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4 Signs You're Not Ready for Grad School


College students who see their bachelor’s degrees coming over the horizon often have a difficult decision to make: enter the real world and begin your career, or stay in academia a little longer by entering grad school? Depending on what school you attend and what field you’re in, you may feel pressured to turn towards a master’s or Ph.D. program rather than begin your career. Or you may have a career that feels a little stagnant, and you’re thinking about heading to grad school to kickstart your opportunities and direction.

But grad school is definitely not for everyone. It can be expensive and may add little to your life if you don’t figure out how to effectively look for programs and make use of your degree post-graduation. If you haven’t done your research or you’re unsure about what you want to do, here are four signs you aren’t ready for grad school.

1. You don’t know what you want to study

Unlike for your undergraduate degree, you have to enter grad school knowing exactly what field you want to study. Applications will typically involve detailing what specific project or research topic you are interested in exploring. This is something you have to sell to the colleges—you have to convince them to accept you and to offer you as generous a student package as possible—which means you need something convincing, important and clear to study.

If you have no particular interest that calls your attention or you’re still thinking about bouncing between something in English and something in computer science, you need to take more time to think your decision through. An unsure applicant is going to be rejected immediately, which means you’ve wasted out of pocket expenses to apply with nothing to show for it. Don’t waste a university’s time or your own time by trying to apply without first making up your mind about what topic you want to study.

2. You haven’t evaluated the costs

Another major factor in graduate school decisions is what it will cost you. This can range wildly depending on what school and what program you enter. Some programs—the better-funded ones—will pay you a stipend to attend in exchange for some sort of student labor (usually working as a TA or research assistant of some kind). Others will ask you to pay thousands out of pocket to attend. You have to look into individual programs and think about what costs you might accrue attending.

Then you have to think about what sort of debt you might be graduating with, if any, and how long the income of a career in the field you’ve studied will take to pay off whatever debt you’ve had, and figure out whether the master’s or Ph.D. you’ve earned will do anything significant to reduce or ease the burden of that debt. For some industries, a graduate degree makes no difference on your salary, making grad school an unrealistic and unhelpful option.

“For me, grad school is an opportunity to get firsthand experience in the film industry, which wouldn’t be available to me otherwise,” says Elaine Mathis, a graduate student at Columbia University studying filmmaking. “Many people get into film purely by work experience—starting as a runner and working their way up. But my graduate degree offered a shortcut, by giving me that necessary practical experience in a concentrated amount of time.”

3. You haven’t researched careers in the field

Hand-in-hand with cost evaluation is figuring out what you want to do with your degree. What career field are you interested in? Do you know if they want or require an advanced degree? Will an advanced degree give you a significant bump in wages, or are they really looking for people with experience rather than formal education experience? These are just some of the considerations Molly Crum, a senior at James Madison University, had to take into consideration before making her decision not to go to grad school.

“I realized I was not ready because I only decided in my senior year what specific program I wanted to pursue in graduate school, and did not want to rush the process or have it interfere with enjoying my senior year,” says Molly. “I also work at my school's Career and Academic Planning office and see people come in who are pursuing graduate school because they just don't know what career field they want to go into or do not want to starting working. These are not great reasons to put in so much time, effort and money into a graduate program!”

Your career goals will ultimately make a big difference in how helpful grad school will be for you. If you haven’t done the research into what your degree can do to benefit your career, you may be signing up for a degree that will ultimately provide very little for you and only lengthen the amount of time you’re in school, affecting your dating life and reducing the amount of time you spend working on your career. Contact members of the career path you’re interested in, figure out how important and how effective a master’s or Ph.D. is to work in the field and don’t jump in blindly.

4. You don’t know if you’re committed

Do you really want to go to grad school? A master’s may take one or two years, but a Ph.D. program can be a six to eight-year commitment. If you drop out early, you won’t get partial credit. Are you dedicated to the field you want to study? Do you know that you want to study it for the next several years? If you’re unsure about your area of interest, you’re going to be unsure about sticking it through the entire program and building a career in it. Don’t commit to something you aren’t sure of. 

What’s more, the whole experience leading up to grad school is an exhausting process and those people should really consider whether they have the stamina for a further two years of study. 

“My plan for years and years was to go immediately to med school after graduation,” explains Erin,* a recent college graduate. “But I was so super burnt out after all those years of nothing but honors classes, summer programs and working on the side that I just couldn't do it.”

Grad school can be effective in launching your career forward or bringing you into a subject that requires advanced education, but it can also be an unnecessary and expensive speed bump on the road to your career. Figure out if you actually need the education before committing.

*Name changed at sources request.

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