What is grad school? Should you go?
If you were to ask most college students in the middle of exam week what they’d think of tacking a few more years of school on after graduation, you probably wouldn’t get a positive answer—if you got an answer at all. They might not even know the difference; after all, what is graduate school vs. college?
To begin with, graduate school is much more than just college part two.
Grad school is a time for you to get deeper into subjects you care about. You discuss subjects more freely and get into longer, more detailed conversations. There are fewer and fewer right answers and more experimenting in a graduate degree program. You share ideas to try to understand things better. You look for new solutions to old questions. You become less of a sponge and more of a colleague with your professors.
Your undergraduate program is training you to take on a productive role in the world with a professional degree. Graduate education is more about going a step further and learning enough that you can train others. That can mean going into teaching, or getting a role with more authority and responsibility at your company.
If that sounds exciting, then you may already be thinking about how to apply to grad school. There are more things to consider before deciding on a specific graduate program, but we’ve got answers ready for that. Read on to find out if grad school is a good choice for you, and just what you’d be choosing as a prospective student.
What types of graduate degree programs are there?
This question is pretty simple. For the most part, if you can get a bachelor’s or associate’s degree in a subject, you can get a master’s degree in it as well at a graduate school.
According to the most recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics, “At the master’s degree level, the greatest numbers of degrees were conferred in the fields of business (187,000), education (146,000), and health professions and related programs (119,000).”
Other highly popular graduate degree programs include public administration and social services, computer and information science, theatre and performing arts, social sciences, history, psychology, and theology.
You can safely assume that these more popular programs will be available at most graduate schools, but you may be interested in a different area that is less common at grad schools like technology or production. Depending on the size of a college and their faculty, they may specialize in some things but not have enough instructors to teach others.
The safest way to know what any school offers is to check their website. North Central College, for example, has an interactive program finder on their site that lets you look through both undergraduate and graduate programs and filter them to find exactly what you’re looking for. That way, once it comes time to complete the online college application, you will know just what to apply for and which boxes to check off.
You can also contact a graduate school directly by email or phone and just ask for them to send you information on what programs they offer. Every year new industries, government policies and social issues lead to new graduate programs. So keep looking and keep asking, because there will be more choices for you as time goes on.
Should I go to grad school for an advanced degree?
The decision to go to grad school is more complicated than the decision to go to college, which is why it’s highly recommended to come up with a list of questions to ask grad school faculty, staff, and other industry professionals before committing to the process. Compared to being an undergrad, going to grad school is all about having more choices. That can feel like freedom, or it can be overwhelming.
The financial options are different, the options for your living situation are greater, and the chances to have a social life are not the same, either.
Before you do anything else, read this and remember: do not go to graduate school because you have nothing better to do. This type of professional school will require much more energy, time, and effort than your undergraduate degree program.
Graduate school is an alternative to going right into the workforce, so some apply just because they haven’t found a job yet or they don’t really know what they want in a career, upon receiving their undergraduate degree.
A master’s degree program isn’t easy, and it’s costly. It takes too much effort and money to use as a double gap year. You need a better reason—whether it’s to learn more about something that interests you, to pick up soft skills to make you better at a job, or to get a degree that can earn you a higher salary—and preferably more than one.
Unlike college, where you’re expected to take a year or so to find a major, you should only go to graduate school if you already have a passion for something and want to make it a much bigger part of your life for the next few years.
So, on to the practical stuff. You need to make a list of pros and cons no matter what—and do your research before committing to a master’s program. Start with people who already have graduate degrees and ask them what it was like. Did they enjoy their classes during their graduate study? Could they balance their time? Was it affordable or did they have to take significant student loans to attend? Did a grad degree help them get a better job or make more money? Not only will these conversations help with your decision of whether or not to attend, but by speaking with professionals you may get the inside scoop on how to submit an outstanding application and what typical grad school interview questions entail.
Think about what you want to do for a living. Some subjects don’t necessarily lead directly from a professional degree to a career in an industry, like English or foreign languages, gender studies and philosophy. Having a graduate degree can give you more options for working in those areas, whether as a teacher, researcher, or in a job you design yourself. That said, there is likely to be more competition to find those jobs from others with graduate degrees.
Other industries value work experience and certain mindsets over studying for longer, so getting an additional degree might not help much. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic of the Harvard Business Review says, “Employers like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft all (point) out that learnability — having a hungry mind and being a fast and passionate learner — is more important than having acquired certain expertise in college. Along the same lines, many employers complain that even the best performing graduates will need to learn the most relevant job skills, such as leadership and self-management, after they start their jobs.”
Not only that, but according to college prep website Peterson’s, “During an economic downturn, should you find yourself looking for employment, having an advanced degree can be a liability. You might hear, ‘Sorry, you’re overqualified.’”
You also need to think about how you’ll spend your time. Graduate school class schedules are lighter than the ones for undergraduates, but the expectations are higher. You’ll be expected to do more work, especially writing, on your own than you ever have before. If you want to do well, you will need to prepare and study extensively, so while you’ll have more free time to work with, you can’t expect to spend it all relaxing or making friends. Managing your time and knowing how to deal with stress will be really important to make it through.
Many people work while in graduate school, too, so your social interactions might be limited to the people in your classes and your co-workers. That can be good because you have common interests and stresses you can relate about. It can also be a drawback if all you can talk about is school or work. You might care mostly about your subject, though, and if the work itself is what’s most rewarding, having friendships outside of class may not need to be a priority.
Ultimately the biggest questions, as always, come down to money.
The financial part of graduate school is all about tradeoffs—you have to spend money to get money. To begin with, graduate school tuition is expensive. The average cost can vary widely depending on where you want to go, but the range is from around $15,000 to about $40,000.
Personal finance advisor Ramit Sethi, author of the wildly popular "I Will Teach You to be Rich," told CNBC to “factor in the opportunity cost. Not only are you going to be paying for this program, but you're also going to be losing money by not being employed." So unless you are independently wealthy and just going for fun, you will most likely need loans to get yourself through.
The article from CNBC also provides the most recent data on graduate student borrowing from the Urban Institute. They found that the average grad student borrows $18,201 a year. That doesn’t include what they pay for places to live, food, travel, or entertainment. Plus, that’s only one year, and graduate programs are almost always two or more.
That said, if you’re going to grad school you have to assume the money you pay now will come back to you when you are finished and enter the job market. According to CNBC, “A comprehensive study done by Georgetown University in 2015 found that the average American with a bachelor's degree earned $61,000 (a year), while those with a graduate degree earned $78,000.”
Breaking things down even further, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found in February 2019 that, “Workers with at least a bachelor’s degree earned more than the $932 median weekly earnings for all workers.” The same study found that those with at least a master’s earned an average of $1,434 per week. The study also showed that people with master’s degrees had an unemployment rate of only 2.1 percent.
The idea of getting out what you put into grad school goes a step further. For example, when talking about whether to go for a master’s in business administration (MBA), Sethi says to “only go if [you] get into a top five program — not top 5 percent — a top five program [in the country]." That’s a pretty tough standard to set, but it’s very much worth it for any master’s degree program.
Setting how tough it is to get into top programs aside for a second, the dollars and cents really do add up. Most top colleges with excellent graduate programs can afford to pump lots of money into those programs. That means it will be easier to get scholarships, financial aids, and grants—may be even easier than at big state schools or small, private colleges.
"'Expensive' schools can give you the highest signaling value AND end up being less expensive in total," Sethi says. In other words, you’ll not only look better to potential employers, you may end up in less debt. Don’t be afraid of the sticker price, because great schools want you to be there to keep them looking great.
Regardless of where you go, be ready to get your hands dirty to earn your aid. While scholarships and financial aid aren’t as common in grad school as for undergrads, opportunities to work as a teaching or research assistant can be more common. Covering courses for thousands of undergrads is a tough job, so schools are quick to take anyone who’s willing to pass on what they know, even if they’re still learning. Being a grad assistant is great practice because if you’re getting a graduate degree you’re hopefully planning on being a boss or instructor of some kind. It’s good to get used to it while working with a tough crowd like a room full of bored freshmen.
Preparing for grad school
Hopefully, now you have enough information to make a decision you can live with. If you don’t want to go to grad school, you can stop here. Let’s say that you are going forward, though. What comes next? Here’s what we suggest.
- Rank your choices—You should know by now what your subject is and that it’d be good to have a master’s degree in that subject. Now you can start to evaluate schools not only on their overall reputation but on how good their programs are in your subject. Look at sources like U.S. News and World Report, the Princeton Review, Niche, and yes, gradschools.com. Think also about how big class sizes are, whether you can take classes online, aid opportunities, and how well-regarded the graduate faculty is. Make yourself a master list of places you love, places you think would work well, and places you can live with, then move on to narrow them down more.
- Think about your living situation—A lot of graduate programs do not offer on-campus housing or leave a few places for grad students to live. More than likely, you’ll need to find a place to rent close to where your classes happen. Weigh into your decision whether you can afford a place like that, how safe neighborhoods near campus are, if you’ll be close enough to shopping options, and how many roommates you may want or need. Once you’ve decided on a school, don’t wait to look at places because you’ll be racing not just grads but undergrads and possibly local residents to sign a lease.
- Apply early—Speaking of deciding quickly, make sure you are getting around to filling out your application sooner rather than later. Graduate programs are smaller by design, and thus more competitive. Don’t go overboard on applications fees, but otherwise, cast a wide net. Apply to sure things and safety schools and remember that it can be worth it to go for top programs even if you’re not completely sure you can get in.
- Practice making a tight schedule and sticking to it—As we mentioned earlier, the undergraduate college experience is only a taste of what graduate school is like. You’ll need to get used to spending much more time on studying and class assignments along with any work or chores you have to do that you wouldn’t at a dorm or at home. So don’t wait—make a sample schedule for yourself now where you give a specific amount of time to everything you do in a day including eating and sleeping. Find something to work on, even if you don’t have a job or classes to go to, and make yourself do it at the same time daily. That can be your stand-in for your graduate classes. Having a set time for everything can take some experimenting and time to get used to, but if you’re already in a rhythm before you start grad school, you’ll be ahead of the game.
- Reach out for help—Just because you’re finished with your undergrad degree doesn’t mean you’re done with your college. Few things make professors happier than to hear a student is going on to graduate work, especially if you’re going to continue on where you got your bachelor’s. Keep connected to your professors, as well as your classmates, and look for their help. Whether it’s a recommendation on a good grad school for you, a letter of recommendation or a preview of what to expect from a new class or professor, keeping your chain of higher education linked can only be good for you. You might even find a friend who’s going into the same program you are, and they can be a great study partner or potential roommate.
Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 10 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.