Should You Go to Graduate School?Patricia Campbell | Dean of Graduate Studies, American Public University System
Thinking about attending graduate school? Good for you! But you should know graduate school may not be for everyone, and planning the timing of your degree is critical. As you consider your options, it is also important to be mindful of what constitutes both “good” and perhaps “not-so-good” reasons for pursuing a graduate degree.
Good reasons for pursuing an advanced degree:
- Passion for the discipline you intend to study
- Direct connection to work/career advancement
Earning a graduate degree is a time-consuming and intensive experience. Having a sustained passion for the field is critical to provide the necessary motivation to complete your degree. Graduate school also requires you to be both self-motivated and disciplined. Moreover, it requires you to be able to give and receive constructive criticism. In order to complete the degree, you will likely have to, for a period, give up or spend less time doing other things you value, such as spending time with family. Only a passionate commitment to the field will help you push through those difficult times when you have to forego other important life events in order to spend a great deal of time reading, writing and researching, in what is often a very solitary endeavor.
Another good reason for pursuing an advanced degree is when there is a direct connection between your program and chosen career path. Indeed, many employers look highly upon the pursuit of a graduate degree. Sometimes, employers want their employees to enroll in a graduate program in order to update their skills and learn about changes in the field, while others see the completion of a graduate degree as evidence of personal characteristics valuable to the organization, such as self-motivation and a dedication to self-improvement and lifelong learning. Graduate studies also require students to engage in higher levels of analysis and critical thinking, traits employers also find highly desirable. While having a graduate degree does not guarantee advancement, it does open up the possibility in many professions. It also has other tangible work-related benefits. For example, those with master’s degrees in the arts or sciences make, on average, $10,000 per year more than those with undergraduate degrees. Those with master’s degrees also have lower unemployment rates: 3.9 percent compared to 5.2 percent for those with undergraduate degrees, on average (Council of Graduate Schools, “Graduate School and You; A Guide for Prospective Graduate Students,” 2010).
Not-so-good reasons for going to graduate school:
- Earn more money
- Any one of a variety of faulty assumptions about what graduate school is/or will do
How can making more money be considered a not-so-good reason to go to graduate school? Didn’t I just say people with master’s degrees make more money? The reality is there is no guarantee having an advanced degree will lead to higher income, but there is a guarantee earning that degree will cost money, potentially lots of it, depending on the degree pursued and the institution attended. Here, your personal financial situation should dictate the decision. Can you afford to go to school full time? Will you lose income doing it? What other financial obligations do you have? Will the return on your investment be worth the sacrifice? Students who enter only for the potential of making more money and who lack a passion for the field are not as likely to complete the degree, leaving them in debt and with no degree to show for their efforts.
Many students enter graduate school thinking it is simply more school or an extension of undergraduate education. It is not. It is much more taxing, and the expectations for an advanced caliber of work are very high. Plan to read about 500 pages every week for each course. Expect to spend hours conducting research. Know that professors expect excellent writing skills. Graduate school requires students to engage with the discipline, to know the key theorists and theories and to be able to add new knowledge to the field. Graduate education moves students from being consumers to producers of information and, as such, the quality of the work they are expected to produce is significantly higher than anything they have done before.
Finally, graduate school should not be pursued because you don’t know what else to do in life or because you need a distraction from your current situation. It is a serious commitment of time, energy and money and, thus, it should only be pursued by those who understand the sacrifices required and who are willing to make them.
In short, while graduate education can be rewarding and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, it should only be entered into after thoughtful consideration of your motives and current life obligations.
Author Perspective: Administrator
This article applies a pragmatic approach to the decision to enroll in graduate school. Too often, I read articles selling the idea of graduate school as the be-all of future success. Campbell, here, lays it out clearly: some stand to benefit from graduate school, but others simply will not. If you are in the latter category, be very, very cautious as you weigh your options.
I agree 100% — there is a lot of pressure nowadays to enter graduate school, especially when the unemployment rate continues to be high. We often hear that education is an investment, which implies there is a guaranteed future gain. I believe this is deliberately misleading students — a rather shameful attempt on institutions’ part.