As a career development professional, I’ve advised countless college students as they plan for careers in industry and academia. I encourage them to be brave and take risks when it comes to forging their paths after graduation. But when the topic of graduate school comes up in conversation, I look my students directly in the eye and ask a simple question:
“Are you ready for graduate school?"
As it turns out, it’s not a simple question for everyone. Sure, there are those students who have narrowed their academic focus and know precisely which master’s degree and PhD programs will help them achieve their goals. But there are others who stare back at me sheepishly or, quite frankly, scared.
Now, it’s not that any student needs my permission to apply to graduate school. But I’m not in the business of encouraging students to head off further into academia—and, presumably, more student debt—only to come out with more questions about their intended career paths than they have answers. So when students express interest in graduate school, I encourage them to be clear on their reasons for spending more time in school. Here are some additional questions I ask them:
It sounds like a softball question, right? You’d be surprised at the complicated answers I’ve received over the years. I once had a student whose response to this query was, “Well, if I get into School A, I’ll study X, and if I get into School B, I’ll study Y." Sorry, that’s not really how this whole graduate school thing is supposed to work. You already leave most of your fate up to admissions committee members when you submit your application. Why on Earth would you leave all of it up to them?
College is about exploration. Graduate school is about specialization. While it’s true that programs will vary from one school to the other, you need to settle on the subject matter first. If you can’t pinpoint a field of graduate study, then a gap year might be in order.
There’s no rule that says you have to go to graduate school right after college; in fact, for many students, it’s a good idea to wait. By working in the field, you’ll get a taste of the industry and be able to decide whether it’s a good fit for the long term. Better still, you’ll make yourself a more competitive graduate school candidate when you have professional experience in the field—not to mention there’s a good chance you’re employer will foot the bill to send you back to school.
This is a good question because it leads students into thinking about how to write their personal statements. At the very least, I hope the answer to this question is, “Because it interests me." That’s a great start, actually! But it’s not enough to convince graduate schools to invest their time and resources in you.
In the job search, It’s not uncommon for an employer to ask a job candidate, “Why do you want to work for this company?" So imagine graduate school is your employer. Why do you have a burning desire for advanced study? Whether it’s because you want to teach the subject at the college level, rise to management or executive level in your company, or take on some of the hardest-hitting questions and problems in your chosen field, you need to be decisive.
Now, if you’re headed off to be a doctor, dentist, veterinarian, lawyer (unless you are Kim Kardashian), teacher (depending on your state’s DOE regulations), or another specialized path that requires a graduate degree, you can skip this question. If not, then you need to ask yourself: Is a graduate degree a must-have or a nice-to-have?
Consider this: Just because a master’s degree program exists, it doesn’t mean you need one to get ahead in your field. That’s why it’s of vital importance for you to figure out if there are other ways that you can get to the next level in your skillset.
For example, a certification program might be more time- and cost-effective for you to enhance your qualifications. If it’s directly related to what you are currently doing in your work, your employer might even host a program for free, ensuring that your completion of the program will be recognized and (hopefully) rewarded.
I will admit that my own partially funded MFA in Creative Writing started off as a nice-to-have feather in my cap that morphed into a must-have degree by the end of my program. What began as a way to enhance my craft ended in a vital credential by graduation, as it opened the door to a dual career path not only as a writer and editor but also as an adjunct professor and higher education administrator.
Let me be clear: I am a huge fan of education—even when it’s just for personal goals and not professional ones. But we’re talking about graduate school. Unless you are independently wealthy or are getting fully funded by a school (in which case, hats off to you, my friend!), graduate school is expensive. It’s an investment of not only money but also time. Two years is the average for a grad program if you’re a full-time student, so keep in mind that this time period can go on for much longer if you intend to work and go to school part-time.
If four years of college seemed to go by in a flash, it’s because it did. Now imagine how fast a two-year master’s program will go. I’ve seen too many students finish their first year of graduate school, still unsure of how to proceed toward their career goals, and say, “Well, I’m halfway through, so I might as well finish." News flash: There’s no glory in finishing something just because you feel trapped.
If you feel you’re ready for graduate school, good for you. And if you don’t, good for you, too. Because a large part of your education, be it experiential or in the classroom, is becoming self-aware. So take your time. Take a gap year—or a few—to figure it out. Your future self will thank you.
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Barbara Bellesi Zito is a career development specialist at Rutgers University. Follow her on Twitter @BarbTheWriter.