Is graduate school for me? Deciding to pursue a graduate education is not a decision to make lightly. Pursuing an advanced degree is an extensive commitment in terms of time, money and hard work, and programs can take anywhere from one to seven or more years.

Think about where you want to be in the long run, both professionally and personally. Will grad school help you get there? It may not be for you if you’re just interested in staying in school a bit longer – in fact, grad school is almost nothing like undergrad (if this is you, consider taking a fifth year instead). It may be for you if you want to pursue research, are interested in a field that needs a specific professional degree or you have a deep passion for and desire to contribute to your academic field.

It’s important that you spend some time thinking about these questions:

  • Why are you interested in advanced studies?
  • Do your skills, interests, values and future career interests fit with the program you’re considering? If you’re not sure, spend more time researching the program and self reflecting
  • How will graduate school prepare you for the next step in your career, whether in an academic or non-academic position?
  • Are you prepared to work independently on a specialized subject within your area of interest for several years?
  • Have you thought about the financial reality of going to grad school, including making less money for the years until graduation and possibly taking on more debt?
student in a lab

Contents

Degree options Understand the types of graduate degrees
Research programs Make sure you start early
Applying There are a number of things to consider when applying to graduate school
Application expenses Plan to submit applications to several universities
Paying for grad school Research costs and find ways to support your tuition payments
Timeline Timeline for exploring and applying to graduate school

Degree options

The degree you choose – master’s, professional degree or doctorate – corresponds to your personal and career needs, interests, resources and goals. Academic degrees (master’s and PhD) usually focus on research and theory. A master’s degree is the first level of postgraduate qualification that you can obtain, while a PhD takes more time and involves writing a dissertation (a long report on original research). The length of time it will take to complete a PhD will differ between programs, however candidates usually take at least four years to satisfy all requirements.

In contrast, professional degrees such as law, medicine, business and teaching emphasize practical application and are tied to specific professions or industries. The time it takes to complete a professional degree will depend on your goal. For example, becoming a heart surgeon can take substantially longer than becoming a dentist.

Diploma programs are designed to provide practical, advanced level, hands-on skills that will supplement your traditional bachelor’s degree. Learn more about these college programs here.

Researching graduate programs – start early!

Once you’ve thought about why you want to attend graduate school and the type of program you’re looking for, you can begin to explore your options. Start researching programs at least one year in advance of when you plan to apply. The application process can be quite lengthy, and getting a head start will allow plenty of time to meet important deadlines.

You may want to look for the following information about each program: what degree it offers, admissions requirements, deadlines, tuition & financial aid, program size and reputation & rankings. One of the best ways to gather detailed, in-depth information about a program is to contact those directly involved with it. Get in touch with faculty members, students and/or alumni to gather information you won’t find online (though social media can be a great tool to find and contact recent graduates). If you have time and can afford to go, consider setting up a campus visit. This is a great way to experience what the campus is actually like and meet current faculty and students.

Applying to graduate school

Standardized exams

Some graduate programs require applicants to take standardized exams (GRE, GMAT, LSAT, etc.) Most standardized graduate school tests are designed to identify potential for success, rather than measure specific knowledge or achievement. Check with each program to verify their requirements, and be prepared to take the test before the fall of your fourth year.

 

Admissions essays & personal statements

The admissions essay is your opportunity to showcase your strengths and qualifications. Carefully structure your essay. Be creative and informative as you introduce yourself and explain why you want to attend graduate school and why each program is a perfect match to your skills. The essays should be customized to fit each program and should clearly communicate your interests and qualifications as a potential graduate student.

If you want feedback on yours, bring a draft to the Career Centre’s Personal Statement Lab, where you’ll learn about what a good statement includes and both give and receive feedback on personal statement drafts. A mentor or professor is also a good person to ask for feedback on your statement draft.

 

References & letters of recommendation

Most programs will require applicants to submit a list of references or letters of recommendation. When selecting references, be sure to ask those who know you well and will speak highly of your potential as a graduate student. Faculty members and advisors are usually the best references to include for master’s and PhD applications, and employers can be another good option for some professional school programs. Once you’ve selected and asked your references, be sure to keep them in the loop. Inform them of deadlines and update them as your application process progresses.

 

Other supporting documentation

Check with each program to find out what other documents are required to apply. This could include:

  • Official transcripts
  • Resumé or curriculum vitae
  • Portfolio and/or writing samples

How to get an official transcript

It’s easy to get a copy of your U of T transcript, but for it to be considered “official,” it must arrive at its destination sealed and stamped. Be sure to request a copy of your transcript early or you might miss important program deadlines. There are three ways to order it:

  • Online through ACORN (you will need your student number and PIN)
  • Fill out a Transcript Request Form and mail or fax it to the University of Toronto Transcript Centre (UTTC). (100 St. George Street, room 1006, Toronto, ON, M5S 3G3. Fax: 416-978-2487)
  • Visit the UTTC in person.

 

Interviews

Some graduate programs will require an admissions interview as part of the application process. Prepare for these interviews as you would for any professional job interview: research the program and practice answering questions.

Application expenses

Graduate school is more competitive than applying an undergraduate program, so plan to submit applications to several universities. But be aware that the more schools you apply to, the more expensive the process will be: you will be responsible for expenses like applications fees, standardized tests, additional score reports (if applying to several programs) or postage fees.

Paying for graduate school

A graduate degree is often more expensive than an undergraduate one. The good news is that there are several governmental funding opportunities to help you offset the costs. Ontario Graduate Scholarships (OGS) are available to students pursuing Master’s or PhD study in humanities, social sciences and sciences. Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) scholarships are available to master’s and doctoral students enrolled in humanities or social science graduate programs. Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) awards support approximately 16,000 science and engineering students in their advanced studies. Check with the program you’re applying for to see if you need to submit anything to be considered for these awards.

If you are pursuing a doctoral-stream degree, the University of Toronto has a guaranteed minimum funding package of at least $15,000 plus tuition and fees for up to five years. Some departments may offer packages above the guaranteed minimum. The funding package may include: internal awards, external awards, teaching assistantships or research assistantships.

Timeline for exploring and applying

Applying to graduate school can be a complicated and time-consuming process. The earlier you begin your research about graduate studies and potential universities you may want to apply to, the better. This will give you more time to prepare yourself to be a well-rounded, competitive applicant. It’s never too early to begin discovering all of the options that await you and preparing for these new challenges.

It is important to have a plan for completing the application requirements. Prepare a timetable with specific deadlines. The graduate admissions or funding deadlines may differ from the graduate program deadline, so check with the programs you’re interested in. Be sure that you apply in time to receive full consideration for funding packages. Keep in mind that the typical graduate admissions process can take as long as six to nine months (with many applications due in January), so consider starting to prepare in the summer before your fourth year.