In American culture, higher education, and undergrad programs in particular, are popularized as a time when students are supposed to “find themselves.” The 18-24 set is expected to smoke a lot of weed while reading beat poetry in the quad, go to keg parties and experiment with their sexual orientation, join anticapitalist protests and slowly wean themselves off of mom’s home-cooking. Skipping class to sleep off that hangover isn’t a big deal and switching your major five times is totally normal.
Graduate school is a completely different animal. Sure there’s still a lot of booze and pot. You are on a college campus after all. The quality of education is much different though and your goals should be too. If you are entering grad school, you should have a fair idea of who you are as an adult and what you want your career to look like. Hopefully at this point you have engaged in the working world so you are familiar with bureaucracy (because in grad school there is a lot of it), time management skills (because you will need them), and general self-discipline (because you will not finish otherwise).
Here are some tips for deciding whether or not to go to grad school, and what to do once you get there:
1. View grad school as career enhancing, not furthering education.
When it comes down to it, higher education is a spot holder on a resume. It’s a lesser point of entry into the work world. Yes, it’s an achievement to be proud of, but the skills you gain and contributions you make from sitting in a classroom all day are questionable. Do not go to grad school just because you enjoy learning! Go to grad school with a specific career trajectory in mind. Use your grad program as a way to meet mentors in your current or projected field and work on actual projects that exist in the real world, not just in academia. If you are only in the mood for some extra education, or still soul searching after undergrad, many colleges offer community ed classes, which are much cheaper than for-credit classes and don’t have grading requirements. Save grad school for your career/vocation.
2. Be prepared to fork over cash.
A grad degree is an investment, and it’s safe to assume that unless you are on a scholarship (which you should definitely attempt to get), each semester is going to cost at least $10,000. Start saving and/or researching students loans way in advance of your desired start date. If you can find an on-campus job as a Teacher’s Assistant or Graduate Research Assistant, take it. These jobs are flexible and usually build degree-related skills or deepen your knowledge of your degree topic. Plus you have school holidays off and get to put in solid face time with your professors, which potentially has benefits.
3. Realize grad school will be a complete time suck.
Be prepared to put in the time and stick to it. Grad school can take multiple years to finish, especially if your program doesn’t conclude until after you write an in-depth thesis on an intense topic that requires many research or fieldwork hours. Unlike undergrad, you will also be reading and writing significantly more in grad school. Don’t be surprised if you are asked to read one book or multiple peer-reviewed journal articles for each class at the beginning of each week and turn in a paper or make presentations that same Friday. You will have an intense workload, but if you are mentally prepared to face the challenge, and set boundaries for your social life, you can make the time.
4. Hold out for the program of your choice.
Apply to multiple universities, but don’t give in to that first acceptance letter. Because grad school represents such a significant amount of time and money spent, you should be really excited about the program you are entering and the benefits it will provide you. Look for programs with great research facilities, published journal articles, and good track records of graduate employment. Those things have the potential to benefit you because you will have access to those resources. They will also benefit you by lending your degree some smart-by-association shine. If you graduate from a well-known program, you will potentially get a better job offer, which is the ultimate goal of grad school.
5. Spend time with your advisor and the head of your department.
Get these people to help you hammer out a degree plan, preferably one that gives you a solid path of classes and internships to take each semester. They can also give you the lowdown on any departmental activities or special events happening. Need to get into a class that’s already full? Or want in on a competitive project abroad or present your research at a conference? These people can tell you the steps you need to take to get involved and can occasionally give you special permission to participate. They can also help you identify your strengths within your program and connect you with people higher up – or down – the totem pole.
6. Make sure you gain quantifiable skills.
Any time you can back experience with numbers, do so. Test scores and GPA’s are the most obvious examples of university-related bragging points. If you aced the GMAT, put it on your resume, or on your personal website where you publish all of your degree-related work. It will impress people. Also use numbers to quantify your non-test-related experience. Studying monkey behavior abroad in Costa Rica doesn’t sound nearly as impressive as “mapping the daily movement patterns of three groups of wild primates over a four week period across a ten mile area using triangulation.” Or your typical sales example of “increasing the university newspaper’s revenue by 24%, roughly $57,000, in six months, with personal monthly sales averaging $15,000.” Quantifiable skills are good for fleshing out resumes, and they give your professors and employers a more solid view of what you are capable of achieving.
While you’re in grad school, you will be writing constantly! Long gone are the days of shading in bubbles with number two pencils (or using a remote control in a giant auditorium to punch in “a, b, or c” along with several hundred other students). Put some of those newfound word crunching skills to use. Write as many articles or papers as you can (or have to) and submit them to as many magazines, journals, blogs, newspapers, and other publishing outlets as often as possible. Getting published goes hand in hand with making sure you gain quantifiable skills. Getting published will also help build your reputation as an engaged and reputable source in your field. Professors, department heads, and peers can often point you in the direction of these opportunities. If you work diligently and are lucky, professors sometimes include students as co-authors or contributors to their own published research.
8.Make solid connections with your professors and peers.
It’s a good idea to become friendly with your professors, in the truest meaning of the word. Not only are they experienced in the field you are being educated in (and enjoy seeing themselves as wellsprings of knowledge), they are also gatekeepers that can potentially help you make big strides in the academic and working worlds. In addition to grading your papers, your professors will be the ones writing job recommendations and suggesting those outlets for article publication. They often have peers they can link you too to broaden whatever opportunities you may be seeking. They can also help you get back on course if you get overwhelmed or bogged down in coursework. Most graduate professors are generally nice, nerdy people, and want to be helpful to their students. And of course you can’t go wrong building a network of peers. These people can be your support system, study buddies, research partners, and ears on the ground for job opportunities.
9. Line up a job prior to graduation.
Unless you are using your grad degree to level up within your company (which is very legitimate and one of the best reasons to go back to school), you will probably want or need a new job. Start building relationships with organizations (and the people already in them) that you would potentially want to work with now, months or years before you graduate. Internships and volunteer positions are great ways to get your foot in the door and get to know a company’s culture. Campus job fairs are also good times to scout the job market and practice interview skills. With a grad degree, you might want to try to remain as closely aligned to your chosen field as possible. Some employers will higher you prior to degree completion and allow you the flexibility to work while going to class, provided you stay in school and finish that degree. Setting the wheels in motion for having a job and income lined up after graduation will reduce some of your financial burden and also ease the stress of struggling to find post-grad employment. As far off as it seems, graduation will eventually come, usually faster than it seems. Because you have an advanced degree, you will stand out in the job market! Just be sure you can explain how that degree will benefit yourself and your potential employer because they will definitely want to know why you spent the time and money getting it.
10. Have fun!
It may sound hard to believe, but if you have read this far and are seriously considering grad school as an option, it can be very enjoyable. Just be smart and weigh your options. There is the potential downside of going into debt, not being able to find a job (in general or in your field of choice), and spending several long years in lecture halls. The upside is that the classes you take will generally be of great interest to you, the people you meet will be enthusiastic about learning, the work that you are doing will make you feel competent and accomplished, and after you complete grad school, hopefully you will have a badass job lined up! Good luck!
**** These tips can also be applied to undergraduate and technical programs.