For some students, earning a college degree is the capstone on their education, the final hurdle before facing the “real world” as an adult wage earner. For others, however, it’s just the first of many milestones in an educational journey. These are the students who are on the grad school path.
While an undergraduate education is a good idea for a wide range of people whether or not they know exactly what they’d like to do for work, you should not go to graduate school just because you don’t know what else to do. It’s an extremely expensive way to prolong the inevitable (figuring out what you want to do with your life) and if you don’t go into school with a clear plan, you may just be putting off paying your student while racking up more of it. You don’t want to put on the “golden handcuffs” of graduate student debt for just any career.
So… is graduate school right for you? Before answering that question, it’s important to understand there’s not just one thing called “graduate school”, any more than there’s one type of education called “college”. In fact, they are even more diverse. Graduate school programs range from one year to twelve (or more).
Some lead to highly specific career paths, some open a graduate up to a range of careers, and still others prepare a student for—you guessed it—more graduate school! Some people go to graduate school to get certification for a particular aspect of the work they’re already doing; some to become doctors, lawyers, or other professionals; and still others because they love their academic specialty so much that they can’t imagine doing anything else.
No matter what size or scope of program you’re considering, though, keep in mind that while of course it’s important to be well prepared in your area of specialty, it’s also important to get a strong, well-rounded education while you’re still in college. This means paying attention in all your classes and getting what you can out of them, even if the material is not interesting to you.
It’s also important to have an exit plan. Nearly any graduate school will have at least one person who fits the profile of the Eternal Student, the person who especially enjoys being a student, doesn’t have specific plans for the future, and migrates from one program to another as finance and circumstance allow. Want some great advice? Don’t be that student. (Unless you have a ginormous trust fund and would really rather be a professional learner than anything else, in which case by all means be that student.)
Preparing for grad school should include a financial plan that involves an accurate estimation of student debt, a calendar for paying it back, and a well-researched estimate of what you’re likely to earn in your chosen field. Otherwise, you risk getting yourself into a pit of student debt that will be an unpleasantly large part of your life for decades.
If you’re interested in the idea of graduate school but aren’t sure whether it’s right for you or what kind of program, your best next step is to start research. Ask your advisor about programs and what other students in your field are doing. Visit a few programs and talk with students in them. If one is right for you, you’ll get the feel for it. If one is just right for you, you’ll know.
Elisabeth Bailey is a freelance writer and editor with particular interests in academics, food,and sustainability . She is also the author of A Taste of the Maritimes: Local, Seasonal Recipes the Whole Year Round and writes regularly for Canadian Farmers’ Almanac and the National Wildlife Federation. Elisabeth and her family live and enjoy great local food in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.
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