At some point if you’re an aspiring young scientist, engineer, mathematician, artist, or general education-erneer who has just graduated with a bachelors degree and is looking at what comes next in the world; you’re probably looking or have looked at graduate school as an option and are wondering where to even begin.
Assuming we’re starting from the beginning, here are 10 tips for just general things to think about:
- Start with your career goals. The first step when you start looking and trying to pick programs (and probably the most forgotten) is to consider what your career goals are going to be in the long run. If you want to practice law, you may just need to go to law school. If you don’t know if you want to practice law, law school may be a bad choice; and lately the “I don’t know so I guess I’ll go to law school” mentality has been what’s leaving a lot of students in a lot of debt without a lot of job options. To be a scientist in academia you likely need to obtain your Ph.d. If you’re interested in consulting work or industry work, a Bachelors degree may better suit entry into the workforce. Once you are out of school, you can always go back as well.
- If you don’t have a career goal yet, look into what interests you. Let’s say you really hated your college major and you’re now in search of the next big thing, or let’s say you loved your college major and have no idea what the heck you want to do; you would not go wrong to start reading up on everything that interests you. Focus on the favorite parts of your major and look into what jobs one can do if they obtain a masters in that area. If you loved building satellites as an aerospace engineer and don’t think working for Nasa sounds too shabby, consider a masters that focuses on that subject area. If you loved programming back in undergrad but weren’t a computer science major, look into masters programs that allow you to make the jump without a bachelors in computer science. There’s always time to spend a year taking prerequisite courses for a physical therapy or masters in engineering degree. Graduate school can be the opportunity to transition to another field you like better!
- Don’t go to grad school, just to go to graduate school. It’s a tough job market, but you will find SOMETHING to do if you look, and if you look even harder you may find something you really like. A lot of great men and women started by working on the ground floor of a company and only later going back for their degree once they needed it.
- Don’t be afraid to take a year off. One of the best things I ever did after college was take a year off. If I had gone straight out of college I likely would have obtained a masters that would have left me with a lot of debt and not that many more career prospects. I was able to work in the field in a post-bac program which really helped me consider if I was ready for certain graduate programs. It allowed me to save up some money, live a much less stressful life without homework and books to think about for a while, and really helped me figure out what I wanted out of the future. For your journey you may need to travel, join the peace corp, work for teach for america, or who knows! No one says you need to go straight through.
- Consider financials. Remember to look at what programs will offer you the chance for a research grant, to cover your tuition through teaching, or to cover your tuition as a residential advisor. It’ll be a lot easier to start working if you don’t have a price tag with 5 or 6 figures over your head. If you have to take it on, be wary between balancing the best education and best debt ratio.
- For scholastic programs such as medical school that have a very high job placement rate, consider location, quality of study, and residency placement rates. Graduate school can be very stressful and it’s important to be near friends, family, and resources that make you feel comfortable. If you can’t imagine sitting in that school’s library for 4+ years, it may not be the place for you. At the same time if placing yourself outside of your comfort zone will give you an opportunity to learn from a much better faculty with much better research and scholarly options, sometimes the right thing to do is to step outside the box. Sit through a lecture and make sure you are engaged. Also look at what the options are for class help and mentoring programs.
- For programs that don’t typically feed to jobs, look at what programs offer a good job placement and remember name can matter. For the programs that don’t have a high job placement rate, I’d look into the job placement rate. For some programs remember name matters. A masters from an online university may not be the best for your career. At the same time, remember a program that will leave you debt free is often one hundred times better than one that won’t.
- If you’re still unsure, start volunteering. Volunteer in labs, shadow doctors, or sit in the shotgun seat of a police car. You can start as an undergraduate, you can continue as a post-graduate, and you can keep exploring even knee deep into another career.
- Email professors you’re interested in. Some schools admit you to the program as a whole and let you rotate through various labs, others require you to know who you want to work for upfront. Either way, knowing someone on the inside can only help your chances.
- If a program scares you, consider alternate options. If you’re afraid of the daunting hours you face as a medical school student, law student, or a doctoral student, consider alternate options that can lead to great careers as well. A physician assistant program with a bachelors degree can be as short as two years long, and an accelerated masters of nursing can be completed in 3 at some schools. You may still have the opportunity to perform medical research and can have a great clinical career, but can do so without the terrifying task of facing residency and four years of school. A lot of graduate programs offer “baby steps” before the full Ph.d, look into research heavy masters and post-bac programs that pair you with a mentor that may just convince you to stay on your project and defend a thesis.