Deciding If Graduate School Is Right For You
When determining your career goals and whether pursuing graduate school is right for you, some reflective questions to consider include:
- Which specific occupation or career field are you pursuing and are there any similar options or alternatives to your goals that you may want to explore?
- Is a graduate level education necessary to achieve your goals?
- How will you finance your graduate school experience?
- Would you benefit from first gaining more experience in a field prior to attending graduate school in order to establish a framework of industry knowledge and/or become more marketable once you graduate?
- What is the expected timeline for completing different programs and is time a major factor that will impact your decision?
- Will graduate school programs of interest require a practicum or internship component? Would completing one be feasible with your current availability or will significant adjustments need to be made?
- How many programs are you interested in and how many do you plan to apply to? Consider how selective and competitive the programs are, and determine the number of applications that will be necessary in order to maximize your opportunity of being accepted into a program of interest.
- Consider your values, interests, personality, and skills. Do these elements align with your intended program or area of study?
- Reflect on your own academic experience and talk to others including friends and family to get additional perspectives.
- Schedule an appointment with your career advisor at the Career Planning & Development Center to discuss your options.
Identifying Goals and Potential Alternatives
Explore and define your overarching career goals and the education requirements involved in reaching those goals. Certain career fields may require or be more aligned with a graduate degree and graduate level studies. It can be beneficial to use occupational and labor market tools such as O*Net Online and the Occupational Outlook Handbook to determine typical education requirements of certain positions within career fields. The following are goals that indicate that graduate school may be an appropriate choice for you:
- Academia: Your goals include conducting research or teaching at the post-secondary level.
- Administration/Management: You have significant experience, but would like to move into a managerial or leadership position within the same field.
- Advancement: You have several years of experience, but a graduate degree is the only way you will continue to advance within your chosen field.
- Career Change: You have experience in one career field, but want to move to another facet of your career or a completely different career path. If making a career change, note that gaining related experience during graduate school through an internship, or other employment will increase post-graduate marketability.
- Professional Licensure: Your career of choice requires you to have a graduate degree in order to be legally licensed to practice.
Examine Potential Alternatives
When considering pursuing graduate level studies and defining your goals, it may be helpful to first determine all possible paths towards reaching those goals. While graduate school will often serve as the most effective option, you may also be able to supplement your experience and further your professional development in a number of other ways:
- If there is a specific technical skill that would help you achieve your career goals, consider pursuing specialized training, professional development workshops, or utilizing digital training resources.
- If you determine that a lack of experience in a particular field is a significant hurdle in achieving your career goals, consider pursuing experiential learning opportunities through volunteering, completing an internship, or exploring the idea of taking a gap year.
- If you find that an underdeveloped contact network is preventing you from reaching your goals, consider joining a professional organization in your field, attending professional conferences, conducting informational interviews, or utilizing professional social media networking platforms such as LinkedIn.
Consider talking with others who have already completed the graduate program of interest or similar programs through informational interviewing. Ask questions and learn about their experiences to gather information to help determine if a particular graduate program might be a good fit based on your goals and objectives.
Use LinkedIn and the LinkedIn Alumni feature to uncover information about where graduates of different programs are currently employed, or have been employed in the past. Determine if those organizations share similarities to those included within your career goals.
Research Options and Programs
- Conduct research and evaluate different programs of interest. Review rankings of different institutions and programs through resources such as U.S. News and World Report, Peterson's, Princeton Review, and Gradschools.com.
- Talk to respected professionals to learn about the most reputable, high quality, and widely recognized programs within an industry. You may also want to reach out to current and former instructors, and academic or career advisors.
- Utilize professional association websites to search for reputable industry-related programs.
Graduate programs vary widely in terms of cost and course schedule. In addition to tuition, you will also need to purchase textbooks and supplies. As you research graduate schools, consider whether you are interested in a master’s or a doctorate program, a full-time or a part-time course schedule, or a day versus evening schedule.
Remember that it may be difficult or impossible to work during a full-time, day program, thus impacting your potential income. Some graduate programs offer graduate assistantships or research or teaching assistant roles that may subsidize a portion of your tuition costs. Investigate financial aid options by speaking with the Financial Aid Department at your school, or by visiting studentaid.ed.gov. Additionally, keep in mind that in some cases, aid may be distributed by the academic program itself, as well as the institution's Financial Aid department.
In addition to tuition, the process of applying to graduate school itself may present a significant financial cost as well. Application fees, transcript fees, and exam fees may be required, and these costs can add up. Make sure you are planning ahead and factoring in the financial component to the application process itself.
Location and Online Programs
You may find that your top choices in graduate school programs are located in another city, state, or country. Consider if you are willing to relocate if you are going to be targeting institutions within a certain geographic region.
Additionally, some graduate programs are based either partially or entirely online. If considering applying to programs that involve online coursework, take into account whether or not you have taken classes online in the past and your reception to engaging in online coursework. Did you find it to be a generally positive experience or do you feel that an in-person component is necessary for your education?
Engaging in graduate studies can be an exciting educational experience that provides valuable academic training and experience. As noted throughout this guide, there are many different factors to consider in graduate school decision making. Gather as much information about your potential options initially, so that you can feel confident in your choice and make the most informed decision moving forward. Helpful next steps in preparing for graduate school include:
- Identify your goal
- Determine a plan and timeline
- Research different programs and gather information by talking with others
- Prepare your application materials and complete necessary exams
For information regarding navigating the graduate school application process, please see the CPDC's Applying to Graduate School resource.