What Am I Going To Do When I Grow Up?

Thinking about Graduate School?

Posted on: January 10, 2010

Perhaps you’ve already applied to graduate school and are nervously awaiting the response?  Or perhaps you’re a recent graduate frustrated in the job search and find your thoughts keep turning to graduate school?  Or perhaps you’re stuck in a job and think that perhaps a graduate degree would help you move to the next level of your career?  Or perhaps you are an undergraduate student consider graduate school as the next step?

No matter what your situation, here are a few things to consider as part of the process:

1. This is the most important aspect and it might seem really basic, but know specifically WHY you are going.

  • What are your motivations for going to graduate school?
  • What do you hope a degree in a specific field will accomplish?
  • How is it tied to a specific career plan?  how realistic is that plan?
  • Who do you know who has a career in that field?  What do they suggest regarding your plan?
  • How very specifically do you think the schools you’re applying to will partner with you to meet this plan?

Put this all in writing.   This is the basis of each of the different letters of application you will send to the schools.

2.  Know your audience.  Each application to each school must be crafted with the specific school in mind.

  • Read absolutely everything you can about each school and this is mandatory:  Read the entire website of the specific department to which you are applying.  i.e.  if you are applying to the English program, read the entire English departments’ website.  if you are applying to law school, read the entire school of law’s website.   It is not enough to read the information admissions provides to you.    Know who the faculty are that teach in the program.  Know what the program requirements are.  Know what the structure of the program is.  Know everything the program put out there for you to read.
  • Speak to a specific audience in the letter.  Do not use the same letter of application to each school.   You might have an initial template you start with, but identify specific people in the department from whom you want to learn, name resources such as libraries in your field or research facilities in that program that are attractive, and  list experiences that the program provides such as teaching, research, interning, surveying, clerking, or whatever actually attracted you to them about their program.   Make the pitch to them as to why you selected their program out of the many that exist and what you hope to contribute to the program.
  • Best fit is key.  Part of the letter should address why you as a candidate are a good fit for their program.  Do it from their perspective:  How are you a team player?  What in your background qualifies you for their program?   What experiences led you to feel that going to graduate school in their program was part of your career or mission in life?  What’s your planned contribution to the program or field?   Use specific examples.

3.  Go Visit.

Perhaps you’ve already turned in the letters and didn’t do the above things?   It is what it is.   This is still a great move.  Or perhaps you are still exploring going in the future?  No matter where you are in the process of considering graduate programs, there is no substitute for a scheduled on-site visit.

  • Reading about a program online is great.  It’s mandatory before applying to a place you will be studying for a minimum of at least a year and typically 2 to 6 years.  Knowing the program’s culture is something that you will only truly understand by meeting the people in the program.  So, an on-site visit really helps you make sure this is a solid professional choice.
  • Visiting will increase your chance of acceptance.   It shows you are serious about your application and helps you fill in the gaps any application might leave.   Visits are very impactful any time of year, but timing is a factor.
  • Make sure you make appointments in advance.   People are not just waiting around in their offices on the off-chance you might pop by and if you don’t have an appointment they might not have time for you.  Scheduling appointments far enough in advance will ensure a great experience for everyone.
  • Request the experiences you want.   Ask to meet with faculty who do research in the areas of study and would potentially be teachers of graduate classes and/or your faculty adviser .  Ask to sit in on a class that is required in your area of study.  Ask to meet with graduate students in the program.    Ask to tour the facilities.    Ask for information on housing, student organizations or clubs, career services, programming, and time to meet with people who can answer these questions.
  • Be prepared to make quite a number of phone calls to set this all up.  It is likely that people keep their own calendars and there is not a central person to make this magically happen for you.   This is your job.

4.  Remember that you are interviewing them (the school) as much as they are interviewing you.

Take this as seriously as a job interview.   So, be prepared.  Ask questions.  Do research.  Set expectations and conduct yourself professionally.  Going to graduate school is an enormous professional investment in time, energy, and resources.  If you aren’t willing to commit to a serious search process, ask yourself if you are ready to commit to what graduate school demands of you.   Make sure that going to graduate school is a meaningful conscious choice on a path to a career you have chosen, researched, and are entering aware of what the graduate degree will do for you.

At the same time, just like a job interview, this is not a one-sided process of trying to squeeze into someone else’s expectations of what kind of candidate should do, be, or act like.  This is a process of you knowing what you want and asking questions…seeking to find the program that will be the best fit for you and one in which you can make a meaningful contribution to a field.

Graduate school can be a great investment in yourself personally and professionally… and like any investment, if you to do the research and groundwork to ensure the investment is a good fit for the goals you have, it is more likely to pay off.   And, if all of this seems a bit daunting, that’s understandable.    Most people find it pretty overwhelming to do this all on their own and so it’s wise to have a mentor or coach helping walk you through the process, pointing you towards resources, and providing accountability so you stay on track.

So, start where you are, take inventory of your resources, and if you need assistence, ask for help.  You aren’t alone.

Sending fabulous energy!

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2 Responses to "Thinking about Graduate School?"

[…] is the original post: Thinking about Graduate School? « What Am I Going To Do When I … Share and […]

Good points, I think I will definitely subscribe! I’ll go and read some more! What do you see the future of this being?

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