Is Graduate School Right for You?

by Sharon Elber

Whether to Go to Graduate School

Are you considering graduate school after graduating from your four-year degree? Or, perhaps you think grad school will help you advance in your profession or help you switch to a new career. If so, grad school may be for you.

However, going to graduate school is not just a way to put off the job search. It is a serious commitment that requires careful consideration.

Before deciding, make sure you have a reality-based vision of what to expect. Here are some of the things you need to know to make an informed choice:

1) Different Types of Graduate Programs

Not all graduate programs are the same. Before you start applying, make sure you know which type of program is right for your situation.

Profession Mandated Graduate Degrees

If you plan to be a medical doctor or lawyer, for example, an advanced degree is not optional. Rather, it is a required step in your career journey. Such programs tend to be highly competitive.

These types of advanced degrees tend to be highly structured and require either a residency or exams to successfully earn your degree. Expect to spend at least 60 hours a week attending classes, study groups, research hours, and other obligations. Work-life balance can be extremely challenging in these types of programs. Excellent time management skills will be essential.

Certification or Licensing Programs

Some disciplines require advanced licensing. For example, if you have a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, you may still need a certification as a Planning Engineer in order to advance in your career.

Many certification programs are administered through online, accredited programs. In most cases, your employer may include funding for advanced certification as part of their benefits package. In other cases, such as with teaching in most public schools, you will be expected to earn the appropriate certifications on your own prior to applying for jobs.

Terminal Degree Programs

Some graduate programs are designed around master and doctorate degrees required for advancement in specific fields. In general, these degrees are oriented towards the kinds of knowledge and experience you will need to perform well in managerial positions in a specific discipline. Sometimes they involve only coursework, and in other cases they may require exams or a thesis defense.

Generally speaking, terminal degree programs are geared towards people who have been working in their chosen field for several years who are ready to advance in their profession. Often classes are designed to accommodate people who are continuing to work while finishing their degree. For example, courses may be held during evening hours so working professionals can attend.

Academically Oriented Programs

Finally, academic programs are designed for students that intend to pursue a career in academia. That is, if you would love to be a professor in sociology or do scientific research at a university laboratory, then these are the types of programs to look into.

It is important to understand that academic graduate programs may not help you advance in the private sector. They run the risk of making you look “over qualified” to potential employers.

In addition, should you choose an academic path, you will need to earn both a masters and doctorate in order to advance within the ivory tower. Expect 5-7 years of graduate school, followed by another 5-7 years under pressure to research and publish in addition to teaching a full course load while you seek tenure at a university.

2) Funding Realities of Graduate School


Fellowships are a special type of scholarship that will pay for all or part of the expenses related to a graduate degree. In some cases, they are tied to an individual program through alumni support or a wealthy donor. In other cases, they are administered from nonprofit organizations or privately held funds that are not tied to a specific university or graduate program.

If you plan to apply for fellowships, make sure to start your planning early on in the process. In fact, once you have identified programs to apply to, you should start to at least consider the fellowships that might apply so that you factor that into your application process.

Research or Teaching Assistant

Most academic graduate programs reserve a certain number of funded positions for teaching or research assistants. If you are accepted with funding into such a program, you will receive money for a portion of your tuition, plus a monthly stipend, and in some cases, access to campus housing. In exchange, you will provide 20 hours of service in your department each week.

Service usually includes working with a professor on a research project or helping to grade papers and teach classes to undergraduates. You probably met such teaching assistants if you took chemistry at a research university, for example. They often teach the “recitation” or “lab” portion of the class. Chances are, they also did the bulk of the grading on your exams and papers.

Federal Financial Aid

Just like for undergraduate programs, there is federal student aid in the form of grants and loans that can help you pay for your advanced degree. The application process is similar and requires plenty of advanced planning.

Employer Support

In some cases, employers are willing to pay for all or part of the costs involved in pursuing advanced education in a field relevant to your profession. This is especially true in sectors where there are ongoing educational requirements to maintain licenses and certifications that are necessary for the job.

In highly technical disciplines, such as IT or engineering, it is common for employers to offer a certain amount of funding for continuing education so their employees stay up to date on the latest technology trends.

3) Graduate School Is a Very Different Experience

If you are expecting graduate school to feel like an extension of your undergraduate experience, think again. To decide if grad school is right for you, it is important to be aware of some key differences that might change your mind about pursuing a graduate degree, even if your four year college experience was ideal.

Anonymity Is Over

You may have thrived in an environment where you showed up in classes with 200 other students, studied on your own time, and turned in exams and papers without ever really getting to know your peers or instructors.

However, graduate programs are much smaller. You will likely be in classes with as few as 10 other students. You will be expected to think critically and show up prepared to discuss complex subjects and participate actively in your classes. You won’t be able to hide in the masses and skate by on academic performance alone.

In addition, you will be getting to know your professors on a much deeper level. You will be working with them closely, likely with research and teaching responsibilities that justify your stipend. There will likely be other service obligations in the department as well, such as attending social events, job talks, and lectures by visiting scholars.

The Pressure Is On

Depending on the type of program you choose, you can expect that there will be a significant amount of pressure to not only do well in your classes, but also make progress towards a thesis or dissertation, deliver papers at professional conferences, and even co-publish papers with your colleagues.

If you attend an academic program, your dissertation defense will include a full year of preparation in collaboration with an advisory committee. At the end, you will present a defense which will be attended by members of your program who will ask probing questions to be sure your research methods and findings meet the rigorous standards of academic scholarship.

On the other hand, terminal and certification programs often require a final exam or on-the-job residency experience to demonstrate that you have the required skills and knowledge to be awarded this advanced degree.

High Degree of Self Discipline Required

As an undergraduate, you may have been in a position to show up where told, check the box, and then turn your attention to the next assignment, most of which were handed to you.

Graduate school requires a fair bit more self-discipline and includes a whole lot less hand holding. You will be expected to be proactive about the various aspects of your progress towards degree, to actively seek help and guidance if you are not sure how to proceed, and even take a role in determining the specific areas of study you will focus on.

As such, graduate school requires a high degree of maturity and excellent time management skills. If you are not sure you are ready, you may decide that pursuing a work experience first may give you the perspective and appreciation of full-fledged adulthood that you need to succeed in grad school.

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