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Grad School Series: Should I Go To Graduate School?

Updated: Sep 20, 2021

Before continuing on in this post, please take a few minutes to answer the following questions:

Why do you want to go to graduate school?
What is your end goal?

Those of you who have spoken to me directly about graduate school will recognize this as the first questions I always ask. This is because the most important question about graduate school is the one question students usually overlook: Should I go to graduate school? The answer to this question is entirely dependent upon your why. If you don’t know what your end goal is, think carefully about these two questions:

What career do you want?
Does it require a graduate degree?

You should only go to graduate school if you NEED a graduate degree for your dream career. The truth (which I discuss more later in this post and in the later posts in this series) is that graduate school is a huge investment (time, money, effort). Typically, grad school prepares you for academic jobs, which are limited, and graduate degrees are not required for most other jobs! If you know what career you want and you know that a graduate degree is necessary, feel free to continue on to the other posts in this series. If you are not sure about what career you want, or if you are not sure about whether it requires a graduate degree, please keep reading. I will address each of these questions individually.

What Career Do You Want?

For many impending college graduates, the answer to this question is not clear and they see graduate school as the default next step (it shouldn’t be – see below). Before using your resources applying to graduate school, you should invest some time in deciding what career you want. There are some really great websites out there to help you (also this one), or you can do your own search. You might also consider talking to a career counselor, which most universities have.

If you are still stumped, I encourage you to do some soul searching. Think about what you love. Think about what you want your story to be. Think about how you can do something that you love and makes a difference in a world in a way that will allow you to pay your bills! Also, take a look around. See what other people are doing and if any of it looks interesting. Reach out to people and talk to them about their jobs.

If you need to take a year, or more, off in order to figure this out, go for it. Some people take this time to travel and self-reflect. Others get a job that will pay the bills and allow them to test out a future career before making a long-term commitment to it. I’ve had students successfully take many different paths. If you are taking time off but are interested in graduate school, I encourage you to continue engaging in research and other activities that can help you decide if you will enjoy the basic activities necessary during grad school. Lab manager and research tech positions can be great options. Even if you cannot find a job in research, see if you can stay involved in a research lab.

You do not need to know exactly what you want your future to look like when you apply to grad school, but you should have a general idea of what career path you would like. It is not necessary to commit to one career path forever – many successful people change paths over time. Different paths teach you different skills. As long as you focus on how those skills can move from one area to another, don’t be afraid to change paths. Find something that you think will meet your current goals and try something else if what you’re doing no longer meets your goals.

Does Your Career Require a Graduate Degree?

Once you decide what career you want, then you need to determine whether a graduate degree is necessary to pursue that career. This actually consists of two steps – first, determining if a graduate degree is necessary at all.

In order to determine if a graduate degree is necessary for your career, do some research. Ask people in the career path how they got there (and if a degree is recommended or required). Do a Google search for your career path. Talk to a counselor or a mentor. If a graduate degree is not necessary, graduate school is probably not a good idea.

Sometimes a degree is not required, but it is recommended, will start you at a higher rank, or give you a higher salary. In that case, you need to think about the costs and benefits. What will you get from obtaining the additional degree? Is it worth the cost of the degree (money, time, effort, mental health)? One thing students often ignore is the opportunity costs of obtaining the degree. Sometimes you get a slight benefit from having the degree, but if you had spent 2 years working in the industry instead, you might have ended up farther along. Sometimes students end up overqualified – some jobs actively do not hire people with higher degrees because the salary for advanced degrees is too high.

Masters or Doctorate?

Second, if a graduate degree is necessary, determining which type you need (typically MA vs. PhD). In most cases, you should only get the graduate degree necessary for your career choice. It can be difficult to decide what is required. It will depend on the area that you are trying to enter. For example, a M.A. might be sufficient for counseling or clinical psychology. For other areas, typically a M.A. is mostly used to prepare a student for a Ph.D. program.

In terms of teaching, a MA might allow you to teach at a community college level, while a PhD is necessary to teach at a 4-year university. Teaching high school sometimes requires a certificate, but sometimes can be done with a BA or a certain number of college credit hours.

Often, the difference between an MA and a PhD (other than potential career paths) comes down to time and cost. Generally, MA programs are 2 years, PsyD programs are 4-6 years, and Ph.D. programs are 5-7 years. Generally, only PhD students receive support during graduate school (i.e., stipend, tuition) while MA and PsyDs pay entirely out of pocket. However, each program is different. You’ll have to look into your specific program.

I wanted to teach at a 4-year college, so I needed a PhD. Additionally, I knew I wanted my research to be heavily law-based, so I got a JD as well.

Graduate School is NOT the Default Next Step After College!

I have found that many undergraduates, especially those who are close to graduation, are not really sure what they want to do. So, instead of entering the real world, they try to continue their schooling through graduate school. Sometimes, they are motivated to stay where they completed undergraduate or to move back to where they grew up. Sadly, many students realize that graduate school is not the right path, but not until after they’ve sunk a lot of time, money, and effort into the endeavor. Dropping out can be a difficult decision (even if it is ultimately the right one), especially due to the sunk cost fallacy. It is much easier on the student and the mentor if the student ensures they need to go to graduate school and they are ready to do so before they begin.

Going to graduate school to become a doctor/lawyer should not be the only end goal. You’re not guaranteed anything concrete at the end, including a job. Rather, graduate school should be part of a path. And it is a difficult part of the path that can require significant resources. Even if you have a stipend and full tuition coverage, graduate training does not pay very well, so you might have to take out loans. Graduate school requires a lot of mental energy, and graduate students tend to have high levels of depression and anxiety (so do law students). Many of the factors that make graduate school difficult can be out of the student’s control (e.g., toxic mentor relationships, unclear expectations, lack of external factors, separation from family/support system) and there is a lot of uncertainty (When will I graduate? How do I compare to my peers? Will I get a job after? Am I doing enough?). It can be very difficult to establish a work-life balance.

When I got my PhD, I didn’t get a fancy ring or sword (I wish!). When I graduated after 7.5 years, I had significant student loans (though less than many of my colleagues) that will take years to pay off. I was lucky to have a post-doctoral position. But, it was temporary and across the country. I had to move again when I got my tenure-track job. I’m still working on the work-life balance!

What Next?

So now you’ve read the blog and you’re wondering “what’s next?” The answer depends on how you’ve answered the other questions. Hopefully you’ve found a career path that interests you and you’ve discovered whether or not it requires a graduate degree.

  • If you have found a career path and it does require a graduate degree: You should do more research on the particular graduate degree you need, including reading the next blog in this series about applying to graduate school.

  • If you have found a career path and it does not require a graduate degree: You should put your thoughts about graduate school on-hold for a while. No need to waste your precious resources applying (e.g. application fees, GRE costs, GRE prep) or going to graduate school unless you need to. You can always revisit the decision in the future – grad school isn’t going anywhere.

  • If you haven’t found a career path: Keep looking! Don’t just ride the train to the next stop – get off and decide if you need to change trains! Talk to people, soul search, re-read this blog and other resources.

There are other resources online that share similar sentiments, which I highly recommend. I also highly recommend Dr. Karen Kelsky (The Professor Is In) who has a recent TedX Talk that discusses concerns with graduate school/academia (also, if you decide to go to graduate school, I recommend her blog and book).

Note: The opinions here are entirely my own and do not represent UTEP or anyone else. I would like to thank my colleagues, Dr. Katherine Serafine and Dr. Hannah Volpert-Esmond, and the students in the Legal Decision Lab for their suggestions.

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