Graduate School

Graduate school is an advanced, specialized program of study (master, specialist, or doctorate) for which a bachelor’s degree is required. There are many options available, including traditional programs, interdisciplinary programs, and joint or dual degrees.    


Graduate study differs from undergraduate study in a few ways: 

  • Length varies from 1-10 years depending on program
  • Targeted learning in a specific discipline with most courses focused on that subject
  • Smaller classes with more student-led discussion and closer relationships to faculty
  • Focused on practical experience via internships, teaching, or research


Two students walk together on campus
College to Graduate School (UNIV 421)

Learn about the application, testing options and strategies, interviewing skills, budgeting, and financial planning for graduate school.

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Deciding when to go to graduate school

Reasons to go to graduate school now 

  • You have a clear career goal for which a graduate degree is necessary to be employed  
  • You know that a graduate degree will be necessary to advance in your field  
  • You want to be recognized as an expert or thought leader in your field 
  • You have a strong academic record in relevant coursework and have met/are on track to meet admissions requirements or prerequisites  
  • You are ready to invest the time and money and make the lifestyle adjustments necessary to pursue graduate-level study 

Reasons to go to graduate school later

  • You are not sure what you want to do professionally 
  • You are avoiding or having difficulty in your job search 
  • You do not have the academic record or professional experience to be a competitive candidate for admission at this time    
  • You have not carefully evaluated the time commitment, financial considerations, personal adjustments necessary to pursue graduate-level study 

If you are unsure about the value of graduate study, or if it’s something you wish to pursue right now, complete the My Graduate School Readiness activity and schedule a follow-up appointment with Career Services.

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Preparing for graduate school

If you are considering advanced study, use your time at Mason to make yourself a competitive applicant.   

  • Establish a strong academic record/GPA 
  • Complete any prerequisite courses for programs of interest. You’ll need to research specific graduate programs to learn about admissions requirements    
  • Meet with pre-professional advisors at Mason if you are interested in law or any medical/health professions  
  • Develop relationships with your faculty for mentoring and (eventually) letters of recommendation. Start by being an active participant in class and attending office hours  
  • Seek relevant experiences. Length and type of experience will vary by program of interest and industry. Expectations might include research, work experience, or fieldwork 
  • Connect with the Office of Student Scholarship Creative Activities, & Research for research opportunities, funding, and travel stipends to attend professional or academic conferences  
  • Explore options through the Office of Fellowships at Mason for assistance in finding, preparing for, and applying to nationally competitive scholarships and fellowships 
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Finding graduate schools/programs

The first step in finding the right program is to have a clear academic interest area or career in mind. Once you have a goal in mind, explore these resources to help you identify potential programs:

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Choosing the right program

Your research will help you choose graduate programs that are a best fit for your academic interests, career goals, and qualifications. Use this worksheet to help you evaluate your options.

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Resources for applying to graduate school

Frequently Asked Questions

How many programs should I apply to?

To increase your chances of admission, consider applying to more than one program. After you have learned more about the requirements expectations, and timelines for each program of interest to you, apply to at least one program from each of the following categories:    

  • Stretch = your credentials fall in the lower end (or below) the admission requirements, making you a less competitive candidate  

  • Target = your credentials fall well within the admission requirements, making you a competitive candidate  

  • Safety = your credentials meet or exceed the admission requirements, making you a highly competitive candidate 

Use this worksheet to help you evaluate your options and keep track of the application timelines, materials, and processes for each. 

Will a graduate degree increase my job and salary prospects?

Complete a 5-Step Skills Gap Analysis to determine if a graduate degree might improve your career or salary, or if there might be a more appropriate way to improve your prospects.  

How do I ask for letters of recommendation?

Before you ask for a letter of recommendation, ask yourself:

  • Does this person know me? Can they provide a glowing endorsement?  

  • Can this person speak to my ability to be successful in this program? Do they know my relevant strengths?  

If you are a current student or recent graduate, your letters should come from your professors. Ideally, you will ask professors who are in the field of your graduate program. If you have been away from school for a while, choose non-academic recommenders who directly supervised your work or volunteer services. 

Contact possible recommenders to discuss your plans and get their permission, support, and availability before sharing their contact information. Share a brief summary of what you are applying for and why you are asking for their support. Provide supplemental information, like your resume, the program description, and your personal statement. 

What is the difference between kinds of graduate programs?

  • Master's degree: An advanced degree in a specific area. Some may lead to a doctoral or other terminal degree (the highest degree available in that discipline, e.g., J.D., M.D., and M.B.A.)

  • Specialist degree or Postgraduate certificate: Usually earned in addition to a Master's degree to prepare students for professional certification or licensing requirements (e.g., nursing, mental health, education, and information technology). 

  • Doctoral degree: A terminal degree that usually requires the creation of new knowledge via independent research.

  • Graduate Certificate: a shorter term of study in a specialized topic area, and can sometimes also satisfy Master’s degree requirements, depending on the institution’s requirements (e.g., include forensic accounting, health informatics, data analytics, and nonprofit management)

There are accelerated options to combine your undergraduate and graduate degree - talk to your academic advisor and learn more about accelerated masters.

How will I pay for graduate school?

Typical ways people fund their graduate education are:   

  • Employer benefits (tuition reimbursement as a benefit of employment) 

  • Assistantships (working for the school as a teaching or research assistant)  

  • Grants and scholarships (money you do not have to repay)  

  • Loans (money you do have to repay) 

Additional resources:  

How can I learn if a prospective school or program supports DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion)?

If you want to know more about a prospective school or program’s commitment to diversity, ask. If the person you are connected to does not feel comfortable answering these questions, ask them to refer you to someone who can. Campus officials should have these answers and be willing to discuss them with you. If they don’t respond, or provide specific answers, this might be an indicator about the school’s commitment to recruiting a diverse cohort of students and creating an inclusive learning environment.

You might also want to connect with student groups representing specific populations, residence life staff or the campus office responsible for providing services in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, depending on your questions. Use the Finding Graduate Programs Committed to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) worksheet to help you evaluate a prospective schools or programs.