Ahh, grad school. With so many options and possibilities, higher education can feel like a big black hole of possibility, often coupled with a fair dose of anxiety and uncertainty. It’s easy to feel like everyone at the U of R — minus you —figured out their path to medical school or pinpointed a PhD program by the end of first-year orientation. It’s not true. The hidden truth is that nobody actually knows what they’re doing, and even those who think they know can often be surprised where they end up after graduation.
Regardless of where you are in your undergraduate career, you may be wondering whether graduate school is the right next step. Maybe your professor recommended you consider advanced study, or your dream job requires an advanced degree. But you’re the only one who can decide for sure, and that’s a lengthy process.
Take time to reflect
First, reflect on what you want your future job/life to look, and find experiences that can help you test out that life. I had always been interested in making medicines, which would put me in the biopharmaceutical industry. So, the summer after my sophomore year, I interned at a pharmaceutical company. Here, I developed technical skills that made me a more competitive candidate for future opportunities, and I learned more about the workings of a company.
This internship also showed me how different degree types translate into industry. I realized that the advising and managerial positions required more than a bachelor’s. This experience is what first turned me onto the idea of potentially pursuing a PhD. Of course, this is just one example, and how you choose to explore your future life will be unique to you. Internships and research programs are great options, but you can explore your future through less structured positions and volunteer work, too.
Get curious about your interests
Interested in medicine? Shadow a physician or volunteer at your local hospital. Interested in law and wonder if you should go to law school or work as a paralegal? Reach out to your mom’s lawyer friend and set up a quick video chat to learn more about what they like and dislike about their job. Or take a constitutional law class during undergrad! Ultimately, there is no shortcut to figure it out. You need to do the research, talk to different people, try out experiences, and decide what you like and what you don’t like. Finding out you might not want your so-called dream job now instead of 10 years into the job will save you from a draining career. Therefore, narrowing down your interests and goals will allow you to define whether or not you should even be considering a graduate degree.
Some students think that by senior year, things will just have fallen into place. They’ll have an internship under their belt, and companies will be lining up to hire them fresh out of school. The truth is that things only fall into place if you work really hard to figure it out. Also, if you put in the work and things haven’t quite fallen into place, that’s absolutely okay! You don’t need to know whether graduate school is right for you right away. Maybe you want to work for a few years and test the waters before applying to graduate programs. Sometimes a break from school is exactly what you need to recharge your academic batteries.
Questions to consider
Once you decide on getting an advanced degree, it’s time to talk logistics. First, decide what type of program you are thinking about going for. Depending on the field, there can be dozens of degrees that will allow you to enter the career path that gives you joy. You also want to consider the nitty, gritty, adult factors: time and money. How long is your graduate program, and are you able to work during it? How much does the program cost and how will you pay for it? These questions are nasty and can be overwhelming, so let’s digest them a bit below and think about how we can tackle them:
How long is your graduate program and are you able to work during it?
Some programs, like MD and PhD programs, require a long-term commitment of at least 5 years that you need to be comfortable with. Even master’s programs are usually around two years minimum. Depending on whether you can work during the program, and if you’re paying for it yourself, you need to evaluate if you’re okay with losing out on those years of earning potential, and compare it to the payoff for receiving your advanced degree. I’m all for “follow your dreams,” but I think it’s also unrealistic to avoid logistics and the impact not consider the logistics and the impact — both positive and negative — that graduate school can have on finances and your future.
How much does the program cost and how will you finance it?
Costs can be scary, but don’t let that dictate your graduate path completely. There are a lot of ways to finance graduate school. For example, PhD’s are usually tuition-free because you pay the school in your research. You could also enter the workforce and save up while gaining valuable experience before heading back to school. Many companies will also finance part-time graduate degrees for their employees, so that is another avenue to consider. Many master’s programs offer scholarships to candidates who apply early. Again, do your research, know what your financial limitations are, and figure out which path makes the most sense for you to ensure success and stability.
The path to graduate school
Now that we have covered those nasty details, you have a path forward. For juniors and seniors reading this, are you truly prepared right now at this moment? What kind of candidate are you if you had to apply tomorrow? Maybe you didn’t get the best grades last semester, and you’re worried about standing out academically. Or maybe you feel super prepared and got great grades, want to go to grad school, but you are just super burnt out and need a break. Either way, guess what? You can take a break from school!
Try something new. Work in a job for a few years, make yourself more prepared, show that grades don’t translate into a lack of skills, and give yourself a mental break. You can’t always go 100 miles per hour, and sometimes taking a pause lets you see more opportunities. Plus, some programs, like MBAs, expect candidates to have a few years of experience, so working first may be to your advantage. And for all of you out there raring to apply to grad school, that’s awesome as well! Hopefully you feel like you know your next logistical step in researching programs and consulting mentors.
At the end of the day, regardless of all the research you do, you will have to trust your gut and take a leap of faith. However, that leap can still be backed by research, and a whole lot of preparation.