Getting Advice ASAP

The sooner you declare a major, the easier it will be for you to prepare for and obtain information about graduate school in that discipline. Your major department is an essential source of advice about graduate programs and your approach to postgraduate study. Choosing a major before the start of your sophomore year is ideal, but don’t be deterred if you make your choice a little later.

A good beginning for learning about graduate school in general is to attend an information meeting held by the pregraduate advising office or to visit the pregraduate advisor for a discussion. The best advice about preparing for graduate study in a particular field is likely to come from faculty who work daily on topics closely related to the prospective graduate field of study and whose colleagues are positioned widely in institutions across the country. Your major department’s Ph.D. advisor is a source of advice and can recommend Duke faculty who are expert in specific subjects.

Students who are curious about the graduate education experience should read “Life as a Graduate Student” and talk to graduate student acquaintances and teaching assistants. Read a variety of materials that relate the experiences of graduate students, for example, the articles published by the Association for Support of Graduate Students.

Academic Requirements

It is important to create a track record that graduate schools can evaluate when you apply as a senior or recent graduate. If you are certain that you will pursue a Ph.D. in your intended or declared major, it is best to declare the major in your first year at Duke and begin upper-level (300+-level) courses in that area by the sophomore year. This ensures time to develop a substantial history of academic work in the major and also to develop an appreciation for broader theoretical issues in your field. A graduate program may recommend that applicants have completed a short list of specific courses, but it is more common to state the admission requirements in broad terms, e.g., "The student must hold a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited institution in the United States or the international equivalent with a record that indicates capacity for graduate work of high quality." There is rarely a long checklist of course admission requirements.

Many graduate programs specify a degree requirement that students read proficiently in at least one foreign language relevant to the discipline. Students who enter the program without this skill will be expected to learn a language before the doctoral degree will be awarded. The language requirement may be stronger for programs involving literary and documentary research in other languages. Consider too the many opportunities for international study and collaboration created by good foreign language skills. We strongly suggest that graduate school candidates commit themselves to learning one or more modern foreign languages.

Prospective graduate students often major in the subject in which they will seek advanced degrees, but that rarely is required. (An exception is chemistry, but not biochemistry.) Graduate schools focus on applicants’ quality of courses and academic performance, seeking students who are ready to pursue study at an advanced level. The faculty who review applications may note specific deficiencies in the course content of an applicant’s undergraduate career, but these ordinarily can be remedied with coursework after entering the graduate program.

An applicant’s recent academic record should include some graduate level courses — 500-600 level courses at Duke. For Ph.D. programs in the arts and sciences, an admissions committee expects to find diverse interests represented in elective choices. Simply put, you should embrace a broad selection of undergraduate courses while studying a defined area in depth. 

Finally, an applicant's undergraduate GPA ideally should be 3.3 or higher. A stronger performance in one's major and/or extensive experience in research and scholarship within the field, however, may substitute for a weaker academic record. GRE scores for Duke students are expected to be above 600 for the verbal and quantitative sections and 5-6 for the analytical writing section. These sections will change with the GRE modifications to go into effect in fall 2007. Note that an applicant's GPA and GRE scores should be at the highest levels if the applicant is to be considered for highly competitive distinguished scholarships.

Experience Needed

Because the purpose of a Ph.D. degree is to train students to be scholars, the best predictors for success in graduate study are a record of research engagement and success, good writing and analytical skills and readiness for advanced course work. This does not imply that you must be a published scholar to apply successfully — but your recommendations must include at least one evaluation of your potential for original scholarship, based on direct experience and observation. Thus, to be a good candidate for graduate school in your senior year, you must engage in research in your discipline, beginning no later than your junior year.

Opportunities for undergraduates to become involved in the university’s research endeavors are plentiful. They include employment with faculty with research funding, enrollment in research independent study courses, summer mentorship programs and fellowship support for individual research projects. The Undergraduate Research Support Office maintains a list of current programs and funding for students in all disciplines as well as those offered by any departmental unit in the University. Also listed are programs at other universities and research institutions, primarily in the natural sciences, that select participants from a national applicant pool.

Students expecting to attend graduate school should plan to write a thesis by engaging in their major department’s senior honors program leading to Graduation with Distinction. These departmental level honors represent the highest achievement in one’s discipline, as opposed to Latin graduation honors which simply reflect an overall GPA calculation. Since some departments use a selection process to choose students for the honors program, students should investigate the requirements for the honors program in the junior year. Note that a student’s candidacy for Graduation With Distinction is noted on the transcript during the senior year.

Students engaged in research through research independent study courses or summer fellowships receive a double benefit–they acquire research experience and their research requires that they spend time with our University’s research faculty, thereby building rapport through discourse and debate framed around intellectual experiences. Your professors’ recommendations to you about good graduate programs and their recommendations about you to their colleagues at other institutions are crucial to your being matched with the program best suited for you.

Ideal Candidate

  • Begins major courses early, spreads them through career
  • Embraces academic variety and focuses on selected field
  • Completes some graduate level courses in the discipline
  • Engages in original scholarship and research in the major or postgraduate field
  • Shows readiness for advanced study in field of choice
  • Demonstrates excellent analytical and writing skills
  • Appreciates the purpose of an advanced degree in the chosen discipline
  • Presents an overall GPA at or above 3.3 and GRE scores at the 70th percentile or better