How To Understand If Grad School Should Be The Next Step For You
Are you graduating this spring and not sure what to do next? Have you been out of school for a couple of years and still are not entirely sure what the next move is but you're looking for something to guide you in a definitive direction?
These are the times that a lot of Gen-Yers start considering graduate school programs or law schools. As someone who chose to pursue graduate studies, here are a few pros and cons to keep in mind if you are considering furthering your education after undergrad:
Cons To Keep In Mind:
1. Debt, Debt, Debt
If you were lucky enough to come out of undergrad debt-free either due to scholarship or familial help, congrats, I'm jealous. But, graduate tuition is more expensive and federal grants are not readily available for masters and law programs. While fellowships, private scholarships and GA positions are available to supplement the cost, they are all very competitive, and in some programs, fellowships and GA positions aren't available.
Even if you somehow get your tuition funded, working during graduate school to cover living expenses is not entirely practical given the exponential increase in workload that most students face. (Most law programs forbid secondary employment.)
So, most students rely on federal Stafford loans to fund graduate studies, which tap out at a $20,000 maximum per calendar year. If you choose an institution that's pricey (which is most), tuition will likely exceed the $20,000 federal maximum, forcing you to fill the remaining gaps with private loans, which tend to have crazy high interest rates.
2. Employment Certainty
Certainty in finding employment in a chosen field is shaky in this economy for everyone, no matter the level of education. But, before you commit money and time to a specific program, do some research and find out what people in your desired field are making, and check out your prospective institutions' post-grad employment rates.
Does everyone or almost everyone that graduates from your program find employment in the field within six-to-twelve months of graduating? Do people in your prospective profession make enough to sustain your lifestyle as well as repay student debt? Also, consider whether or not the field is something that is expanding or whether it is something that could be soon be obsolete.
Also consider whether people employed in your field generally have to be located in a very specific geographic region in order to find lucrative employment and carefully consider whether that region suits you and your personality.
Relatedly, if the subject matter/field/stuff you will be doing everyday isn't something about which you are passionate, don't commit to it. Graduate studies are very focused in one particular area, though you will study numerous peripheral subjects and concepts.
You are getting a Master's degree in something and in doing so, you are expected to “master” that one thing, so if that one thing isn't something you think you want to spend the next chunk of years of your life studying, let alone doing for the years following that, don't pursue the degree.
Additionally, if you can't commit to studies in general, you are unlikely to enjoy or succeed in graduate school. The workload is much greater than the undergraduate level. There are no multiple-choice tests that you can kinda/sorta guess your way through if you have the time to study and the professors are unlikely to show sympathy for missed due dates.
Almost every course ends with a research project, which can be upwards of 20 pages. If you aren't good at managing your time and setting goals to meet deadlines, graduate school will prove to be very difficult for you. Don't get me wrong, I coasted through undergrad on PBR fumes at a party school, but it requires knowing yourself very well and mastering both self-discipline and time management.
4. Experience Vs. Education
In a job market that's oversaturated with college graduates, it's tempting to decide that a graduate degree is what will set you apart from the herd at a job interview. It might. But given the oversaturation, many employers might value work experience over advanced education. Think about your career goals and decide whether an employer will value an advanced degree or hands-on experience more.
Often, advanced degrees are really only practical for someone who wants to go on to a Ph.D. and eventually teach a particular subject. Do the research and ponder whether your time and efforts would be better spent in cultivating work experience or in further study. You can always revisit the idea of grad school after a year working.
You can't, though, get your money and time back after you graduate and discover that people with the jobs you want got hired because they had years of experience and not necessarily higher degrees. Additionally, if you are looking to do something creative, chances are you do not need to get a higher degree in your field. Experience, paying your dues, and building a portfolio of work is much more important in a creative field than in higher education.
Pros To Keep In Mind
Given all that, why the f*ck would anyone ever go to grad school? Well, if you've found something you are passionate about and think you would enjoy a career in it, grad school is actually kind of awesome. Grad school is meant to teach students how to gather and process information on their own and then how to interpret that information from various critical perspectives.
Specifically, graduate studies are meant to cultivate and enhance critical and abstract thinking. It trains your brain to see things critically, solve real-world problems and understand how facts and pieces of information can come together to create concepts and ideas. It teaches you to see the forest rather than the trees and understand how every tree affects the state of the forest.
Practically speaking, what the hell does this have to do with a job or a career or a future? Basically, all of this means that if you make it through graduate school, you will have some badass research skills that will come in handy in virtually any office setting, and after writing a zillion 30-page research papers, no amount of research, information or data in a real life context will ever seem daunting.
A 50-page client prospectus or even 500 pages of dense legal briefs or whatever else the world can throw at you will feel like your little sister's middle school diary entries.
Also, graduate school — because the concentration is so focused — is a great avenue at which to meet like-minded friends and academics, as well as a perfect venue for establishing academic and professional connections that can be instrumental in locking down secure employment in your field in the future. Make friends with the professors and administrators — they know what's up when it comes to job searches.
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