“So, what are you going to do after college?”
This question haunts me. Okay, I know I have it better than others, since I do have some semi-developed ideas about my future and I’ll be getting a degree in a field with a lot of ongoing growth, but my blood still runs cold when I imagine leaving my comfortable college existence and becoming a Real Adult. It’s scary! Why do you think I’m writing this in October?
When you’re in high school, it might seem that all everyone cares about is what you’re doing for college. The thing about grad school is that trajectories tend to be much less linear; although many students take gap years before college to work or fulfill personal goals, there’s usually the expectation that your gap will close. With grad school, you can start at so many different stages in life: returning to get a Master’s degree once your kids are grown up, or deciding to change fields mid-career. For certain programs, you might actually want to have an employer fund your schooling, while with others, you won’t work in your chosen field until you’ve completed many years of schooling. Your path won’t necessarily look like your friends’ who are in different fields, or even like people pursuing the same degrees as you!
In this guide, I want to share some of my own thoughts about graduate school, different types of programs, and how you might want to orient your research and reflection.
Types of graduate school
Master’s degrees are typically 1-2 years, and require pretty fast specialization. You might apply to a specific program within a field, like Genetic Counseling in the Biology subfield of Genetics, or do a Master of Science or Master of Philosophy degree that will require you to establish a research direction very rapidly. For this purpose, Master’s degrees are good considerations if there’s a specific area you’re interested in pursuing for not too long. However, keep in mind that Master’s programs usually cost you money, although some programs offer scholarships.
PhD programs are 4-7 years and typically have some time in the first year allocated to discovery before going very in-depth into a project for the remainder of your time. These programs are normally funded: you will receive a stipend for your work, sometimes with some associated teaching assistant jobs required of you in return. PhDs are a significant commitment and a competitive application process, but they allow you to become fully immersed in your chosen field.
Why would you go to grad school?
In an ideal world, I’d answer that you should go to grad school for the sake of intellectual enrichment and pursuing your passions. Those reasons still hold, but it’s also important to consider the impact of grad school on your career prospects. If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, you need to get that specialized degree. If you want to work for a specific industry with known standards (like a Master’s in Policy to hold certain government positions), then your path is somewhat laid out for you.
It gets trickier when you’re not sure of what you want. Jumping straight to grad school right out of undergrad and getting a degree that you later realize you don’t want to use could be a significant monetary investment, not to mention all the time and hard work you’ll put in. Lean on your mentors and those who have experience in your field, and see what advice they might have about your situation.
There are certain ways of getting out of the grad school dilemma, like getting an engineering degree that you can work with out of college, or deciding you need a break from school for a little bit. However, this might lead to a new question: what are you going to do instead?
Avoiding the post-college limbo
Unfortunately, whether or not you’re interested in grad school at all someday is probably going to influence your immediate plans for after graduation. You’ll want to be gaining additional experience in your field and building your resume for when the application time comes around. This also bleeds into the undergraduate experience: among my friends, one of the most pressing concerns is how we will spend our summers and what will allow us to stand out and get into good schools.
Upon graduation, your life and daily experiences will change, and that’s ok. You don’t have to be constantly worrying about what comes next, and you might just want to work for a bit and take a breather from the academic world. For those of you for whom this prospect seems even more stressful, you should be looking for jobs in your senior year, at the same time as your friends who want to enter the workforce, if you want to have it all lined up by graduation.
Do I need to go to grad school?
I wish I had an answer; it really depends. But I’ve met many graduate students on the older side, and you never stop being curious, so don’t close any doors just yet. The only time you need to be sure about grad school is when you’re actually applying. Sure, you need to work on the application, but if you’ve done a lot of thinking and know what you want, you’ll already have a good amount of the content they want to see.
In my case, I love learning, so I was pretty sure I’d want to go to grad school. As I settle into my junior year of college, the prospect of applying is kind of terrifying, but I have a lot of options. I could try to start a PhD program right out of undergrad, or I could work in industry for a while and see how I like it, or do an overseas program to explore other interests. Just as it’s very daunting to pick a college at 17, it’s hard to imagine at 20 how much my life will change, and I hope that I like my current course of study as much as I think I do, if I’m going to commit so many years to it. There’s also the question of moving, and finding housing, and learning to be your own person in a new environment all over again. But I’m also really excited for grad school, and the chance to design my own research project, and see where the rest of my life will go from there.
What does applying to grad school actually look like?
It depends on what type of grad school! If you’re looking to go straight after your senior year, for most PhD programs you need to submit the application by the end of the fall semester. Master’s programs might have similar deadlines, or could be a bit later into the spring semester. For medical school, the applications need to go out in the summer before your senior year. Business schools have more variation, often with several application rounds.
In terms of what you need for applying, it really depends on the program. Some schools require standardized tests like the MCAT or the GRE, or specific entrance exams. Giving yourself enough time for test prep is a vital element of the grad school process, and is why you should start to figure out roughly what you will be applying to in the spring semester of your junior year (or time equivalent if you’re already graduated).
All programs will have some kind of application essay or personal statement, which can be challenging as you’ll want to tailor it to each program: there isn’t a Common App or any standard application for grad school. If you want help, you can make an appointment with the Writing, Speaking, and Argument Program for peer tutoring, and you should ask your mentors and professionals in your field to give feedback.
Finally, you’ll want letters of recommendation from about three of your professors, research supervisors, or other people who know you well and can speak to your ability to succeed in grad school. Asking professors to write letters can be daunting, but remember that it’s part of their job and the worst they can do is say they don’t know you well enough.
Pro Tip: If you think you want to wait a couple years before applying, you should still ask for letters in your senior year, while your professors still remember you and your contributions well.