the following year, and consider other possibly less competitive schools, providing they are still satisfactory.)
Reasons to Take a Gap Year after college:
- Better transition into the real world
- Great way to learn adaptability, independence, and other life skills
- Opportunity to explore possible career interests
- A chance to add experience to your resume or graduate school applications
- After you start working, you might not have another opportunity to take a break!
Gap Year Options:
- Internship programs for recent graduates
- Full-time/Part-time employment
- Teaching Programs
- Volunteering/Service programs
- Cultural Exchange Programs
- Interests and Reputation of Faculty
What are the research and teaching specialties of the faculty, and do they match with your interests?
- Course Offerings
What kinds of courses are offered? Do they suit your interests and professional goals? What courses are required, and how much choice will you have? How often are the courses offered that are of most interest to you? Can you take courses outside of the department if you want to?
- Student Life
What is the size of classes? What is the educational approach? What is the ratio of teachers to students? What do you need to do in order to graduate? What is the format of exams? What percentage of students graduate? How many years do students usually spend in the program? Are extracurricular learning opportunities available, such as internships? What placement assistance does the program offer?
- Geographical Location
Will living in certain places or kinds of places help you professionally or personally?
What is the quality of the libraries, computer labs, or other research facilities at the institution?
What sources of financial aid are available through the program? What percentage of students are funded? For how many years is funding guaranteed? Are dissertation-year fellowships available? Are there any sources of summer funding?
- When you begin the writing process, start by reading the prompt. Neglecting to address a specific question or failing to follow directions about page or word limits, are unlikely to impress.
In addition to the specific prompt, it is important to include the following:
- Your preparation and background in the field of study
- Your specific area of interest in the field; explain what area of the profession you see yourself getting into, and how you see the degree helping you to get there.
- Your research ambitions in the field
- Why this Program/School?: Eexplain to the schools or departments why you are a good fit with them. This means saying something about the school that could not be said about most other schools. For example, instead of writing “you have a very strong faculty,” mention some examples of faculty research that interest you.
- Future career goals
- Positively Addressing Inconsistencies: If you know there is some striking weakness in your application (perhaps a GPA or score that is glaringly low or some long gap in your resume) you will want to account for it in your statement. If, as a result of suddenly needing to work a 40-hour week to support yourself, your grades slipped significantly, that might well be something to address. You should make sure to explain it in terms as positive as possible. For any personal struggles that you have worked through, express that it is safely in the past and will not recur in graduate school. If you struggled at first in school, but your grades have improved every year, or your grades in your major are particularly outstanding, these are things you could point out. Some people suggest including such explanations only in a separate addendum, in order that the tone of your essay is uniformly positive.