5 Things You Need to Know About Graduate School

Research and soul searching should be prerequisites for pursuing a graduate degree.

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I've met a lot of college students who assume that they must slog their way through graduate school to enjoy a successful and lucrative career.

What is troubling, however, is how little information young adults know about what is involved in earning a graduate degree that can be expensive and a huge time commitment. No one should pursue a graduate degree without a lot of research and soul searching.

Here are some of the things you should know about grad school before you forge ahead:

1. Don't be in a hurry. There's rarely a good reason to go to grad school immediately after earning a bachelor's degree, observes Andrew Roberts, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University and the author of a fabulous book, The Thinking Student's Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education. The book is primarily focused on undergrads, but it does contain advice on graduate school issues.

Roberts says that it's hard for students to know if grad school is the best option until they've been in the workforce for a while.

[Read 7 tips for selecting college classes.]

2. Don't make grad school your default move. Students often enter grad schools without knowing much about the eventual careers to which a graduate degree could lead. The worst thing young adults can do is go to graduate school because they aren't sure what else to do or they can't find jobs. Grad school, after all, is often an extremely long commitment. A Ph.D., for example, can take six years.

3. Don't expect to get a job as a professor. Even if you do survive grad school, the job market for Ph.D.'s in academia is lousy. Fabio Rojas, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, summed it up in one of the many blog posts that he's written about graduate school life over the years at orgtheory.net.

Here's one of Rojas' observations:

The job search process is harrowing for academics...there is little guarantee that persons completing their terminal degree will land a job teaching and doing research in their area. At a top medical school, the question is if you will get the residency of your choice. At a top graduate program, it's often doubtful that someone will be offered a job at all.

[Read more about the value of a graduate school degree.]

4. Life in the Ivory Tower can be a grind. Grad programs are hard work and require much more challenging coursework. Roberts notes in his book that "the course material now becomes, to a considerable extent, technical, insider reading—that is, dense, abtruse, jargon-filled works polished in academic journals and by university presses. ...You will not be tempted to recommend your reading lists to friends outside your field."

Fabio warns about "toxic" grad programs where departments provide no support for students and seem happy to pit students against each other. He describes the most common grad program as one guilty of "benign neglect." A few good students get support from professors, but most don't.

[Get tips on how to pay for graduate school.]

5. Ask intelligent questions. If none of this dissuades you, here are some questions that William Pannapacker, an associate English professor at Hope College, in a column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, suggested would-be graduate students ask before selecting a program:

1. What kind of financial support can a student expect to receive during the entire course of the program?

2. How much educational debt do graduates leave with?

3. How many discussion sections and courses are graduate students required to teach in order to receive a stipend each year?

4. What is the average annual teaching load for graduate students?

5. How many years does it typically take to graduate?

6. How long are graduates on the academic job market?

7. Where is every graduate employed in academe and in what positions: tenure track, visiting, adjunct?

8. Where are graduates working, if not in academe?

9. Does the program lead to appealing career paths outside of academe?

10. What percentage of students earn doctorates?

11. How many earn master's degrees?

12. What reason do students drop out?