It’s a question a lot of students dread but too often are asked: What are your plans for after graduation?
Job? Gap year? Graduate school?
Sometimes, it can feel like an interrogation. So, without further ado, here’s how to know if graduate school should be in your future.
“It’s almost like the transition from high school to college,” said Ashley Walker, Ph.D, dean of Jack N. Averitt College of Graduate Studies at Georgia Southern University. “When you’re going from undergraduate to graduate, you’re kind of expanding on those higher-order thinking skills that you were cultivating your junior and senior classes.”
She added in your undergrad career you are focused more on defining and identifying whereas in the graduate world you are focused on analyzing, developing and designing.
Essentially, undergraduate study is about foundational knowledge, and grad school teaches you how to apply that knowledge in specific ways.
“We have a lot,” Walker said. “Traditionally, you’re going to look at graduate degrees.”
Types of graduate degrees include master’s, doctorate and specialist. They can include program-specific degrees, such as the Education Specialist or Ed.S., which is a specialist degree in the College of Education.
“A master’s degree is a demonstration these higher-order thinking skills have been utilized,” said Walker.
Certificates, however, are about completion and are not something with which you can graduate.
“It’s a way of getting students and practitioners exposed to graduate-level research, allowing them to be more prepared in their professional life without the commitment of a 36-hour degree program,” explained Walker.
Graduate certification is often necessary for some professions in order to move up in the ranks–or to sit for certain qualifying exams, according to Walker.
Certificate programs can be standalone, meaning the student can apply for the program by itself. Or they may be imbedded into a program of study.
“Sometimes what does happen is they start taking their graduate-level work and find out that they like it,” said Walker. “And then they stick around and decide to become a degree-seeking student.”
Graduate programs can often be online as well as on-campus.
“There are definitely some job placements where the master’s degrees are the minimum requirement,” said Walker. “We have some who are attaining a master’s degree just to get a bump in pay. So, it can be anywhere from the love of learning to ‘I want to get into an administrative role’ or ‘I want to up my skill set.’ ”
Walker said that employers view graduate degrees as a demonstration of competency in a field.
“That’s a reason why you’re seeing companies prefer to hire someone with a master’s degree,” said Walker. “Because they know that individual has gone through this application.”
She described soft skills, such as being able to communicate well, as very valuable in the workplace–especially if you want to move up the chain. She also said that graduate schools lends itself to soft skill communication.
These other skills are also constantly practiced in graduate programs, according to Walker: working closely with classmates, writing, reading, critical thinking and a lot of synthesizing (pooling together all you’ve learned and applying that knowledge as a whole).
Walker said some programs may actually require a gap year or a year or two of work experience.
In addition, she said that, in her personal opinion, there are definitely some programs from which students benefit from just a year in work experience.
“But again, if they’re not going to go get their graduate degree in that area of work, it may not be as necessary,” said Walker.
What about students who go straight into their graduate career?
“They do a great job,” said Walker. “But those have a clear path on what their end goal is. So, I think if students are really on the fence and don’t know what they want to do with their ‘life,’not that anyone really knows what they want to do with their life, right?, then a gap year can be very beneficial. But some programs, depending on the program they want to go into or the profession, if they want to get a master’s degree, may require that.”
The hard part doesn’t necessarily end by deciding on grad school or not. Now you have to figure out which program—or alternative—is best for you.
You’re not always blocked into one specific area of study by your undergraduate major, but you will need necessary foundational knowledge for most programs.
“For example, I can tell you, if you have a student that’s getting their doctorate in public health or is interested in getting a doctorate in public health but they don’t have a public health background, it’s not that they are not going to get into the public health program,” said Walker. “But public health may ask that student to complete certain coursework before they can start their actual doctorate level classwork.”
More than anything, Walker suggested speaking with faculty as well as successful individuals in your field about their career path.
“How did they get there?” said Walker. “What is their background?”
Some things to consider include:
She added that students should look into other options as well.
“Depending on what their end goal is, there could be a variety of options,” said Walker. “Oftentimes, there’s not a set path to get to the same goal.”
It is best to start early with your applications because Walker says application seasons for different programs may begin or end before the student’s final undergraduate semester. Some programs may require more documents than others, which can take time to gather.
Some students may need to complete certain exams, such as the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), or a more field-specific type of exam..
“It may be where in order to start fall, they should have started looking at application and admission requirements much earlier,” said Walker. “Start early. Talk and ask questions.”
Walker said that she thinks a lot of people view grad school as “daunting” because it’s “more school.” But she said that grad school is great.
As a first generation student, Walker said she never would have imagined herself where she is now in a million years.
“I’m very appreciative of what education has provided me,” she said. “And I just advocate that others can take advantage of that. Opens a lot of doors, not just professionally, but from a community perspective. I’ve just been blessed with working with and meeting different people of different walks of life.”
In the end, the degree you get is meant to help you do what you want with your life. So what is best for you?