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What Is a Graduate Student?

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  • Written By: Dan Cavallari
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 March 2014
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A graduate student is a person enrolled at a college or university who is working toward a graduate degree such as a master's degree or a PhD. Such a student is known as a graduate student be cause he or she has completed an undergraduate degree such as a bachelor's degree, thereby allowing them to enroll in graduate school. A graduate student may participate in a two- to three-year master's degree program, and once that program is finished, he or she may enroll in a PhD program that can last up to five years or more. It is the highest level of education in most countries.

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Much like the process of obtaining a bachelor's degree, enrolling as a graduate student requires that the student first apply for and be accepted to a graduate program. The program is often focused on a similar topic as the undergraduate degree — a student with a bachelor's degree in English may also obtain a master's degree in English — though students are not necessarily bound to the same subject matter. A student with a bachelor's degree in English may, for example, choose to study history, law, or even business for his or her graduate program. It may be difficult for a student with a bachelor's degree in one field to be accepted to a graduate program in another program if the two programs are significantly different; a student with an undergraduate English degree, for example, may have difficulty getting into a graduate biology program, though it is not impossible.

A graduate student is likely to have more work to do independently than an undergraduate student would. A student working toward a master's degree, for example, will have to write a thesis, or a lengthy document that expounds on a specific area of research that the graduate student has conducted throughout his tenure as a student. A PhD student must write a dissertation, a process that can take several years to complete. Both types of student often work with an advisor who can help guide the graduate student through the rigorous process of writing these documents, but the actual research and writing is left to the grad student.

The advantages of obtaining a graduate degree include the possibility of a higher salary when hired by an employer, the possibility of a job in a new field, and obtaining qualifications for jobs that would have otherwise been unobtainable by the candidate. A grad student will, however, spend more money on a graduate degree and have to go through the process of applying for financial aid in many cases. A student must also often sacrifice steady employment during his or her studies, which can be a financial burden.

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