General Education

6 Signs You’re Not Ready for Grad School

6 Signs You’re Not Ready for Grad School
To grad school or not to grad school? Only you can answer. Image from Unsplash
Mairead Kelly profile
Mairead Kelly October 29, 2019

When done on a whim, grad school is an all too easy way to funnel ample time and money into something that, in the long run, may not be so worthwhile after all.

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"Should I go to graduate school?" is up there with questions like "Should I have children?" or "Would bangs work for me?" All have the potential to result in a decision that has a significant impact on your life. These questions also depend on your personal goals, whether you want to raise a happy, healthy kid in a stable home or, in the right light, bear a passing resemblance to Jane Fonda's 1970s mugshot.

When done on a whim, grad school is an all too easy way to funnel ample time and money into something that, in the long run, may not be so worthwhile after all. However, grad school can also be an academic and professional game-changer for students—and open doors that they'll appreciate now and in the long run. What causes different outcomes? Often, how seriously students think about taking the plunge.

Here are a few ways to know whether you're ready to pursue a graduate program in the not-so-distant future, or if you should spend more time considering your professional plans.

1. You're still exploring career paths.

Maybe you became passionate about a field of study late in college or are looking for a way to change your career. Or maybe, you don't have a plan at all. In any case, you're hardly alone. But grad school isn't exactly the best place to figure your future out.

Not spending enough time thinking seriously about the field you want to pursue is an easy way to rush into grad school, and regret it. The good news is that with research, the mistake is easily preventable.

For one, the Internet exists, and offers ample information on everything from earnings, to potential companies and organizations to work for, and even the best personality types suited to a given industry. Informational interviews are a thing too, and while they might require a bit more work up front, they'll offer an inside scoop on the typical career paths and experiences in an industry, graduate school included.

2. You don't have a precise idea of what you want to study.

Even if you have landed on a particular field and know that a master's degree will be beneficial to it, it's possible to find hundreds, or even thousands, of schools offering related programs. This variety makes it crucial that you understand the appropriate training you need, as well as the type of specialist you want to become.

Take a Master of Social Work (MSW) students, for example, who often choose specialized programs in different areas of the field. An MSW program highlighting community social work might offer “macro"-focused classes like policy, community organizing, and government services, as well as field placements with community or government agencies.

Students seeking careers in substance abuse counseling will also pursue MSW degrees, but they look for programs offering courses like pharmacology and assessment and treatment, as well as supervised training at treatment centers and other related facilities. By choosing programs tailored to their desired practice areas, students can be certain that they'll gain the expertise skills to be most effective for the populations they serve.

Knowing exactly what you want to study is not only crucial to which program you choose, but your success in it. You'll be less frustrated, more productive, and curb the sense that you might not actually use your degree—or finish it at all.

3. You haven't taken stock of a potential financial impact.

If you recently sold a startup for millions, or are a descendant of European nobility, feel free to skip this question. For the rest of us, a master's degree comes with an average debt of $66,000 and a staggering $94,000 when combined with the average undergraduate debt. With this in mind, your readiness for grad school may boil down to return on investment.

The Bureau of Labor (BLS) reports that in 2019, people with a master's degree earn a median $12,232 per year more than those with a bachelor's degree alone. Factor in your earnings at your first job after graduate school and student loan debt and you may not see a pay bump right away.

What’s more, while many of the most secure jobs require master's degrees, BLS indicates that people with a bachelor’s degree experience slightly lower unemployment rates than those with graduate-level education.

So, if you’re considering grad school primarily for the money, be sure to factor in lower initial pay, the prospect of paying off loans for years, and the slight risk that you may be overqualified for specific jobs.

4. You don't deal with stress in a healthy way.

According to a survey by the American College Health Association, 59 percent of graduate and professional students experienced above-average levels of stress during the 2016-2017 academic year. Another study from Harvard University indicated that graduate students are over three times more likely than the average American to experience mental health disorders and depression.

From impostor syndrome to constant deadlines and diets dictated by vending machines, graduate school presents serious challenges to students’ mental and physical health. Add in the financial strain, complicated relationships with advisers and peers, and the balance of school and everything outside of it, and it's enough to make anyone think twice about their plans.

The overwhelming majority of prospective grad school students know that an advanced program will be challenging in all kinds of ways, and the occasional bout of anxiety and self-doubt is healthy. But if you don't have the coping skills to manage peak moments of stress, there's a lesser chance you'll be able to handle what the experience could throw your way.

5. You're unsure if you've chosen the right program.

If you've already landed on a field and a particular subfield within in it, great. But what about your program? Whether you consider this a big deal or no deal whatsoever, choosing the right program will have a significant impact on your experience as a graduate student.

Consider your peers. The difference between a good master's program and a great one could mean studying with a cohort you can tolerate, at best, versus advancing in a program alongside people you enjoy spending time with on a personal and professional level. What about program delivery? A good program may meet most of your criteria but operate on a schedule that makes balancing school with your personal life impossible, while a great program may be flexible enough to fit into your already-busy day-to-day.

The criteria to consider when searching for the right program is a long one, and only you will know which factors matter most. By failing to figure out what those are, you'll lose sight of how different schools and programs stack up against one another—and be less likely to find the one that best satisfies what you’re looking for.

6. You don't have a plan for after graduation.

You don't need to have a step-by-step plan for life after grad school, but you should have a general idea of how you’ll make use of your degree in an industry—or while continuing on to a doctoral program.

Even graduate students considering master’s programs to advance their current careers will need to know that a graduate degree isn’t a guaranteed path to securing the elusive promotion or salary bump they’ve always desired. Will any additional certifications or training be necessary? How will you use the momentum of a graduate program to leverage high-level professional opportunities?

Those who plan to start in a field after graduate school will also need a basic post-graduation strategy, which can take shape before and during your program. For starters, consider how you'll take advantage of the career services and networking opportunities available at your school. If your work experience is limited, which professional organizations can you join during your program to show commitment to your field? You should make a note of the skills and experience potential employers want from candidates and develop a plan to acquire those before grad school loans kick in.

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