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The Graduate School Decision: Basic Considerations

By Peterson's Staff updated on Wednesday, April 09, 2014

To go or not to go, that is the question. Graduate school sounds like a great option, but for what exactly? A chance to learn more, get a better job, and earn a bigger salary? Or are you looking to gain bragging rights? Or perhaps you want to borrow a little more time before you have to hit the real world? Whatever your reason, there’s a lot to think about if you’re going to commit to another few years of school.

Graduate school isn’t for casual learners—it entails hard work; long hours; lots of reading, research, and writing; and—most likely—financial debt. As much as the idea of extra letters in your title might sound endearing, if you really want to go for an advanced degree, there are a few things you need to consider.

Why Do You Want to Go to Graduate School?

First and foremost, graduate programs aren’t cakewalks. Even if you were cream of the crop as an undergrad, this is a whole new ball game. Students entering a graduate program should be serious about their studies, so maturity and dedication are necessary. Your decision to attend should be made with a goal in mind—entering a certain profession or enhancing your career, for example. Don’t go after an advanced degree if it’s just a way to kill time.

In Graduate School, What Do You Want to Study and Where?

When you apply to graduate programs, know what you want to study, because unlike college, this isn’t the time to be feeling out what you want to do with your life. This is serious stuff, so give serious thought to what you want to study and why you think it will benefit you.

If you’re sure of your aspirations, then it’s time to consider where you want to study. Most graduate programs are competitive and many schools have fewer grad programs to choose from than they do undergraduate programs. Many grad schools build reputations as excellent places for certain fields of study, and that’s where they may put all their energy, finances, and academic resources. Depending on what you want to study and how concerned you are with the name of your alma mater, this might limit your options in terms of location, size, student body, etc.

Depending on your life circumstances, choosing between a number of graduate schools may be complicated by the fact that perhaps you have a good job (or your spouse has a good job) or you have a mortgage or children. It’s possible that there are no options for graduate study within driving distance, let alone within the field you want to pursue. Ask yourself if you’re willing to tear up roots to get that degree.

Are You Willing to Be a Student in a Graduate Program?

In grad schools, classes are smaller and more interactive. Professors tend to treat you more like adults… adults with skills, knowledge, and a keen interest in their chosen studies. Your fellow students may be a bit more diverse, including people from various stages of life. Many classes consist almost entirely of students in their 30s or 40s who have returned to school to enhance their education and their careers. These are not folks who will be impressed with discussions of the keg parties last weekend. Come to class prepared. Do your homework and expect to involve yourself in discussions, make presentations, and speak to the subject as an expert (or at least as someone who wants to become one).

The Benefits of Graduate School

The benefits of a graduate degree are an essential consideration. While it may be a nice added feature to your resume, spending the time and money may not be necessary. There are a few degrees that are obviously necessary to get into certain fields, such as law or medicine, but many fields don’t demand that you have a master’s to get started. Take a look at available jobs—even the higher end job postings in your chosen field are likely to state something like, “Master’s degree preferred, but will substitute for experience and other qualifications.” If you’re already working and have built a sturdy career, another degree may not be required to climb higher up that ladder.

How Far to Take Your Graduate School Education

Given that you need to weigh the necessity and benefits of pursuing an advanced degree, you should also consider how much of a degree you need. A doctorate in just is great if you plan to become a professor or researcher, but in most fields, it’s not necessary. While it may sound nice to refer to yourself as a doctor, it’s not necessarily going to impress potential employers or change their salary offers.

Competitiveness in Graduate School

We’ve already mentioned that grad students tend to be serious about their studies, and subsequently, there is a certain level of competitiveness, at least at the admission end of things. Grad schools have far smaller programs than most colleges, so you may be competing against some very smart people for a limited number of openings. Admission officers want students who will be able to contribute to their research programs and reputation, so ask yourself if you’re up to the challenge.

Workload and Lifestyle in Graduate School

If you start grad school, expect your free time to diminish. After-hours get-togethers will probably consist of library outings and study groups. While you will likely still have time for fun here or there, there is a lot of work to be done in grad school, and it’s not the kind of work that you can cram in the night before.

The Costs of Graduate School

Last but not least, look at how much that degree is going to cost you and whether you’ll be able to get any free aid to obtain it. Free financial aid for grad school is harder to come by, so unless you’re independently wealthy or have saved all the necessary funds, it’s likely you’ll have to take on at least some debt. When all is said and done, will it be worth it?

About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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