6 Simple Rules for Going to Graduate School
March 10, 2021
Think you're ready for grad school? Here's a six-question checklist to determine whether you're truly prepared for the challenges of advanced study.
Are you someone for whom graduate school seems the natural follow-up to undergraduate study? Perhaps you're one of those who would never give the question a second thought; "Well, of course I'm going to graduate school after I get my bachelor's. What else would I do?"
But not everyone is a great fit for graduate study—even those who are sure it is part of their future may not be ready yet… or ever. And those who aren't sure? How do they know whether investing the considerable time and money it costs to earn a graduate degree will serve their goals and, more importantly, fulfill their intellectual needs?
I've devised a six-question method for determining whether graduate school is right for you. If you can answer 'yes' to the six questions below, you're a go—break out the applications and get started on those personal essays. If you answer 'no' to one or more, you might want to consider more carefully whether now is the right time for you to take on such a big expense and responsibility.
Question 1: Do you have a goal for graduate school?
Why you are thinking about graduate study? Have a gameplan (which, by the way, is good advice for any endeavor, and a central principle of rational choice theory from the economics discipline). Your goals should be concrete, flexible, altruistic, and something you'd go through a brick wall to achieve.
Be passionate about your subject
"Why should someone get a Ph.D.?" asks Stanford University Professor of Italian History Paula E. Findlen."Go to graduate school because you want the experience… because you are curious and passionate about learning and want to acquire more academic skills; because you are unable to imagine yourself not doing this for some period of your life, regardless of what job(s) will come later."
She's right. You're going to dedicate a few years of your life to this project. It should not be done on a lark, or because you can't think of anything else to do, or because you need a job, or because you want to brag about how smart you are, or just because you like hanging around college life, something that critic Thomas H. Benton (a pseudonym for an English professor at a college in the Midwest), says occurs all too frequently for graduate school seekers.
In graduate school, Benton adds,"Most learning is unsupervised." Unlike your small liberal arts college, where professors called you to make sure you were OK when you missed class, no one is going to look over your shoulder and remind you to get that article revised. Your passion needs to drive you. If you don't already have it, you're unlikely to discover it suddenly as a grad student. In graduate school, you'll be among professors and fellow graduate students who are crazy about their area of interest. Will you fit into that community? If not, that's probably not where you're meant to be.
Think about others in your mission
Grad school is a grind. A struggle. And not worth going if you're doing it so you can correct people by saying "That's doctor, actually, because I have a Ph.D." Don't go to grad school if you're trying to be the smartest person in the room; that and $5 will get you a coffee at Starbucks.
But, if you're doing something for the greater good, like educating young minds, making a difference with your research, helping the community, that missionary zeal will carry you through the tough times.
Question 2: Are you financially ready?
Simple question: can you afford grad school?
Don't go to a school that doesn't offer you financial aid
There are many graduate programs that accept lots of folks without offering them funding, in an attempt to pump up their numbers and generate revenue. Watch out for those programs, which Findlen says "should be pressured (indeed embarrassed) into recalibrating their admissions policies."
These are the institutions that ultimately saturate the job market, creating roles for poor-pay adjuncts and driving full-time positions out of the field, a point Benton notes. A friend from the physical sciences tells me that her field typically won't accept graduate students without funding, and many social science programs like my doctoral program also refuse students whom they won't at least partially fund. The humanities may be catching on too, after resisting such change for decades.
Find other methods of funding
Be creative in how you secure funding for graduate school. Two different libraries (one at a university and another aw a law school) offered me jobs in case I didn't get funding; I would also have had the chance to conduct research in both cases (though, in the end, I was fortunate enough to be funded). Students can get funded by political organizations, the military, and possibly even your current employer.
The "find other funds" rule does not apply when it comes to graduate school in professional programs such as education (Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT), Master of Education (M.Ed)), business (MBA), healthcare, and more.
Some aid is available in these programs, but it shouldn't be a make-or-break for you; after all, professional graduate degrees should pay off with an increase in responsibility and pay at work after you graduate (that's not as sure a thing with academic degrees, unfortunately). You should insist on seeing some evidence that you'll receive a bump in pay for expending the time, effort, and money to increase your education in your field.
Question 3: Have you fully researched all the programs you are considering?
We've already discussed the need to find out whether students at your prospective program are receiving funding from the school. Here are a few more questions you should look into.
Where do recent grads work?
What are the students who graduated from the program doing? A major selling point for Florida State University's political science program for me, compared with other schools, was that it provided a long list of graduates and where they were currently working; the list was frequently updated. I do the same for our undergraduates when I try to persuade parents and prospective high schoolers seeking a good bachelor's program to attend LaGrange College.
Talk to professors and current graduate students
Don't just chat with graduate counselors. It's more important to talk to professors. After all, you're going to work with them for a few years, so you'd better see if you can stand them, and more importantly, if they can stand you.
Also talk to graduate students already at that program to see whether the brochure hype matches their reality. I talked to both for my graduate school search. A friend who didn't learned too late that her scholarship could be snatched away after a year (despite really good grades) and used as a lure for other prospective students; she had to work as a waitress while writing her thesis until she got a Fulbright Scholarship. A chat with students might have revealed that important piece of information.
Question 4: Do you have thick skin?
Be ready to face real challenges, work hard, and learn to take constructive criticism.
Graduate school is not a bed of roses
As Benton unflinchingly points out, grad school "can involve poverty-level wages,... contradictory demands by supervisors, irrelevant research projects, and disrespectful treatment by both the tenured faculty members and the undergraduates (both of whom behave, all too often, as management and customers)." In the end, there's no guarantee that all your hard work will result in a tenured position somewhere, or even an adjunct appointment.
You will likely enter graduate school with visions of monastic scholarship resulting in brilliant discoveries. The reality is a lot more mundane, and can be quite dispiriting. "Grad school is a confidence-killing daily assault of petty degradations," Benton cautions.
Be ready to work hard for what you love
It's not always quite so bleak as Benton's jeremiads indicate, according to Findlen. I largely agree with her, as I found the experience far more positive than negative. But there were days where graduate school was the hardest thing that I've done. Tough statistics courses, a divided committee, trying to work with struggling students at a state school, comprehensive exams, and having to write the monster dissertation all made for a huge, daunting struggle.
But at the time, I sensed that there was a good reason for much of it. Knowing what I know now, I'd gladly do it all over again. But you need to realize: it will be a challenge. Those who breezed through undergraduate years without having to study much or write much won't last long. It's like training for a marathon. If you put in the hard work, you might not succeed, but if you don't, you definitely will fail.
It's called constructive criticism for a reason
I know folks who think that they are geniuses. They can't stand hearing that they are wrong, they don't feel their work ever needs revision, and they don't like being told where the deficiencies in their learning are.
These people make poor graduate students. Some professors go a little overboard with the belittling, but most want you to do well. And the truth is, you don't know everything. At a minimum, your adviser or your tough professor has a doctoral degree, and you don't yet. Accept that you have much to learn, apprentice, and play along. You might pick up something valuable in the process.
Question 5: Have you developed your key skills?
Your key skills are the ones that will make you marketable after you complete your degree. These skills will also be valued in your graduate program, if you're in the right graduate program for your skill set. "Write and analyze better than the average college graduate, and you will see why a number of employers value that skill, too," argues Findlen."Know how to use technology in ways that are relevant to the skills you are developing as a scholar, being mindful that those skills might have other applications. In other words, look up on the scholarly path, but also look outward."
To review, you need to write well and learn analytical skills involving statistics and research. I would also add that you should learn how to present well, and embrace the new technology you're learning, even if it's optional. At a fundraiser for my wife's job, a prospective donor laughed when he asked what my degree was."What can you do with a political science degree?" I told about each of my research projects for class, and he gave me a business card, begging me to leave academia so I could work for him! I've had that happen to friends as well. Many academic skills are highly valued in the business world, it turns out.
Question 6: Are you ready to network?
The myth of the mad professor or the introverted scholar sequestered in an Ivory Tower spending all day thinking up theories and tests for experiments is just that…a myth.
A public position
Being a professor means you've got to be a shameless extrovert. From working with students and colleagues to interacting with the administration, donors, and the community (I've done all of these just in the last semester), most professors have a public position. You're expected to not just make small talk, but also communicate what it is that you do, and what's valuable to know.
Don't disdain teaching… or research
As a graduate student, your funding means you'll either be a teaching assistant or research assistant to start off with. I'd recommend doing both. Get good at doing both, or at least comfortable with each. I still give tips to some professors who like one of these two, but not the other.
Get good at networking
"Quick, what's your dissertation about?" my advisor said in a hallway ambush. When I stammered through a lame explanation of it, he told me that I'd need to be much better in one-on-one interactions, especially on job visits. Boy was he right. Even in academia, you need an elevator pitch.
Such personal connections are also important for working with your dissertation adviser, communicating with fellow graduate students who could be co-authors, or other professors. With that in mind, be prepared to network at campus events and conferences to build up a list of valuable contacts and colleagues.
If you answered 'yes' six times, you're ready for grad school
Finally, if you've prepared for all of these, graduate school can be a very rewarding experience. But remember, that experience can quickly turn dystopian if you haven't followed some simple rules. Make a plan. Find the money. Study the schools like a hawk. Expect a strong challenge. Learn a variety of communication, analytical, and technological skills. And become a bit of a people person too. Armed with those, you too can discover why some give up years of their life to study something that they love.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. He can be reached at email@example.com. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.
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