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Are you Ready to Go to Grad School?

written by: William Springer•edited by: Amanda Grove•updated: 7/8/2010

Is graduate school right for you? We discuss why grad school is hard and why you just might want to get your PhD anyway.

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    Grad School: Not at All Like the Real World

    Congratulations! You’ve finished your undergraduate degree and you’re ready to get a real job!

    Well, maybe. Maybe your subject area was so fascinating, you can’t wait to learn more about it. Maybe you’ve been in the workforce for a while and feel the need for further education. Maybe you’ve just decided to ride out the bad economy for a few more years. Whatever the reason, you’ve decided to go back to school for a graduate or postgraduate degree. What do you need to know?

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    The hours are long, the pay is terrible

    The good news is, many graduate students do not pay tuition; rather, it’s covered by their department in exchange for teaching classes or conducting research. While this is ideal – students pursuing a graduate degree often plan to go into either teaching or research, so this provides valuable experience – keep in mind that you most likely will not be able to maintain outside employment as well. Pursuing a graduate degree is a full-time job, and being a teaching assistant or research assistant is an additional half-time job on top of that. Graduate students are known, with good reason, for being found in the lab at all hours! Grading student assignments often takes longer than expected, and research tends to expand to fill all available free time.

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    Graduate classes are not slightly harder versions of undergraduate classes

    Coasted through undergrad? Don’t expect to do the same in grad school. While undergraduate classes are paced such that the vast majority of students will be able to handle them (particularly required courses and those that attract non-majors), it is assumed that once you make it to grade school, you know how to study, you know how to work, and you have a strong interest in the material. As a result, classes move much faster and students are expected to perform at a much higher level. For graduate students, the worst passing grade for a class is generally a B-, and it’s not unusual for most students to earn As in a given course. In short: don’t go to grad school unless you’re genuinely interested in the material and are ready to work hard; otherwise, don’t expect to graduate!

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    I’m ready…or am I?

    Once you’ve decided that you’re up for graduate school, it remains to decide when you want to go. There are definitely advantages to attending straight out of college; once you’ve been in the workforce for a few years, it can be hard to get back into the swing of things as a student, and even harder to adjust to the sudden drop in pay. On the other hand, taking a few years off also has its advantages; you can gain real-world experience that you might be able to apply to your work, you can confirm that you enjoy working in the field before spending several more years studying it, and your employer might cover some or all of the cost of returning to school. Plus, after four years of study, sometimes you just need a break!

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    There are some good things too, right?

    Grad school has a lot of things going for it. People with more education tend to have higher annual salaries (although this is partially canceled out by the additional years spent in school before entering the workforce). A graduate degree may qualify you for more interesting jobs (although it can also cut your job pool as employers decide you’re overqualified). Even when your degree isn’t directly relevant to the position you’re interested in, it shows that you can commit to a long-term project that requires substantial effort. It’s also personally rewarding; while sometimes grad school seems like nothing but work and (lack of) sleep, it offers the opportunity to focus on learning about things that interest you, from experts in your field, along with other smart people who are interested in the same things.

    Grad school is not for everyone; in particular, people attending purely for financial reasons are unlikely to be successful. But if you love learning and hanging out with others who feel the same way, graduate school just might be the perfect thing for you!