Earning a master’s degree or PHD in graduate school might be one of the best things you can do to improve your earning power and career choices, but don’t be fooled in to thinking that it will be an easy ride to success!
From admissions, to financing, to the work load, the expectations placed on a graduate student can make or break an individual, and knowing exactly what you’re getting in to can prevent a disastrous burnout.
Getting Accepted and Enrolled
Just because you did well in college doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get accepted to your favorite grad school! If a college is exclusive for undergrads, it must be ten times so for graduate students. Most programs just admit a dozen or so students per college, so each specialized major might see just two or three new candidates per year.
If you apply to about five graduate schools, you might expect to get about two acceptance letters back. The choice you’re ultimately faced with might suddenly not seem so great as it was when you sent out those applications.
And speaking of the applications, be sure to set aside plenty of time and money to fill these out. Not only do the graduate admissions offices want to know just about every detail of your curriculum and resume, they’re also going to need several letters of reference, some kind of portfolio or sample of your work, thorough documentation of immigration, legal, and insurance statuses, and finally a significant application fee that funds the jobs of those folks who have to read through all of your stuff!
Admissions Gameplan: Apply to five schools and expect to get in to two. Set aside 50 hours and $200 for printing, application, and postal fees.
Once you’ve got a letter of admission, the next big question is how exactly to pay for this new degree. If you’ve got multiple acceptance letters, it might be time for a tough choice about attending your dream school or saving a whole lot of money. One factor that can help make this decision is the ranking of the particular grad program you wish to attend. A top 50 school will deliver a much better salary potential than an unranked one, and it might just be worth an extreme amount of debt to acquire the prestige that goes along with graduating from a top five school. If you graduate from Harvard or Yale, you might owe a bunch of money when you’re done but you’ll be able to get just about any job you want! However, many other schools cost nearly as much as Harvard but they won’t deliver a fraction of the clout.
A job? Forget it.
You might be tempted to say you can work your way through graduate school. This is probably a bad idea! Most of the good jobs you can get with your bachelor’s degree are going to require a regular full-time schedule, but your professors and thesis committee are going to expect the same. Now, there are some work-study MBA programs that might be an exception to this general rule, but it is a good idea to plan all of your productive time to classes. Not only will you have a ridiculous amount of work due, you’ll also be expected to get involved with the community surrounding your major.
Assistanceships, Scholarships, and Student loans can help
While no single source of funding is going to magically take care of all your grad school money problems, every bit of assistance you can get will add up. The first step is to inquire about institutional aid, and if you can get it work assistanceships that will help you gain experience while offsetting the cost of your degree. While these assistanceships might seem like the very jobs I was warning you to avoid above, it must be noted that they a) directly relate to your education b) are part time and c) use flexible schedules that prioritize your education above your work.
With work-study secured, it is time to look for scholarships, fellowships, grants – and if that fails – student loans.
In addition to the traditional scholarship programs available to all college students, more organizations provide grants and fellowships to graduate students. Be advised however, that many of the more prestigious grants and fellowships might ask a great deal of responsibility to the recipient! A fellowship winner is not only honored by the funding organization, they are also expected to serve as a representative and liaison to the professional community at large. This will be a great boost to your career – and a massive benefit to the pocketbook – but it can be as emotionally and physically draining as any other big assignment.
The daily grind
So you got accepted, you figured out how to pay for it, you moved all your stuff across the state or country – and now you’ve got a ticket to easy street? No way! You’ve got two or three years of the toughest work load you’ll ever face.
Between lectures, papers, and exams, you’ll be expected to develop creative and unique works that contribute directly to your field. You’ll be expected to attend conferences, workshops, exhibits, and forge your own social networks. If you’re up every day from the crack of dawn to midnight, you’ll still be left wondering where the other 10 hours you need in a day are going to arrive.
Still thinking about grad school?!
So who is right for graduate school? The only reason – the ONLY reason – to attend graduate school these days, is because you are really and truly passionate about a topic to the point where you are willing to commit your entire life to it and you’re convinced you’re tough and responsible enough to make it through without failing out. The last thing you want to do is quit a year in, after you’ve borrowed tens of thousands of dollars on tuition and getting situated in a new town!
But, if you truly love the subject matter, you’ll further your education and career more than any other experience can provide. New professional opportunities will pop up that simply aren’t available to individuals with undergraduate degrees. Most of those who make it through do look back fondly on their experiences, so just make sure you know what you want to do and stick it out!