Decide if Graduate School Is Right for You

What are your motivations for getting a graduate degree? This is a major decision — time you could be out earning money instead of racking up more student loans to pay off — so be honest with yourself. Don't go to graduate school if you're afraid you won't get a job in your chosen field or just aren't "ready for the real world." Graduate school involves an intensive study and hours or application — research, teaching, medicine, etc. It involves long hours of studying, writing, and experiments.

What else do you need to succeed in graduate school? First, graduate school requires a degree of confidence. You will need to be able to take constructive criticism — of your work; your experiments; or your ideas — and be able to hold long, arduous discussions where you may have to defend your ideas. Second, graduate school requires dedication. (If a 40-hour workweek sounds daunting, it may be nothing compared to the hours you'll find yourself buried in research during grad school.) Graduate school also requires perseverance, like trying the same experiment over and over again to make sure the results are consistent, or rewriting countless drafts of the same paper for your professor to review.

Does this mean graduate school is excruciating? Far from it. It can be an amazing thrill ride when you discover a new scientific phenomenon that no one's ever dreamed of, or when you see your name in print for the first time, or find peers that share your love of a subject, or meet people at a conference who are truly excited about your work.

Graduate school will allow you to become an independent thinker, or a scholar, a writer, a scientist, lawyer, or doctor. Graduate school will probably turn out to rewarding opportunity if:

  • You have a clear sense of the career you want to pursue, and if an advanced degree is necessary to get into that field. Obviously, law and medicine require advanced education, as do careers in most sciences like astronomy and biology; but so might research, teaching (especially if your goal is to teach at the collegiate level), business, the arts, and writing.

  • You want to immerse yourself in an academic life, or the study of a particular discipline. If you simply love to learn or can't get enough of a particular subject, science, or issue and want to make a career of it, graduate school might be the place to start.

Think twice if you're considering grad school solely for one of the following reasons:

  • You haven't decided what you want to do with your life and think that staying in school is a good place to think about it.

  • Your friends are all going to graduate school, or your parents or professors are suggesting you do. It's your life: Do what you want with it. But never pursue something like a master's degree just because your friends are or because someone else thinks you should.

  • You'd rather stay in school than find a job. Sure, searching for a job is no picnic, especially in a competitive field. But having a master's degree is no guarantee of a job, either.

    This same holds true if you've chosen a field that's experiencing rapid growth. It might be frustrating to spend years of your life and thousands of dollars getting a graduate degree only to find yourself working among people doing the same job with a bachelor's degree.

  • You think there's nothing you can do with your undergraduate degree. These days, liberal arts graduates seem fond of self-deprecating phrases like, "No one wants to hire a history major" (or English, philosophy, math, theatre, art, communications, political science, and plenty of other majors). Whatever you majored in to obtain your bachelor's, your undergraduate education equipped you with skills that are valued and sought out in the workplace — things like creative thinking, conducting research and analysis, expressing your ideas both orally and in writing, and meeting deadlines. Besides, would getting a graduate degree — and delving even deeper into a niche field of study — really help?