Graduate School 101

To go or not to go? Making the graduate school decision


Graduate programs can be divided into three kinds: professional programs, like law or medical school; master’s programs; and Ph.D programs. In 1999, 13% of graduating Northeastern seniors planned to attend graduate school right after college; the national average is 23%. This doesn’t take into account MBA students and others who choose to work before continuing their education.

Making a good decision about whether or not to go to graduate school requires the same kind of process that applies to other career decisions. As a potential grad student, you need to understand your interests and aptitudes; you need to gather information about schools and programs; and you need to be clear about your goals and the best ways to achieve them. Consider the following questions on your own or with the help of a career counselor:

 Interests and Aptitudes:

  • Why do you want to go to graduate school?
  • What do you want to study?
  • How good a student are you?
  • Do you enjoy research and working independently?
  • Do you love school? Too much?
  • Do you need a break from school?
  • Are you considering pursuing graduate education for its own sake?
  • What other options have you considered?
    • Graduate school can be rewarding and enriching, but it is not for everyone. While some master’s and professional programs are as structured as undergraduate programs, many master’s and all Ph.D programs are much more open, and require discipline and initiative far beyond what is required in college. Completing a major research project is a key requirement for a graduate degree, which can be very stressful and isolating.

 Information about schools and programs:

  • Which schools offer the program(s) you’re considering?
  • What are the requirements and deadlines?
  • How long does it take to complete the program?
  • How many students finish? How many get jobs?
  • How is graduate school different from college?
  • What have you done to find out what grad school is really like?
  • What will the program cost? How will you pay for it?
    • Graduate school is expensive. Entering doesn’t guarantee finishing, and finishing doesn’t guarantee a job. For example, master’s degrees in some areas, like chemistry, do not guarantee a higher salary than a bachelor’s degree. In others, like fine arts, experience in the field is more valuable in getting a job than a graduate degree. For those considering a Ph.D., it is important to know that most programs take 6 to 10 years to complete. Not surprisingly, only half of Ph.D. students finish their degree; 20% of these get academic jobs. While 80% of these earn tenure, that means only 8% of entering Ph.D.s end up with a tenured teaching job.
    • Information in books and on the internet should be supplemented by informational interviews with faculty in the field you’re considering, both here and at the graduate schools that interest you. Find out about placement rates and completion rates in schools you are considering, as well as about facilities, financial support, quality and reputation, among other characteristics

Goals

  • What is your career plan?
  • What do you want to get out of graduate school?
  • Is a graduate degree a requirement in the career you’ve chosen?
  • What are the pros and cons of gaining work experience first?
    • Graduate school is a means to an end. You need to define that end before pursuing further education. There is no harm in waiting a few years after graduation before applying to graduate school; in fact some programs require it. This time gives you a good chance to take a break from studying so you can tackle this new challenge fresh. Work experience will also increase your knowledge of yourself, bolster your confidence and improve your work habits.

Reconsider going to graduate school if your reasons include any of the following:

  •    I’m not ready for work.
  •    I don’t have a better idea.
  •   Any decision is better than no decision.
  •   All my friends (family) are going (went) to grad school.
  •   Any graduate degree will get me a better job.
  •   These days, a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough.

Continue exploring if your reasons are:

  •  I need the degree to practice my chosen profession.
  • A (specific) graduate degree will advance my current career.
  • I want to enrich myself intellectually and understand the time, cost, and effort involved.