To go to grad school, or not to go to grad school? Determining if further education is in your future, and which grad school, may seem overwhelming. The key, though, is to ask several questions that will guide you and provide direction for your decision.
As you weigh your options, you need to consider everything from your own motives to the success of graduates from your schools of choice to the timeline for applying. Asking the right questions now will help you decide if grad school is right for you, narrow down your school choices and simplify the application process.
Here are some questions to help guide you as you plan for grad school.
Examine Your Motives
Grad school is a substantial investment of time and money—be sure it is absolutely necessary before you sign up. Attending grad school may not be a good solution if you have emerged from college with a degree in hand but no idea of what to do next. Nor is it a good idea if your primary motivation is to boast that you have a master’s degree or a Ph.D. Be honest with yourself and spend time in prayer as you think through these questions.
Ask yourself, “Why do I want to go to grad school?” There are right and wrong answers to this question. If you simply don’t know what else to do, it’s probably not a good idea. If you want to go because you love learning, then it might be an option. Remember it’s possible to learn outside of a university, and grad school is not the only way to stimulate your brain. Entering grad school because the job market looks bleak and it seems safer to hide out in academia for a few years is also not the best idea—the job market could be just as rough after you graduate, when you’re a little older and a little more in debt.
“Is grad school necessary for my desired career path?” Some professional occupations require post-baccalaureate study and certification. For others the direction is less clear. If further schooling will better prepare you for your career, then grad school is likely a good decision. In some cases it might be a good idea to get work experience first. An MBA, for example, is important in the business world. Most MBA programs, however, require a certain amount of real-world job experience first. Talking to people who have been in your field for five or 10 years is a good way of gauging if grad school is necessary for you.
Ask friends and family, “Does this seem like an appropriate step for where I am in life?” If you are married, this is a decision you and your spouse need to make together because it will affect your family. If your family seems hesitant, you may want to reconsider and discuss their reasons.
Ask current students and professors, “What is grad school really like?” Talking to them will give you a realistic picture of grad school. Many people grow nostalgic about their undergraduate experience and imagine grad school to be a continuation of the same thing. Grad programs require focused, hard work and offer an entirely different experience than undergraduate. Talk to current students and your professors about their experiences in grad school. Remember, though, that some professors entered graduate school a few decades ago and may not reflect the current reality. Asking the right questions of those who know you and those who have experience will shape your knowledge and facilitate a better decision.
Look at Potential Schools
Determining which grad school to attend is not an exact science. It depends on your program of interest as well as your personal taste. Thoroughly investigating schools that interest you is of the utmost importance. Dig deep into their websites and published materials, talk to students and faculty and visit the campus. Make an in-person visit if possible. You will spend years there; see what it is like first. How are you treated? What are the facilities like? Make it a priority to meet faculty as well.
Ask, “Is there a faculty member who could supervise my project or thesis?” This is one of the most important questions to ask when picking a school. Many people focus on the institution they will attend without investigating the faculty. This is a mistake, as it is the faculty members who will have the most impact on your grad school experience. Look at the faculty’s interests, read their publications and research and determine if it fits with what you specifically desire to study.
“What are this school’s alumni doing today?” A key marker of a program’s effectiveness is to look at what alumni are doing. Do they seem prepared for their careers or ministries? How connected are they with their alma mater? These questions will reflect on the school’s effectiveness, as well as the quality of the alumni’s experience. Try to talk to alumni if possible and hear their firsthand perspectives.
“Is the location of this school suitable for my needs?” This question addresses everything from your program needs (such as a marine biology program at a school on the coast) to your personal needs. Will your spouse be able to find work? Does the school and the surrounding areas offer the resources you need to do advanced-level study? What is the cost of living?
Think About Your Finances
Finances can be one of the largest factors in deciding if grad school is a good idea, and also for helping you decide which grad schools you should pursue. Asking the right questions now could help you avoid pitfalls later.
Ask yourself, “How will I pay for grad school?” First, look into what financial aid the potential schools offer and pursue any options they have available. The financial aid staff is a great resource, so be sure to meet with them. Then seriously consider how you will pay for grad school if no sources of aid work out. Will you have to work full-time while going to school in order to pay for it? Will you have to take out loans, possibly adding to debt from your undergraduate education? Think about these questions and decide if the time and money are worth pursuing further education.
“Is attending grad school worth the debt I will accrue?” In some fields, attending a tier-one school will give you a leg up on the job market after graduation, as well as give you professional connections. This might be worth the extra expense. Think about the (realistic) future earnings potential of your career and if you can pay off any debt in a reasonable time frame. What about your family? Will education debt delay purchasing a home, sending your kids to school, necessitate a job for your spouse or otherwise impact your lifestyle goals?
“What other options do I have for making school more affordable?” Attending school half-time and working full-time could make grad school financially feasible, although it will take longer to complete your degree. Is that trade-off worth it to you? Options such as online or hybrid classes may be less expensive, and enable you to continue working while attending school.
Prepare Your Application Packet
When you have decided which schools might be a good fit, the next step is to prepare your application packet. Take your time and be thorough. Pay careful attention to deadlines and start your application well ahead of time. Your personal statement is probably the most important piece of your application, so give yourself plenty of time to write and rewrite this portion. Have others who know you well review your personal statement too. Planning ahead and being meticulous is key to an effective and impactful application.
If possible, speak with an admissions representative to make sure your questions are answered. Find out which, if any, test score is required. This is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in applying to grad school. Most tests, such as the GRE, require additional time after you take the test before they report the scores to your prospective institution. Ideally, you should factor in time for the scores to be reported, as well as time to retake the test if you do not pass the first time or are unhappy with your score. Ask the institution what the average test scores are for accepted students to gauge whether retaking the test is necessary.
Ask yourself “Which professors should I ask for recommendations?” You want to choose professors who have seen your work as a student first-hand. A professor who gave you a “B” but saw how hard you worked to understand a tough subject is a better option than a professor who gave you an “A” but only vaguely remembers you. Ask for recommendations from faculty members who are in your desired field, if possible. They will be able to speak about your readiness for grad school with greater weight because they know the field. Some schools require personal or employer references in lieu of or in addition to faculty recommendations, and the same idea applies here.
“What extracurricular activities, leadership skills or work experience should I present in my application?” Include activities and experiences that demonstrate your well-rounded interests and ability to be involved outside the classroom, and also how they have prepared you for grad school.
Grad school is a substantial investment of time and money, and you want to spend both of those wisely. Ask the right questions, and you’ll be better prepared with the right answer.
Lori Mann, Manager of Graduate Admissions Marketing at Biola University, has more than 26 years of marketing communications experience primarily in technology and higher education markets. At Biola she directs the admissions marketing efforts for Talbot School of Theology, Rosemead School of Psychology, Cook School of Intercultural Studies and the School of Education. She has a B.A. and M.A. from Cal State Fullerton in Communications.