by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.Deciding to seek one or more graduate degrees is a major commitment of time and money; a decision not to take lightly. You will face several years of intense work and research -- a much more demanding course load than in your undergraduate program. Before deciding your next step, you should take the time to honestly answer these five questions.
Five Key Questions to Answer Before You Apply to Graduate School
1. Why are you considering a graduate degree?
If you are seeking a graduate degree to achieve a career goal, you first need to have a clear understanding of what you want to do with your career -- and how earning a graduate degree will help you reach that goal. If you have any doubt at all about your professional goals, consider putting off graduate school and, instead, spend some time working on some self-assessment and career planning. If you go to graduate school without a clear goal, you will probably end up wasting both time and money.
While certain careers definitely require an advanced degree -- doctors and lawyers, for example -- many other careers offer plenty of job opportunities for job-seekers with just an undergraduate degree. In fact, in some situations having an advanced degree can actually hurt you in a job search if you also have little or no job experience.
Most studies show that people with advanced degrees earn more on average than people with bachelor's degrees. According to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau, in 2009 the average worker with a bachelor's degree earned $56,665, while a worker with a master's degree earned $73.738. Furthermore, a worker with a professional degree (such as a JD, MD, OD, DVM) earned $127,803, while a worker with a doctorate (PhD) earned $103,054. (Obviously those salaries are slightly higher today; the key is the difference in salary by education level.)
While a graduate degree is not required for many "entry-level" jobs, you may need to earn an advanced degree to keep your training and skills current -- and make you more marketable for career advancement.
A graduate degree can often make sense for a job-seeker who is looking to make a career change, In this case, you would be earning the graduate degree in the field you plan to enter. Read more about career change strategies in our article, The 10-Step Plan to Career Change.
2. What's the best timing for obtaining a graduate degree?
One of the questions most often debated is when the best time is to consider a graduate degree. Is it better to attend graduate school right after you complete your bachelor's degree or is it better to wait a few years and gain some work/life experience first. As mentioned above, certainly do not consider going immediately to graduate school as a default move -- or to avoid getting a job.
The following are good reasons for going straight to graduate school after earning your bachelor's degree:
- you are accustomed to being a student -- and have momentum
- your study skills are sharp
- you have few obligations
- some occupations require an advanced degree even for "entry-level" positions
If you are seeking a graduate degree to achieve a career goal, you first need to have a clear understanding of what you want to do with your career -- and how earning a graduate degree will help you reach that goal. If you have any doubt at all about your professional goals, consider putting off graduate school and, instead, spend some time working on some self-assessment and career planning.
The following are reasons for working for a few years before going to graduate school:
- you can better know your career goals by working in the field for a few years;
- some graduate programs require work experience;
- you bring a broader world view to your studies;
- you have a more mature outlook on school and work;
- many employers will pay some or all of your graduate school expenses;
- you can gain solid financial footing;
- you can improve your chances for acceptance to graduate programs -- especially if you were not the best student in your undergraduate program.
3. What is the best graduate degree for you?
There are two traditional categories of graduate degrees -- master's and doctoral -- although there are also numerous hybrid combined-degree and certificate programs at many universities.
Master's: Master's degree programs are growing and evolving, with degrees offered in just about all fields. Master's degrees can be professional or academic. Professional degrees, such as a Master of Business Administration (MBA), are designed for employment or advancement within a given field. Academic degrees, such as a Master of Science, are designed for intellectual growth and (sometimes) a prerequisite for doctoral work within a given field. Master's degrees may take one to three years to complete.
Professional degrees, such as the Doctor of Medicine (MD) and the Juris Doctor (JD), stress the practical application of knowledge and skills. Professional degrees can take two to five years to complete.Doctorate: The Doctor of Philosophy Degree (Ph.D.) is the highest possible earned academic degree. The focus of a Ph.D. is on advancing knowledge through original research in a given academic field. Doctorates may take three to six years to complete.
4. What is the best graduate school/program for you?
Just as important a decision as whether to go to graduate school is the decision of where to go to graduate school. In fact, some experts say your choice of a graduate school is much more important than your choice of an undergraduate school. We've developed a list of criteria you could use to evaluate various programs. A more fundamental question for many, though, is whether to simply continue graduate studies at the college where you earned your bachelor's degree.
Unless you attended a top-tier undergraduate college, most experts suggest that you should seek a graduate program at a different college from where you earned your bachelor's degree. The idea is that by attending a different school, you are exposed to different faculty, different perspectives, and different resources -- all designed to broaden your knowledge and experiences within your field. It's a lot harder than simply continuing on at your alma mater, but change is almost always a good thing, especially in graduate education.
5. Can you afford graduate school?
Just as with your undergraduate college, it is crucial to look at the costs of the various graduate programs that interest you and determine what mix of financial aid will make attending the programs feasible. It's best to study the literature each school sends you and then talk with a financial aid adviser at those schools that interest you. Besides some of the same types of financial aid offered at the undergraduate level, most graduate programs also offer fellowships (for teaching or research assistance). And if you're currently employed, don't forget to see if your employer has an tuition reimbursement program.
Other resources for those applying to grad school:
- Tips to Getting Accepted to Graduate School
- Writing the Graduate School Application Essay: Tips for Success
- Graduate School Resume Template for MS Word
Looking for a new job while you decide if graduate school is right for you? LiveCareer has resources that can help: