Attending graduate school entails a large commitment. This is not like a bachelor’s program where you might be looking to get a holistic degree that requires you to take a number of electives to keep you well-rounded. Grad school tends to be tightly focused on development toward a specific career path. The intensity of the classes and the academic environment speaks to this idea.
With that in mind, before you decide on the program you want to enroll in, there are a number of questions you will want to ask yourself:
Do You Really Need a Graduate Degree?
Do you really need a graduate degree to be successful in your chosen profession? Before embarking on a program that will likely be taxing (financially and the amount of your time it consumes), it’s crucial to truly assess this question.
- Do you have a clear career path? Again, grad school is for those who are focused on a specific vision of their professional future. If you are still trying to decide your next move, you may need to do more research and self-assessment before going to grad school.
- Can you achieve the same level of education with certificate programs? If your goal is purely instructional and you do not require a further degree or any of the other opportunities that graduate school affords you, it is time to look into certificates or professional development courses.
Is This The Right Time?
There are a number of factors to weigh, both personally and professionally to make sure that you are in the right place for graduate school. Some things to assess include:
- Family obligations: Make sure to realistically discuss with a spouse, partner, and other family members what the commitment will be like. There are very likely aspects of your life that will change drastically, and you will need others to help you pick up the slack. Do you have childcare in place where you need it? Will you be financially solvent? Are elderly relatives being taken care of? If the timing is just not right for your life, you will want to wait until you can responsibly attend grad school.
- Professional obligations: Is it possible to take the necessary time from your work (or your career path) right now to attend school? For example, if you are a nurse who wants further your education, research whether a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) would be most appropriate. If you are thinking of going into a program that allows you to assist your current company in some way you may want to speak with your boss about your thoughts on grad school. Some workplaces are very encouraging about added education and will subsidize grad school or at least make time allowances for employees so that they can retain their position while attending school.
- The right academic timing: Do some research to see when most of your peers received a grad degree. If they waited five or six years before getting a degree, there may be a good reason why. Some of the elite business programs, for example, may have this as a tacit requirement for admission. For example, the average age of an applicant to Harvard Business School is 27 with 54 months of professional experience. If you want to get into this level of a program, you’ll want to weigh your chances against those with at least that much experience.
Have You Researched Different Programs?
The prospect of graduate school can be exciting and make people want to apply right away, but the process of searching for the best degree program should be a long and measured one.
Some ways to think about the grad school research process include:
- When to start: You will want to have enough time to really engage with the programs that you are considering. This usually means a timeline of at least 9 months before application. A year would be even better. This allows you the chance to fully prepare and to find your best program.
- Types of colleges: Are you able to get your degree online rather than in an in-person format? Is an online academic environment one in which you will thrive? Some people are more self motivated than others and if you are not someone who has the best time management skills, then an online college may not be the best choice for you.
- Courses available: Are you going to school to be a doctor? Or are you going to school to be a lawyer? Your career goals will play a large role in what degree program you choose. Make sure the program you are interested in has the courses you need to succeed in your professional career.
- Look for practical hands-on training: Another enormously important aspect of graduate school is access to professional-level opportunities. Most grad programs offer practical training in the professional world that includes shadowing, interning, or participating in low-level field placements in return for the education that can only come experience. Look into the relationships that particular schools have with companies or organizations that you would like to work with and try to exploit those partnerships toward leveraging a career after graduation.
- Do your research: Some of the most crucial parts of the grad school experience include making connections with faculty that can help you progress professionally and gaining practical experience while still in an academic program. You will want to research which programs have relationships with professional development programs that appeal to you and which have professors that can help you advance your career.
- Networking: Another one of the most important aspects of grad school is the peer and alumni network. These are the people that will be your collaborators, champions, and friends. Before choosing a school, check out the current network and what graduates have accomplished to see if these look like a group you would want to join.
- Visit campus: If you choose an in-person program, you will want to visit as many campuses as possible. Take tours, talk to relevant faculty as well as current students to assess if this place is right for you.
Taking all this into account will help you get precise and systematic about how you choose the best grad school path (if you choose to go). Looking for an easy way to visualize this information? Check out this flow-chart that paints an excellent picture of how to consider your grad school readiness.