Bardeen Engineering Quad during a beautiful fall day

Making the Decision to Pursue a Graduate Degree

Graduate education has a narrower focus and greater depth than your undergraduate degree. Pursuit of an advanced degree is a good option when it is connected to your professional goals, however, having an advanced degree does not automatically make you more qualified for jobs or guarantee a higher starting salary. There are a variety of reasons that may motivate you to pursue graduate education. Being fully committed to graduate school is important for success. Reasons to pursue an advanced degree include:

  • Your career goal requires an advanced degree
  • Your advanced degree will provide additional career opportunities
  • You are passionate about a subject and want to learn more
  • You want to gain specific knowledge and skills

Be sure to clarify your interest in and motivation to pursue a graduate degree. Explore the Occupational Outlook Handbook to learn about training and qualifications needed for careers that interest you. Get a job or internship to gain first-hand experience in your field of choice. Learn from professionals in the field and get their advice about the value of an advanced degree

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Determining When to Go to Graduate School

You do not need to go to graduate school right after completion of your bachelor’s degree. It may be better for you to gain experience to determine the type of degree you want to pursue. Sometimes, full-time work experience is required for admission.  Talk to a career counselor, mentor, or faculty member to plan your timeline.

Choosing Which Graduate Degree to Pursue

Graduate school is a broad term that describes a number of educational opportunities beyond the bachelor’s degree. There are several types of master's, doctoral, and professional degrees.  It is important to determine which degree is best-suited for you and your professional goals.

  • Master's degrees include: MA, MS, MBA, MFA, MSW, MPH, LLM, MPH, and the list goes on
  • Professional degrees include: MD, JD, DPT, PharmD, DVM, and the list goes on.
  • Doctoral degrees include: PhD, EdD, PsyD, and the list goes on.

Selecting Your Graduate Program

The “right” graduate program for you is one that matches your interests, career goals, and needs. Your professional aspirations should be considered when determining which graduate program to choose. Sometimes, the content of the program and connections you build are more important than the type of degree (MS versus MA).  Determining what is most important to you is a critical step. Factors to consider include:

  • Mission/focus of the program, including career paths of graduates
  • Length of program
  • Faculty mentors and research opportunities
  • Culture of institution and program
  • Size of cohort
  • Funding opportunities
  • Location
  • Student services

Rankings may be an important consideration, but should not be the only determining factor.  A school/program may be ranked using criteria that does not directly impact your experience.

It is important to find a school/program which will support you socially and professionally. Therefore, if possible, visit the campus to meet faculty and students in the program and check out the culture and resources of the school.

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Funding Your Graduate Degree

Financial need does not have to limit your ability to go to graduate school. There are three main types of financial assistance related to graduate school.

  1. Assistantships - Most assistantships fall into three categories: Teaching Assistantships (TAs), Research Assistantships (RAs), and general Graduate Assistantships (GAs). TAs assist in teaching undergraduate courses; RAs assist professors who conduct research projects; and GAs work in a variety of departments on campus. Assistantships typically include a stipend and partial or full tuition waiver. 
  2. Awards - These include grants, fellowships, and scholarships. They do not require repayment, but may require some type of commitment to the academic department or agency. While graduate programs might automatically consider incoming students for awards, you can apply to many awards before even getting accepted into a graduate school. Research funding options and apply early to increase your odds. 
  3. Loans - These are generally administered through banks, the government, or the educational institution. Regardless of whether you received loans for your undergraduate education, be sure to fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application early in the Spring semester immediately prior to when you plan to enroll. Sometimes graduate assistantship eligibility requires that the FAFSA be completed regardless of whether you plan to take out loans.

Since each graduate school operates differently, check with each school/program of interest to determine the type of financial assistance available. Sometimes applying early to a program can give you access to additional funds.

Also, be sure to talk to professors, friends, family and other professional contacts for funding leads. Sometimes employers may be willing to fund your continuing education in return for a service commitment. Additionally, individual schools may have the ability to support your educational goals.

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