The Top 5 Differences Between My Graduate and Undergraduate Student Experience

by Samirah Jaigirdar, MTS ’24

Editor’s Note: HDS Admissions Graduate Assistant, Samirah Jaigirdar, reflects on the ways her experience as an HDS student differs from that of her undergraduate years.

Last summer, as I prepared to come to HDS, I was excited but also apprehensive. I did not know what to expect from graduate school, let alone graduate school at Harvard. Would it be alarmingly different than my undergraduate years? Or would it be the same, given that I would be studying similar things? During college, I double majored in International Relations and Islamic Studies. Similarly, for the Master of Theological Studies (MTS) program here at HDS, I planned to focus on religion, ethics, and politics and investigate the intersection between religious violence and state-building.  

Six months into my studies, I can confidently say that graduate school is like college in the sense that you are a student. But the similarities end there. While the differences are starkly noticeable, they are easy to navigate, and some come naturally as you progress through your degree.  

Here are the biggest differences I have found:  

  1. Graduate Studies as a Personal Decision  

For a long time prior to my enrolling at Connecticut College, I had planned to obtain an undergraduate degree in political science. I did not know which program I would end up enrolling in, but attending college more broadly was an expectation. However, going to graduate school, especially Divinity School, was a conscious decision I made for myself and my career. I wanted a tailored experience where I could explore political science issues through the lens of religious studies before diving deep into a political science PhD. Thus, Divinity School was the best choice for me! Having the ability to pick classes that fit my niche area of interest has been the best part about graduate school so far.  

  1. Depth of Readings 

During my undergraduate, I had a ton of reading! But even during heavy reading weeks, I could get away with reading a journal article’s abstract, introduction, and conclusion if I did not have the time to go into the text in detail. However, in graduate school (especially in my classes this spring), all the assigned readings are extremely relevant to my interests in religious violence and state-building. Hence, I WANT to do all the readings. But I quickly figured out that it is simply impossible. I also realized that we are expected to have a much more in-depth grasp of the readings now than we were during our undergraduate years. In graduate school, the readings are denser and provide a deep dive into specific topics, rather than a broad overview of the subject.  

With the help of a professor, I figured out the best way to read to maximize my information retention capabilities. The trick is to skim the article once to figure out the thesis. Then, you can go back to find the main evidence that supports that claim. This disjointed but highly effective method has been helping me navigate some of the more theoretically dense readings.  

  1. Relationship with professors  

As I went to a small liberal arts college, I was lucky to have professors who took a keen interest in my development as a student. Now, as an MTS candidate with a marked interest in academia and doctoral work, my professors at HDS are equally interested in my development as a student and academic. But the interest is distinctly different from college. Now, the professors are assuming I will be in the same field as them in the future. At HDS, my professors treat me more as a budding researcher who plans to collaborate with them in the future. 

  1. Involvement in Co-Curricular Activities 

During my undergraduate years, I was heavily involved in co-curricular activities such as student government and my college’s international student club. However, at HDS, I am less involved directly in clubs (even though we have so many!). I do go to events hosted by different clubs and organizations at Harvard, but that is the extent of my involvement. While I heavily considered joining Harvard’s Graduate Council due to my prior experience with student government, I decided not to as I would rather allocate that “extra” time to decompressing and relaxing. Graduate school is hard and time consuming, which makes the work-life balance vitally important.  

  1. More Freedom in Academic Choices 

The best part about my graduate program is that I can take whatever classes I want. While the MTS/MDiv/MRPL program have some requirements (like a mandatory Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion class), they are nowhere near as comprehensive as the General Education classes I had to do as an undergraduate. (My fellow Graduate Assistant, Maggie wrote an incredibly useful post about navigating the plethora of choices we have at HDS and Harvard-at-large! Ultimately, Graduate school is a unique experience for everyone! While it can feel daunting at times, it has given me an incredible amount of joy overall.  

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