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The Right (and Wrong) Reasons to go to Grad School

Craig Zelizer

August 16, 2017

There are two good reasons why someone might choose to pursue an advanced degree:

  1. You need the coursework/training/degree in order to advance in your chosen career path
  2. You are interested in making a career change and need to gain the appropriate training/education to make that shift

There are also a number of ill-advised reasons why someone might choose to pursue an advanced degree:

  • You can’t find a job and figure you’ll go get another degree instead
  • Your friend/roommate/partner/family member says that you should
  • You feel like you may need or want an advanced degree “down the road”
  • You really just want to move somewhere new (either domestically or abroad)
  • You want to figure out whether you like a certain topic or industry
  • You aren’t ready to leave your undergraduate years of college behind
  • You just don’t know what else to do

Remember that choosing to pursue an advanced degree is a huge decision that can – and will – influence many other factors in your life, such as where and what kind of work you pursue, who becomes part of your personal and professional networks, and your financial state for years to come. Graduate school costs a lot in terms of time, energy, and financial resources, so you want to make sure that you are pursuing this path in the most informed and strategic way possible. Be honest and ask yourself: Do I really need to get a graduate degree? If you feel like you are having trouble determining whether you need graduate-level training, you can:

Talk to others who are more experienced or further along professionally than you are. 

  • If they have an advanced degree, ask them how and when they decided that they needed one.
    Would they recommend a similar course of action for someone like you?
  • If they don’t, ask them how or why they decided that they could get by without it. Do they think they would make the same decision if they were looking for jobs today?

Read job descriptions for positions that you think you might be interested in, or could potentially qualify for in the next 5 – 10 years.

  • Do those organizations seem like they are looking to hire someone into those positions who has an advanced degree?
  • If so, what types of degree(s) are they looking for, and in what field(s)?
  • If not, what other training or skills do they want? Do you need to go to grad school to get those experiences, or are there other potential training or learning opportunities available to you?

Enroll in a graduate level course (online or in-person) to see how it feels.

  • If you can find a free or low-cost online course related to your field, see what it feels like to be back in school. Does the material seem interesting and useful to you?
  • Depending on where you got your undergraduate degree, your alma mater may offer discounted rates for you to audit a graduate-level course.
  • Some graduate programs will allow you to enroll in a course or two as a non-degree student (and some will even let you transfer in that course for credit if you later decide to enroll in a formal program there)

Complete a graduate level certificate first.

  • Most universities now offer graduate-level certificate programs, which are less time-consuming and less expensive than formal degree programs and are often very professionally-oriented.
  • Some programs will even let you double-count or transfer credit from certificate programs to a formal degree program if you choose to pursue one.
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