Grad School 101

How is graduate school different from your undergrad?

The main difference is that graduate school is focused on one particular subject. There is no need to take general education courses; the goal is to take specialized classes that will provide in-depth training and learning related to your field of study. As a student, you will spend most of your time in a lab planning and conducting experiments and interpreting their results. The stipend provided to graduate students is for the work you are doing in the lab. You are expected to work in the lab like it is your full-time job. Work to develop a professional working relationship with your faculty mentor.

What are the steps to earning your degree?

  1. Complete all the required coursework for the graduate program. This can include seminars and responsible conduct of research courses in addition to your major coursework.
  2. Pass your preliminary exam(s)
    1. Most programs only have one preliminary exam. For this exam, you write a proposal on your thesis research and present it to your thesis committee members. They evaluate the written and oral proposals and provide feedback.
  3. Complete research and publish in a peer-reviewed journal
  4. Defend your thesis to your committee and deposit the entirety of your thesis research with UW-Madison

Do you have helpful advice for incoming graduate students?

  • Talk to current students in the graduate programs you are interested in. Most graduate program websites have directories and a chance to interact with current students during events such as interview weekends. Our students are our best testimonial for graduate education at UW-Madison
  • Always keep in mind what your next step will be. This can change throughout graduate school, but remembering that graduate school is temporary will help you achieve your eventual goals.
  • Continue to reach out to a support network. Graduate school is hard. We admit students to our programs wanting them to succeed, but nobody wins a Nobel Prize alone. You are still a student, you are still learning and you should seek out and take advantage of support offered to graduate students.

Timeline for Graduate School


Program Orientations:

These orientations are typically held 1-2 weeks prior to the start of the fall semester. They last 1-2 weeks and provide necessary information for incoming students.

Graduate School welcome event:

The UW-Madison Graduate School also hosts welcome events the week prior to the start of the fall semester. Many programs schedule around the Graduate School events so students have the opportunity to participate fully.

Year 1

Fall Semester:

Students will conduct three lab rotations that last approximately 4-5 weeks for each rotation. The hope is you will get a good sense of what the lab works on, how the lab is managed, and the people in the lab. Students will make their thesis lab choices in December and start working in their new lab. Students also take classes their first semester that are recommended by their graduate program.

Spring and summer semesters:

Students continue to take classes and work in their labs developing a thesis project.

Year 2

Students finish up their course work in their second year for their graduate school majors. Students who elect to complete a minor degree may still take courses past their second year depending on the course load.

Preliminary Exam

Most programs require students to complete their preliminary exam at the end of their second year (after they are finished with courses).

Students as dissertators

Year 3-6

Students enroll for minimal credits (3 credits per semester) and continue to work on their thesis projects. They publish papers, present findings at conferences, explore professional development opportunities and apply for future jobs.

Thesis defense:

Most programs require a first-author publication to be considered eligible for a thesis defense. The defense is a culmination and celebration of all the work completed by the student.


UW-Madison hosts graduation ceremonies after the fall and spring semesters. Depending on when a student completes their thesis work, they are invited to participate in a graduation ceremony. Students who intend to defend over the summer typically attend the graduation ceremony at the end of the previous spring semester.