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28 FEB 2022
This question is highly underrated in communities of college students and twenty-something graduates. How do you know if you should pursue a postgraduate degree? And who do you talk to about it?
In my experiences as a graduate student in the US and the UK, I have more often met peers determined to apply for or drop out of degree programs than individuals who genuinely wish to pause and consider whether they ought to apply for grad school. This blog will neither condemn nor celebrate postgraduate degrees. Instead, it will offer you a series of questions that I’ve found particularly helpful in thinking about graduate school—both when planning my own education and when working with students and peers.
As you consider this big life change, take the time to ask yourself the following questions:
Would the money, energy, time required to attend grad school be worth it?
Pursuing a chosen career
As a PhD candidate in English Literature, I will use myself as a case study. In order to pursue my dream of becoming a professor, I need a PhD—but having a doctorate does not mean that I will necessarily achieve this goal. If you are also applying for graduate school with the goal of becoming a professor, take a minute to pause and ask yourself how you would feel if, after your five or six years of study, you were not able to obtain an academic job. One of the first lessons that I learned in graduate school is that the academic job market is difficult in the best of circumstances and exhausting to navigate in its current state—especially in the humanities. This does not mean that it is impossible to compete for and win a promising doctoral fellowship or one of the few tenure-track positions on the market after you graduate. However, it does mean that you have to be prepared for the possible reality that your time in graduate school is the closest you may get to a career as a professor.
Reader, this may sound crazy, but this line of reasoning only made me more determined to apply for my doctorate in English Literature. Why? I had a series of academic projects that I wanted to undertake for their own sakes.
My next question for you is whether or not you have projects—or areas of scholarly interest—to which you would like to dedicate years of your life. For a moment, imagine your potential graduate program as a fellowship with a low stipend, teaching responsibilities, and access to campus resources. Would you take time off from a full-time career to take advantage of that fellowship and pursue your scholarly interest? From my perspective, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to indulge your curiosity and grow intellectually—and graduate degrees can, in many fields, help you return to your job with a higher salary or seek more intellectually fulfilling work. Yet, my point is that, another reason to attend graduate school is if you are eager to take on research and the process of academic exploration as an end in itself, without guaranteed subsequent financial gains.
Cost / Benefit Considerations
Post-graduate degree programs promise many opportunities, yes, but they also levy opportunity costs. Pause to ask yourself, what could you do with half a decade of your life, the cost of tuition, and the cost of applying if you were instead to funnel your time, energy, and capital into advancing through your career field? It may be that you’ve already advanced as far as you can without specialist training that only a graduate degree can offer. Alternatively, perhaps you’re feeling unfulfilled by your career and need a change. I’m not suggesting that graduate school is not the forum in which to turn your life around, but I am pointing out that it is expensive in terms of years, time, energy, and dollars, even if you receive funding. What will graduate school give you personally in return for those resources?
If you’re full of uplifting answers and research questions in reply to the above questions, then it’s probably safe to say that you should apply to grad school. If you are still feeling unsure, write about it, reflect, and talk with friends and family. The right decision will become clear with time!