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Thinking about Graduate School?


Below are several frequently asked questions (FAQ) about going to graduate school. These answers are tailored to University of Kentucky students who are applying to MA programs in Chinese Studies/Language, Asian Studies, or East Asian Studies. Please read the following carefully. If you have additional questions, please contact the Director of Undergraduate studies or a faculty member.

Should I go to graduate school?

Graduate school is for people who love research, scholarship, and teaching. Of course, not all graduates of a good MA program in Chinese Studies or Asian Studies will go on to become scholars or educators, but the principle occupations of graduate students in these kinds of programs are academic research and teaching. If you are interested in undertaking specialized research in China, attending conferences and presenting papers, publishing research, participating in small seminar-style courses, and other academic and scholarly activities, then graduate school may be the right choice for you!

Graduate school provides specialized training, an opportunity to gain expertise in an area of research (and sometimes multiple areas), and the chance to exponentially improve your Chinese within an academic context. Graduates from MA programs in Chinese or Asian Studies can expect to be much more competitive for positions in the Foreign Service, State Department, K-12 education and administration, international finance and industry, non-governmental organizations, academic publishing, professional translation work, and, of course, Ph.D. programs in Chinese Studies.

Graduate school also requires a serious commitment of time, energy, and resources. A typical MA program at a good university will take 2-3 years to complete and may include writing a thesis and time abroad conducting research in addition to teaching and coursework. A normal week may involve three seminar meetings (for which significant reading will be expected), around 20 hours of assigned teaching or research duties, and weekly writing assignments and papers.

In short, MA programs are not something one does "on the side" in addition to a full-time job, or without a specific academic or career goal in mind. Nor are they an extension of undergraduate coursework. Master's work is a commitment to your desire to do research, your intellectual curiousity about the subject, and your interest in participating in the academic world, if only for a few years. 

Are there other graduate programs that do not emphasize research?

Yes. Students who are less interested in research and prefer a more structured experience that builds on their undergraduate education should consider law schools like the University of Kentucky College of Law, or programs in diplomacy or international relations, such as the outstanding Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.

What does a well-qualified applicant to a Master's program look like?

Students are admitted to graduate schools based on a combination of factors. Some of these factors, such as GRE scores and grades, are more quantifiable; others, such as your "fit" with professors and programs, are more ambiguous. When you applied to the University of Kentucky, your application was evaluated by University administrators, but when you apply to graduate school, you are applying to a department and your application will be reviewed by a committee of faculty (and sometimes a graduate student representative). Some graduate programs should be able to tell you the profile of their "typical" student in terms of GRE scores and GPA, and many programs will list this information on their website.

For Chinese Studies and East Asian studies programs, the rule of thumb is simple: "more is more." Ideally, you should have:

  • 4 years of Chinese language (or the equivalent combination of coursework and study abroad).
  • Study abroad experience (preferably one year)
  • Some proficiency in another foreign language (preferably Japanese, French, or German).
  • An overall GPA of 3.5 or above, and a higher GPA in your major.
  • Above average GRE scores for Verbal and Analytical Writing (your Quantitative score will be less important).
  • Experience with an independent research and writing project with a professor.

In the real world, of course, the specific combination of these factors will make different applicants more or less desirable. Thus, an applicant with outstanding academic work (a 4.0 GPA, above average GRE scores, and experience doing independent research) may have less study abroad experience--and perhaps even less experience with the language--yet still seem like a safe bet for admission to the program. Another student who has considerable experience abroad and with the language--but a very poor GPA and below average GRE scores--may make the admissions committee wary of his or her ability to accomplish high quality academic work.

How much will graduate school cost?

When applying for graduate school, you will also apply for funding. This funding will take the form of merit-based scholarships and teaching or research fellowships. Well-qualified applicants, particularly those with a high level of language proficiency and study abroad experience, may work as TAs in a Chinese language class, while others may work as graders or TAs for lecture courses. Some universities also offer alternative fellowships through their library, study abroad office, or other administrative divisions on campus.

In addition to paying for tuition, teaching and research fellowships may pay for fees (health insurance, gym, etc.) and provide a small living stipend ranging from a few hundred to over one thousand dollars per month.

The bottom line is this: You should apply for any and all funding available at the school and, at the very least, should not expect to pay for tuition, whether in-state or out-of-state. Some graduate students find their living stipend insufficient and take out a limited number of loans to cover the difference.

What do I need to do in order to apply?

Not all graduate programs require the same material, but generally you will need to collect and submit:

  • 3-4 letters of recommendation (LOR) from professors who have either taught you in class or worked with you on a research or writing project.
  • An essay or several essays (sometimes called "letters of intent" or "personal statements") that describe your academic background, career goals, and possible topics you wish to study and research. IT IS IMPORTANT TO PAY CAREFUL ATTENTION TO THE REQUIREMENTS FOR EACH SCHOOL, as they will not all ask for the same information in your essay. DO NOT write one generic letter and cut-and-paste it into each application. (Although, some material from different letters can be recycled and modified between different applications). Further information on application essays is outlined below.
  • A graded sample of academic writing that demonstrates your critical thinking skills, your ability to conduct research, and outstanding writing. The length of this sample may vary from application to application, but a lengthy term paper for which you received a top grade will generally suffice.
  • GRE scores
  • Official transcripts of ALL college academic work.

When do I apply?

You will begin the application process as early as a calendar year before you plan to attend. So, if you plan to begin graduate school in fall 2014, you should start your applications during fall 2013. Application materials are usually due in December and January.

However, it is important to remember that this is a time-consuming process, so you are advised to begin early so that you will not be overwhelmed. Finishing one of the many tasks you need to accomplish earlier will help you manage your time better during the term.

  • An applicant who wishes to start graduate school in fall 2014 is advised to notify potential letter-writers of his/her intention to apply before the beginning of fall 2013.
  • You should begin studying for the GRE and take the test before the end of summer 2013 (in case you need to take it again in the fall!).
  • You should work on your personal statements and be ready to show a draft to your advisor or another faculty member for feedback before the fall term gets too busy, by the beginning of October at the latest. Your letter writers will also want to see a copy of this statement in order to help their own letter writing process.

How much will it cost to apply?

The cost of applications vary, but you should expect to pay around $50-$75 on average per application.

How many schools should I apply to?

Generally you should apply to 4-6 schools, but the ultimate answer to this question will depend on the schools to which you apply and your qualifications. It's fine to go for the brass ring and apply to top-tier programs, but your applications should be a mix of schools for which you fit the profile and/or surpass the admissions requirements.

How do I decide where to apply?

Your decision of where to apply should be made with your advisor based on a conversation about your career goals and which program will help you achieve them. This will be based on the program faculty, the degree programs they offer, and the availability of funding.

It is a good idea to do your homework by getting online and taking a look around. Look at the degree programs and see who they are for. Most programs will have a page devoted to answering the question, "Why you should apply here"; a few may even devote some space to describing what kind of student they are graduating (i.e., K-12 language teachers, students prepared for doctoral programs, and so forth). The faculty will probably have web pages detailing their interests and publications. Find departments with several people who work in an area that interests you, defined as a topic or time period. Find departments that offer programs of study that suit your goals. This will help you narrow down the array of possible programs to a manageable list.

It is increasingly common for undergraduates to contact professors if, after doing some research, you are still uncertain whether the program would be a good fit. Such emails should be short (no more than 100-200 words) and demonstrate some knowledge of the field and/or the professor's research, explain that you are looking for a graduate program that matches your academic and career goals, briefly describe the general area in which you would like to work and your eventual goals (i.e., teaching college, diplomatic service, K-12 language teaching, etc.), and ask whether their program might be a good fit for a person with your interests and goals, should your application be accepted. It is best to direct this email to a director of the graduate program or a senior faculty member. Your email should be polite, unassuming, as brief but as detailed as possible, and grateful for their time. If you do not get a reply, that should tell you something about the program.

Are applications done online?

Many schools have transitioned to online applications, which saves considerable time. This means that all of your GRE scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation, application essays, and writing samples will be uploaded as PDF or Word documents.

What goes into my application essay or personal statement?

You should take your application essay very seriously; it is among the most important components to a successful application.

Because of the format of online applications, what was once a lengthy essay may be broken up into several, paragraph-length responses to specific questions. Nevertheless, most application essays (or paragraph-length responses) will answer questions about your academic background, academic goals, potential areas of study and research, and why you chose to apply to the school (i.e., the suitability of the program).

Your essay(s) must convey a knowledge of the field or topics you may wish to study, sketch out a plausible course of research for a MA thesis, and demonstrate that you understand the nature of academic research in concrete terms. You are not making a promise to carry out that particular line of research, but it should be well informed, intellectually mature, and convey that you know the field.

In terms of style, your essay should avoid both boasting and self-deprecating remarks. It should be positive and not say anything negative about anything, including yourself. It should be crafted in terms of your desires and goals, not responding to any perceived deficiencies. It should avoid cliches, jargon, personal feelings, family, and providing too much personal detail. Remember: the people reviewing your essay will be professors who are looking for good students and potential teaching/research assistants, in other words, hard workers, team players, independent thinkers, self-starters, informed discussants, and good writers who are intellectually focused.

Writing counts. Let me say that again: writing counts. Your essay must be well-written and free of grammatical and spelling errors. Begin by writing a more general draft of approximately 300-450 words (one-and-a-half to two single spaced, typed pages, but no more) covering the points above. Show it to a friend or colleague who has excellent writing skills. Have them edit it. Revise this draft, then bring it to your advisor or a professor in your major. Have them look it over carefully. They will demolish it and give it back to you. Do not be discouraged; you will write several drafts of this essay before it is acceptable.

This essay will form the basis of individual essays for each application. DO NOT send the same essay to each school. You will want to tweak and customize your essay for each department. Do your homework first, learn about the department and then tailor your letters. It will make a difference for the committee if you show that you have taken the time to get to know their department and how you might fit in there.

How do I get letters of recommendation from faculty?

You will need 3-4 letters of reference from faculty for your application. If you are serious about graduate school, then at some point in your junior year you should identify a professor or several professors with whom you can pursue independent study to gain experience writing research papers. If you form a good working relationship with these professors and do good work, it is natural that you will have many conversations about your academic and career goals. These conversations, combined with excellent research and writing, will form the basis of the letters these professors will write for you, as they will be able to call upon specific examples that demonstrate your intellectual maturity and your ability to conduct graduate-level research.

Because it is impossible to pursue independent study with every professor, you should also frequent office hours an engage in intelligent discussion with your professors about the class and research. A combination of good course work coupled with some knowledge of your goals can form the basis of a strong letter.

This point cannot be stressed enough: Your graduate school experience will be largely defined by your relationships with faculty, so you should consider office hours and working with a faculty member on a research paper to be practice for the real thing. If you do not enjoy sitting in your professors' offices talking about scholarship and research, graduate school probably isn't for you!

When should I ask for letters of recommendation from faculty?

You should give your faculty enough time to write letters. As stated above, you should provide a copy of your basic application essay to your faculty members no later than the beginning of October so that they can provide feedback and become familiar with your plans. You should ask if they are willing to write a letter for you even earlier in the term.

What information will faculty members need to write a letter for me?

In addition to your application essay/statement of purpose, provide your professors with: 1) a list of courses you have taken from them and the grade you received in each class, to refresh their memory; 2) a sample of an assignment they particularly liked; 3) a list of the graduate programs to which you will apply, including the physical addresses of the departments and the names and titles of the director of graduate studies or the department head; 4) stamped and addressed envelopes for each letter that must be sent via regular mail; 5) the due dates and deadlines of each application.

When should I take the GRE?

You may take the GRE more than once. Because some students--even very smart, 4.0 students--can have difficulty with the format of standardized tests such as the GRE and SAT, it is a good idea to take the GRE in the summer so that there is enough time to take it again in the fall if you choose. This means if you are planning to start graduate school in fall 2014, you should take the GRE in summer 2013.

How should I prepare for the GRE?

The GRE is now taken on computer and has its own format and idiosyncrasies. It is good idea to study for this test and become familiar with its format and style. The amount of studying required will depend on your comfort level with the material and the format, but you should expect to study for the GRE for 2-4 weeks before the exam at minimum. There are numerous study guides available, but your course of study should include at least one practice test.

Is there a list of Chinese and Asian Studies programs available?

The Berea college Asian Studies Program website has compiled a list of Asian Studies and East Asian Language and Literature departments to begin your search:

Keep in mind that many of these schools will also have excellent MA programs in History, Sociology, Political Science, and Anthropology. You will have to explore each website for more information on other programs.

NOTE: Some of the information on this page was inspired by or borrowed from Dr. Phil Agre's webpage on applying to graduate school. Although it is primarily aimed at students of natural sciences, it is still a pretty good read (