Traditionally, most people who enter graduate programs have already had some work experience before deciding to go to graduate school because they want to enter new fields, hammer down on what they already know, etc. As someone still in my undergraduate years, I am the first to admit that my perspective is not representative of a lot of people. But on more than one occasion, undergraduate friends have definitively said they wanted to move directly from undergrad to graduate school. So, I’ve been considering the pros and cons of graduate work from the perspective of someone with no job, kids, or spouse.
The Years-in-School Factor
First and foremost, I think the most common question asked of students considering grad school is, “How much do you like school?” This comes as no surprise; a graduate degree is not necessary for many careers. If I didn’t enjoy school, I might opt to skip it.
But, I’m a fan of academia, and it’s hard to fit everything I want to do into four years. I chose my undergraduate institution on the basis that a liberal arts college would build foundational understanding, while bigger universities seem to incorporate undergraduate research and projects. I can see myself expanding my knowledge base with graduate work because I simply enjoy studying. Additionally, my liberal arts education has its drawbacks in providing such a breadth of knowledge. I do not get to specialize in a field for my undergraduate years as intensely as I might like and grad school gives me the opportunity to do so.
The Challenge (and Politics) of Academic Rigor
Furthermore, the difficulty of a graduate program is important to consider. The undergraduate experience is inarguably less intense than that of a graduate program, where good grades are expected, hand-holding is nonexistent, and a desire to learn is practically ubiquitous, just to name a few key differences highlighted by Melissa Boone Brown.
Alongside intensity, subjectivity plays a much larger part in graduate studies. Master’s Degree recipients have confessed to me that defending a thesis is about politics as much as skill — stories of professors who simply did not like their candidates’ theses are not uncommon. Otherwise, graduate programs boast intensive study and that’s not something to sign up for lightly.
However, take what I say with a grain of salt, since I haven’t been through these programs; more relevant perspectives may come from graduate school grads like Lynn O’Shaughnessy.
The Price of an Education
There’s a price tag attached to every graduate program in the United States. For a lot of people, passion is not enough to invest a small fortune into getting a graduate degree. Unlike undergraduate studies, certain graduate programs waive tuition, provide stipends for housing, and even pay candidates to be research assistants. Of course, alongside these options, federal and private loans are available at the graduate level.
Prospective graduate students should also consider return on investment. Payscale’s College Salary Report includes a section for graduate schools that shows the salary potential for various institutions and degrees. Students must think about the prospects for their field of study. For example, a law degree is not the guaranteed job it was once promised to be. Furthermore, the school matters; an Emory JD’s mid-career median pay is almost $50,000 more than a that of University of Texas at Austin School of Law alum.
Lastly, I think a small (and in no way defining) factor to consider is the likelihood of one’s acceptance into graduate school. As a disclaimer, there is no cut-and-dried formula to get into graduate school and programs have their own requirements, including whether students can attend right after graduation. For example, if I pursue a Master’s in Design, as I’m currently contemplating, I cannot even consider applying to any programs without a few years of work experience; in fact, work experience seems pretty central to the graduate school experience as outlined by Nicole Wolf.
Graduate school is still a ways off for me, and to make that decision right now feels premature to say the least. I still have a lot of time to weigh the literal and figurative costs. My goal is to use that time to make sure that any decision I come to will benefit my career, as well as building my knowledge base.
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