What Do You Need to Get Ready for Graduate School?

In the Spring a student’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of graduate school.

– Alfred Lord Tennyson, more or less

In recent weeks, I’ve addressed whether graduate school was a path a certain doom (no) and whether getting a tenure-track job was a futile dream (probably). Most students thinking about graduate school, however, aren’t planning on a PhD. They’re thinking of a professional degree with a specific career path in mind, a master’s to explore their discipline further, or (in many cases) simply continued study while figuring out the next stage of life.

The Oval at Ohio State, home of one of the largest graduate schools in the country

While graduate school leads in many different directions, and takes on different forms for different people, there are some common things that you can do to prepare. ESN has created the Getting Ready for Graduate School seminar with some basic ideas for preparing for graduate school. Here are the four items that we thought were most important for future grad students to consider. Read through them, and then let us know what you think.

What do you think students need to get ready for graduate school?

Biblically-Based Faithfulness

Faithfulness is important for two reasons. First, because graduate school is all about preparation (after already spending 16 or more years in preparation!), successfully completing graduate school requires faithfulness to complete this leg of the journey. Second, graduate school is where the pressures to conform to the ideal of your chosen profession or discipline greatly increase. I remember reading the testimony of a PhD student several years ago, who described graduate school as a competition between becoming conformed to the image of Christ or to the image of his advisor. In his case, this tension was especially pronounced, with his advisor even pressuring him to stop going to church on Sundays in order to spend those hours in the lab.

Most of us don’t face such overt pressure to compromise our spiritual life, but covert pressure might be even more dangerous. The Getting Ready for Grad School seminar uses Daniel and his three friends as examples of Biblical faithfulness in an intense, graduate school-like experience. The late Christian Anible wrote a Bible study, Faithfulness at the U. of Babylon, that uses Daniel 1 as the foundation for faithfulness in the midst of grad school pressures.

A Sense of Calling and Vocation

Some will go to grad school to fulfill a childhood dream. Others will go because they want more time to find their vocation. Still others begin graduate school with one goal in mind, but discover something completely different and change direction partway through. Whichever group you fall into, it’s important to have a strong understanding of calling and vocation as you enter graduate school.

This does not mean a clear “call” to a specific career. Those, I believe, are rare. If you’re able to go to graduate school and succeed there, you would be able to succeed in a variety of different careers[1]. As I often quoted before, Os Guiness makes a great distinction between primary and secondary callings in The Call:

Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by him, to him, and for him. First and foremost we are called to Someone (God), not to something (such as motherhood, politics, or teaching) or to somewhere (such as the inner city or Outer Mongolia).

Further, our career is only one of several secondary callings:

Our secondary calling, considering who God is as sovereign, is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for him. We can therefore properly say as a matter of secondary calling that we are called to homemaking or to the practice of law or to art history. But these and other things are always the secondary, never the primary calling. They are “callings” rather than the “calling.” They are our personal answer to God’s address, our response to God’s summons. Secondary callings matter, but only because the primary calling matters most. (The Call, p. 31, emphasis added)

Commitment to Discipleship of the Mind

Regardless of your discipline, you will be using your mind to an incredible degree in graduate school. Further, as you progress, it will become increasingly important for you to approach your field as a follower of Christ. In some cases, this may require you to develop a completely different foundation for your specialty than the one advocated by your graduate program. In others, it will require a high level of ethics and integrity more than a different conceptual model.

In order to determine what it looks like to be a Christian in your discipline, you’ll need to practice discipleship of the mind. In the Getting Ready for Grad School curriculum, we’ve assembled some resources for discipleship of the mind. Not too long ago, we also held a Best Christian Books of All Time Tournament, with some true classics of theology and spirituality gathered for your consideration. ESN member John Acker has helpfully assembled the complete bracket as a pair of Amazon book lists (part one and part two).

Further recommendations for discipleship of the mind:

A Plan for Success

There is much more we could recommend, but our final suggestion is to create a plan for a successful path through graduate school. Some professions, like law and medicine, have standard patterns for graduate study. Others, especially PhD programs, are highly individualized and depend heavily on your advisor or your specific research.

Remember: graduate school is meant to prepare you for something else. Be sure to consider your path so that you can increase your chances for success. This is a place where mentors can be especially helpful resources for advice to choose a program that matches your career goal (or to suggest ways to discover your career goal). Our Suggested Readings for Undergraduates also features a section on Flourishing in the Academy, including books of practical advice for graduate school.

That is our basic advice for Getting Ready for Graduate School. What is yours?

  1. We live in a time and culture when an incredibly variety of careers and jobs are available to us. I like to occasionally conduct a thought experiment, to imagine if I had been born in a different place or time, with only one “career” open to me, or perhaps a very limited range of options. Personally, I find the exercise to be a good reminder that there isn’t a single “right” path for me, with all other choices being irrevocably wrong.  ↩
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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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