Updated: Apr 26, 2020
The graduate school offers an opportunity to specialise in an academic discipline and may provide the education required for some professions. The decision to attend graduate school should come after careful consideration and research using accurate data. It is important to:
- Understand the job market for your field of interest
- Do some “reality testing” to gain experience in your field
- Examine your motivations; are your reasons for wanting to attend graduate school sound?
Right reasons for pursuing graduate school:
- You are eager to study in the discipline;
- You have a specific career goal that requires this graduate degree.
Wrong reasons for pursuing graduate school:
- You’re undecided about a career path and are thinking graduate school will allow you to “find yourself.” You may be better off (personally and financially) to first explore short-term ‘gap year’ experiences and invest time in some self-reflection and career research to clarify long term goals.
- You are getting pressure from friends, family, or professors. What matters most is your own motivation, not what others expect. After all, you’re the one who has to pass the courses and repay the debt.
- You think you have no choice because there are no jobs for someone with your undergraduate major. This is a very common myth, but employers constantly who seek students from a variety of majors and with a variety of skills.
- You’re waiting for the job market to improve. There’s no guarantee that things will get better before you finish graduate school and by then you’ll have even more debt to repay.
- You don’t feel ready for the working world. This is a common fear, but will you be any more ready in two years? If you’ve gained experience through interning or similar activities, chances are you are ready.
What Should You Study?
As you focus your interests by reading and talking to professionals, mentors, and professors, you’ll likely find that more than one graduate program could be appropriate for the career you hope to pursue. Ask professionals about their educational background, where they studied, and what academic programs may provide appropriate preparation. Faculty and alumni found through LinkedIn can be an excellent resource for this. Your undergraduate major does not dictate which graduate programs are open to you. Admissions representatives may expect you to have completed certain undergraduate courses, but not necessarily a specific undergraduate major. If your academic preparation lacks certain prerequisites, it is often possible to complete them prior to applying or as a condition for admission.
Should You Take Time Off First or Go Directly to Graduate School?
The answer to this question depends on many factors. If a graduate degree is mandatory in order to enter a particular profession, then continuing your education immediately may be advisable, as long as you are confident the career direction is right for you. However, many competitive programs prefer - or require - 3-5 years of work experience. Invest time in understanding expectations within your field of interest and what the benefits of obtaining an advanced degree might be. You may find that continuing your education is the right move, that it is best to wait, or that it is not necessary at all.
Identifying and Researching Programs
Once you have a clear idea of what you plan to study, identify where programs are offered. This is a research project, so plan to devote considerable time to this activity. Your research might include using the following:
- Annual Graduate and Professional School Fair: Spend some time at the fair speaking with representatives and learning about programs.
- Online: Search by geographic location, program, and many other factors. Professional associations are also an excellent resource for identifying programs.
- Faculty, Alumni and Other Professionals in Your Field: Identify faculty members and professionals whose interests match yours and ask for recommendations of programs. LinkedIn is an excellent resource for identifying individuals who may be able to provide you with insight that can aid in your decision-making.
Comparing Programs: While there are published guides, faculty and professionals in your intended field may be the best resource in assessing which are considered the better programs -- ask several their opinion and see if there is consistency in responses. Use published rankings as guides rather than the definitive word. Use information provided on individual graduate admissions offices and department websites to make a realistic assessment of your candidacy. Keep in mind that averages are just that – averages – with scores falling both above, and below. Schools are most interested in well-rounded candidates and it is unlikely that one component of your application is going to make or break you. Other things to consider:
- Curriculum: Does it have the depth and breadth you want? Does the primary emphasis suit your career goals? Do the courses look interesting? Are specialisations offered that interest you? Are there cooperative programs with other educational, cultural, and research institutions available?
- Internships or Practical/Clinical Experiences: Does the program include any practical experience in its requirements? Is there help in securing it? Is there adequate supervision and guidance?
- Faculty: What is the student/faculty ratio? Are there faculty members with specialties that interest you? Do faculty research interests match yours? Is the faculty diverse?
- Facilities: How extensive are their resources? Ex. library, labs and computer facilities? Are there specialised research facilities?
- Students: What are the demographics of the student body (geographical representation, ethnic diversity, average entering age, male/female ratio)? How many are in the entering class? What is the attrition rate?
- Location: Is the geographic location of the school consistent with the lifestyle you want for the next few years? What will housing cost and is there housing on campus? Don’t rule out an unfamiliar city or state prematurely; focus on where the programs are that best meet your needs.
- Employment of Alumni: What types of positions have recent graduates obtained? What types of services are available to assist graduate students with the job search?
The Application Process
Assembling and completing materials to support your application takes time and planning. Be sure to stay organised and pay close attention to deadlines! Make requests to appropriate offices for transcripts, reference letters and test scores several weeks in advance of deadlines to avoid last minute panic.
There are many common parts of the application process for different graduate programs and universities. Here are some suggestions for managing the application process along with your other commitments:
- Research your field(s) of interest, programs, schools (Allow 1-2 months, or more).
- Create/update your resume (Allow 1-2 weeks to create, have critiqued, and revise.
- Request letters of recommendation (Give recommender AT LEAST one month)