When to Go to Graduate School (& When Not To)

Want to avoid the career search? Then I bet going to grad school is high on your list of considerations. Especially in this bad economy, it's tempting to "hide out" in a secure academic institution that will can take care of your meals and housing. What could be more appealing to a choice overloaded twentysomething than that? The Graduate School Library

I would know. The grad school temptation proved too great for me. I'd been planning to get a job after graduating from college. Then I hit Thanksgiving of my senior year. My relatives' probing questions, skeptical looks, and not-so-subtle whispers were too much for me. What was I going to do after graduating? They were right. I had no plan. I had no sense of the real world. Yikes:  I had no future at all!

In a panic, I applied to nine graduate schools in the span of three weeks. When acceptances amazingly rolled in, I had my future in my hands  - and the self-righteous answer to the dreaded question So what are you going to do after graduation?

Problem was, it was not my time to go to graduate school. A reality I hit on the very first day of class:

"So what are you planning to research while you're here, Rebecca?" a professor asked.

"Um, cognitive development?" I said.

"That's the title of this course," the professor replied. "Can't you be more specific?"

Uh, no.

I ended up leaving my PhD program after receiving my master's degree. I don't regret the decision to leave, but I do regret the decision to to go to graduate school too early. If I'd waited - the way I'd planned to before everyone freaked me out - my grad school experience probably would have been richer, more rewarding, and filled with a lot fewer panic attacks.

So in the interest of avoiding becoming me (always a good goal), here are my pointers about when to go to graduate school:

Go to Graduate School After You've Had a Few Years Away From College

You know what going to grad school directly after graduating college is? It's a rebound romance. And we all know how well those work out. Seriously, you've just been in a highly committed relationship for four (or five) years of your life. You're afraid that you can't live without that relationship in your life. So you reach out and cling to the best approximation of the thing you're afraid to lose. The thing is, the next-best-thing isn't like the actual thing. Grad school is a completely different beast from undergrad. Completely. You have to be ready for that experience, not longing for the old experience, in order to get the most out of it. So give yourself a little time to be by yourself, to get to know who you are outside of that long-term relationship, to have some good cries over cartons of Ben and Jerry's. Then you'll have the clear head you need to commit to a new relationship. With a university, that is.

Go to Graduate School Once You Truly Know Yourself

I've seen more than a few twentysomethings - myself included - go to graduate school in order to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Uh, no. Wrong idea. Grad school is not the place to explore and try things out and spend lazy afternoons lying on the grass staring into the clouds and introspecting about your future. You might have been able to do that in college - in fact, hopefully you were able to do that in college - but grad school is a place to be focused, driven and to work toward a specific goal. It's a lot like taking a direct flight from LA to NY. If you'd rather take a super-scenic, slow-mo train tour across the country, grad school isn't for you. Instead, take some years to think, experiment, and try out career paths, like twentysomething researcher Dr. Meg Jay did before she went to grad school. When you're truly convinced you want to head to NY, then and only then hop on a plane. Grad school will be the most efficient way to get there.

Go to Graduate School Only After You've Tested Out the Profession

2009 Graduate School Commencement 005

So you want to head to grad school to become a lawyer or a clinical psychologist or a dentist? Good for you. But before you go, how much can you tell me about your chosen profession? What's a typical day like? What are the frustrating parts of the career? What are the rewards? What is the rate of burnout, and why does it occur? And on and on. You should know your chosen profession cold before you enter grad school. Of course some of that knowledge can only be gained by doing a job day in and day out for years on end. But much of you can gain virtually by:

  • Engaging in internships and jobs in positions as close to your desired profession as possible (simply observing a bunch of people doing who what you want to do can tell you a lot - e.g., how much coffee do they need to get through the day, and how haggard do they look at the end of the week?)
  • Conducting many informational interviews (and I do mean many, to give you a wide-ranging sample of experiences)
  • Job shadowing

You're about to invest a good chunk of change and many years of your life into your graduate work. You'd better be darn sure you want the profession that waits on the other side. If you aren't inspired enough to do the legwork to research the career up front, then maybe that isn't the career for you.

So there's my short - alright, semi-short - treatise on when to go to graduate school, a.k.a., the lecture I wish someone had given me when I was 22. Would I have listened? Probably not. The desire to escape social scrutiny and fear ran pretty darn strong in me. But maybe it would've at least planted a seed of doubt discomforting enough that I'd have paused and listened to myself.

Is grad school next for you? Maybe not quite yet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What awaits after you've crossed that stage wearing your grad school garb? You'd better know before you even enroll. (Photo credit: pennstatenews)