Are you thinking about graduate school?

With most grad school applications due in February, many of you may be planning to spend the winter break polishing your personal statement and collecting reference letters. Before you do that, I want you to think about four questions. There are lots of answers to each question, and none of them are wrong! But depending on your answers, you may be able to benefit by taking some additional steps.

1. Why are you going to grad school?

  • If your reason is that you know exactly what you want to do for a career, and you know that a graduate degree is a requirement, be sure that you talk with a number of people already in that profession to get their advice about the best academic programs in your field.
  • If your reason is that you love being in school and you want to learn more about a particular subject, do some research about long-term career options for people with the advanced degree you hope to get. You need to consider the destination before you begin the journey.
  • If your reason is that you have no idea what you want to do after graduation, so getting an advanced degree puts off thinking about it for another year or two, spend some time with a career counselor or trusted advisor to see if grad school is going to help you figure things out or just delay the inevitable (and leave you in debt with limited options for your future).

2.Where are you applying?

  • If you’re applying to the same school where you did your undergraduate degree, you have the advantage of the faculty who help make the decision about admissions either knowing you or knowing the professors who have written recommendation letters for you. You also will not face unsettling changes (possibly a new city, definitely a new university culture, and a whole new set of professors) if you are accepted. The disadvantage is that many schools prefer to bring in new students, and many employers down the road will want to see that you have experience in more than one school.
  • If you’re applying to highly competitive programs, check to see their acceptance rate and be sure you’re aware of their requirements. See what you can learn about the average GPA and GRE scores of accepted students. And prepare yourself for rejection! A former student of mine—with a 4.0 GPA, an article published in an academic journal, and prior participation in an international academic conference—was rejected by all ten schools she applied to. She applied to programs at schools such as Columbia and Duke, and the competition was just too stiff.

3. What do the graduates of the programs you’re considering do after completing the degree? Many schools—and specific programs in those schools—will have web pages devoted to their alumni. Read those pages carefully to see:

  • If the graduates are working in fields that use their degrees.
  • If they are working in jobs that appeal to you.
  • If they’ve found jobs in cities where you would like to live.

If the program you’re interested in does not have a web page about their alumni, email someone such as the program’s Director of Graduate Studies to ask about alumni.

4. Have you visited the school?

  • If at all possible, it’s a good idea to visit each campus you’d like to attend. Some programs have visitation days with specific activities planned for groups of students, but even if they don’t, you can contact the head of the program and ask that person to arrange a visit for you. When you visit, you will want to speak with professors whose work interests you, get a tour of the library, meet current students and ask about their experience in the program and their plans for the future. Also learn as much as you can about housing, transportation, and the cost of living within that area.<.li>
  • If you can’t visit, create a list of questions and send them to the head of the program. Ask if he or she can provide you with email addresses for a few students who would be willing to respond to questions you have for them.

Going to graduate school can be a fabulous experience. When I was close to finishing my PhD, a friend asked what I would do if I couldn’t find a job. My answer: get another PhD! That’s not very practical (and I probably wouldn’t have done that), but I had done my homework about the value of my degree and had no problem finding a job in my field. Proper preparation will help ensure that you’ll be able to say the same!