So You Want to Go to Grad School

Going to grad school is not for the faint of heart. Here’s how to apply, prepare for and succeed in school, from someone who has been there before.

Asking a professor if you should go to graduate school is a lot like asking an 8-year-old if you should eat candy.

However, given that I want you to follow God’s call in your life and not mine, I will do my best to give brief and unbiased advice by laying out seven fairly typical scenarios in which people choose graduate studies—the first three usually lead to disaster and the last four typically work out well. Hopefully these little case studies will help you determine if graduate school is the right fit for you.

Right out of the starting gate, let me say that possibly the worst reason to go to graduate school is to make someone else happy. “But, Jack, I really want to please my [insert significant persons here—mother, father, professor, barista, etc.].” Yes, I am sure they only want what they think is best for you, and I understand their approval is important to you, but if you are not self-motivated the chances of you completing your degree are infinitesimally slim. When you fail to complete your degree under ordinary circumstances, there are often overwhelming feelings of guilt (for wasting time and money) and inadequacy (for failing to reach a goal). But when you are trying to please others and you fail, you get to add that special remorse that only comes from disappointing the most important people in your life on top of the ordinary feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

And speaking of feelings of inadequacy, don’t go to grad school to solve your self-esteem problems. I know some people pursue a graduate degree simply to impress people because they are insecure, especially intellectually. Somehow they think that having a title or some additional letters after their name will make people think they are smarter and more important. There are plenty of schools out there willing to take your money (and a very modest amount of your work) in exchange for their degree. While it may impress some, the people you really want to impress aren’t going to buy it. Taking the easy way leaves you with little sense of real accomplishment and will actually undermine your self-confidence in the long run. Don’t do it.

Finally, if you hated everything academic about your undergraduate education and the very thought of more school makes you sick to your stomach, graduate school is probably not a good idea. The number of students I have talked to over the years who dislike lectures, hate exams, despise writing and abhor reading but are still thinking about graduate school has surprised me. Why? Maybe it is a fear of change, maybe they are just into self-abuse. I don’t know. What I do know is that it rarely turns out well.

Now that we have cleared the decks and gotten that out of the way, let’s look at four situations where graduate school might be just the ticket for you.

First, you want to enter a profession where the minimum or preferred qualification is a master’s or doctorate degree, such as an M.D. If so, then grad school is a no-brainer. I would, however, like to ask one further question: How do you know you want to become a _____? Some people just look at the top entry in a survey of job salaries and decide that’s what they should do. Others think they would like the working conditions (“Question: What are the three top reasons to become a teacher? Answer: June, July and August”). But you need to do a little more investigation. Don’t be one of those people who gets a teaching degree only to discover, when it’s all said and done, that you don’t like kids. You can save yourself a whole lot of hassle by simply visiting a single kindergarten class (or whatever age you’re considering teaching). If you are thinking about a legal career, try to get a summer job at a law office. If it’s medicine, volunteer at a hospital or a clinic.

Ask to shadow someone in your future field for a few days to see what it’s really like in the trenches. I particularly recommend this for anyone who is thinking about becoming a pastor—it’s not just getting up and talking on Sunday mornings. Do your homework before going to grad school. After doing the research, if you are still convinced you want to become a doctor or a lawyer or whatever, then you’re off to graduate school.

Second, when your career is stuck in a rut or hits a plateau, then going to graduate school (typically for a professional degree) is a good option. Going back to school after gaining experience in your field is a great way to earn a raise, make yourself more marketable, or step up your game. If your employer is willing to pay for your education, this really makes grad school an attractive option. Without experience, however, you need to be careful you are not pricing yourself out of the entry-level job market by being “over-qualified.” In a number of industries, your level of education contractually determines your pay scale. While you may make a better long-term contribution to the company than someone without a graduate degree, the manager may decide it is more important to balance her budget this year by hiring someone at 15 percent less salary than she would be required to pay you. Similarly, some employers will assume that if you have a graduate degree you won’t stay long in an entry-level position. So rather than going through all the costs and hassles of training you and then turning around and training your replacement three months from now (when you quit to take a better job), they will just go ahead and hire the applicant who is still going to be happy working there years from now. I don’t want to overstate the problem of being over-qualified, but I do want you to be aware of it. So unless you are looking at an entry-level job, a graduate degree can be a major boost to your career.

The third situation is one where a subject captivates you, you’re (relatively) good at it and you simply must know more about it. If this is you, grad school might be in the cards.

While there are some people who can teach themselves, most people need the added assistance and discipline that a formal, structured program gives to truly delve deep. The catch with this scenario is you have to be very aware of the cost-benefit ratio. It may not be very smart to borrow $100,000 to learn everything there is to know about left-legged Lithuanian lemurs.

Ask yourself, if I never earn a penny directly from my graduate studies, how much am I willing to spend for the degree? Over and over again I see students idealistically begin their studies in the quest for intrinsically valuable knowledge only to become bitter because of the financial position they end up in after finishing their degrees. Look, you don’t want to come to resent the object of your intellectual affection because it has impoverished you. Be both passionate and smart in your pursuit of knowledge.

Fourth and finally, if you are interested in an academic career (research or teaching at the undergraduate level or above) you simply must go to grad school and most likely pursue doctoral studies. This translates into a lot of time and money invested in your education.

I never want to discourage anyone from pursuing a dream but at the same time I must be brutally honest—full-time academic jobs are hard to come by and typically do not pay well. For example, given academic salaries, you may never be able to afford to live in a major metropolitan area. This is no big deal if you find the rural Midwest appealing, but if you don’t, well, you need to be realistic with your salary and lifestyle expectations, have a strong sense of academic calling, and get the best degree possible given your financial situation.

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These scenarios are not the only reasons people choose to go to grad school, but I hope they have given you something to think about as you consider the prospect of continuing your education beyond undergraduate studies.

And, as a professor, I have to admit that deep down in my heart I really hope many of you will give it a shot.

Jack Wisemore is an associate professor of Religion and Philosophy at Northwest University near Seattle. When he isn’t racing sailboats with his wife, he loves to remind his two children (7 and 9) that there is, in fact, no spaceship buried under the swing set in the backyard.


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