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Graduate School: Is it Right for You?

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People choose to attend graduate school for various reasons – a chance to learn more, get a better job, earn a bigger salary, or just a way to avoid the “real world”. Whatever your reason, there’s a lot to consider before making the commitment to attend grad school.

Grad school isn’t for the casual learner. It entails long hours, hard work, research and writing, lots of reading, and more than likely, financial debt. Grad students must be very serious about their studies. Maturity and dedication are necessary.

If you’ve decided that a graduate degree is something you want to pursue, do some research to find a school that is right for you and your goals. It’s important to know what you want to study. Unlike undergraduate programs, graduate schools focus on a few areas within a specific discipline. Make sure the schools you are considering have the field of study and research programs that match your interests. If you are unsure of the exact focus you want to pursue, choose a program that lets you explore several research areas.

Graduate programs concentrate on theoretical or practical applications. Theoretical programs place emphasis on academic theory and are best suited for students who intend to enter academia. Practical programs concentrate on practical career skills and are for students interested in careers outside of academia. Consider which focus best matches your interests.

Once you’re sure of your aspirations, it’s time to consider where you want to study. When selecting a graduate program, many of your questions can be answered by a quick review of the university’s web site. Check information for both the Office of Graduate Studies and the area of study you are interested in. If you can’t find the answers to all of your questions on the web site, call the school. Some things to question include:

  • How many credits are required to complete the degree?
  • Is there a thesis option?
  • How often are the courses listed in the catalog offered?
  • How many classes are typically offered each semester?
  • What are the credentials of the faculty?
  • How frequently are there visiting scholars in the department?
  • Are all graduate courses open to all students in the department, or are there restrictions?
  • Can you take graduate courses in other departments, to pursue interdisciplinary interests?

Your school choice will depend partly on your life circumstances. You (or your spouse) may have a good job, a mortgage, and kids – things that complicate your decision. If your chosen graduate program is located somewhere else, are you willing to uproot your family and life?

Academic quality should be one of your top concerns when weighing the merits of various programs. Look for a graduate program that is well regarded. Talk to your undergraduate professors to gain some insight into how a program is perceived. Look at college ratings. Just as important as the program’s reputation is the reputation of its faculty. Learn about their academic focus and their research. Talk to the students currently enrolled, alumni, or recent graduates of the program. Find out how satisfied they are with the program.

Both part-time and full-time graduate study has its advantages. Make sure that the school you attend has a program to accommodate your schedule. A school may have a stellar reputation, but if they don’t encourage part-time studies, you may want to go elsewhere.

Find out what kind of career services are available to students. Most schools will have a career services center specifically for graduate students. Career advisors can assist you if you are not sure what you want to do after graduate school.

After weighing your options and deciding on a graduate school, you will need to apply. Some colleges require admission into the graduate college and the program you are pursuing. Admission to graduate school usually requires a bachelor’s degree. Grades in your field of study are important — grades outside the field are less so. Standardized test (GRE, GMAT, MCAT, etc.) scores may be required by some schools. Strong letters of recommendation are often essential. Depending on your area of study, research experience or an example of academic writing may be necessary. Many colleges require a personal statement, sometimes called a Statement of Purpose or Letter of Intent. Some departments may require personal interviews.

At many institutions, decisions regarding admission are not made by the institution itself but the department to which the student is applying. There is a certain level of competitiveness in graduate school admissions. Grad schools have smaller programs than most colleges, so you may be competing against some very bright people for a limited number of openings. Admission officers are looking for students who will be able to contribute to their research programs and reputation, so be certain that you are up to the challenge and can meet their expectations.

Earning an advanced degree won’t be cheap. The average debt accumulated for graduate degrees ranges from $27,000 to $114,000. Financial aid for grad school is harder to come by, so it’s likely you’ll have to assume some debt. All grad students are considered independent for financial aid purposes. If you’re married, you will have to include information about your spouse’s finances. To qualify for federal aid, you must demonstrate need. Need is determined by subtracting your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) from your Cost of Attendance (COA). The result is considered your need. You’ll need to file a FAFSA to start the financial aid process and get official notification of your need.

The number one source of funding for graduate school is the program itself. Contact your department of study to see what is available. For each opportunity, note its duration, what your obligation is, and the compensation you will be given. Assistantships are the most common form of graduate aid. Teaching assistantships exchange teaching for a salary and/or tuition help. Duties may include grading papers, monitoring labs, or teaching courses. Research assistantships provide funding in exchange for research.

Fellowships are basically scholarships for grad school. You are usually not obligated to do anything in return. Fellowships are very competitive and you usually have to show exceptional talent in your field to qualify. There are a few fellowships that are need-based.

After researching fellowships and assistantships, you may be left with some tuition to pay. If this is the case, loans may be your last resort. You will be notified of the approved loan amount when you receive your SRA. While you’re enrolled, you’ll be able to defer your undergraduate loan payments. Keep in mind how much you’ll owe when all is said and done.

Graduate school will be your primary focus. Classes will be smaller and more interactive. Professors will treat you like an adult with skills and knowledge. Your fellow students may be a bit more diverse. Come to class prepared. Do your homework and expect to involve yourself in discussions, presentations, and research. Keep in mind that during grad school your social life may be diminished substantially. After-hours get-togethers will consist of library work and study groups. You will have some fun here and there, but there’s a lot of work to be done and it’s not the kind of work that you can cram in the night before. Say goodbye to squeaking by and procrastination.

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