Deciding to seek a graduate degree is a major commitment of time and money, and not everyone has a clear understanding of what he or she wants career-wise. Without a clear goal, going to graduate school could end up being a waste of your efforts as applying to graduate school involves: requesting letters of recommendation, requesting transcripts, taking the GREs/MATs/GMATs, and writing a personal statement. Additionally, many prospective graduate students also do not realize how much more demanding graduate course load is than undergraduate programs— with several years of intense work and research in which you will be expected to contribute to a specific field of study. If you have any doubt about your professional goals, consider putting off graduate school and working on some self-assessment and career planning instead. Also, many schools offer an alternative to a graduate program: a non-degree or non-matriculating student status, another option for those who are not ready to commit yet.
If you do decide that graduate school is the right path for you, take the time to explore subjects that interest you.
Get Involved with your Major
Networking is extremely important. A great way to get into campus life is to explore organizations within your major. This can provide you a path to students and professors who share your interests and passions. Most schools offer pre-professional societies and various honor societies for different fields of study, which host conferences and competitions each year to help members grow intellectually and professionally. Also, spend time interacting with department members by going to lectures by professors, guest speakers, or any nearby events and conferences to get an idea of the kind of work other people do and get ideas on who to collaborate with later on.
Try to participate in multiple research opportunities as an undergraduate at your, or other, institution. Research opportunities include class projects, independent projects, research assistantships, and summer research programs. Research programs are a significant part of your personal statement and expose you to faculty and graduate students who can serve as a mentor and assist you with the graduate school process.
To look for networking opportunities outside your major, take some time to determine which ones will be the best fit for you. Explore groups and activities that spark your interests and offer a way for you to use your talents. Chances are you will find what you are looking for, if not, many institutions allow and encourage the formation of new clubs or organizations.
Testing the Waters
What are your interests? If you do not have an immediate answer, really consider spending a semester or two as a non-degree seeking student and take classes in different fields to develop a better understanding of what areas interest you. This is your opportunity to explore different avenues of interest. Determine a few fields that are options for you. Pull up the required curriculum for graduate degrees that can get you into those career fields. The more specific you can get about your interests, the stronger your application will be. For example, if you're applying for a PhD in English, try to identify a focus such as 18th-century British literature. If you don't have an idea of what concentration you want to focus on, hold off on program applications and take time to decide on a topic until you feel confident about your choice.
While not vital to program admission, try to get some experience teaching, peer tutoring, or work as a research assistant; this will give you a good sense of what the profession is like and help you produce a good personal statement. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you are uncertain which major would be the best option for a career field (e.g., you could pursue several different majors if you are interested in law school). Whom can you ask? Talk to professors, professionals, and practitioners in your field(s) of interest.
Talk to Professors in Respective Fields
Take time to research your profession of interest. Look at graduate program websites and visit campuses. Talk to a graduate student (maybe one of your TAs) and professor(s) about what it's like being a graduate student or professor, which is very different from being an undergraduate student.
Acquiring research experience can greatly enhance your acceptance into graduate school. The majority of professors love to talk about their work/research. Get an insight into their experiences and see if what they are doing interests you. If possible, sign up as an undergraduate for a research project with one of your professors in your field interest. This will give you an idea of what research in graduate school will be like as well as help you to develop a close working relationship with your professor and possible mentor. Here are tips on what to talk to about to a faculty member of your potential graduate program:
• Read some publications in your field(s) of interest and see what topics are of most interest to you.
• Consider the topics you are interested in and look up the research interests of the faculty.
• Make an appointment to speak to the faculty member.
• Tell the faculty member that you’ve investigated and read their work (don’t forget to be specific), and indicate what research of theirs you found especially interesting.
• Ask the faculty member what they’re currently working on and respond enthusiastically to what you’re interested in regarding their current research.
• Ask the faculty member the possibility of assisting them on a current project and tell the number of hours you could commit to their research.
• The faculty member may ask about your skills or previous research experience. If you don’t have previous experience, indicate your interest in the subject and willingness to learn.
Examine Career Options
You may not want to start thinking about what comes after graduate school, but this question is crucial when deciding whether to go back to school. You need to understand that your purpose in attending graduate school is not to launch off on a quest to find yourself, but to accumulate a set of skills and build a career. Research what you're career options will be with your degree after graduation.
You may have decided on a career field (e.g., health, law, education, etc.). Now is the time to hone in on potential jobs you could get upon graduating from graduate programs in those fields. It’s never too early to start examining career options. When examining career options, look at it realistically, and take into account the salary, job availability, etc.
If you’re investing your time and money in a graduate program, you need to have a very clear idea of the prospective jobs that wait on the other side. One important distinction between undergraduate and graduate degrees is how potential employers view your education. Your bachelor’s in English can be completely irrelevant to the work you end up doing. However, a master’s or doctorate in English signals to employers that you are an expert in that field, and you may be considered overqualified. An undergraduate degree is more flexible, versus a post-grad degree, which is more final in terms of career options.
Other factors to examine when considering potential careers are:
• First, do you have to continue with a postgraduate education to find employment?
• Do you like the types of jobs associated with your degree?
• Is the graduate program located in the right area for the type of work you want?
• Will the connections you make in the graduate program (e.g., your professors, lecturers, classmates) prove valuable in finding a job?
• Are internships available nearby?
To answer these questions, explore career options before graduate school by:
• Take classes as an undergraduate or non-degree seeking graduate to increase your skills and knowledge in areas that need improvement, especially those in your field of interest.
• Find an academic mentor who might guide you through the application process of getting into graduate school, as well as a backup plan for if you aren’t accepted.
• Reach out to current graduate students in your area of study.
• Speak to former/current advisors, the career center, or faculty for suggestions.
• Participate in an internship that focuses on projects in your field of interest.
• Prepare a resume with a cover letter and personal statement expressing your interests, plans, and skills.
One of the biggest decisions you have to make as a graduate student is whether to stay in school/academia or venture out into the workforce. Other decisions that are difficult to make include what classes to take in order to get exactly what you want and need out of your graduate program, how to network with professors and classmates, and which organizations will benefit you the most. Many graduate students have a hard time with this decision because they don’t want to throw away all the hard work they put into their graduate classes, but they might also want to find out what other options are out there. Some graduate students want to expand their skills and explore new environments, while others want to stay where they have conducted research and continue to collaborate with the same professors and classmates.
To ease your mind about the decisions you need to make as a graduate student, remember what you can and can’t handle. You need to remember to reach for realistic goals, if you try to force yourself to reach unrealistic goals; you will most likely end up being disappointed. Think your time as a graduate student as preparing yourself to do what you love, but have a few backup plans just in case you aren’t accepted into the program, or the program is not what you expected.
Remember, when going to graduate school; be prepared for a different experience from your undergraduate years. When you enroll in a graduate degree program, it's best to be and stay motivated by professional and academic goals. Read about other things PhDStudent advises to consider when deciding to go to graduate school here, here, and here.