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How to Transition from College to Grad School

More times than I wish to admit, I’ve seen people struggle to make the transition from student to scholar.

It usually begins like this: Smart and confident twenty-two-year-olds with newly minted bachelor’s degrees are accepted to graduate school and excited to continue living the life of the mind.

So far, intelligence, obedience, and hard work have been enough to see them through. They have learned everything their professors wanted them to learn, and more. Their friends and family are proud and tell them they will go on to do great things.

But then, in graduate school, they simply stay the course and fail to adapt. At first nothing seems wrong. They read all the assigned materials in their courses and continue to score high marks. But as the day for picking a thesis topic nears, they can’t quite decide. Should they write about that topic their adviser is keen on, or should they study their favorite writer? They know they are supposed to produce “original research,” but what can they say about an important topic that has not been said before?

A student struggles to find a topic worth writing about; a true scholar, however, always has more writing topics in mind than he has time to write. A student wants to be successful; a scholar is driven by the curiosity to know. Understanding the difference between a student and a scholar is crucial for succeeding in graduate school.

What matters?

Student Scholar
Grades Publications
Impressing the teacher  Learning something useful
Reading the assignments Conducting independent research
Knowing arguments of others Developing one’s own arguments
Conforming to expectations Taking risks
Fear of rejection Acceptance of rejection

Where to Start

Suppose, then, that you want to become a scholar. Where do you start?

First, you must have an innate curiosity about the world and genuinely want to learn. I say this with all seriousness, because academia is full of people who lack or have lost that drive to know.

There is a parallel in the pretension of many academic fields. The historian John Lukacs speaks about how many people in his field, history, prefer historianship (learning how to be a historian) to researching and writing history.

A curious person becomes a scholar by setting off on his or her own to learn new things.

The education reformer Maria Montessori taught that independent action creates confidence. She spoke of the importance of children learning to walk and handle themselves without constant adult control. All of us begin in a state of ignorance but with a great capacity to learn. Experts are no different. All experts began as nonexperts, who then put in time and effort to learn.

To become a scholar, recognize that what you learn out of class is just important as what you learn in class. This is because outside knowledge is essential for creative problem solving and for developing new ideas at the intersection of two domains of knowledge.

Scholars know that everything they learn might apply later on. This bit of algebra, that bit of history, some knowledge of lockpicking (in homage to Richard Feynman) might be the key to some problem five or even fifty years down the road. By constantly acquiring bits of odd knowledge, scholars equip themselves to approach every problem from a variety of angles. Diversity of experience, particularly through travel and reading books, creates creative minds that learn to approach problems in new ways.

One of the best ways to gain useful ancillary knowledge is to work in a relevant job outside of class. Students planning on going into history should take a few months to work in a museum, an archive, or at a historic site, not so much for the money, or even to fill a line on your résumé with an eye toward future employment, but mainly to see how people interact with and think about history in different ways. A job as a bank teller or a shipping-and-supply-store clerk can be good preparation for a career in economics, engineering, business, or even sociology, if you gain certain experiences that help you look at the world in a different way.

From what I’ve observed, the best graduate students had at least one or two years of adult work experience outside of academia. This is not only because their level of maturity increased in those years working and living on their own, but also because a few years outside academia gave them comparative knowledge to apply to research.

With independent experiences comes knowledge of which you can be confident. Having done the work on your own, you return to the classroom or to an academic conference with arguments based on your own enterprise.

A scholar, then, is curious, experienced, confident, and creative.

Say Something New

In some ways, we should all remain students, particularly of subjects we want to study without having to produce new scholarship. For example, no matter how much philosophy I read, I will always just be a philosophy student, learning from the masters. I doubt that I have the mind ever to become a professional philosopher.

But in areas where you want to blaze a trail or say something new, choose to become a scholar. This to me seems the proper attitude: humility and the desire to keep learning from others, with a determined curiosity to go and learn things on your own. The sooner you get to work on your own, the sooner you can claim to be a scholar.

Remember: Graduate school is for developing scholars, not students.

In and after graduate school, no one cares about your grades, so long as you passed. Likewise, no one cares how well you did on your final exams or dissertation defense, so long as you passed. What others will care about is if you can produce scholarship, if you can say something new.


Michael J. Douma is assistant research professor and director of the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics in the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. His next book, Creative Historical Thinking, will be published by Routledge


Complement with Chad Chisholm on using the Roman art of rhetoric in your essays, Russell Kirk on the purpose of a liberal education, and R. J. Snell on what a successful college career looks like


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