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Graduate School Guide & FAQs

Graduate School Guide & FAQs
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Noodle Staff March 22, 2024

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Despite a recent surge in job growth and a record low in employment across the U.S., competition for even entry-level corporate roles isn’t exactly a cakewalk. On average, each corporate job offer attracts 250 resumes. Of those candidates, four to six will get called for an interview and only one will get the job.

But at highly competitive companies, the inflow of resumes isn’t exactly the norm. Tech giant Google fields two million applicants a year. In 2019, Amazon received more than 200,000 applications for 30,000 open positions across the company’s corporate offices, fulfillment centers, and stores. American management consulting firm McKinsey reportedly accrues more than one million applications annually—and hires less than 1 percent of them.

Meanwhile, as the number of students enrolled in undergraduate education continues to rise, the sentiment that bachelor’s degrees are losing value is, too. A report from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that more than one-third of Americans aged 25 or older had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2017. The findings are a sharp rise from roughly a quarter who had a college degree in 2000—and the 17 percent who did in 1980.

Given these facts, it’s not surprising that more Americans are seeking out graduate school to gain a competitive edge in the job market. To prove it, the U.S. Census Bureau notes that despite a decline of 2.2 million students in overall postsecondary school enrollment from 2011 to 2018, during the same time frame, student enrollment in graduate and professional programs in the U.S. increased 8.1 percent.

According to a 2017 survey from employment site CareerBuilder of over 2,300 hiring and human resource managers across the private sector, employers may play a role in the education bump. In it, 33 percent of employers reported hiring more workers with master’s degrees in 2016 for positions that had been primarily held by those with a four-year degree, compared to 27 percent the previous year.

While you shouldn’t let industry statistics be your sole motivation for pursuing a master’s degree or a Ph.D., advancing your education can nearly guarantee a variety of factors to help you thrive in your career. At the same time, the decision to enter a graduate program isn’t one to be taken lightly.

Aspiring students take note: Grad school is anything but a continuation of college. By being aware of the contrasts, you’ll lessen the chances of being blindsided by the time, commitment, and energy that master’s programs are known to demand—and boost your chances of success in the long run.

Applicant evaluation

Most prospective college students are required to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or the American College Testing (ACT). For a given student, these test scores are typically submitted to their chosen schools along with their high school transcript, a school-specific application, and an essay on a topic that’s relevant to their academic goals as well as their personal profile. Some schools may also require letters of recommendation.

Those pursuing graduate programs will need a bachelor’s degree and, in most cases, an undergraduate transcript highlighting a grade point average (GPA) that’s in-line with their program of choice. They may also need to submit their Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores along with letters of recommendation, and participate in admissions interviews.

Somewhat similar, right? Not exactly, especially when considering how competitive graduate school applicant pools can be. Part of this is because while there are a lot fewer people applying to graduate school than college, there are also a lot fewer graduate programs than bachelor’s programs.

Additionally, although graduate admissions committees are just as concerned about building “the right kind of class” as undergraduate admissions officers are, they must scrutinize applicants far more seriously to make sure they’re sufficiently ready for what’s typically anywhere from two to seven years of graduate-level work.

Academic focus

The college curriculum provides students with a broad educational perspective with general education courses in a wide variety of subjects. While these courses and their mandated credit hours vary between schools, they tend to include:

  • English
  • Math
  • Natural science
  • Social science
  • Arts and humanities
  • Culture

At most undergraduate institutions, general education courses that fall within a student’s major can be used to satisfy demands for both general education and the subject they’re completing a degree in. Students typically declare their major is at the end of sophomore year and allocate between a third and half of their courses towards completing it.

In short, the undergraduate curriculum helps students hone their vocabulary and writing skills, learn to think critically, and explore a range of cultural perspectives. No matter the school, it ultimately stands an opportunity for them to grow personally and intellectually while laying the groundwork for their future careers.

On the other hand, since graduate students are typically required to declare their specialization before enrolling in a program, they tend to start grad school laser-focused on courses to provide specific career-building outcomes and skillsetsd. Additionally, students may also spend a portion of their program performing research within a particular aspect of their field and completing independent reading and study.

Ultimately, the graduate school curriculum requires students not only to think critically about their discipline but to become experts in it, and apply their skills in ways that contribute to their academic community and introduces new knowledge to their field.

Workload

A rule of thumb holds that college students should devote two hours of study time per week for every hour of class time. Students following this standard with a full-time course load of, say, fifteen credit hours should spend thirty hours per week studying. Basic time management, right?

Not exactly. Back in 2014, USA Today reported findings from a survey conducted by the National Survey of Student Engagement. The firm found that the average college student spends about 17 hours each week preparing for classes, which includes homework, reading, and other assignments.

Another survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that the average full-time undergraduate student spends just 3.3 hours a week on educational activities.

With these findings in mind, students who made it through college giving just a fraction of their time to coursework are in for a shock in a master’s or Ph.D. program, where school is treated as a full-time job. While little research has been done to highlight how much time graduate students put towards their coursework and preparing for courses, their programs require them to take initiative for their learning, which includes extensive reading material and in-depth discussions surrounding it.

Classmate age range

According to a report from The Hamilton Project, the majority of students at both four-year and two-year nonprofit institutions in 2015 were between the ages of 18 and 24.

In contrast, graduate cohorts tend to encompass a wider age range—and may be getting older. Data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey states that the average graduate student is 33 years old while 20 percent of graduate students are over the age of 40.

As a graduate student, you may find that some of your classmates just recently completed a bachelor’s degree while others are years or even decades into a career. A few might have spouses and kids or be close in age to your professors.

Given the range of experience your classmates will likely have, they may be able to help you gain perspective on your career goals by introducing you to members of their professional network or offering input based on their time in the field.

Independence

In a traditional college setting, a great deal of importance is commonly placed on campus life and engaging students to get involved with student groups, sports, and other activities. Academic advisors are also there to provide intensive support to students as they explore their academic interests, identify resources for additional information and support, and develop plans of study that are appropriate for their educational goals.

Because most students either commute to their school or complete their graduate coursework online, they tend to have fewer occasions for social interaction outside of class, making for less involvement with campus life overall. However, it’s common for professors and students within a department to get to know one another well, and develop a sense of each others’ values, skills, and character.

Graduate courses and research are also more self-directed. While many undergraduate professors provide constant deadlines for big projects, some graduate professors may set a single deadline for a paper—which could very easily be the only official assignment they give in a single semester. And while resources are readily available in areas like academic advising it’s generally up to students to ask about or seek them out.

Student loan debt

The average college tuition cost at public and private institutions may be increasing at a steady pace each year, but it may be graduate schools that need more time in the student loan spotlight.

According to a 2020 report form American research group Brookings, the 25 percent of student borrowers who went to graduate school make up half of America’s $1.5 trillion worth of outstanding student loan debt. The 75 percent of student loan borrowers who took out loans to go to two- or four-year colleges account for the other half of outstanding student loan debt.

Financing a graduate education is also a hurdle due to the amount students pay after discounts and financial aid, which the Urban Institute expects is growing steeper. In 2018, the research firm reported that the average net price of postsecondary degrees has increased nearly twice as fast for graduate students as their undergraduate peers between 2006 and 2016.

In addition to grad school’s academic demands, it’s expected for aspiring grad students to be concerned about the cost of their education and the debt they may accumulate to pay for it. In this case, it’s crucial that you consider employment and salary prospects after grad school, and whether the cost of attending grad school will benefit you enough professionally to recoup the costs in the long run.

(Written by Mairead Kelly)

Did you know that U.S. universities are on track to award roughly 837,000 master’s degrees this year? The numbers are impressive, that’s certain, but the growth of students seeking out graduate programs across the country is nothing new.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the U.S. labor force has become increasingly educated over the last several decades. From 1992 to 2016, the share of the labor force made up of people with an advanced degree grew by 5 percent. By 2016, 11 percent of the labor force had a master’s degree.

So, why the uptick? Many connect the rise of graduate students to the growing sentiment that bachelor’s degrees are becoming increasingly inessential as more students graduate from college. In some industries, a bachelor’s may be enough to prove a candidate’s worth, but it may take a master’s degree to rise to the top of an applicant pool—especially in the case of job descriptions that include “bachelor’s required, master’s preferred.”

The many benefits of a master’s degree should also be considered, whether taking into account their necessity among some of the fastest-growing occupations or their ability to help students form professional connections to use throughout their careers.

Those who have completed graduate programs are also slightly more likely to benefit from job security. The BLS reports that in 2018, bachelor’s degree holders faced an unemployment rate of 2.2 percent, while unemployment for people with master’s degrees held at 2.1 percent. A minuscule difference, until you clock the size of the American workforce, which was comprised of an estimated 155.76 million that same year.

Why master’s programs are going as strong as ever is more or less a no-brainer, particularly for students who feel confident knowing they’ve laid out a plan for the next steps of their careers. But what about students who want to return to graduate school for another degree?

In short, the decision to complete two master’s degrees—and not to mention, put ample time, money, and effort into doing so—guarantees a lasting impact on your life and career. And though it certainly isn’t odd to have a pair of graduate-level diplomas under your belt, acquiring them will come with a collection of perks and pitfalls you’ll need to think through.

Benefits of Two Master’s Degrees

A Ph.D. is within reach

If you have a master’s degree and want to pursue a Ph.D. at some point in your career, you may find that your top doctorate program makes a second master’s degree mandatory.

This is because while some Ph.D. programs only accept students with master’s degrees in the program’s specific area of study, others design their programs for students to earn a combined master’s and Ph.D. Meaning, as an applicant with an existing master’s degree, you’ll have to earn a second in your doctorate program.

This pursuit is particularly feasible for students who receive Ph.D. funding through sources like scholarships, grants, and fellowships to finance their education. Unlike master’s programs, most Ph.D. tracks offer students partial or full funding for their studies and many even pay them a stipend on top of a tuition waiver, making a second master’s degree more feasible than completing it on its own.

In a move to reduce Ph.D. program timelines and attrition, some schools are even changing their approach to funding. The University of Chicago, for example, which introduced a framework in 2016 that guarantees full funding to doctorate students in the humanities, social sciences, divinity studies, and social service until they graduate, with no limits—save they stay in good academic standing.

Enhanced job opportunities

It’s no secret that employers favor candidates who show a desire to learn—and with two master’s degrees in hand, you’ll easily be able to demonstrate your hunger for doing that in a professional setting.

What’s more, it’s likely that two advanced degrees can enhance your chances of getting noticed in a crowded applicant pool, especially when applying to jobs in a field like social work, psychology, education, and medicine, where most, if not all, candidates have a master’s degree of their own.

Those with two master’s degrees in entirely different areas may have an upper hand in the job market too, especially for candidates seeking positions in either of the two fields they studied in graduate school. For this group, backing from two master’s degrees is somewhat similar to the credentials gained through a dual master’s program.

For example, a master’s in business administration (MBA) and a master’s in public health may open doors to a career in hospital administration. Meanwhile, a master’s in curriculum and instruction incorporated with a master’s in software engineering could be the winning combination to land a senior instructional design role.

Practical for career-changers

It’s never too late to get a jumpstart on a new career, and for many, a second master’s degree is a fail-proof way to embrace a new role within their organization or a different professional field altogether.

It’s also not unheard of for people to enroll in grad school during a career rut and occasionally, without a real plan. Others may come to learn that the reality of the degree program or field doesn’t match their expectations.

If you’re still passionate about your work but no longer interested in the types of jobs commonly available to it, a second master’s degree may help you apply your passion in a different or more specialized way.

If you’re a current or recent graduate student who’s changed your mind about your chosen path, heading back to graduate school may stand as an opportunity to pivot into a new field, especially if the field you’re banking on requires graduate-level training.

Potential salary increase

Yes, two graduate degrees will make you more well-rounded, help you hone high-level skills, and possibly qualify you for a greater number of jobs. But will it increase your earning potential?

According to the BLS, graduates with a bachelor’s degree earned a median weekly wage of $1,198 in 2018, while those with a master’s degree earned $1,434 in the same time frame.

Though the BLS’s findings prove that a master’s degree generally lays the groundwork for a salary increase, little research has been done on the impact of two master’s degrees on earnings. At the same time, certain master’s degrees come with the near guarantee of lucrative pay, which may motivate your first or second lap around graduate school—and your choice of which degree you’ll put to work in your career.

__The ten top-paying master’s degrees, listed by national average annual salary:__

  • Nursing anesthetics: $176,386
  • Information technology: $121,769
  • Business administration: $114,083
  • Finance: $108,518
  • Software engineering: $107,366
  • Nursing: $107,076
  • Electrical engineering: $104,119
  • Statistics: $104,009
  • Physicians assistant: $103,648
  • Economics: $94,319

Disadvantages of Two Master’s Degrees

Chance of overqualification

There are many reasons to give thought to a job you’re overqualified for, whether to switch industries, opt for a less stressful workload, or focus on a company with a mission you support. But when applying to entry- or associate-level positions, it can be challenging to be taken seriously with a master’s degree—let alone two.

A hiring manager in this situation may be concerned about the chances you’ll find something that better matches your training and expertise, and consider leaving their organization after it’s invested time and money into on-the-job training. It’s also typical for employers to assume that if you have more education than the job requires, your target salary is probably higher than the role offers.

Cost

The most available recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) indicates that the average student loan debt was $66,000 for graduate students in 2015-16. That same year, 60 percent of students completed a master’s degree program with debt, compared to the 47 percent of students who completed their program with debt in 1999-2000.

Here’s how average debt stacks up for graduates with specific master’s degrees:

  • MBA: $51,000
  • Master’s of education (any): $62,000
  • Master’s of arts (except in education): $59,000
  • Master’s of science (except in education): $56,000
  • Master’s of public administration or policy, social work, fine arts, public health, or other: $70,000

The type of school you attend also affects your level of debt as well. For example, students who completed a master’s at a public college or university in 2015-2016 pulled in an average student loan debt of $54,500. That number increased to $71,900 at private nonprofit and $90,300 at private for-profit institutions.

Additionally, despite the benefits of online master’s programs, it’s unfair to assume they’re more financially feasible than their traditional counterpart. As Jeff Olson, Associate Provost for online learning and services at Saint Johns University, puts it in a 2013 U.S. News and World Report article, “Some online programs are more expensive and some are less expensive, but in general they are the same price.”

While you have little control over the cost of two master’s degrees, you do have a say in whether adding to any existing student loans are worth it. In the end, it’s up to you to think critically about the financial undertaking that is returning to graduate school—and the degree of student loan debt you can live with.

Time commitment

Master’s programs can vary from intensive, full-time programs that take only a year to complete to part-time programs that can take several years or longer. Like any master’s degree, a second master’s will take a considerable amount of time, especially for students who have full-time jobs, families to care for, or other obligations.

What’s more, tacking on additional time in graduate school may detract from the combination of theoretical and practical skills that employees typically want candidates to have. More significantly, a second master’s degree may hinder your chances of acquiring the professional experience that employers increasingly look for while hiring.

According to a report on recruitment statistics for hiring top talent in 2020, 82 percent of recruitment professionals say they view candidates’ experience as very or extremely important.

At the same time, the importance of training gained through higher education may be slowly taking a back seat. Recruitment industry trends show that 36 percent of employers are lowering their education and experience requirements, while 33 percent look to recruit from outside the traditional talent pool.

(Written by Mairead Kelly)

Tuition can cost roughly $30,000 per year for a public institution, and about $40,000 each year at a private school. Beyond that, grad students often need to pay for housing, food, health insurance, books, and other expenses. Plus there’s the opportunity cost of attending grad school in the first place.

If you aren’t careful, getting through grad school can put you in serious financial debt. Here are some ways you can save money to finance your further education.

1. Find free money.

There are tons of scholarships and grants out there for students pursuing a graduate education. You can search for specialized financial help for someone of your ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, or professional field.

2. See if you are eligible for tax deductions and credits.

There are several deductions that you can get on your taxes for expenses related to higher education. For example, if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is less than $75,000, you may be qualified for the Student Loan Interest Deduction, which can reduce the amount of your taxable income by up to $2,500.

You may also be able to deduct certain education-related expenses.

Another option you can explore is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC or EIC). This credit, for those with low to moderate income, can be about $500 for an individual who meets the eligibility criteria.

For more information on tax breaks for graduate students, look on the IRS Tax Benefits for Education website.

3. Live with your parents.

Whether you lived with your parents during or after pursuing your bachelor’s degree or haven’t been back since high school, moving back home is a great way to save money.

To establish a mutually beneficial relationship, offer to help out with some of the bills, and pitch in around the house. While living at home may not be your ideal situation, it’s a great way to save on rent and can offer a more conducive environment for studying.

4. Work while in grad school.

There are lots of job opportunities that can also serve to further your grad school education. You can find ways to put your knowledge into practice while also earning money — whether you’re pursuing paid internships, tutoring gigs, or teaching or research assistant positions.

A job that is unrelated to your field can still help make a dent in your expenses. For example, delivering pizza or working as a customer service representative at a local retailer can bring in some much-needed cash. If you worked part-time for 25 hours a week at a job that pays you $14 per hour, you’d generate $22,400 of income over the course of two years of grad school (based on two 16-week semesters per year). This money can, in turn, be used to offset grad school tuition, or it can help you reduce (or start paying back) your loans.

5. Trim your budget.

This is where you have to get creative. From negotiating your utilities rates to buying groceries in bulk, there are lots of steps you can take to reduce your expenses. For more ideas, read Money Crasher’s 25 Easy Ways to Save Money on a Tight Budget Today.

6. Set aside all cash gifts and found money.

If you get a cash gift on your birthday or during the holidays, put it toward grad school expenses. If you recently filled out a mail-in rebate form for some cash back on a computer software purchase, set aside that money, too. It all adds up.

7. Be smart about your textbooks.

Do not buy your grad school textbooks at the campus bookstore — that’s where you’ll pay the most. First, check out your school or local library to see if you can borrow the books you need for the semester. You may also be able to find free downloads of select college textbooks on websites like Project Gutenberg.

You can look into renting your textbooks from Chegg or buying used ones on eBay or Amazon. Finally, SlugBooks is a website you can use to compare the cost of a textbook sold by different providers to ensure you get the best deal on your books. When you’re done with a given book — assuming you won’t need it again in the future — you can also resell it online or to an incoming student. There’s just no need to pay through the nose — or not to recoup money — for college textbooks when there are so many cost-saving opportunities.

8. Avoid Campus Health Insurance

Under the Affordable Care Act, college students can stay on their parents’ health insurance plans until the age of 26. If you can be on a parent’s insurance, take advantage of this, and avoid the cost of campus health insurance.

9. Do Not Use a University Debit Card

Many universities now offer a debit card you can use for college purchases. There are often few or even no limits placed on what you can use your available student loan or financial aid money for. Plus, there are usually lots of fees, such as a monthly maintenance fee, an inactivity fee, and a charge for using an ATM. Don’t take the bait; it’s not worth it.

10. Look into a part-time or accelerated program.

Sometimes, the best way to save money on grad school is to look for alternative programs. Enrolling in a part-time graduate school opportunity can give you the time to work at a full-time job and finance your degree. An accelerated program, such as a one-year MBA, can help you finish school faster and save on your degree.

Final Thoughts

According to Census Bureau data, when you compete your master’s degree, you can earn as much as $400,000 more than someone with a bachelor’s degree over the span of your life.

Because this is over the course of a lifetime, however, in the beginning, you may not realize any huge financial benefits. Therefore, if you fail to save for and effectively finance grad school, you may find yourself with insurmountable student loan debts. Be smart with your money, and you’ll have a lot less stress in the future.

(Written by John Lot)

You may not have considered studying abroad for graduate school — but it is a viable option for a wide variety of fields.

The Benefits of International Experience

As the U.S. job market becomes increasingly competitive, the demand for employees with international experience is swiftly growing. Studying abroad in graduate school can give young professionals an attention-grabbing edge when applying for jobs, especially in fields such as international relations, business, or communications.

Unlike undergrad study-abroad programs, for which students tend to report self-discovery and cultural immersion as their top takeaways, graduate study-abroad programs are much more academically-driven and subject-focused. Grad school study-abroad programs often center on field research — so choosing the right location is a key priority for students (think access to labs, libraries, and other academic facilities).

Most grad study-abroad programs are taught in English, so foreign-language fluency is rarely a requirement. Since most programs are offered through grad students’ home universities, the abroad components are tailored to fit with the rigorous schedules and heavy academic commitments to which students are already accustomed.

How to Fit Studying Abroad Into Your Curriculum

Short-term study abroad opportunities are an increasingly popular and attainable way for graduate students to enhance their studies and mix things up while pursuing an advanced degree. MBA programs and law schools both have very active study-abroad markets. MBA students are typically offered the opportunity to study abroad during the summer between their two years of study, while law students are encouraged to study abroad after their first year and to pursue an internship in the U.S. after their second year.

About half of U.S. medical school programs also offer some kind of study-abroad option. Most of these last about a month and do not interfere with academic requirements or delay the pursuit of a degree. The short-term nature of these programs provides a great opportunity for students to immerse themselves in a focused goal or topic (field research, thesis work, or internships) while still getting to experience cultural immersion.

How to Arrange the Logistics

Program logistics depend on the country as well as the school or provider. Many study-abroad programs will offer housing accommodations, but if you’re heading abroad for an internship, you may be on your own when it comes to arranging a place to stay.

We recommend creating a list of everything you are responsible for coordinating — visas, housing applications, emergency contacts, financial aid, and so on — to help keep you on track as you prepare to go abroad. Your graduate school or home university’s study-abroad office can also help advise you on finding housing, applying for a visa, and finalizing your academic and travel arrangements.

Longer-Term Study-Abroad Options

There are two ways you can study abroad as a graduate student. First, you can enroll in a U.S. graduate program and then study abroad as you fulfill your degree requirements, as described above. If your graduate school doesn’t provide many short-term study-abroad options, or if you are seeking a more immersive international experience, you also have the option to pursue your entire degree at a foreign university. Foreign programs are often cheaper and shorter (and cheaper because they’re shorter) than U.S. grad school programs.

Graduate schools in many locations want to create an international student body, so they make an effort to admit students from a variety of countries. Depending on which career or field of study you’re pursuing, a foreign degree can give you a competitive advantage when applying for jobs. Plus, you have the added benefit of exploring a new place and experiencing its local culture for an extended period of time!

Just keep in mind that at a foreign university, the support systems in place for grad students are tailored to that country’s job market. (In other words, if you plan to return to the U.S. after graduating, the career guidance you receive may not be as relevant to you as it would be to local students.) Do your research ahead of time, and identify the kinds of academic and career supports you will need; stay regularly connected to your professors, advisors, and career office so they understand your situation and can help you with your goals.

How to Pay for Graduate Study Abroad

Don’t worry! There are plenty of grants, scholarships, and other financial aid opportunities specifically for graduate students pursuing higher education studies abroad. Fulbright, Gates-Cambridge, and Marshall and Rhodes Scholarships (to name a few) offer the chance to study for free at some top international institutions. Follow this link to check out a few other funding sources.

Whether you’re studying in the U.S. or abroad, you should consider filing a free FAFSA form. The FAFSA website includes a list of all international schools that participate in the U.S. Federal Student Loan Program. You can also find additional information on federal grants and other aid programs on the Student Aid site.

What to Do If You Want a Post-Grad International Experience Without Committing to Grad School

If you’re convinced you want to study abroad, but not convinced that grad school is the right choice for you, that’s no problem! Consider teaching English abroad or volunteering for an international service organization. These programs still provide a unique learning opportunity, help you stand out in the job market, and broaden your global perspective. Many short-term international volunteer programs will provide housing, food, and international insurance in exchange for your work.

How to Get Started

Looking for a place to start your search? Consider the Abroad101 directory of short-term grad school programs or Noodle’s study abroad search.

Whatever you choose, and however you pursue it, don’t forget the most important part about graduate school study abroad — you get to experience a new culture, challenge yourself, and see the world in a new way!

Happy travels!
You may not have considered studying abroad as a graduate student, but there are opportunities in many fields. Whether you’re an aspiring doctor, lawyer, businessperson, or scholar, there are exciting (and perhaps unexpected) education options abroad.

(Written by Abroad 101)

As someone who teaches high school full-time and attends graduate school in the evening, I am aware of the plight of the working student.

The days are dedicated to our jobs and the nights to our studies. This leaves little room for housework, relationships, or rest.

If you’re like the millions of working students trying to juggle it all, you need a plan. Here are five tips that can help you achieve work-school-life balance:

1. Work out a schedule.

Setting an agenda for the week can help you organize the various demands of work, school, and home life. Knowing what you’ll do each day will help you make steady progress on your seemingly insurmountable workload. Get into the habit of making a to-do list. Nothing feels quite as satisfying as crossing off a task once it’s completed.

Be careful: Squeezing too much into one day could overwhelm an already busy schedule. If you have class one night, try not to overburden yourself with more work when you get home. Use that time to decompress, and pick up with your studies the following day.

2. Relax.

The stressors of working life abound. Adding graduate studies to the demands of your commute, your boss, and your bills can make relaxation seem infeasible. Still, you need to make relaxing a priority and refuse to surrender the things you love to do. For me, exercise is a release I need to keep me level-headed. I factor this in when I schedule my week. If this means an hour less of studying, that’s OK. Know what keeps you balanced, and commit to preserving its place on your agenda.

3. Make quality use of your time.

It’s essential to make the best use of your already limited time. Get more out of each hour by limiting distractions. If you’re a compulsive Facebook checker, like I am, leave your laptop in the other room while you read for class. If you’re really feeling motivated, take your work to a local café. This way, you won’t be distracted by the housework you still need to get around to.

4. Learn to say no.

We want to do it all, but we can’t. Of course you want to help your friend move or begin writing that novel you’ve been planning. It’s important to remember, however, the immediate goal of finishing grad school in a timely and relatively stress-free manner. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or like you can’t take on another task, simply saying “no” may provide the relief you need.

5. Ask for help.

Finishing grad school is a long road. You don’t have to go at it alone. Team up with family members, friends, and classmates to share some of the burden. Ask for help with household chores as you study. If you can’t make it to class, reach out to a classmate to ask about sharing notes.

The learning that takes place in graduate school may be some of the most meaningful intellectual growth in your academic career. Still, because life tends to get harder in adulthood, the pleasures of engaging with new ideas may be mitigated by the struggle to balance graduate school with a full-time work schedule. When you feel overwhelmed, take a deep breath, remember why you’re doing this, and make a plan. A graduate diploma will be well worth the sacrifices you’re making now.

(Written by Seth Czarnecki)

Have you ever found yourself tasked to do something you know very little about? Learning skills on the job can be excellent training, but the longing for new knowledge might have you dreaming of graduate school.

This desire is common in the early stages of a career. You want to do things bigger, better, faster — to be an expert. Unfortunately, graduate degrees can be expensive in both time and money. Analyzing the opportunity cost of formally continuing your education is crucial when making the decision to leave the workforce. Is the money you will spend on school — and that which you’ll lose with no inbound revenue — worth the return on investment?

As you’re weighing your options for self-enrichment, be sure to look beyond the scope of a traditional classroom and degree settings. Here are three alternatives to consider, that, while not degree-granting, could prepare you for the next step in your career:

Offline Bootcamp

This alternative approach to learning has been making waves in higher education for years and has recently grown exponentially in popularity. Bootcamps like those offered by General AssemblyDev Bootcamp, and Hackbright Academy can provide great deep-dives into new technical skills, and sometimes non-technical skills as well. The bootcamps are shorter than a traditional degree, and they are considered to be more intense. You’ll emerge from these few weeks with a marketable new skill-set while saving both time and money.

Upsides: The courses are short, and the skills are targeted.

Downsides: Results often depend on the quality of instruction. Bootcamps can be full-time for up to three months.

Online Courses

Online courses, often in the form of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) can provide a great way to improve your skills and knowledge. There are a variety of courses, which range from business to coding, offered on sites such as CourseraKhan Academy, and Udemy. Other sites like Skillshare allow you to take courses designed for creators and makers. The possibilities are endless, but this option puts your education completely in your own hands. To be successful, you must hold yourself accountable.

Upsides: Flexibility. You can work in your free time, and courses may be taught by top professors. This is a relatively inexpensive option.

Downsides: Accountability. No one keeps track of your progress, so if life gets in the way, you may not complete the course. In addition, there’s little or no human interaction.

Online/Offline Blended Learning

Blended Learning is the new kid on the block, although it’s been around for years with the flipped classroom model in K–12. With this approach, coursework is delivered through a digital platform, but participants collaborate in person on projects and case studies. Additionally, there are coaches or facilitators who are present to provide feedback and mentorship throughout the course. This type of learning requires a full-time, in-person commitment, similar to the offline model, but delivers most material through an online platform — hence the term blended learning. Companies like Fullbridge (full disclosure: I work there!) are pioneering the blended learning, bootcamp-style education.

Upsides: Blended learning offers the best of both worlds: online and offline learning. Mentors and coaches can be crucial to success.

Downsides: Courses are not offered year-round and are only available in specific cities.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which style of learning works best, and if you even need the extra boost. Before you formalize any decisions, consider your options, weigh the opportunity costs of each, and ensure that continuing your education fits in with your short- and long-term goals.

(Written by Becky Fisher)

When you’re looking for a job or planning a career change, sometimes it’s best to get a sense of the field or companies you’re interested in, even if you don’t have a formal interview scheduled. That’s where informational interviews come into play.

An informational interview enables you to learn more about a particular industry by asking questions to someone with experience in that field. Economist Olivia Crosby writes that during an informational interview, the conversation doesn’t focus on you. Instead, talk about the person you’re meeting with, including her educational background, career trajectory, and any advice she may have to offer.

Through an informational interview, according to Crosby, you could:

  • Learn more about the person’s responsibilities at a job and the realities of her occupation.
  • Discover how that person found her job and became a top candidate during the selection process.
  • Obtain contacts in your field of interest.
  • Find out about new ways to break into the industry.
  • Determine your professional strengths and weaknesses.
  • Receive an overview of a specific company.
  • Hone your communication skills.
  • Learn about careers you didn’t know existed.

Finding a Contact

There are various ways to go about finding a contact you can reach out to for an information interview. A good place to start is your school’s career center or alumni office. You can also speak to family members, friends, teachers, and past colleagues who can connect you with a mutual friend or acquaintance who has pursued the field you’re interested in.

LinkedIn is also a good place to find professionals in your discipline. Search for people who are working at a company you are interested in, and see if you have mutual connections. If so, ask your connection for an introduction.

To first get in touch with your contact, career experts in the Association of Fundraising Professionals recommend that you send an email, a LinkedIn message, or make a phone call. Let the contact know how you found her and request a short meeting — or phone conversation if she isn’t available in person — of around 20 minutes.

Be clear, though, that this is an interview only for information (not a job) and that you’re interested in learning more about her background. Request that you meet either at her office or over coffee (and you’re buying).

Nailing the Interview

Here are some tips to make sure your informational interview goes smoothly:

Do your research beforehand.

Joseph Kim, MD, MPH, founder of NonClinicalJobs.com, writes that conducting research on a particular industry before your informational interview will enable you to ask better questions. The more you know about the industry, the more properly equipped you will be.

Read industry-specific journals, explore online blogs written by officials in your desired field, and attend national and regional conferences and events.

Researching the interviewee’s background will also allow for a more in-depth interview, and will demonstrate that you have taken this opportunity seriously. Look up previous positions the contact has held, read articles she has published, and understand the projects she has worked on.

Prepare some questions.

Have a list of five to 10 questions prepared for the interview. According to Kim, questions can include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • How did you get started in your position or in your field?
  • What do you like and dislike about your current role?
  • What did your career trajectory look like?
  • What advice do you have for breaking into the industry?
  • Who do you recommend I speak to next for more insight?

Ask if you can take notes and, if so, write down key information.

As long as your interviewee is okay with it, take notes to show that you’re processing the information. Taking notes is a good way to ensure you remember what you learned during the meeting. According to the Association of Fundraising Professionals, handwritten note-taking is less distracting to the interviewee than typing notes on a laptop.

Bring a copy of your resume.

You should consider having a copy of your resume with you during the informational interview, even though you’re not necessarily applying to a specific job. “A well-written resume demonstrates seriousness and professionalism,” Crosby writes in her article.

Be professional.

Crosby writes that you should arrive on time, be friendly and polite, and allow for casual conversation while acting professionally. You’re the one running the show, so it’s up to you to keep track of the time.

Keep it short and sweet

Keep it to around 20 minutes, unless the interviewee expresses interest in talking further. This will demonstrate that you’re being respectful of her time while still obtaining the information you need.

Follow up with any contacts you were given.

According to the article in Advancing Philanthropy, if your interviewee names any other potential contacts who have succeeded in your desired industry or company, be sure to jot down their names and ask the interviewee if it’s alright that you reach out to them.

Say “thank you.”

Make sure you express your gratitude to the interviewee after your meeting. Your email or note can be brief — a paragraph or two — and it’s always a good idea to reference a specific piece of information that you found important or helpful to show you were paying attention.

Sources:

Cook, P., & Kaufteil, A. (2013). Informational Interview Etiquette. Advancing Philanthropy,20(2), 47-49. Retrieved October 1, 2014, from Advancing Philanthropy

Crosby, O. (2002) Informational interviewing: Get the inside scoop on careers. Occupational Outlook Quarterly, 46(2), 22-29. Retrieved October 1, 2014, from Bureau of Labor Statistics

Kim, J. (2011). Exploring Alternative Careers Through Informational Interviews. Physician Leadership Journal, 90(2), 90-92. Retrieved October 1, 2014, from American Association for Physician Leadership

(Written by Jordan Friedman)

1. Understand your reasons.

Students decide to attend graduate school for a plethora of reasons.

However, if you simply want to stay out of the job market and land a “cushy” job as a professor, then graduate school may not be the right choice for you.

“You should go because you enjoy learning about new topics, through your research and that of others, and sharing knowledge with others through writing and teaching. You should also go if you are self-motivated and like planning out your work day,” advises Northern Kentucky University professor Richard L. Boyce.

This stage in your education will be challenging, and you will need self-discipline and perseverance to achieve your goals. Kevin D. Haggerty says these qualities are often more important than intellect because “you not only need to maintain momentum but also develop a sensibility about how to manage trying events.”

Find ways to balance your outside life with your commitment to study during your program. If you go for the right reasons, graduate school will be a gratifying experience.

2. Present your best self in your application.

Applications often require Graduate Records Examination (GRE) scores, undergraduate transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a statement of purpose.

Many programs also ask for a sample of your work, such as an analytical essay. The weight of each item varies by program, but admissions representatives look at your application as a whole. So if, for example, your GRE scores are not quite where you want, remember that the other aspects of your application are just as important.

Your statement of purpose can individualize your application. You should highlight unique aspects about yourself. Mention any research or teaching experience you have. Write about any projects you have conducted that relate to your area of study. You can also include how the graduate program will benefit from your admission.

The goal of your application is to “tie your background and the department’s graduate program together with [your] specific career goals,” says Boyce. Showcase your talents, and do not shy away from telling the university why you are an ideal candidate.

3. Choose the right supervising professor.

When deciding where to apply, research professors in the program. Boyce says, “You will not in most cases be taking a lot of courses. [Instead] you will be working primarily with one faculty member,” known as your supervisor. You will develop a close relationship with this mentor. Not only will supervisors evaluate you during the program, but they also will be a long-term reference after you graduate. I still turn to my mentor for career advice and letters of recommendation.

To decide on the right supervisor, look at her credentials and reputation. Which topics have been the focus of her research and publications, especially recently? How have her previous students fared in the program and after graduation? This will give you an idea of the sort of work she will expect from you.

Talk to senior graduate students when you visit the campus. What do they say about the professor? Remember that supervising professors “provide the scholarly network in which a student will initially be immersed,” says Haggerty, so be sure that your personalities are compatible because this relationship can make your experience wonderful or difficult.

Do not commit to a supervisor until you have met him in person, advises Haggerty. Once you choose the right professor, listen to his advice because he “has a vested interest in seeing you succeed” as you represent him as much as yourself.

The professor “has access to a bigger picture than is typically available to graduate students,” Haggerty explains. He will know the current trends of research and how to obtain a position in your career.

4. Strengthen your writing.

Most of your work in graduate school will consist of researching and writing, so it is imperative you strengthen your writing. Excellent writing will convey your ideas clearly and help you publish your work. You must practice writing every day. It is like a muscle; without regular use, your ability will atrophy. To prevent this, create a regular writing routine.

Haggerty explains, “some time-honored techniques include joining (or establishing) a writing group [and] reading books,” paying attention to how others write. Some writers “set aside particular times of the day, while others compose in hour-long segments, never leaving their chair until that time has expired. Others commit to producing a certain number of words or pages a day. Many authors, wary of being distracted, unplug their telephones and refuse to read their email until they have produced their self-imposed output.”

I write first thing in the morning for several hours, and I commit time to read every day. I often switch scenery when stuck with writer’s block; I travel between my offices, local coffee shops, and book stores. Whatever your preference, establish a personal writing routine that you commit to every day.

Sources:

Boyce, R.L. (2009). Thinking about graduate school? Bios 80 (1), 35-40.

Haggerty, K.D. (2010). Tough love: professional lessons for graduate students. The American
Sociologist
 41(1), 82-96.

(Written by Kelly Walker)

You have finished your undergraduate program and are ready for graduate school. As you prepare for your new journey, understand that this new level of education will be quite different.

You will conduct extensive research, read voraciously, and write more than you ever have, but the rewards of earning a graduate degree are invaluable. Graduate school opened my mind in ways I could not imagine, and after graduation, I landed my dream jobs — teaching at the university level and writing professionally. Here is what you should expect.

Prepare for Rigorous Coursework

Graduate studies require a greater level of productivity, so be prepared for a heavier workload. You will conduct highly involved research projects and experiments for your courses, your thesis or dissertation, and your final portfolio. Some programs also require you to pass final exams.

Moreover, with additional research comes an abundant amount of writing. Your supervising professor and peers will review and comment on your writing for revision ideas. As explained by Richard L. Boyce, “What the [supervisors] are most interested in is your potential to design and execute a project in a reasonable amount of time and your abilities to write and talk about it coherently.” You will convey your ideas in writing often to present them verbally later in presentations, so the stronger your writing abilities are the better you will fair.

Next, you will choose a supervising professor. Let her know your academic goals in the beginning. For example my program was designed to educate future teachers of secondary-level education, but my supervisor knew I intended to teach in higher education, so she allowed me to tailor my projects to my goal.

Work Well With Others

During your program, be conscious of your actions and the persona you present as they will create your reputation as a scholar in the academic community. This reputation will follow you through your program and into the workforce, so always present your best self. Show respect to your professors and peers by coming on time to classes and assistantships and preparing any assignments that are due. Your classes will not be in auditoriums that hold hundreds of students; your class sizes will be small. You will also learn from a small group of professors, so expect close collaboration with your teachers and peers.

In addition, you will have the opportunity to work in assistantships. The two common types are research assistantships (RA) and teaching assistantships (TA). However, be wary about becoming overly involved. You must be able to manage your time to fulfill your core responsibilities. Haggerty warns, “If you are going to get involved, do so to the best of your abilities, but remember to partition your time and energy in light of your responsibilities to write and conduct research.”

Your graduate studies will take up extraordinary amounts of time. You will work most days of the week, and you will take summer courses. Although you will have time for holidays and short vacations, you will not have a three-month summer vacation, Heinz Reiske explains. Thus, you must fully dedicate to your academic pursuits.

Take Care of Yourself

As you can imagine, you will not have as much time to spend with family and friends because your work will involve solitary time spent researching and writing. Expect stress and less sleep. Take care of your well-being during this intense time. Talk with others about your stress. Finding a close friend in the program or talking to a professional counselor can benefit you more than you can imagine.

During my program, I fought stress with counseling, exercise, a balanced diet, and planned time once a week to do something I truly enjoyed, such as hiking or reading for pleasure. Despite the stress and intense work load, don’t give up!

Kevin D. Haggerty assures, “You will be embarking on an intellectual adventure where you absolutely immerse yourself in the field. You will become an expert in your chosen area… It will be intense but rewarding.”

Persevere in your endeavor, give the work your best, and remember that this time will change your life in the most amazing way.

Sources

Boyce, R.L. (2009). Thinking about graduate school? Bios 80(1), 35-40.

Haggerty, K.D. (2010). Tough love: professional lessons for graduate students. The American Sociologist 41(1), 82-96.

Reiske, H. (2001). Getting into and surviving graduate school. Bios 72(3), 100-102.

(Written by Kelly Walker)

When the first 11 graduate students in the United States walked into their classroom in 1847, at what would become Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, it can be assumed that they all shared the same thought as every grad student who would come thereafter: “I’m in way over my head; this is completely different than undergrad.”

Yes, the campus may look familiar, but something feels inherently different. That’s because grad school is a whole other ballgame.

The Differences

Here are the differences you can expect:

The classroom is a more intimate environment.

Grad school is an individual experience, though you will develop a “we are in this together” mentality with the other students in your program. Class size will be smaller and more participatory. Your professor will not be spending time determining if you are up to date with your readings; he will assume that you are and are ready to add to the conversation.

Your social life will consist of only your classmates.

If undergrad is like a reality show social experiment (take a group of 18-year-olds from very different backgrounds, throw them into the same living situation, and watch them figure out life), then grad school is like a Japanese-style game show (place 11 contestants in a small room stacked with countless books and ask them to not only retain all of the information, but present original ideas before time runs out). Even though your fellow students may no longer form the basis of your social life, they will be the only ones who truly understand what you are going through, leading you to forge bonds.

There’s a new definition to student life “on campus.”

In undergrad, the college campus could be locked into a huge invisible dome, and most students would never notice. In grad school, the campus is much more like your office. There is a bridge mentally, and often physically, between the campus and the rest of your world. The exception, of course, is the library — which will serve as your main connection to campus life.

Tips and advice to help you succeed in grad school

When your car starts to resemble a library and you find yourself calculating the risk/reward ratio of taking an hour break to watch something on Netflix (with a book open on the coffee table, of course), it becomes easy to feel overwhelmed. Use these tips to gain perspective and power through the years in graduate school.

Master time management.

Unless your graduate thesis is updating the space-time continuum, graduate students are only allotted the same number of hours in a day as everyone else. Managing your time will be your top priority.

Generally, if you feel prepared to participate in class discussions and find things in your readings that spark your interest for further research, then you are on the right track. Many programs will not have deadlines until the end of the semester, so you should set your own personal goals. With less structure and greater autonomy, you will have to manage your own day.

Some helpful ways to do that are:

  • Use daily and monthly to-do lists.
  • Get into a daily rhythm and don’t forget to schedule time for yourself.
  • Some students will need to learn to say “no,” but others will need to learn to say “yes.” Find a healthy balance.

Don’t let impostor syndrome bring you down.

There is something about grad school that makes every student at some point feel like he is Frank Abagnale in “Catch Me If You Can.” You have to convince yourself that you are not alone and that it is normal to feel like you do not belong. Have confidence in yourself and your abilities, and always remember that your goals made you want to apply to grad school in the first place. You are one step closer to accomplishing them!

If you are looking for more guidance about impostor syndrome, check out our article: Do I Really Belong in Grad School? Managing Impostor Syndrome.

Spend quality time with your advisor.

In undergrad, students often take the “tell them what they want to hear” mentality when speaking one-on-one with professors and advisors. They think that they are being judged and graded, and pass the time nodding their heads or taking copious notes. In grad school, you should learn how to utilize this time with your advisor to determine your own academic, research, and career goals. Your advisor will be able to help you get there, but you need to meet her halfway. Your advisor will provide the fuel, but you have to build the car.

Learn to read like a grad student.

Any moment that your eyes fall outside the margins of a book can sometimes feel like a wasted minute. This doesn’t have to be the case, as you will need to learn how to read not only efficiently but for analytical purposes. You are reading not only for comprehension but to critique and spark your own research interests.

There is a lot of advice out there on how to read faster and smarter, but the best advice is that reading and writing should become one and the same. Your reading should inspire your writing and vice versa. If you are able to engage in a dialogue with the text by writing notes that correlate to other readings, lectures, and research, then you will be well prepared for class.

Read the introduction and conclusion to get a sense of the author’s main points, and then strategically dig in and engage with a critical perspective. A wine critic does not need to drink the whole bottle in order to describe the taste.

Dive in headfirst and remember to enjoy it!

There will never be another time in your life when you can devote your complete self to one area of focus. Dive right in! Even professors, who have to spend much of their day deep in administrative tasks, wish that they could go back to their grad school days when the only thing that mattered was the pursuit of knowledge in their chosen field.

When it feels overwhelming, remember that you will one day feel lucky to have been overwhelmed. Your sole purpose in grad school is to absorb knowledge, analyze, critique, and be creative. It is a great way of life! Try to enjoy the ride, and always remember that your estimated time of arrival is closer than you think.

Sources:

How Grad School is Different from Undergrad. (n.d) Retrieved from Idealist

Academic demands. (n.d) Retrieved from The University of Michigan Health System

DuVernet, A., Behrend, T., Hess, C., McGinnis, J.L., Poncheri, R., & Vignovic, J. (2008). Adapting and Transitioning Throughout Graduate School. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 45, 85-89.

Shorter, D. Welcome to Graduate School. (2014). Retrieved from The Chronicle of Higher Education

Croxall, B. An Open Letter to New Graduate Students. (2010). Retrieved from The Chronicle of Higher Education
Happy Birthday to the Oldest American Graduate School. (1997). Retreived from Yale News

(Written by Yonah Korngold)

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the fall of 2012 saw 2.9 million graduate students attending degree-granting post-secondary institutions in the U.S. There is no doubt that more and more college graduates are seeking higher and higher degrees in the hope of acquiring a more meaningful career path.

If you’ve recently received your bachelor’s and are considering continuing your education, you’ve probably heard a lot about accruing additional debt and the like. Most likely, however, no one has told you about these grad school facts.

1. Grad school isn’t like undergrad.

As an undergraduate, you were most likely discovering yourself — your academic interests, your political views, how much you can party and still get work done, and so on.

By the time you’re into your graduate studies, however, much of the exciting self-discovery has been settled and what’s left is the work, which is extensive. Graduate classes tend to be longer, smaller, and include more work outside of the classroom. In a word, the days skipping the readings and keeping your head low during class are over.

2. Research takes priority.

Most graduate degrees will require some form of research. In some cases, you will select a faculty member with whom you’ll work closely. For other areas, your research may be done individually. In either case, research not only requires a great deal of time and motivation, but it also demands that you’re attentive and actively engaging your coursework. Ideas for research topics are fleeting. You’ll need to keep your mind open and absorbed in your work.

3. You have less time to get more done.

It’s no surprise that graduate coursework is more extensive and sophisticated than undergrad studies. What you may not realize is that, outside of school work, you have more to do.

When you were in college for the first go around, the extent of your responsibilities were minimal. Perhaps you had a part-time job. Maybe you had a few hobbies you kept up with. However, now that you’re older, you may have a full-time job or family to worry about in addition to your studies. In many ways, taking on the burden of grad school is like having a second job. Be sure you can lean on your loved ones, and budget your time to make room for this new extension of your work life.

4. You’ll need to be a self-starter.

Unlike undergrads who, for the most part, have their hands held through their four years at a university, graduate degrees demand students to be self-starters. Advisors will not seek you out if a problem arises. Instead, you’ll need to track your own courses and find the people you need to speak with when issues bubble up. When it comes to research, you may work with a faculty member as an advisor, but when it comes to writing or conducting research, no one can push you in any one direction. You’ll need to be the captain of your own ship.

5. Networking is key.

Having a degree in hand won’t guarantee you a job. The only thing that you’re ensured is a new well of debt. Your relationships with faculty members and fellow students are important. If you’re attending a conference or seminar, put yourself out there. Meet the people who are where you want to be. You’ll never know from whom or where your next job will come.

The road to a graduate degree is a difficult one. In many ways, you’ll be traveling it alone with only your academic and personal wits to guide you. Budgeting your time effectively, seeking help where you can get it, and pushing yourself when you need it will make the process all the more rewarding.

Source:

The Condition of Education – Postsecondary Education – Characteristics of Postsecondary Students Indicator May (2014). Retrieved September 13, 2014.

(Written by Seth Czarnecki)

If you’re planning to go to graduate school, then choosing a PhD program is one of the most important decisions of your life. Though you’re the one who will be chosen, on the merits of your application, there is much you can do beforehand to insure that you apply to the right universities.

You can plan on spending around seven years getting your doctorate, though that can fluctuate two to three years on either side depending on your discipline and program. So the school you attend will be a major influence on a large part of your life, and will determine the path of your future career as well. Most graduate programs are highly competitive, as is the job market you can expect upon graduation. It’s a good idea to cast a wide net with your applications, to insure you’ll have options.

Apply to as many schools as you can reasonably afford to, and actually want to attend if accepted.

Here some important factors to consider as you apply and mull your offers:

Funding

Acquiring decent funding is crucial. You’ll be toiling outside of the regular workforce for years, so you’re going to need a solid financial support package. Most graduate schools provide funding through teaching or research fellowships. That means that you’ll be teaching one to two classes per semester or working as a professor’s assistant to earn your keep. These packages usually include tuition and a stipend. Ideally, you’ll get health insurance as well.

These stipends are not overly generous. You’ll have enough to subsist modestly. Some programs have non-teaching fellowships, but these are usually competitive and awarded to few students for a year at a time. Many graduate students take out supplemental loans, especially if they have a family or merely want to live slightly better than a pauper.

Location

Since you might be relocating, it’s important to take into account the characteristics of your potential new home. Do research on the city or town to get a sense of housing, neighborhoods, cost of living, and the general vibe. Don’t forget to consider climate, especially if it will be a new one for you.

Achieving a doctorate is extremely challenging. It will go better for you if you at least like the place where you live.

Collegiality

No one has been able to predict which students will complete a PhD, and which will drop out (only about half finish). Studies also have difficulty predicting what factors help students succeed.

Nevertheless, students with a strong support system fair better. It’s hard to gauge a department’s temperament and style before you’re immersed in it. Nonetheless, you need to find a department where you can thrive. If you visit, chances are, everyone will be on their best behavior. You still need to try and gain a strong sense of the environment and the level of collegiality.

Current graduate students can be a great source of information, as well. Most department websites publish email addresses. Don’t be shy about writing your future colleagues and asking questions.

Research Compatibility

If you can’t manage a visit, correspond with your potential professors, especially scholars who you may want to work with. You may not know exactly what your dissertation research will focus on yet, but you need to get a sense of how your interests will fair in that department. You’ll need to have advocates and supporters. Look at the publications, research interests, and graduate student clubs or conferences to get a sense of your intellectual compatibility with your chosen department.

Completion Rates and Job Placement

Most departments have some kind of internal reporting that keeps track of completion rates and job placement statistics for graduate students. Don’t be afraid to ask for this data. It won’t necessarily impact your own job placement in the future, but it can provide some level of confidence and security as you make one of the most important decisions of your life.

Sources:

Cassuto, L. (2013, July 1). Ph.D. Attrition: How Much Is Too Much? Retrieved September 3, 2014 from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Patel, V. (2014, February 17). To Improve Equity, Focus on Stipends, Graduate Students Say. Retrieved September 3, 2014 from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Rampell, C. (2009, September 15). Thinking of Going to Grad School? Retrieved September 3, 2014 from Economix.

(Written by Molly Pennington, PhD)

If you’re planning on going to graduate school, it’s important to know that only about half of all students complete their degree, and it often takes close to a decade to move through the program.

The PhD Completion project examined the graduate attrition rates in various disciplines. Their findings might surprise you. Though many programs claim a loose five to seven year schedule, most programs take much longer. Seven years is often seen as a standard number of years for completion, though the research shows that ten years is much more realistic.

Here are the seven-year completion rates for the following disciplines:

  • Engineering 57%
  • Life Sciences 54%
  • Math & Physical Sciences 48%
  • Social Sciences 41%
  • Humanities 29%

All disciplines show an uptick in completions by the tenth year, but even in the best case scenario, no one wants to take that long to complete a doctorate.

A similar study for master’s programs, The Master’s Completion Project, looked at degrees in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) and MBA programs.

Here are the four year completion rates for the following master’s disciplines:

  • STEM subjects 66%
  • MBA programs 86%

Attrition rates in these master’s programs are significantly better than for doctorate programs. Keep in mind though, that they signal completion rates at the four-year mark although the average MA program is supposed to be of a two- to three-year duration.

What can you expect after you complete your graduate degree?

Though graduating with a master’s degree or PhD is a huge accomplishment, it doesn’t guarantee success on the job market or a fast-tracked career. It might be the beginning of another kind of struggle. Current data suggest that the job market for STEM PhDs is stagnant, and has been for some time. This trend goes against the popular idea that PhDs in the sciences have much better job prospects than do humanities graduate students.

Across the humanities, evidence suggests that university positions are shrinking, especially along the tenure track. Humanities graduate programs purport to be training grounds for university teaching, but those jobs are scarce. Data suggest this trend continues university-wide, across the disciplines. For most major institutions, a significant amount of teaching, nearly 76 percent, comes from visiting, adjunct, or part-time faculty, many who hold doctorates in their field. These jobs usually come without benefits or security, and on average, the pay is abysmal.

Pursuing and completing a doctorate creates an astounding skill set that carries well beyond the expertise of a specific discipline. PhDs are used to doing rigorous work. They are sharp, careful, and critical thinkers. Their intellectual gifts are usually shaped by creating nuanced and original work in their fields. PhDs are skilled experts who are also able to work tirelessly, meticulously, and creatively.

The data suggest, however, that the job market and economy can’t support the current and incoming generation of PhDs. These studies are important to keep in mind if you’re seriously considering graduate school.

Sources:

Cassuto, L. (2013, July 1). Ph.D. Attrition: How Much Is Too Much? Retrieved September 3, 2014 from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Lewin, T. (2013, April 7). Gap Widens for Faculty at Colleges, Report Finds. Retrieved September 3, 2014 from the New York Times.

Master’s Completion Project | Council of Graduate Schools. (n.d.). Retrieved September 3, 2014.

Pannapacker, W. (2013, June 17). Just Look at the Data, if You Can Find Any. Retrieved September 3, 2014 from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

PhD Completion Project Information. (n.d.). Retrieved September 3, 2014.

Weissmann, J. (2014, July 10). The Stagnating Job Market for Young Scientists. Retrieved September 3, 2014 from Slate.

(Written by Molly Pennington, PhD)

August tends to be a transitional month. Maybe it’s a relic from our time in school, but as summer comes to a close and vacations end, I always start to wonder what the next year will bring.

The same thing also seems to be on many of my friends’ minds as I have been getting a lot of questions lately about whether to go to graduate school. Partly friends come to me because I went to grad school, but also they come to me because I’m an expert in higher education finance.

I have always been public about my decision to go to grad school, what my total debt is ($60,966), and how I repay my loans ($542/month; combination of Income-Based Repayment and 10-year Standard). For me, grad school was worth it. But whether it’s worth it depends on your personal situation. The decision to go to grad school should never be taken lightly.

After going through the whole process personally and also with my knowledge of our higher education and financial aid system, here’s the advice I give my friends:

Should I Go to Grad School?

If you can, take time off and work between undergrad and grad school.

Because the job market has been so rocky the past few years, many undergrads decide to go directly to graduate school in hopes that the job market will be better once they graduate and that the extra credential will help them land a better job. After being a student for your whole life, it is a good idea to spend a couple of years in the workforce if you can. Ideally, in the field that you think you want to enter. When I graduated from college, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I was able to work at a law firm where I discovered that I actually didn’t like the work. I had a complete misperception of the career. Even if the job you land is unrelated to what you want to pursue as a career, it gives helpful perspective and experience in the workforce that will be essential for deciding on a career path later on and what grad school and grad school program will be best for you. It will also help you decide whether grad school is even necessary to get you where you’d like to go.

Research academic programs and financial aid options before applying.

Make sure grad school will be a good fit with what you want to accomplish. Look at what courses you’ll be taking, how much flexibility you have to take electives, what your research opportunities with faculty will be, and what your internship/fellowship options are. Before applying, make sure you know how much the school will cost and what their financial aid options are. Don’t be afraid to call the admissions or financial aid offices to talk about financing options—the institution’s website won’t always be transparent. As a rule of thumb, most master’s programs and professional degrees (especially terminal programs that don’t lead to another higher degree) will cost you. In some instances, master’s degree programs will have tuition remission if you work for the university in some capacity. Reputable doctoral programs are fully funded—in some instances not only will you get full remission, but also a stipend for doing research. Be aware of these options as you research schools as these will be the best ways to keep costs down. My master’s degree was a one-year program and I got a grant. That helped me keep costs down and I was only out of the workforce for one year.

Be realistic about your career prospects and trajectory.

Originally when I was going into higher education, I thought I would work as a student advisor in some capacity. I researched open job descriptions in metro areas I was considering living in to get a better idea of how much money I would make (public colleges and universities are usually transparent about salary ranges). I knew full well that I probably wouldn’t end up making that much more than I had made at the law firm, but that I could grow into the job. I also knew that I could enroll in income-based repayment (IBR) and base my loan payments on my salary. This was like an insurance policy on my student loan debt, helping me realize that I could work in a job I liked while not being impoverished by my debt.

Come up with a plan to manage student loan debt before enrolling.

If you are taking on debt for grad school, be sure to research your options. In most instances, federal loans are available to you at varying interest rates up to the full cost of attendance. Private loans are also available. Develop a realistic budget for when you are in school and figure out the amount of loans you are comfortable taking out. In terms of repayment, federal loans come with flexible repayment terms. You default into a 10-year repayment plan, but you can change your plan to an income-based plan, graduated repayment, or consolidation plan which may be much more affordable to you on a monthly basis. Be honest about your total debt and monthly repayment costs—develop a post-school budget based on what you think a conservative estimate for your starting salary will be. Know your options if you are unemployed for a longer-than-anticipated amount of time (for example: IBR, deferment, and forbearance). Always understand what would happen in a worst-case scenario so you’d be prepared if it ever happened. Also look into Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). If you work for the government or a non-profit, some qualifying federal loans are eligible for forgiveness after making 10 years of payments. Loan debt doesn’t have to be scary if you plan on the front end how exactly you are going to tackle it.

Some of my friends are going to have a lot to think about as they make the decision whether to apply to grad school within the next year. It’s a nervous and exciting time that requires a lot of thought and honesty about what you’d like to get out of grad school. If you’re applying during this next cycle, good luck with the process and I hope this advice puts you on solid ground when it comes to making such an important decision.

(Written by Rachel Fishman)

Have you ever felt like you are bluffing your way through school? As if you are pretending to be so studious and dedicated, but really all you just want to sleep in late and watch Netflix all day? Do you feel you’re masquerading as a scholar, and sooner or later your peers and professors will discover your deep dark secret?

If you feel this way, you aren’t alone. It’s called impostor syndrome. Some students mistakenly believe they aren’t intelligent and only got to where they are because of luck, even though it’s not reality. They think they don’t deserve to be in their academic program and worry about getting found out by their peers. This anxiety and constant comparisons to others can make daily living stressful.

Impostor syndrome was first identified by Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD in the 1970s, but students have most likely been doubting themselves long before that. It isn’t officially classified in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but it still affects millions of people nationwide.

The truth is there’s no simple fix, but these ideas can help.

Get a mentor

Mentors can help with a range of academic and career issues. Your mentor could be your academic advisor, a more senior student or a professional in the career you are seeking to pursue. Having the mentor’s support at various stages in your life can help you see all the good things about the work you do.

Remember your successes

It’s natural to focus on the things you don’t know rather than the things you do know, but that kind of thinking is detrimental for those with impostor syndrome. Instead it can be helpful to focus on the things you do know and things you have achieved. If you find it difficult to focus on the good instead of the bad, try writing your achievements down on paper so they’re easier to visualize.

Don’t focus on perfection

You might see all of your peers as perfectly put-together and organized, but the truth is likely different. Realize that whether you’re working on one exam or a larger project, no one’s perfect. Such thinking will help you realize that you don’t have to be perfect, either. Focus on doing the best that you can do, and don’t worry about being better than others.

Discuss impostor syndrome with others

As with many things in life, knowing you’re not alone in feeling like an impostor
can be helpful. Reach out to other students or your advisor. They can help put you on the path to realizing that impostor syndrome doesn’t have to control you. You’ll likely realize that other people do see you as capable and intelligent, and that they’ve coped with negative thoughts in their life, too.

Stop the comparisons

It’s natural for people to compare themselves to others, but realize your comparisons might be unrealistic. There are certainly many people whom you could compare yourself to in grad school. You might look at a classmate who has a lighter course load and think you’re struggling more than them, or you may even see how much work your advisor does, not realizing they have many students who assist them daily.

Seek professional help as a last resort

If you’ve tried to minimize the effects of impostor syndrome and nothing has helped, it may be time to seek professional help. A therapist or psychologist will be able to offer suggestions to get to the bottom of why you experience impostor syndrome. Get in contact with someone at your school’s counseling and psychological services office, and see what they can do to help.

If you’re still concerned about impostor syndrome, check out Dr. Pauline Rose Clance’s Impostor Syndrome test to see where you fall on the scale!

Sources:

Ancowitz, N. (2013, April 17.) Managing Your Impostor Syndrome. Psychology Today. Retrieved August 11, 2014 from Psychology Today.

Warrell, M. (2014, April 3.) Afraid Of Being ‘Found Out?’ Overcome Impostor Syndrome. Forbes. Retrieved August 11, 2014 from Forbes.

Weir, K. (2013.) Feel like a fraud? gradPSYCH. Retrieved August 11, 2014, from American Psychological Association.

(Written by Elizabeth Wu)

When it comes to graduate school, many international students flock to the United States.

The application process is difficult, so the added challenge of dealing with another country can be overwhelming. Read on for answers to some basic questions about the process.

Disclaimer
“It’s critical that any international student know this,” says Jennifer Aquino, an independent educational consultant based in Singapore who specializes in coaching international families and students through applying for university. “It’s a case-by-case process, and you’ve really got to dig deep within the individual programs to understand the differences.”

What’s Different About U.S. Grad Schools?
According to InternationalStudent.com, the U.S. has one of the world’s finest university systems, with outstanding programs in virtually all areas. At the graduate level, students have the opportunity to work directly with some of the finest minds in their fields.

Other draws include the variety of educational opportunities, cutting-edge technology, opportunities for research, teaching, and training, and more support services for international students.

Many U.S. institutions offer a more self-contained “campus” experience, says Aquino. Pedagogy may be extremely different, she says: “In the U.S., we are used to challenging one another, including the professor, in the classroom.” Grading systems and honor codes may be unfamiliar.

Should You Care About Rankings?
The answer to this depends on whom you ask. Aquino would never advise to go just for rankings. “First, you must understand how the rankings are done,” she says. “If you don’t, and you’re following them, you’re doing yourself a disservice.” Rankings are everywhere and a huge business for the media outlets. Know how they’re calculated, be smart, and know yourself. In some places, brand is everything.

Rather than going by rankings, Aquino says there are better questions to ask, such as how much contact there is with faculty or how qualified is that faculty member teaching the course?

What Are the Financial Aid/Scholarship Options?
Non-U.S. applicants are ineligible for most federal aid, but there are options. Big companies like Apple and Google tend to offer great scholarships for international students. EducationUSA and International Student list other funding sources on their web sites.

If You Can’t Visit, How Do You Know a School is the Right Fit?
Check and see when schools are visiting, as most have admissions staff traveling the globe, says Aquino. You can also “ask for an informational chat with an admissions officer via Skype, or send a very clear, to-the-point email to admissions,” she says. “Get in touch with faculty.” Look for alums in your area to meet with. Determining which schools have stronger alumni networks and connections will be vital to your search.

Aquino says to make sure you do a self-assessment throughout to determine what you want from a program. Everything else is secondary.

(Written by Lisa A. Goldstein)

If you’re thinking of going back to school, the prospect of paying for another tuition can be intimidating. Here are 11 places where you can begin your search for ways to finance your education.

1. Research Grants and Scholarships

If you will be pursuing research-based studies, look up research councils in your fields. These organizations will often offer grants to graduate students. For example, Postdoctoral and Senior Research Awards are distributed by the Research Associateship Programs in the National Academies to students pursuing the sciences, social sciences, mathematics and engineering. Visit National Academies for more information.

Research grants are also offered by universities and professional organizations and associations in your field. For example, someone studying sociology could look up opportunities at the American Sociological Association or Alpha Kappa Delta – The International Sociology Honor Society.

2. Programs at the Institute of International Education

Interested in going to graduate school abroad? This organization offers a variety of programs to students looking to study certain fields around the world. Their most renowned scholarship is the Fulbright Program, a competitive grant that allows students to live and study abroad. However, IIE offers many other opportunities, like corporate scholarships, grants for engineers wishing to study in another country, and financial support to students specializing in endangered languages.

3. Write to Grant Management Branches

Institutions at private and government agencies, like the National Institute of Mental Health, sometimes fund schools through grants. Request a list of schools that they financially support and apply to those universities.

4. Apply to Diversity/Minority Scholarships

These kinds of scholarships seek to help students from diverse ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds and are sometimes rewarded without taking into account financial need. Look up associations that represent your background, nationality, or religion and ask whether they offer scholarships. Some examples of places you can start your search are The Hispanic Scholarship FundThe American Indian Graduate Center, or UNCF (United Negro College Fund).

When you are researching, make sure to look for scholarships in your specific field of interest. For example, there are diversity/minority scholarships for graduates pursuing advertising, marketing or public relations (through the LAGRANT Foundation;)nutrition, physical education or culinary arts (through CANFIT😉 and business or public administration (through the Smithsonian Institute).

5. Apply to Disability Scholarships

There are scholarships out there for students with physical, mental, or cognitive disabilities. For example, 180 Medical or the American Association on Health and Disability offer this kind of financial support.

6. Read Related Journals and Magazines

Often, journals and magazines will advertise scholarship and grant opportunities. Make sure to look through publications that are related to your field of interest.

7. Join a Service Program

Becoming a volunteer for a program like AmeriCoprs, Peace Corps, or Teach for America can allow you to receive awards and scholarships at certain schools. Make sure to explore the benefits each program offers before committing.

8. Be a Research or Teaching Assistant

Many universities offer graduate students to make money by collaborating on research with a professor or helping in an undergraduate class. While this option may be time consuming, it’s also a good way to forge relationships with faculty or students who are also interested in your field.

9. Seek Employment at a University

Working full-time for a university can sometimes mean a discount on tuition. This possibility is not available at every school, so make sure to ask whether this option exists at the universities that you are considering.

10. Ask Your Current Employer

If you are currently working, ask your employer about funds or scholarship opportunities that the company may offer as you decide to go back to school. For example, if you are working as a journalist, your employer may allow you to take a leave to pursue the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard.

11. Build Your Network

Reach out to people in your academic and professional network. Contact professors, bosses, co-workers, and advisors you have a connection with and let them know you are thinking of going to graduate school. They may know of scholarship opportunities or put you in touch with someone who does.

For more tips on how to effectively network, read our these articles about networking:

(Written by Orly Michaeli)

Getting a master’s degree is a much different endeavor than getting an undergraduate degree.

Plus, the questions can be slightly different. The main question you should certainly ask yourself, though, is: “What goal do I think this program will help me achieve?”

First, figure out the answer for yourself. Then, proceed with the following questions to help you make the most informed decision about getting a master’s degree:

What Are Your Master’s Degree Goals?

To improve prospects in my current career: Check to make sure the degree is actually important to improve your career. Keep in mind that for many careers, individual courses, certificate programs, or even simple work experience is as valuable as a master’s degree for aiding career advancement.

To help me transition into a new career: Speak with some recruiters or hiring managers in this new field. It’s possible that you don’t need a degree to make the transition, especially if you can leverage your existing skill set and expand it with some individual courses or professional development.

To acquire a credential that will make me a more desirable employee: (This is often a factor in the first two points.) In addition to any relevant research above, check employment data for students who have this credential. Does it provide an immediate salary boost or impact average income over time? Is job placement better for graduates who’ve added this credential?

To enable me to pursue research I’m passionate about: If your master’s goal is research-related, you may want to weigh the option of entering a PhD program instead. PhD candidates are often funded (meaning they get paid to go to school rather than having to pay), and you often have the option of a terminal Master’s (taking a Master’s degree and leaving the program) if you decide completing the PhD is more time/effort than you’re prepared for.

To pursue a craft I’m passionate about: It’s great to pursue art, writing, dance, or other creative vocations. Just make sure you have an idea of what you’ll do if your creative path doesn’t lead to a viable career. Consider the skills you have and those your Master’s will help you to develop, and make a plan for what to do if you don’t make it in your chosen field.

How Flexible Do I Need the Program to Be?

Timeline is a major consideration for any graduate degree. Ask yourself: What timeline do I want for my program, and am I allowed to work while pursuing this degree?

Some schools have accelerated, one-year programs for particular master’s degrees if you want to minimize the amount of time you’re not employed. Other schools have part-time programs so you can pursue your master’s while still working. The average length of time to complete a regular, full-time master’s is 1.5 to 2 years, depending on the degree.

Some programs specifically prohibit students from working while pursuing a degree. If it’s important for you to continue working, even if you pursue a full-time degree, make sure this is not a conflict with the department or school policies. Also, think about whether or not you’ll need a program that offers evening, weekend, or summer classes to fit with my work or family responsibilities. Does this program have high-quality, blended or online options that meet my needs?

How Important Is Location to Me?

Check to see whether, for the field you want to work in, the geography of the school impacts where you are likely to find work. For programs that have a practical placement component, geography may play an even bigger role because the mentoring relationships created often lead to future job opportunities.

Determine whether you are able to move for graduate school. If you can’t move, research the programs in your area very closely to ensure that they are actually worth the investment. You don’t want to waste time and money on a credential that won’t actually move you closer to your professional goals.

What Are the Outcomes for the Programs I’m Interested In?

Schools can be very cagey about releasing employment data. Push programs you are applying to for outcomes data; get a sense of the jobs graduates are finding and where. How long does it take graduates to find a job in this field? What are the salary outcomes for recent graduates?

Find out what kind of specific support the schools provide students to help find employment. How long do they provide these services after you complete your degree?

It may be useful to search on Linkedin or other similar social networks for recent graduates from the programs you’re interested in to see where they’ve been placed; consider reaching out to them and asking about the program and whether the degree helped them find their current job.

What Are the Research Priorities of the Programs I’m Interested In?

Here are the questions you need to think about when it comes to research priorities of the master’s program you’re interested in:

  • What are the primary research concerns of the department at each school I’m considering, and how well do they align with your interests?
  • How focused are the programs on theory? How focused on practical application? Which is more important to you?
  • Who are the all-star professors in the department? What are their interests, and do those interests align with yours? Will you have an opportunity to work with those professors?
  • What is the working environment in the programs you’re interested in? Will you collaborate with other students, or compete with them?
  • How closely will you work with professors?
  • What opportunities will you have to get an author credit for research with a professor?

(Written by Dan Edmonds)

Students attend graduate school for a wide variety of reasons. And the degrees—from the overtly professional programs, such as a J.D. or M.D., to those that are largely about pursuing an intellectual passion, such as a PhD in the Humanities—reflect the various motivations students have for pursuing them.

Before you even begin to search for a graduate degree, you need to understand the pros, cons, and purposes of the various available degrees.

Professional Degrees

The Pro – A well defined career path after graduation.

Broadly speaking, professional degrees enable students to acquire and practice the skills necessary for a given profession. These programs stand in contrast to graduate pursuits that focus on research and theory in a particular academic concentration.

Degrees in such fields as Law, Medicine, Education, Engineering, Nursing, Dentistry, and Theology fall into this former category. While it’s certainly possible to pursue a more theory or research-centered degree in many of those fields, generally students seek an advanced degree in medicine with the intent to become a doctor, a degree in law with the intent to become a lawyer or a degree in education with the intent to become a teacher.

As a result, whether to pursue a professional degree tends to be a relatively straightforward question. If you want to work in the relevant field, you need to pursue the relevant degree.

The Con – Substantial Debt.

While the pathway for professional degrees is clearly laid out, it’s still important to investigate your educational choices. Pay attention to employment data in the field you’re considering. For example, a law degree is something of a gamble today because of the shortage of well-paying jobs in law and the over-abundance of lawyers. In addition, you will accrue substantial debt—often in excess of $200,000—while in law school.

That being said, one advantage of a professional degree is that the path from degree to career is well spelled out for the student.

Master’s Degrees

The Pro – It can help advance your professional career.

Non-professional master’s degrees are often viewed either as credentials that will help advance a career without necessarily being attached to a particular profession or as a tool a facilitate a switch from one career track to another. And of course sometimes a master’s degree is simply about pursuing a passion. There are a number of important considerations for pursuing a master’s degree for any of these purposes.

The Con – Work experience may be more valuable.

If you are considering pursuing a master’s to help advance your career, do your research first. Look at the career track you want to pursue: how much do jobs on that track value experience versus education? In many cases, taking two years off work to pursue a master’s degree will do you more harm than good since you may be sacrificing both increased experience and continued income for increased education. There are many fields that would value the experience more.

Even if a master’s is a necessary credential in your particular field, it’s important to carefully consider whether you’ve reached the point in your career trajectory where you should be pursuing a graduate degree. For example, it’s usually best to pursue an MBA after a candidate already has 4-6 years of high quality work experience.

If you are considering a master’s to help you transition from one career track to another, you should do a great deal of research into the new career track. Talk to hiring managers in the field and ask them what they’d look for in a candidate who was trying to switch careers. Figure out which skills you can leverage from your current career and how big a switch you’re actually making. In many cases, it might be more practical and effective to take a few relevant continuing education classes or do a focused certificate program than to actually pursue a master’s degree.

Finally, if you want to pursue a master’s degree because you’re passionate about an area of study, be sure you go in with your eyes wide open. That MFA in Creative Non-Fiction Writing may be your dream, and unquestionably the professional and peer workshop experience will help you to improve your craft. Nonetheless, make sure you have an idea of how you’ll use the skills you have (and that you’ll gain from your MFA) to earn a living in case being a writer doesn’t earn you enough to survive.

PhD Programs

The Pro – Make a career in academia.

A PhD normally consists of in-depth research into a specialized field within a broader discipline. A PhD is almost exclusively a research degree. Candidates usually pursue a PhD with the intent of entering academia or working as a researcher in their area of expertise.

A PhD is a substantial time commitment; the average student takes over 8 years to complete a PhD, and often is guaranteed funding only for the first 4-5 years (or sometime even less than that). And the “funding” students receive is often only enough to live a very bare-bones existence.

The Con – Well paying jobs in academia can be hard to find.

To make matters worse, in many fields, the pay-off for a PhD is very poor job prospects. This is particularly true for PhDs in the Humanities. If your goal in pursuing a PhD is to work in academia, research the state of hiring for your particular career very carefully. The changing job market in academia is leading to an increased percentage of jobs going to adjunct professors, who get no benefits, no job security, and abysmal pay.

If you have true passion for your discipline, strong direction for the research you want to do, and the drive to do the work necessary to complete the degree, a PhD program can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Just be aware that the investment in time and money you’ll be making in the degree may very well not pay off when it comes to your career, particularly if your PhD isn’t in a professional or STEM field.

(Written by Dan Edmonds)

Before getting into any particulars, it’s important to know that it’s difficult to generalize about the components of an application.

Every graduate program is different, sometimes radically so, and much of the burden is on the applicant to figure out the weight of different parts and how best to approach them. That said, there is some good general advice to be given.

The Graduate Application

Undergraduate GPA

Undergraduate GPA will always be important. If your undergraduate major is related to the graduate degree you plan to pursue, schools may view your major GPA separately from your overall GPA. Programs will often isolate the parts of your GPA that are relevant—for example, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs may only really be interested in your STEM GPA, whereas a humanities program may not care about results in any STEM classes you’ve taken.

If you’ve done any graduate work before, your graduate GPA and research will be considered only insofar as they are relevant to the field you’re pursuing.

GRE Scores

Always ask the programs you’re applying to which parts of the GRE they care about. It’s often the case that programs will only care about Math or only care about Verbal (and sometimes the Essays). Many programs will actually tell you what you need to score for your application to be considered, and use the GRE as a kind of “you must be this tall to ride” standard.

If your scores fall short of the minimum needed for the program, you will obviously need to retake the test. If they just reach the minimum score, you still may want to retake the test in order to make yourself stand out from other applicants. That said, the GRE general test scores rarely have a major impact on admissions once they reach a given program’s minimum required levels; other parts of your application are far more important.

Some programs also require GRE subject tests, particularly STEM, Psychology or English programs. If you are applying to a program that requires a subject test, be sure to ask how important these scores are and whether there’s a minimum expected for a viable candidate.

Recommendations

Letters of recommendation tend to play a more important role in graduate programs than they do in undergraduate programs. Your letters should, whenever possible, come from professors or employers who can speak to the work you’ve done that’s relevant to the degree you want to pursue.

Some potential recommenders may have connections at programs you’re interested in; academia is a small world, and professors tend to have strong networks within their particular fields. It may be worth having a slightly less impressive recommender write a letter for application to a school where that recommender has a strong connection.

If you can’t find a strong connection, you should evaluate potential recommenders based on how important their scholarship is within their field. A recommendation from a tenured professor with multiple publications and awards for scholarship will carry far more weight than one from a newly minted professor or a graduate student.

That being said, make sure your recommenders know you well enough to write a strong recommendation and that they are excited to do so. You don’t want a recommendation to lack specifics or contain lukewarm praise. It may be helpful to provide recommenders with a copy of work you’ve done while in their classes to remind them of the quality of your academic production.

Statement of Purpose

For most graduate programs, the primary essay you’ll be asked to produce is called a Statement of Purpose, and it’s a very different essay from the Personal Statement you wrote when applying to college. What do schools want to see in a Statement of Purpose?

  • What you plan to study? The statement of purpose should lay out, as specifically as possible, what exactly you want to research while you pursue your graduate degree. While you will probably not be expected to know the precise topic of your future thesis or dissertation, you should at least be able to articulate the area within your discipline you plan to explore, and to give some indication of the form that exploration will take.
  • Why you are drawn to your field? A good Statement of Purpose will also give the admissions committee a sense of why you want to study this particular topic. What is it you find so fascinating about research, scholarship, or practice within the area you want to study?
  • What experience do you have in your field? Have you done research in the field already? Have you delivered scholarly papers? Published an article in a peer-reviewed journal or received an author credit on a publication? What you have done to show that you are bringing a strong background to this degree?
  • What will you do once you’ve completed your degree? Do you want to become a professor? Work as a researcher? Work for a corporation, a think tank, or an NGO? What will you do with your degree, and how will the degree help you to achieve your goals?

A strong Statement of Purpose is essential for an application to PhD programs. It will allow programs to determine if you fit well with the priorities of the school and, in some cases, will lead to a particular professor fighting actively for your admission because he or she wants to work with you.

The Statement of Purpose is less important for Master’s programs, as you are not expected to have as thorough a sense of what exactly you plan to do within your field. They are also typically not as competitive as PhD programs. That said, the guidelines above still generally apply for a good Master’s program essay.

Writing Sample

Many programs will ask for an example of your work to date. You should submit the strong piece of relevant scholarship you’ve produced. Note that many programs put a limit on the length of these samples, which may prevent you from submitting, for example, an entire honors thesis (but may still allow you to submit a portion of your honors thesis). Always pay attention to any guidelines for the length of the writing sample.

When a writing sample is requested, it will be an important part of the application. Make sure to submit a piece that has been revised, has been read and commented on by at least one professor (ideally a recommender), and has some relevance to your intended field of study.

(Written by Dan Edmonds)

To grad or not to grad? The decision to go to grad school shouldn’t be taken lightly and educating yourself about what you’re really getting into is crucial for anyone considering grad school (and honestly, if you’re over 22 and under 30, chances are you’ve thought about it). The application process is tough enough, without shelling out a large chunk of change only to realize grad school isn’t for you. Check out these books to get a straightforward guide to how grad school works, what to expect, and how to apply, succeed and graduate without losing your sanity!

MUST READ:

Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning an M.A. or Ph.D. by Robert Peters.

Hands down the most useful and comprehensive guide to success in graduate school we could dig up. Peters’ book has been a classic for over 10 years for a very good reason. His excellent book takes you through every step of the process, from the application to graduation. Some might say it’s the grad school bible.

TO GET IN, GET THROUGH AND GET OUT WITHOUT LOSING YOUR SANITY:

Playing the Game: the Streetsmart Guide to Graduate School by Fredrick Frank, PhD and Karl Stein, PhD.

An irreverent, sassy, and humorous approach to getting into, through, and out of graduate school, by two former researchers and teachers.

Piled Higher and Deeper: A Graduate Student Comic Book Selection by Jorge Cham.

Hilarious cartoons about grad school life, or lack thereof. Be sure to check out the others in his series, adapted from illustrations he did as a graduate student for Stanford University’s Stanford Daily Paper.

The Grad School Handbook by Richard Jarrard.

An insider’s guide from a former admissions officer provides a well-organized and comprehensive guide to getting in, financing and succeeding in grad school.

Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way into the Graduate School of Your Choice by Donald Asher.

Step-by-step advice on managing the application process, choosing a program, and of course, tackling the admissions essay.

Grad school isn’t easy. Neither is applying for it. Here are 10 simple steps for applying to graduate school, from finding the right program to showing up for the first day of class.


Step 1: Build your graduate school list.

The first step in applying to graduate school might seem obvious, but we’re going to go there anyway: build a list of schools, just like you did when applying to college or university when you decided you wanted to earn a bachelor’s degree. Your graduate school list should include at least nine programs, separated into dream schools, target schools, and safety schools.

Dream schools

Three of the graduate programs on your list should be “dream schools,” meaning they have competitive admission requirements and challenging academic programs, and only the top students are admitted.

Safety schools

The next three graduate schools on your list need ones where you’ll most certainly get accepted. Safety schools are those for which you exceed the GPA requirement and minimum scores for standardized tests and other exams. If you earned your bachelor’s degree from a college or university that has a more competitive admissions process than one of the graduate schools on your list, consider it a safety school.

Target schools

The next three graduate schools on your list should be those at which you have a solid chance of being admitted. Understanding what differentiates a target school from a dream or a safety school can be challenging. To explain this a little more clearly, target schools are those where:

  • You meet or exceed the master’s program requirements for test scores (including GRE, GMAT).
  • Your academic record meets or exceeds the minimum GPA (AKA your unofficial transcripts from college or university are officially good).
  • You have letters of recommendation that prove to the office of admissions that you’ll be among the top students pursuing this degree if you’re admitted. At least one of your letters of recommendation should be written by a professor at the college or university where you earned your bachelor’s degree. This person should know you (as a student).
  • Your application essay exhibits the meticulous writing skills you developed while earning your bachelor’s degree.

Note: Of all these categories, if you’re going to add schools, add to your target schools. There’s no need to spend more time on the safeties or the dreams. Get a list of recommended grad programs for your academic background, budget, and interests.


Step 2: Make a list of admissions requirements.

Now that you have your graduate schools picked out, outline the admissions process for each graduate school on your list. You’ll see that many graduate school admission requirements overlap. For example, almost all graduate schools require the same documents: transcripts, letters of recommendation, and GRE GMAT scores.

Now, make a spreadsheet or a checklist that has the requirements for each school, which will also allow you to be more efficient as you move through your list. Each school is going to require a personal statement, and most will provide a list of prompts for writing that essay.

There’s usually a lot of overlap between the personal statement prompts each master’s program provides. Know where these overlaps happen, so you can spend your time on writing one or two great personal statement essays, rather than writing ten mediocre statements.


Step 3: Ace your GRE exams.

On your list of requirements, make note of the average GRE or GMAT scores required for admission to each graduate program. Write in the 75th percentile and the 50th percentile averages.

There are a number of GMAT and GRE prep courses where you can practice taking the GMAT and/or GRE subject test. Kaplan and Princeton review both offer free online GRE prep tests. It is important to take an online test because the real GMAT or GRE subject test is on the computer.

If you are in the 75th percentile range for the ‘fair chance’ schools, you’re good to go. What if you’re not in the 75th percentile range? Continue to study! You can study on your own, or you can sign up for a GRE prep course or get a tutor. If you’re far from the score you need to get admitted, practice is the only thing that will get you to where you need to be.


Step 4: Write your personal statement.

Your personal statement is extremely important, as it will set you apart from all the other students trying to get admitted to the same master’s program as you. When writing your personal statement, keep the following things in mind:

  • Catch the readers’ attention. Remember that the office of admissions reads tons of essays. If yours is boring or like all the others, you won’t stand out.
  • Position yourself in a way that shows how you’ll bring value to the school. This, of course, means that you will have to tweak each one specifically to each school. In other words, you need to flatter the office of admissions a little bit. This works especially well if there’s a professor with whom you want to work.
  • Share a copy of your personal statement with those whom you’ve asked to recommend you. This way, they will know what you have already said and won’t repeat the same things. Make sure to ask others to read your statements before you send them out. It’s inevitable that you’ll have typos or errors. By sharing your writing with others, they can help you catch mistakes before they’re submitted.

Step 5: Letters of recommendation

Most graduate school admission requirements ask for three letters of recommendation—which are generally submitted online. There are two difficult aspects to recommendation letters.

  • The first is that you need to make sure that each recommender will say something different. Therefore, you can either ask them what they are going to say or you can tell then what others are saying. This is not an easy conversation. However, professors write letters of recommendation all the time. It makes their lives easier if you’re upfront about what you need them to say.
  • The other difficult aspect of this is getting the recommenders to actually write and submit the letters. They are writing these as a favor. Therefore the priority of your letter of recommendation is low. You will most likely need to pester them to get the letters in on time. Don’t be afraid to do this. To that end, make sure you give your recommenders plenty of lead time. Don’t ask them just a few days ahead of time; give them several weeks (or even months), and give them a deadline.

Make sure you pad your application deadlines; ask for recommendations at least a couple weeks before you actually need them.


Step 6: Request transcripts well ahead of application deadlines.

You will have to send transcript requests to college or university from which you earned your bachelor’s degree. This is the only way to get official transcripts. You may be able to do it online through the schools’ websites, or you can call the registrar’s office. Be prepared to pay between $5 and $10 for each transcript.

Arrange to have your schools send the official transcripts directly to the master’s program you’re applying to, as some graduate schools will not accept transcripts that have passed through your hands first. Gathering all of your transcripts can take months. Don’t procrastinate.


Step 7: Gather examples of work you’ve done.

If you have to submit examples of work you’ve done, ask one of your college or university professors to look over it. It needs to shine. Also, it’s very possible that in your graduate school admission interview, they’ll make reference to this work. Know it well, and be ready to talk about it (including any secondary sources you reference!) in more depth.


Step 8: Triple-check each graduate school application requirements.

Review each set of admissions requirements for all of the master’s programs on your list before submitting your application and other documents. If possible, submit your grad school applications at least one month before they’re due. Most people wait. Your application will be read with better care if it’s early.


Step 9: Hurry up and wait.

One of the hardest parts about applying to graduate school is waiting to hear from the office of admissions after your application has been submitted. Most schools will let you know when they’ll be in touch. If you hear back, you may be asked to visit or conduct a phone interview with the office of admissions. In the interview or visit, you need to be ready to ask questions about the program. Your questions need to show that you’ve researched the program and have thought through how you can contribute. Make sure you practice beforehand with a friend or professor.


Step 10: You got in! Now what?

If you’ve gotten into graduate school—and, hopefully, the school of your dreams—you now need to consider how you’re planning to pay for school. There are a number of options for financial aid, including scholarships, loans, and employer tuition reimbursement programs. That said, the hard part truly is done. Congrats!

(Written by Randall Malcolm)

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