Graduate school is a big commitment- financially, intellectually, and emotionally. Students often have great reasons for continuing on to graduate school, and it ends up being an invaluable stepping stone in their career. Others make a rash decision to go to graduate school when other options fall through. So, before submitting that application fee, consider these questions first:
1.) Why do I want to go to graduate school?
Are you hearing these responses?
-‘I want to advance in my career.’
-‘I want to continue learning about this specialty area or subject matter.’
-‘I am changing career paths and need more relevant education.’
If so, you’re off to a good start. All these are great reasons for going to graduate school.
Or, are you hearing these statements?
-‘I was unsuccessful in the job search, so I guess I’ll do this instead.’
-‘I’m not sure what I want to do. Grad school will buy me time.’
-‘Having more education will always make me more competitive, right?’
If these statements sound familiar, stop and think for a bit. None of these reasons are strong enough (nor true in most cases) to drive this large a decision. Make sure you take the time to honestly reflect upon your desire to pursue graduate school. If you’re uncertain before you begin your program, many of the realities of graduate school will only increase that uncertainty (aka long hours in the lab, endless research tasks, and balancing multiple obligations).
2.) Will going to graduate school assist me in meeting my career goals?
Some careers, such as medicine, law, dentistry, counseling, and social work require additional education beyond a Bachelor’s degree. Similarly, a position as a professor, a psychologist, or a researcher also require an advanced degree. Many careers value higher education, however not all. Additional degrees do not always lead to additional income and job prospects. In some fields, an advanced degree means someone is too specialized, and therefore less attractive. Furthermore, graduate school impedes the acquisition of full time work experience, which is often a disadvantage in many industries.
3.) What will I specialize in, and will my interest in that topic remain strong?
While undergraduate work is often broad, graduate school is narrow and specialized. Choosing a focal area for your research and study will be essential in the very early stages of graduate work. Ensure that your specialization is a topic that greatly motivates and interests you. Keep in mind that you will be investigating this topic just about every day for the next 2-7+ years.
4.) Am I ready to re-enter school?
Committing several more years to academic work can be exciting to some, daunting to others. Are you burned out? Are you sick of having ‘homework?’ Do you question whether you have the momentum for 2-7+ more years of school? If so, consider taking a few years to work before reentering school. This can be a great time to test out an alternative career path that has always interested you, or to become more familiar with your field before specializing further. ‘Gap’ time provides the space you need to critically evaluate whether graduate school is the next best step.
If any of these questions have cast doubt on your desire to attend graduate school, don’t stress. There are several steps you can take to ensure you’re making a well informed decision. First, start researching. Read about programs of interest, profiles of current and past graduate students, industry norms and career paths, and occupational requirements. Second, start talking to people. Have candid and honest discussions with current grad students in your department, professors in your research area of interest, and graduate level professionals in your field. Northwestern University’s CareerNet is a great system to utilize when identifying individuals with whom to discuss your questions and concerns. Third, don’t hesitate to come in and talk with a Career Counselor. Career Counselors can help you map out future possibilities and mitigate some of the uncertainty and stress that comes along with a decision such as this. Finally, don’t be afraid to change your mind in the process. You might waver between going to grad school and not going to grad school several times before coming to a decision. Though it might be frustrating, this is just a sign that you’re asking yourself the right questions, testing your assumptions, and above all, maximizing the likelihood of making the right decision.