Graduate school differs from your undergraduate education in that it involves specialized study of one specific area. Even though, while at college, you spent some time gaining knowledge in your chosen major, you were introduced to a wide variety of other specialties. Through your curriculum, you were able to gain skills and knowledge that prepared you for graduate school or the world of work.
Graduate school further prepares you for your career interest through specialized courses, research and/or internships. These components will give you practical professional skills and an in depth knowledge of your field of study. Graduate school can also serve the needs of others who are interested in expanding their knowledge of an a vocational interest that may have little to do with their professional goals. To complete the program, usually some type of original research in the form of a thesis or dissertation or a final comprehensive exam is required.
Deciding whether to attend graduate school is a decision that requires some careful thought and is one that should not to be made lightly. There are several questions that you can ask yourself to assist you in this process.
Do I really love the field enough to obtain an advanced degree?
Going to graduate school usually involves a career choice. You really need to be enthused in this career area to be able to keep up with the demands and intensity of graduate life. Take some time to investigate your field of interest before applying. Talk to alumni or professors in the field and read resources on the subject.
Is an advanced degree required to enter a particular profession or obtain a certain level within the field?
In many professional fields such as medicine, law, psychology, and education, an advanced degree is a must. For others, a graduate degree can enhance your earning power in an occupation and can influence how far and fast you will advance in your field. Most human service fields are examples of this. Your chances of obtaining increased responsibility in your job will be enhanced through obtaining an advanced degree.
Do I have the financial resources to cover the cost of graduate school?
You may feel you need to take a couple of years off to work to save money for graduate school. Many graduate students, though, are able to cover all or a substantial amount of the cost with grants, fellowships or assistantships. Obtaining loans are also a possibility. Make sure you investigate these options before deciding if have the financial means. Remember also, that most fellowships are competitive and are awarded early.
Am I burned out academically and do I need to take some time off?
Take some time to assess your energy level. Do you have the motivation to stay in school for one to seven more years? You may need to take some time off to "discover yourself" and/or gain some work experience. Many students find that after taking time off to work, they are better prepared academically for graduate school and have clearer defined goals. They also find that they have a better perspective on life in general and they have the energy to invest themselves in their education. Taking time off can also give you the information needed to determine exactly what program you need for a particular field. In addition, some graduate schools won't accept students without some prior work experience. (This expectation is true of most MBA programs.)
Am I postponing some tough decisions by going to graduate school?
Make sure you are deciding on going to graduate school for the right reasons. Some students feel tempted to continue their education because they don't feel ready to face the demands of "real life" or aren't clear on what career they want to pursue. These are exactly the reasons not to go to graduate school. Some programs that incorporate internships and work-related experiences into the curriculum do serve as a good transition period from college to work life. You need to be clear on your goals before committing the time and expense.
Do I want to go to school full-time or part-time?
Going to graduate school full-time is a more intensive process and allows you to interact with the colleagues in your program at a closer level. Some programs require that you go full-time and it may be difficult or not possible to get some types of financial aid without attending full-time. Attending school part-time, though, does allow you the chance to work in the field, earn money and complete your degree during a longer time period. Another option may be to work in an organization that is willing to foot the bill for graduate school.
Do I have the personal qualities and skills that are needed to be successful in graduate school?
Although there is no ideal profile for the successful graduate student, there are some qualities that are important in order to make it through productively. Some of these skills include intelligence, initiative and self-discipline. Most graduate programs assume that students will maintain at least a 3.0 GPA. Time management skills, being focused and persistent are also important qualities. In addition, the ability to establish good working relationships with your fellow students, faculty and internship mentors is also important.
When to Attend?
If you have decided that graduate school is for you, you then need to decide if you would like to attend immediately after graduation, or wait a year or two. Though many seniors begin the year pursuing graduate school plans, only about 20-30% of the senior class end up enrolling in graduate school immediately following graduation. Most graduates opt to work a year or two and then pursue graduate school plans. There are advantages to both choices.
In looking at the advantages to proceeding directly, there is more continuity of learning between undergraduate and graduate school and you will probably still be in the "studying mode". Secondly, many students find it is easier to finance graduate school when there aren¹t other major financial obligations such as marriage, mortgages and children. Undergraduate loans can be deferred while attending school as well. Lastly, if you are enthusiastic and certain about a career decision where graduate school is needed, attending right away will quicken the time you can enter the profession.
The advantages of waiting a year or two before attending graduate school have already been outlined above. To recap: if you are uncertain about the field you would like to study or if there are goal conflicts for the reasons for attending graduate school, then if it would be advantageous to gain some work experience and/or take some time off.