Thinking About Grad School?

A Few Questions You Need to Ask

Why do you want to go to grad/professional school?

  • "Because I can't get a job in this economy" is not necessarily a good financial decision. In the long run, going into debt for a degree that might or might not help you get a job, or one in a field you're not committed to, may not help you.
  • "Because I need a higher degree to get a job." This may or may not be true. Have you talked to the advisors in your department? Some advanced degrees help you get jobs; others do not. Talk to people in your department about career paths is something you must undertake-graduate school may not be what you think. For example, most MBA programs want people with actual business experience; a PhD may actually disqualify you for enrollment in some programs or some career paths.
  • "Because I'm not really sure what to do with my life." Lots of people have used grad school to figure this out, but in terms of time and money it may not be the most cost effective solution. If you are really uncertain about what you want to do, there are lots of volunteer programs (AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, etc.) that defer student loans while you work for them. Other options you might consider: explore internships; travel abroad; working for a time in a field you might be interested in.
  • "Because I really want to work in this field." This is the best reason to go to grad/professional school, but be sure you are realistic about job prospects, economic costs, etc. The median time from completing your bachelor's degree to the PhD is 10.3 years (8 years in the sciences, 11.4 years in the humanities, 19.5 years in education). Fifteen percent of graduate students accrue $30,000 or more debt, yet a 2000 survey showed that as many of 30 percent of recent doctorates were either not employed or not employed in the field in which they were trained. The statistics for law school are only slightly better. (Source: National Opinion Resource Center, "Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities,; National Association for Law Placement,

How are you going to pay for graduate school?

  • "I'll take out student loans" These are easy to get. But do the job prospects at the other end of graduate study justify an extreme amount of debt? Most graduates can handle several thousand dollars in debt. The burden becomes onerous, however, when the debt is several tens of thousands of dollars.
  • "My parents will help me out" Careful here. You know your relationship with them–if you are dependent on them for financial aid, is this going to give them too much control over your life?
  • "I'll apply for scholarships/fellowships" how accessible are scholarships? Will the program support you for part of or for your whole degree, or do you have to apply for scholarships from independent sources? If the graduate program you are entering does not offer some significant financial support for its students, ask yourself how secure your other grants, scholarships or loans will be, and shop for a program that will guarantee support.
  • "I'll depend on the support of my spouse or significant other" Well, OK. But if you are economically dependent on this person for two, four, or eight years, how is this going to affect your relationship? Remember, as a graduate student you are not an income producer; you are an income consumer, and you are not able to contribute large amounts of support to a family.
  • "I'll work to support myself." Certainly possible. But how long will it realistically take you to finish your program if you're working full time? (There's a reason that the median time for a doctorate in education is 19 years: most students are also teaching full time). If you work part time, will you really be able to support yourself?

Where should you go to graduate school?

  • Prestigious school names may in fact be important in some fields, but more important is how good the school is in the particular subfield you'll be focusing on. Find out what prospective employers think about the school and the graduates of the school that you are considering. The program in which you hope to enroll should readily provide a list of jobs that its graduates now fill.
  • This is something you should discuss with faculty in you major department and with as many other people in the field as you can contact. (Caution: Often people favor the school they graduated from even when its program has gone downhill!). The more time spent exploring this question with knowledgeable people in the field, the better off you'll be.
  • Again, economics may play a role here. Try to get a good sense of how much a degree from X is "worth." See your prospective program about the percentage of students who actually graduate, get jobs, and how long it actually takes them to finish.
  • Be aware that many state schools, though cheap, may require a year of non-student residency before they will count you as an in-state student. (That said, don't rule out state schools outside your state of residence. In some cases they are leaders in their field).
  • It's a good idea to start looking at graduate schools during your junior year so you have time to do research into the kind of places you want to go to

How should you select the schools you apply to?

  • Websites are a good first step (see our recommendations on this web site). But don't rely on them alone.
  • Talk to people in your prospective field, both here and elsewhere.
  • Don't select just one school to apply to, even if your grades are good.
  • For your top two or three schools, be sure to talk to the actual faculty members you would be working with. They will very likely play a major role in your life for the next 2-10 years. (Exception: professional schools where you don't have one advisor).
  • Be sure to also talk to a few grad students in the program you are considering to get a sense of what the school is really like. (The director of the program should be able to give you a couple of names; also ask those students for additional names, if you don't get the sense they feel comfortable talking freely).

Questions to ask the Director of the program:

  • What percentage of students who apply to are accepted to the program?
  • Does admittance to the MA guarantee admittance to the PhD? If it is a joint MA/PhD, is a terminal degree awarded in the case where you don't finish your dissertation for the PhD?
  • How long does it take the average student to get through the program? What percentage finish the program?
  • What sort of funding and scholarship support is available to MA and PhD. students? How many years are students funded? What percentage of students are funded?

Questions to ask other graduate students in the program:

  • What is it like to work with Professor X? How accessible is s/he? What is his/her relationship with students like?
  • Are you satisfied with how often classes necessary to the degree are offered? Are there any requirements for the degree you think often trip up new students?
  • What do you wish someone had told you about this program the first year you got here?
  • Are there any rumors about professors leaving the program?
  • How long does it take the average student to get through the program? What percent finish?
  • What sort of funding is available? How consistent is it? Is there a lot of competition for it?

    You might also want to check out the NAGPS website they survey students in a wide variety of programs. It grades programs based on the quality of information the program gives prospective students; how well it trains them for the field; what sort of mentoring and funding is available in the program; the length of time the average student in the program takes to graduate, etc.

When should I go to grad school?

  • Lots of people get more out of grad school if they defer it until they have a better idea of their future plans. Some professional programs (e.g., MBAs) actually require this. If you are going to defer going to grad school but think you want to go later, you should start a file in the career placement office at your undergraduate school. Fill it with letters from professors now so they write while you are still fresh in their mind. Then when you are actually ready to apply they can update the letter.

Micki Lennon
Department of Religious Studies
California State University, Chico
Rev. 5/03