How Do I Know If Graduate School is the Right Choice for Me?

Whether you’re about to graduate from college or have been out of school for years, you’ve probably wondered whether or not you should go to graduate school. This is a decision I’ve had to make recently, and it’s not any easy one. There are obvious benefits and obvious drawbacks to graduate school, and the decision you make inevitably influences where you end up. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you decide whether or not graduate school is right for you.

1. Do I need to go to graduate school to achieve my career goals?

To answer this question, you need to make a long-term assessment of your career goals. For example, if you are currently a high school teacher, would you like to eventually become an administrator or a college professor? If so, then graduate school might be the only way to achieve that goal. If you are happy in your current position but would like to make more money, would an advanced degree get you the raise you want? As a teacher, a master’s degree in education would bump up your pay considerably.

On the other hand, your end goal might be to establish yourself as a writer. If you are already selling the kind of writing you want to do and have made valuable contacts in the professional writing sphere, graduate school won’t help you much. After all, graduate school is supposed to hone your skills and put you in a more marketable position. If you’re already there, graduate school might actually slow down the momentum you’ve created.

2. What else am I going to be doing in the next 2-4 years?

Graduate school involves intense study and hard work. Some claim it takes over your whole life and doesn’t leave much room for other things. If you are planning to get married, have a child, or take on a stressful job, it might not be the right time in your life to go to graduate school. On the other hand, you might be one of those people who thrives under intense pressure. Evaluate whether or not you will have the energy to devote to graduate school with your other commitments. After all, you’ll want to make the most out of your graduate school experience.

3. Am I willing to relocate?

Most college professors will advise you to get your graduate degree from a different university than where you received your bachelor’s degree. To your future employers, this demonstrates a forward progression in your academic career. You may be fortunate enough to have a university that offers your particular program nearby that accepts you, but you should apply to several schools to better your chances of acceptance somewhere. Graduate school admissions are highly competitive, and there are no guarantees you will be accepted no matter how qualified you feel.

Also, if you’re going to get an advanced degree, you want to go to the best program that will have you. You may need to relocate, and you have to decide before you apply whether or not graduate school is worth a big move.

4. Am I willing to assume more debt?

Graduate school will not only take over your life, but might also take over your bank account. Unless you get a full scholarship or grant, you will have to pay some tuition. Some schools only offer partial tuition grants and scholarships. Be advised, graduate students are not eligible for Pell Grants like undergraduates. You may qualify for up to $18,500 (maximum) a year in subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans to pay for your uncovered tuition and living expenses, but that’s a lot of money to borrow, especially if you are still paying for student loans you took out as an undergrad. Add that to your current credit card debt, car payment, and mortgage, and you’re looking at owing a huge amount of money.

You have to ask yourself if graduate school is worth the financial risk. Even if you do not need to borrow money, you may be living on your savings or your partner’s dime for a while, and that can hurt, too. If graduate school is truly right for you, the financial aspects won’t deter you from your goals.

5. How well did I do as an undergraduate?

While you were an undergraduate student, you may not have ever thought you wanted to go to graduate school. If that was the case, you need to ask yourself honestly if you did well enough as an undergraduate to get in to graduate school. If you squeaked by with Ds in all your classes, your grade point average might not allow you to get in to the program you want. Furthermore, less than stellar performance as an undergrad indicates that you might not be academically prepared to do well in graduate school.

Another problem you might encounter if you weren’t a stellar student is getting former professors to write letters of recommendation for your application. The people who write these letters of recommendation should be people who can wholeheartedly endorse your ability to achieve academically.

There is a way to get around the problem of lousy grades. If you have been out of school and working in your field for several years, your performance as an undergraduate won’t matter as much. Your letters of recommendation can instead come from employers or clients who have first-hand knowledge of your ability to do well in your field, and your grades will seem less important compared to awards and promotions received.

6. How do I feel about being in school again?

Did you enjoy being in school as an undergraduate? Did sitting in a classroom and discussing ideas stimulate you? Did you like the independent research involved in writing papers? Or does the idea of doing all that again make you feel slightly ill? Feeling nervous about going to graduate school is perfectly normal, especially if you’ve been out of the classroom environment for a while. But if the thought of all that schoolwork makes you unhappy about the idea of going back, don’t. You can always wait a year or two to reassess your feelings, especially if you’ve just gotten your bachelor’s degree. You shouldn’t enter graduate school already feeling tired and burned out.

7. Will the people I love support me in my decision?

The answer to this question should be an unequivocal yes, but let’s take a moment to be honest. Going to graduate school will also affect the people closest to you. Is your partner willing to move so you can go to the graduate school of your dreams? Is your partner willing to deal with your emotional absence when you write your thesis or prepare for teaching assistantships? Is your partner willing to carry more of your load financially? If you have children, can they handle long stretches of day care or relocation?

Hopefully your partner is willing to support you in all your big life choices, but you should have honest conversations about how graduate school will affect your relationship. Don’t give up graduate school dreams because your partner expresses doubt, but do be wary that your relationship is not what it should be if your partner gives you a flat out no.

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