How will you pay for it? Can you live on part-time employment? You know it’s really expensive, don’t you? If grad school is in your plans (or once was), these questions are all too familiar. Money is a very important consideration when considering whether or not to plunge into grad school, but it is often placed incorrectly in the hierarchy of important factors in the grad school equation. Money should be the last hurdle over which potential students jump. First, one should really understand what life will be like in school that is much more demanding than college.
It’s extremely important to get the truth about the benefits of grad school in your career field. In business, obtaining an MBA almost always helps secure a higher position. Keep in mind, however, that many others are getting one, or already have it. Thus, owning a higher degree no longer gives the boost it once did. Figure out what kind of combination of education and experience your desired job requires. Some companies will explicitly place more emphasis on one than the other. Talk to those who already have your dream position. Many people are more than willing to share their experience, as well as insight as to where their field is going and for whom it might be looking.
After determining whether or not grad school will really help, it’s time to find out what to expect. Set up tours and meetings at prospective schools. You’ll be surprised at how much information schools are willing to provide for you. Remember, it’s not like college. Schools and departments can be very picky about what kind of student they want. The students they graduate also reflect the strengths and weaknesses of their programs.
Those of you pursuing liberal arts degrees in history, English, psychology, religion, and the like, should be prepared to read and write all the time. I am pursuing a Master’s degree in history. I have three classes a semester. Two classes require me to plow through at least one book per week. Class lasts for two hours, once a week, and you really discuss the material in depth. Sometimes, I’m lucky enough to receive a short book, say 250 pages or less. More often than not, my books scrape the 400-page mark and beyond. That’s a healthy amount of reading for one week, not to mention a second book of similar size for the other class. Classes like this also require their students to lead the discussion at least once, for the entire class. The student is responsible for asking all the questions and keeping the debates going. It’s a tall order to fill, especially if the book in question is particularly dense and tough to comprehend. At the very least, the students will have to read outside material and present it to the rest of the class.
My third class requires me to write a paper. This is usually 25-30 pages. The content must be driven by primary sources, which are direct sources written during the time period you are discussing (e.g. newspapers, diaries, memoirs, government or legal records, etc.). Needless to say, this takes extensive research. Documents must be tracked down, analyzed, and incorporated into the paper. Once written, I usually have to present it. More often than not, it will be reviewed by my classmates and they will publicly critique it.
If you think you can slide through a class like you did in college, you’re in for a surprise. Grad classes are usually smaller, often 10-15 people, but I have had some with as few as five. Since they’re based heavily on discussion, those who don’t say much are quickly recognized. Quiet students are immediately suspected as being unfamiliar with the material. If a professor calls on you by name to share your thoughts, understand that he or she thinks you may have slacked for that assignment. Moreover, though only a Master’s student, I’m in class with future PhDs. Most people know their stuff, and you can look foolish if you don’t put in your time.
On top of homework, I’m often approached to attend conferences, sit in on presentations by those seeking a job with the university, or meet with potential students in Q & A sessions. I don’t have to do everything, but volunteerism is a sign of how hard I’m willing to work. Additionally, I have to think about how I’ll look to potential employers. If I wasn’t willing to do a little extra in school, I probably won’t be at work, either.
Social life dwindles to barely nothing, at least it should. This can be extremely hard on outside relationships. College buddies want you to go out? You still have 200-plus pages to read before tomorrow’s class. It’s time to make a decision. I have a wife who can come home from work and sit in front of the TV or go shopping if she wants. I come home from class and know that if I’m doing something besides reading, I’m wasting time. Couples need to work out a system that still allows time together. My wife respects that I need to study. Often we’ll go for walks or watch our favorite show together, then she lets me do whatever class work I need to finish. When she goes to bed, I stay up and read, read, read. It’s all give-and-take. Again, talk to people who have done the grad school thing. Ask them about every aspect you can think of. Trust me, they’re more than willing to share the gritty details of what it’s like. We want people to succeed. I’m only in my third semester and I can count four people that have quit. I’m even at a smaller school. Three of them were one semester away from their degree. That’s a lot of time and money to invest without finishing.
On a more positive note for those who want to learn more about their subject, grad school delivers. I’m still surprised about how much I know now compared to a year-and-a-half ago. The resources I’ve been able to employ in my research are fascinating to me. I really enjoy what I do. If one subject really excites you, grad school can bring it to a whole new level. I’ve met some great people, professors included, who share a common passion. It’s not often that I can debate what really caused the collapse of the Soviet Union or whether or not American slavery was a system more profitable than wage-labor with my college friends or my wife. (Yes, I realize that my nerd factor has suddenly risen in the eyes of many who read this.) My grad friends, however, are more than willing to argue with me. I don’t lie when I say “argue” either. Many conversations become quite heated.
Overall, grad school has been a pleasant experience. I have gained more confidence and do believe that it has furthered my job prospects. I talked to both current grad students and professors before I made the decision to attend grad school. To be honest, this prepared me well. It put to rest some myths and raised some new questions. I strongly encourage anyone considering the grad path to do this. It worked well for me. Of course, there is all that money that I owe the government….