Graduate & Professional School Advice from Tufts Alumni and Faculty

We asked a cross-section of alumni and faculty to discuss all aspects of the application process. Regardless of specific academic and professional focus, each one offers you important general information.

Faculty Advice

  • Edith Balbach, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Community Health

    When you are picking a college for undergraduate study, you want a strong overall faculty. You don’t know for sure what your major will be, so the individual faculty members may be of less importance. This changes when you are planning graduate studies. At that point, you know your academic interests and you want to be sure that you will have a faculty member or members who share those interests. See who is on the full time faculty and read some of their publications. Do they have active grants on which you might work? What courses do they teach?

    Too often, when students talk to me, they worry about the overall reputation of the school and know nothing about who teaches there. This is a mistake in planning graduate study.

  • Julie Dobrow, Senior Lecturer, Child Study and Human Development

    Here’s the advice I always give students who come to me asking about grad school:

    • Graduate school is different than undergraduate school in several ways. You shouldn’t think about going to grad school because you don’t know what else to do. There are a few grad programs that enable you to try things out, try things on and explore them, but most are far more focused.
    • It’s important to find faculty who have research interests similar to yours.
    • Read over course offerings carefully. If you get excited by a lot of the courses offered by a given program, that’s a good sign!
    • Money is important on the graduate level. Make sure you check out what kinds of aid packages a graduate program has, whether they include teaching or research fellowships as well as scholarships. Going to a well-supported graduate program can make a huge difference in what you do and how long you are in school.
    • Find out what graduates of that school are doing, and what the program’s track record in placement is, as well as what kinds of facilities (if any) they have for assisting graduates with jobs after the graduate program.
    • For doctoral programs, find out how long most students end up working towards their PhDs.
    • Quality of life issues are also important considerations on the graduate level. Where do you want to be? Where do most grad students live? What kinds of social opportunities are there at the school? Are there easy ways to meet students in other graduate programs at that university?
  • Jeanne Marie Penvenne, PhD, Professor, History

    When you pick a PhD program in history / the humanities you are also picking a thesis advisor / mentor who will be with you for a very intense period of your intellectual growth. You will have a close working relationship with the person for several years. That person will also write critical letters of reference for grants, jobs, publications for the key lift-off part of your career.

    You want to be sure you have the right person. You want to know that the person plans to stay at the university where you are admitted, and that your personal chemistry is a good match with him / her. The role of mentor / advisor is exponentially more important at the graduate level than undergraduate.

  • Martha Pott, Senior Lecturer, Child Study and Human Development

    I lead a seminar for master’s students each semester in which we talk about applying to grad schools as well as preparing for careers. Donna Esposito (Director of Career Development, Tufts Career Center) has spoken a number of times in that seminar, and her help has been invaluable.

    In addition, many students see me as the “go to” person for such advice and make individual appointments. Obviously, these students are seeking the Ph.D. Because they apply in a variety of areas, it’s hard to give generic advice. I advise students to look through the American Psychological Association (APA) book called “Graduate Study in Psychology” to see which programs might be good ones to visit and apply to.

    For doctoral work, it’s usually important to connect up with a specific faculty member (preferably, a tenured faculty) who is doing research in the student’s area of interest. Many students are funded through grants to a specific faculty member, and thus the student’s interests must coincide with those of the faculty. Making contact with that faculty member ahead of time — visiting, phoning, emailing — is critical to determining whether there is a match between the student’s and faculty’s interests, and to promote one’s own work to that faculty person. In addition, making contact with the faculty member who serves as the director of graduate studies is also important.

Alumni Advice – Arts & Sciences

  • Anna Brennan-Curry A04, NYU Wagner School of Public Service, Master’s in Public Administration

    Community Health and German Language & Literature; New York University Wagner School of Public Service; Master’s in Public Administration, 2009

    Here are a few things that I believe are important when making the decision to apply to Grad School. The first was something shared with me when I was an undergraduate – if you do not know what you want to with graduate school, do not go. Graduate School should not be someplace you go to test out careers and fields; it should be someplace you go to further your knowledge in a field you want to pursue. The degree I just received is completely different than the degree I would have pursued right after undergrad, and is a far better fit for my career goals.

    The second is to get real world experience in the field first – particularly if you are going for a professional degree. You will be able to understand the material far better once you have experiences to relate back to. You also will know that this is a field you want to pursue, instead of realizing it halfway through your degree and after building up a lot of debt.

    Finally, make sure you do your research into programs and know what you want from a program. For me, I looked at programs that encouraged you to work and pursue internships during the program so that I could see practical applications to what I was studying. I wanted to take classes that built skills as well as taught me theory. Other questions to ask are: Is the program full-time or part-time? Can you switch between the two? What is the grading like? How much do grades matter? Are you expected to work in the field or devote your time to studying? What is the primary focus of the program? Where do people go afterwards? What kind of financial aid is offered? What do people in the field think of your program?

  • Jamie Cox A05, UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare, MSW in Management and Planning

    Child Development; UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare; Master of Social Work in Management and Planning, 2010

    I think that the most important step I took when applying to my top graduate program was to reach out to faculty at the school and request one-on-one meetings with them. The school I was applying to did not interview candidates, so I assumed they would not accept a request for a meeting with the director of admissions. But I felt that being able to talk about the program and the application process with him would greatly help my chances of admission, so I decided it was worth a shot! It turned out that he was more than happy to meet with me, answer my questions, and provide very helpful tips about strengthening my application. He also referred me to the chair of the concentration I was planning to apply for, who would be reviewing my application and was also thrilled to meet with me. Both of them said that prospective students rarely ask for pre-admission meetings/informational interviews, that it absolutely helps them in making admissions decisions, and that they love meeting with applications. These meetings not only helped me tailor my essays to emphasize the elements of my background and experience that they would be looking for, but also helped me hone in on why I was applying and be sure I was applying to the most appropriate concentration.

  • Lynn Jeudy A08, Columbia University Teachers College, Master’s in Sociology and Education

    Child Development; Columbia University Teachers College; M.A. Sociology and Education with a concentration in Public Policy, 2010

    Don’t go to grad school because: You would rather not work; You can’t find work; You’re hiding from the job market; You generally don’t know what to do with yourself; You’d like to delay the “real” world, which is in fact, quite real; Someone suggested it to you; or Just because you got in.

    If you are not 100% sure with a concrete idea of why you are going to graduate school, I wouldn’t suggest that you go.

    The top three things you need to think about are:

    1. Why am I going?

    Because I need this degree in X to position me to (be able to) do Y (better). Be sure about why you’re going, and what you intend to accomplish when you get there. If you are not going directly into law or medicine, grad school is not an absolute necessity right after you finish college.

    If you’re going for a terminal degree like a Ph.D. or Ed.D. you will most likely be looking for a career in the professoriate, research, or some other dimension of academia. Do you really want to be a professor? Do you even like research? Have you ever done research?

    If you’re getting an M.A., you need to have a somewhat more concrete idea of what the M.A. is going to prepare you to do, or what it is that you plan to do with it. It’s ok to have a B.A. that is open to possibilities because B.A.s lend themselves to that. But getting a graduate degree is a significant investment and commitment, and the decision to get one should not be made lightly. Some of the things you might want to do, or even end up doing, you might be able to do with only your B.A. Ask yourself: Which do I need the most right now: experience or expertise? Many career offices suggest that you take a good look at your intended field and find as many possible job options as you can, and work your way backwards, see what those people needed to get where they were.

    2. Where am I going?

    It’s all about the program. Schools with reputation are great, but for what it costs and the investment you’re making, you don’t want to be in a program that does not engage you intellectually in the field of scholarship that you’re interested in. In other words, you don’t want to be voluntarily in school at this particular level of schooling not learning what you want to learn. Program descriptions lie, and people do too. Do your best to get information from multiple, even conflicting sources, and then use your best judgment.

    3. How am I going to fund this?

    It’s unbelievably expensive. Everyone will tell you that there are scholarships, and there are. But you need to find them, and that takes a lot of time and planning. Many schools offer funding for terminal degrees, but some don’t. And there’s very little or next to nothing available for Master’s students, so scholarships for studies at that level are very competitive. Many people who are accepted into graduate school have the passion and potential to do well in their chosen fields. But the people who get money are people with productivity. You may have all the passion and potential in the world, and that might not be enough for a scholarship or fellowship. Think about what you’ve done, and maybe what else you might need to do in order to make you a stronger applicant, not for school, but for money. Also, especially for Master’s degrees look into external (non-school sponsored, but school affiliated) programs in your field that build in internships and networks and money all in one! Search carefully, search early!!!

    Other things I would say:

    • You need to have a plan. Plan not only to actually apply (get recommendations, write the essay, visit, etc), but also fit in securing other options like jobs and fellowships, and if possible, having a life somewhere in between.
    • Start Early!!!! If you are seriously considering graduate school, you need to approach it with the same deliberation that you probably (hopefully) did with college. Even if you didn’t spend that much energy thinking about your college choices, it is acceptable and typical that you will figure college out along the way. Graduate school — not so much.
    • Talk to key people. Key people are of course your professors, people in your field, people in the programs you might want to attend, etc. But also talk to students currently in the program!! You can even request to speak to students from specific communities that you might consider yourself a part of. Don’t just talk to your cheerleaders. Talk to be people who can offer you reasonably objective and critical advice.
    • Give yourself options. If you start early enough, and plan well enough, when it comes down to it, whether you don’t get in or decide not to go, you will still have something else to consider. Options are just good to have.
    • You definitely need a support system. Applying to graduate school is not like applying to college for many reasons, but primarily because, it’s not like everyone is doing it which is typically the case with high school students, at least the ones like you who end up at Tufts. It’s taxing enough as it is, and practically like having a second job, so keep your friends close.
  • Gabriel Koehler-Derrick A05, Columbia School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Master’s in International Affairs

    International Relations; Columbia School of International and Public Affairs; Master’s in International Affairs, Security Studies, 2010

    School and Program Research: Take geographic location into consideration. In many fields location really matters and if you have a strong feeling regarding where you want to end up or what field you want to work in after you graduate, where you study will play a larger role than you might anticipate. In addition, at least in my field there is probably not too much that distinguishes the top five programs from one another so if geographic location is crucial to you that can really help in the decision making process.

    Personal Statement: This requirement may differ significantly between programs and universities but I’ve heard that the best personal statements focus as much as possible on long term goals and how the degree or program from X university will assist you to achieve those goals. If you are unsure, I would write convincingly about something you’d really like to do– even if it’s a long way off or doesn’t seem immediately achievable. I think my own personal statement was too mired in past experiences, and because I was unsure of what I wanted to do post-grad school I was vague about how the program would help me. Don’t make the same mistake. Even if it seems a little silly, or far-fetched, write about your dreams and long-term goals and how the program you are applying to will get you there. Don’t use the essay as a way to run through items or experiences in your resume. Use this space as a place to present new information about yourself and your aspirations.

  • Michelle Paison A08, Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Master’s in Arab Studies

    Middle Eastern Studies & Comparative Religion; Georgetown University School of Foreign Service; Master’s in Arab Studies, 2010

    Do not hesitate to apply to graduate schools of your choice after graduating from Tufts, but plan accordingly; if your application is not successful the first time, strengthen it with work experience and reapply. Not only will you have gained valuable insight into career options, you will have supplemented your application with critical elements necessary in the application process and your study. Think about what you really want to gain.

  • David Starr A05, Lesley University, Master’s in Counseling Psychology

    Psychology; Lesley University; Master’s in Counseling Psychology, 2010

    As far as advice, I think I would say that for me, the thing that most influenced my graduate application process was the work I did prior to applying for school. By spending time doing neuroscience research while volunteering with kids, and then spending a year in a middle school, I was able to hone in on what I was looking for. My time in the research lab was interesting. Even though it wasn’t at all what I wanted, it put me in the position to seek out the positives in something that overall was not for me. These characteristics were ultimately things I found in school counseling and influenced my decision to pursue this field. Then, when I spent a year working in a middle school, it left me feeling that I could handle working with kids in a school full-time. Between the two of these, I felt reasonably confident with where I was heading.

Alumni Advice – Engineering

  • Lauren Klonsky, Tufts Graduate School of Engineering, Master’s in Civil and Environmental Engineering

    Civil Engineering, University of Vermont; Tufts University Graduate School of Engineering; Master’s in Civil and Environmental Engineering, 2008

    1. There are pros and cons of going to a different school for graduate school than you did for undergrad. Obviously, staying in the same place, you are familiar with the professors, social life, and the surrounding area. However, going to a new school gives you exposure to new professors, new research topics, new facilities, and adds to your overall network of contacts.

    2. Keep in mind that although this is not always true, your professors in graduate school will probably be able to help you with a job after graduation, and that their contacts will most likely be concentrated in the surrounding area of the university which you pick to attend for graduate school, so keep in mind, that it might end up being easier to get a job in the area where you went to graduate school.

    3. If you’re doing research and/or are a TA, even though you may have taken 5 courses a semester as an undergrad, 3 courses as a graduate student can be overwhelming. You may not be able to handle as large of a course load as you did in undergrad.

    4. GET FUNDING! In science research based graduate programs getting funding is partially based on academic stature, and partially based on who will be a good match for the TA / research position. When you decide you want to apply to a school, look into professors that you might want to do research with / TA for. TALK TO THEM! Email them, call them… let them know you’re applying, let them know you are interested in what they’re doing, and ask them if they know of any funding opportunities. If you are entering a program that requires research, getting a research assistantship can be a really good option, because you get funded to do research, which you would have to do for your science research based degree anyway. If you get a teaching assistantship, it can be good as well, but often you may be required to be a teaching assistant (which can be time consuming), take classes, and do research, which can be a heavy load. Each schools’ funding system is different so again, talk to professors, current students, and admin people to find out how it works at the school in the department for which you are applying. Funding over the summer time is also something that you want to look into. Again, every program is different, but if no summer funding is offered, students will often need to get jobs for the summer, which limit time for conducting research, so take that into consideration as well when selecting graduate schools.

    5. If you are a graduate student doing research, try to present your research at a conference at least once. You would be surprised how helpful it can be. It not only will help you prepare for your dissertation or defense, but it also gets your work and your name out in your field. I just attended an interview where the person interviewing me saw my presentation at a conference. The deadlines for the conference will also help you meet deadlines for your research goals, so take them seriously.

    6. If your program requires research and you have a particular topic that you want to research, make sure that the professors study similar topics. It is hard to start your own research topic without the support of professors who are knowledgeable in that field.

  • Baris Piyade E08, The Pratt School of Engineering at Duke, PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering

    Electrical and Computer Engineering; The Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University; PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering, 2012

    This is directed at undergraduates applying to PhD programs. First, get very familiar with the research project that you are planning to do during grad school. It may even be better for you to do a similar project with a professor in undergrad. It might also be useful to consider the alternative projects existing in the grad school in case you decide to change your area of research.

    Second, be careful about the location of your grad school. It is common for grad students to spend a lot more time off-campus than the undergraduates. So I believe it is very important to choose a school where one would enjoy spending time in the areas close to their campus.

Alumni Advice — Business School, Law School & Med School/Health Programs

  • Ashley Blackington, Tufts School of Occupational Therapy, Master’s in Occupational Therapy

    BS Kinesiology Dalhousie University; Tufts University School of Occupational Therapy; Master’s in Occupational Therapy, 2010

    The best piece of advice I can give it to take time off between your undergrad and graduate degrees. I was accepted into a doctoral program straight from undergrad but deferred for a year to be sure that I was on the right path. It’s easy to get swept up in school and keep going and going because you are in a driven academic environment but you also have to have time to learn about yourself and what really makes you tick.

    Going to graduate school is more than continuing on with your studies; it’s specializing in an area of interest, something that requires outside experience, time spent testing the waters and exploring other options. This can also help your application, especially the essay portion. Your answer goes from “I want to focus on this area because I liked the classes” to “I want to focus on this area because I’ve experienced the field and want to learn more.” I spent my year off working and volunteering with different organizations in various careers and stumbled upon Occupational Therapy by chance, I wouldn’t have found it in a course catalog and I couldn’t have found a profession better suited for me without first getting out of the classroom.

  • Robert Curry E04, Harvard Business School, MBA

    Civil Engineering; Harvard Business School; MBA, 2011

    • Prepare to take the GMAT/GRE as much ahead of time as you can. Take at least two months to study putting in 10-20 hours per week as a minimum. You can learn this stuff. Let’s face it: everyone says that these are only a small portion of entrance criteria, but they are one of the few measurable ways the schools can brag. If you don’t do well, study more and take the test again (especially if you do not have something that separates you from similar students.)
    • Apply in the first round that the school accepts applications. Most people are not organized enough to do this, and there is usually a higher acceptance rate.
    • In your application and essays, stress the things that separate you from other students of similar background. Everyone has a specific story to tell. You must differentiate yourself from people like you.
    • Make sure that your recommenders know you and have a positive relationship with you. Picking big fancy famous recommenders does not help.
    • Answer the interview questions truthfully and honestly. Be personable!
    • Don’t be surprised when you get rejected. No matter how strong your application is, you may not be a good fit for the school.
  • Karen Delio A00, Thunderbird School of Global Management, MBA

    Spanish and BFA in Studio Art; Thunderbird School of Global Management; MBA, 2011

    • Go to grad school, no matter how daunting the process may seem.
    • Look at the costs: tuition, plus cost of living. Then look at financing: how are you going to pay? Look at the total amount you’ll owe at the end of your graduate program, think about your earning potential, and then what your payments are.
    • Talk to people in careers you think of having – see what the possibilities are after school
    • Balance what you you’d like to do with what you have to do, thinking of both best and worst case scenarios.
  • Justin Greenbaum A08, Duke Law School, JD

    Political Science, Film & Media Studies Minor; Duke Law School; JD, 2012

    The best piece of advice I received during the law school application process was “Law school isn’t going anywhere; don’t rush into it.” I’m very glad I didn’t apply to law school during my senior year and start just a few months after graduating from Tufts. I was able to reaffirm my interest in the law with some interesting course opportunities through the Ex College and the FMS department. I also found it much more manageable to study for the LSAT and prepare law school applications in the summer after graduation and while I was working in the fall instead of during my last semester at Tufts.

    Also, give yourself more time than you think you need for writing your personal statement, if only so you can take advantage of all the resources Tufts has to offer (even to alumni). I think I wrote more drafts of my personal statement than any other paper I had ever written, mostly because the ARC and the Career Center provided constructive, helpful criticism that made my personal statement much, much stronger. Definitely seek their help when writing your statement.

    Lastly, seek out Tufts alumni who have done or are doing what you want to do. Their advice can prove to be invaluable and they are often easily accessible through things like the Tufts Online Community.

  • Jeff Katzin A06, Harvard Business School, MBA

    Economics; Harvard Business School; MBA, 2011

    My one piece of advice would be to think about the overall picture you are trying to paint. Consider the application as a whole and make sure that you bring out different parts of your personality throughout. You do not want your Tufts experience or your work experience to dominate. Rather, explain your goals ~ why grad school, why now, and why the specific school ~ by weaving them through work, school, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, etc. You want the Admissions Committee to not only see that you are career-focused with a strong vision but also that you are well rounded and will bring a unique voice and experience to the classroom environment. Along those lines, talk to your colleagues, family, and friends and get their input about how you stand out. It is often helpful to get the feedback of others to spur ideas and insights of your strengths/weakness that you can then emphasize/explain in essays and interviews.

  • Justin Oldfield A08, Tufts University School of Medicine, MD

    Biology and Community Health; Tufts University School of Medicine; MD, 2014

    The best advice I received was APPLY EARLY. I’m not sure about other grad schools, but most medical schools use rolling admissions, which means the longer you wait, the more applicants you are competing against. It sounds trivial, but many applicants are rejected from their top choice programs because they applied too late in the cycle. Given how much goes into your application, applying early is the least you can do. It is important to begin asking for letters of recommendation, writing the personal statement and researching schools several months in advance. Also, frequent reminders to professors/supervisors will ensure that you get all your letters on time.

  • Jeff Wu A02, Boston University Graduate School of Management, MBA in Health Sector Management

    Biology, Child Development Minor; Boston University Graduate School of Management; MBA, Health Sector Management, 2010

    Give yourself time and start early. Begin by planning backwards and laying out your general schedule for the next year or so before your applications are due. You can flesh-out the details as you go along. Beginning early allows you the advantage of preparing well for the exam, retaking it if necessary, and of getting involved in relevant volunteer activities and societies for interview and essay fodder.

    If you are uncertain as to your direction or what you want to do with your degree, book time with the Career Center. This is good to do regardless. Leslie Warner (Career Advisor with Alumni Career Services) was invaluable throughout my application process in holding me accountable for my own time-table and keeping me actively planning.

    In the meantime, network! Develop contacts in the admissions offices of the schools you are looking at. If nothing else, this gives you a reliable avenue of getting quick answers to questions you may have as application deadlines approach.

    And keep in mind that while asking your mentors for letters of recommendation is one of the first things out of your hands, it can often be the most challenging part of your application. It is the element of your package that is the least under your control. So choose your recommenders well and follow up with them often.

    The only thing I would do differently would be to have given myself more time. Getting going on the research and application process is daunting, since you need to devote at least the better part of a year to it. But build momentum early and keep pushing!

    The best advice I received about navigating this process is to really focus on your essays. That is the first thing you should get moving on after you take your entrance exam (if not earlier), and that is the aspect to which you should devote the most time. The personal statements are very important in differentiating who you are.

By Susannah Krenn
Susannah Krenn Assistant Director, Communications & Marketing / Career Advisor