Graduation is nearing, and you’re staring down the scary double barrel of Life After College. On the one side is the Work World: trading in the breezy freedom of college life for a stuffy, cubicle-bound 9-to-5, assuming you’re lucky enough to land a job in this languishing economy.
The other barrel, then, starts to look a lot more tempting: graduate school. A romantic extension of your undergrad days, but this time with the important-sounding title of “graduate student.” You start cleaning out your old JanSport backpack and perusing the course catalog with newfound zeal, dreaming of a life as an intellectual beacon.
Grad school is like fantasy football: exciting and obsessively inspiring to some; to others, it’s pointless and an expensive exercise in wasting time. Having been through the exhausting coursework, the whole “no income” thing, the weekends crammed full of papers and dense reading, and the scary seminars with big-shot professors, I can tell you grad school can be rewarding both professionally and personally, but it’s definitely not for everyone.
The biggest misconception about graduate school is that it’s simply an extension of college. “Hey,” you figure, “I studied and got good grades throughout undergrad; I could do that again.” Yet grad school classes are intensely rigorous, and whereas in college you are a “consumer” of knowledge, in grad school you are expected to be a “producer” of knowledge.
The pedagogical approach of grad school focuses more on independent learning; you’re supposed to read the journals and primary sources and come up with your own theories, which you must be able to defend. Term papers are usually 20-25 pages long, and you can spend five to six hours a day just doing the reading for one of your courses. In grad school, you’re expected to not only understand the material, but analyze and defend or critique it.
All that aside, continuing your education can be deeply fulfilling and beneficial, and these days, so many people have master’s degrees that it’s becoming more of the norm rather than a special pedigree. Whether you want to go to grad school straight from undergrad or take a few years off first, there are a couple basic things to consider before checking “yes” on your admittance forms.
The first is choosing a program. So you passed your GRE or GMAT, sent in some killer applications and got a shiny acceptance letter. If you only got accepted to one school, your decision is simpler: whether you want to go to grad school, or not. If more than one program admits you, it’s time to weigh them: Does one have more prestige? Grad school is all about the reputation of the faculty member you’ll be working under, not about the reputation of the school itself. Is one more desirable in terms of location or financial aid? What’s the faculty and peer support like? What about community and a social life? There’s no right answer; you have to choose the program that feels right and works best for you.
Another important decision is whether you want to go new-school or old-school—aka, traditional classes or the online route. You can do almost everything online, including get an advanced degree. In online school, classes are held through chat rooms and virtual lectures, and coursework typically involves emailing assignments to your professor and posting on forums with other students. If you want to pursue grad school full-time, you’ll almost definitely want a real campus experience with 3-D professors and brick-and-mortar classrooms. However, if you’re going to be a part-time student, give serious consideration to online class. You can attend a school that’s on the other side of the country, work in your pajamas at 3 a.m. and be home with your family while your classes are going on. While you might miss out on face-to-face interaction, you can still gain a rich educational experience.
Once you’ve made these basic logistical decisions, it’s time to decide if grad school is the right path for you. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts to help you discern.
DO Go to Grad School If:
You really, really need to go.
If you want to be a librarian, for instance, you’ll need a master’s degree in library science. Many public schools require teachers to hold an advanced degree in education. Lawyers and doctors obviously submit to years of rigorous degree-pursuing. Similarly, if you’re looking to make a career change, a grad degree can be the impetus you need to make the switch into a different field. So, if you’re feeling led into a certain career path that has a master’s as a prerequisite, by all means, start filling out those apps.
You’re prepared to pay for it.
Most graduate schools don’t offer nearly the amount of scholarships and grants your college did, so it’s going to be harder to chip away at that beastly tuition bill. Before you commit to any program, look into fellowships like teaching assistantships or research assisting for a professor, and talk to your financial aid people about squeezing out every scholarship dollar you can. Whether you’ve got parents who will help you out, a job that will provide tuition reimbursement or a readiness to take on a hefty amount of student loans, make sure you have a plan to float yourself through financially.
You have the skills and the passions to motivate you for more years of school, and others agree.
So you were a terrific student in college, and you can imagine nothing better than continuing to explore art, or neuroscience or economics. Great! It’s also important to seek out as much (honest!) advice as you can before you embark on this big decision. Ask your admissions advisors, fellow students, TAs and parents, and pray about it. Most importantly, ask your professors for a very frank assessment of your abilities and if they think you can really excel in grad school.
DON’T Go to Grad School If:
You sort of want to go and don’t have anything else to do.
Grad school, especially full-time, takes over your life, and you must have an all-consuming intellectual passion in order to get through the long hours of solitude in the library. You shouldn’t go just because you’re unemployed and can’t think of anything else to do. If you have a vague idea that you want to be a doctor or a professor but don’t really know why, you’ll never make it through the first all-nighter.
You have major financial or life obstacles.
Depending on your degree or course load, graduate school can take up the next two to eight years of your life. If you’re currently married or have kids, or are planning on it, it may be hard to squeeze in a degree program around the responsibilities of a family. Similarly, if a program requires you to relocate to attend school, you’ll have to consider if your spouse can find a job in your new city and if your kids can attend decent schools of their own.
You’re tired of working and going back to college life seems romantic.
It’s easy to idealize the academic life when you’re stuck in a boring entry-level job—remembering days of strolling a grassy campus and drinking coffee with friends at 2 p.m.—but grad school is emotionally, financially and sometimes spiritually draining. In many ways, it’s more challenging than the work world. Grad programs will always be around, so wait it out until you’re completely sure before you jump the paycheck ship.
The best advice I ever received when I was debating doing a Ph.D. was this: Can you do anything else with your life and be happy? If so, go do that. If not, then grad school, and your subsequent career, is the place for you.
Jessica Misener is a graduate of the University of Miami and Yale Divinity School. She is currently working as a writer in New York City.