Is Graduate School Right For You?

Here are some questions to ask yourself and tips on deciding whether a graduate education is right for you.

Determine your personal and professional goals.

Conduct an honest appraisal of your priorities, academic strengths, and personal interests. Once you have identified a field of study, seek the advice of your instructors, advisors, and professionals for information on options within the field.

Evaluate your career objectives.

A professional degree will advance your career in a particular area, especially if you have some work experience related to that profession. It is a relatively short-term investment of time and money that generally leads to increased salary, greater mobility, more responsibility, and greater job security.

Learn what graduate and professional schools are all about.

Do you know what a master’s degree is? How about a doctoral degree? Are you interested in research, teaching or a professional career? Do you want to become a faculty member at a small liberal arts school or at a major research institution? Do you want to obtain an accredited degree to become a licensed professional in your chosen career? Start asking yourself questions such as these to help you look for a program that will best meet your needs.

Look at your credentials.

Keep in mind that an admissions committee will be looking at all of your credentials, so it is possible that strong aspects of your credentials may offset weaker ones. Mitigating factors such as a heavy work schedule may also be considered. It is important for you to be realistic with yourself about your credentials.

Obtain good references.

Good letters from faculty describing your ability to excel in graduate school can influence admissions decisions. If faculty don’t know you, they can’t write a good reference letter for you. If you are still a student, ask questions in class, go to office hours, and show interest in the subject. Work hard so the professor will notice and be familiar with your work.

When applying to a professional program, it is helpful to have references from those who can offer a candid assessment of your skills and values. Seek references from practicing professionals who know you well. References from family, close friends or your own mental health professional are not appropriate.

Prepare for the graduate entrance exams.

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) general test measures analytical writing, verbal, and quantitative skills that have been acquired over a long period of time and are not related to any specific subject. While your scores on this exam will not alone determine an admission decision, preparing for them is very helpful. At the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, the GRE is required for the PhD program but not for the MSSW program.

Plan early.

Know all the deadlines. Be aware that graduate school application deadlines are often in the late fall or early spring.

Become familiar with faculty and their research.

Talk to faculty members and take a look at recent books and articles written by them. Also, take into account the academic reputation and ranking of the department you are interested in at the college or university that you are considering. A school may be ranked highly overall, but the department you are interested in may not be.

Consider the cost and availability of financial aid.

Keep in mind the entire cost of attending a school in that community and compare that amount with the available support. Some schools may be out of your price range and may not offer sufficient aid.

Consider the school environment.

Is there an environment of support for graduate students? Are there groups or other support services for a diverse population of graduate students? Graduate school is hard enough without the right kind of support network.

Consider the geographic location.

Remember that you may be in a setting for a couple of years. You will work best in a comfortable environment. Make sure there are opportunities for recreation.

Talk with professors, students, and alumni at the school.

Talk with professors and instructors. They know what their counterparts are doing at other campuses. You need to tap into the professional network that already exists. Most faculty members enjoy the chance to talk with their students about their plans for graduate study. Getting to know your faculty members in this way not only provides you with valuable information about graduate schools, but also helps the faculty members know you better.

Talk with graduate students in the department you are considering. Talk with current students. It is important to get a varied impression of a school.

Talk with alumni of the school you are considering. Are they working in their chosen field? If so, where?