Is Graduate School the Best “Next Step” for You?

Continuing your education is a worthwhile endeavor for many students. However, graduate school is not the best step for every student – especially right after earning an undergraduate degree. Before you begin the application process for your master’s or doctoral degree, consider why you’re interested in graduate school and make sure you’re going for the right reasons.

Reasons to consider graduate school as your next step:

  • You want to pursue a specific career that requires additional training to enter the profession
  • You have a passion for and interest in a particular subject and wish to gain additional expertise on the topic
  • You have appropriate time and financial resources to devote to further education

Reasons graduate school may not be the right choice at this time:

  • You’re not ready to find a full-time job and hope to postpone the “real world” by staying in school
  • You do not have self-defined career goals and are simply doing what others are telling you to do next
  • You do not have self-defined career goals and believe a master’s degree will help you clarify your career options

Earning an undergraduate degree is the perfect time for self-exploration. You can change majors as necessary, try out various student organizations, and test your interests during internships. Graduate school, on the other hand, should not be pursued unless you have a clear career goal and a specific program in mind to work towards those goals.

Even if you do have a clear career goal, it may be beneficial to wait a few years after earning an undergraduate degree to pursue a master’s or doctoral degree.

Reasons to consider going straight to grad school after your undergrad:

  • You’re sure your career goals require further study, including many healthcare professions, legal professions, or STEM fields
  • You finished your undergraduate/master’s-level education with little to no debt and have the financial resources to devote to further education (or, you’ve earned a scholarship, grant, or fellowship to cover a large portion of your post-bacc studies)
  • You’ve landed a job that pays the bills and is helping you pay off your undergraduate education, and know earning a master’s will further boost your earning potential enough to be worth the financial investment.

Reasons to wait a few years before applying to grad school:

  • Gain real-world work experience to confirm your career goals and ensure you’re pursuing a profession that’s the best fit for your interests, values, and skillset
  • Take time to clarify your life goals and ensure you’re going back to school because it’s necessary, not because you’re comfortable as a student and uncomfortable in the “real world”
  • You’ve graduated with a large student debt bill and would benefit from taking time to pay down your debt before investing additional money pursuing further education (or, finding a job at a company that will pay for your continuing education)

Set aside time to reflect on your goals and reasons for pursuing graduate study. You may benefit from discussing your goals with a faculty member, career coach, graduate school advisor, or other trusted person in your life.

Earning a doctorate requires an additional commitment of your time, finances, and energy resources above and beyond an undergraduate or master’s-level education. Research shows the average amount of time to complete a doctorate degree is 5.8 years for most students and 7.1 years for students in the humanities and arts. It would be helpful to speak with current doctoral students and program alumni to get a full picture of what you’re signing up for.

There are no clear-cut rules for who should or should not go to graduate school. Every person’s circumstances, career goals, and motivations are different. If you think a graduate degree will benefit your career, take some time to find a program that is a good fit for your long-term goals before diving in.

By Megan Lawton
Megan Lawton Career Coach for Communication Studies, English, and Technical Communication