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Graduate School 101: A Professor’s Answers to Common Questions

Posted by Justin Medina on Nov 17, 2016 1:43:26 PM

The decision to attend graduate school can be stressful and it occurs during a time when students are making other important life decisions, such as deciding where to live and what type of career to pursue.  As a professor, I made this same decision and went through the graduate school experience myself.  I’ve also advised and written recommendation letters for many criminal justice students applying to graduate programs.  So, these are pointers from my experience that are intended to help you decide if graduate school is right for you.  What I’ve noticed throughout the years is that students frequently ask several common questions.  My intention here is to help reduce your stress about the graduate school decision by addressing these frequently raised questions. 

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Should I attend graduate school?

A better question is: do you need to attend graduate school to achieve what you want to do?  My advice to students is that if it is unnecessary to obtain an advanced degree for their profession or career, then save the money, time, and effort.  In many instances a bachelor’s degree and other experiences are probably sufficient.

If a student decides to attend graduate school, then understand that every graduate program is different.  For information about a specific program, I suggest contacting the school of interest in addition to seeking advice from your professors and those close to you.  The point is to approach this decision with as much information as possible.

What graduate degrees are available?

There are many different types of graduate degrees and certifications available, but these tend to be the most commonly sought degrees in the social sciences:

A master’s degree (M.A. or M.S.) requires a one- to two-year program with an intense focus on one discipline.  Aside from classes, students demonstrate their acquired knowledge in a written research thesis. 

A law degree (Juris Doctorate or J.D.) is the specialized education required to become a lawyer and takes three years to complete.  This is one example of a professional degree, or training for a particular profession.

A doctorate degree (Doctor of Philosophy or Ph.D.) is the highest academic degree.  A Ph.D. program consists of classes, apprenticing with experienced researchers, and conducting and writing a research paper, called a dissertation.  These programs vary widely in length, but it is not uncommon for it to take five or more years to complete.

What type of degree should I seek and what school should I attend?

The answer to these questions depend on what you want to do with your degree.  At the very least, you should be passionate about the subject.  If you want in-depth knowledge of a discipline, then a master’s degree is probably appropriate.  If you want to practice law, then you’d want to a professional degree.  If you want to conduct research, then you would want to apply for a Ph.D. program.  The point is knowing what you want from your graduate degree. Seeking a professor’s advice on this matter is extremely useful.

I tell students they should make a decision on where to attend graduate school based on how interested they are in the subject, how far they want to travel, how much financial aid is offered/how much they are willing to spend, and how competitive or prestigious the program.  I advise students to spend plenty of time online carefully browsing prospective school schools, program requirements, financial aid, and faculty bios.

What else should I consider before applying to a graduate program?

Applying to graduate school is a process.  It takes time to prepare transcripts, request letters of recommendations, write a quality personal statement, and take standardized tests, if required.  Oh yeah, and remember your undergraduate coursework GPA and involvement is considered as well.

Also, take time to think about the important people in your life and how going to graduate school will affect them.  Graduate school requires extensive time and effort that must be taken from other places, including time spent with loved ones.

What are the benefits of attending graduate school?

You may set yourself apart from other job candidates and become an expert in a particular topic.  You may also have the opportunity to work on important projects that advance science and benefit society.  You get an opportunity to build relationships with classmates, professors and researchers.  These relationships are tremendously valuable and should not be understated as they can lead to other great experiences, lifelong friendships, or even a career in the future.

What are the drawbacks of attending graduate school?

Graduate school is not a continuation of the undergraduate experience.  Graduate school requires additional years of intense studying and there are higher expectations for class participation, writing, reading, and research than in undergraduate programs.  The financial cost of graduate school is another important consideration.  If your motivation for graduate school is to ‘kill time’ while you figure out your next life move, then you should consider something less expensive.  Just remember that you eventually have to pay back borrowed money.

 

Still need to make it to and through your undergrad years before considering graduate school? Read Mike's top things to consider when applying to college here.

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Topics: Career Advice