Asking the Wrong Questions About Grad School

By Dr. Michael Cornelius


As director of both Wilson’s Master’s in Humanities and new Master’s in Applied Leadership, I have been counseling students about whether or not to go to graduate school for more than 10 years. And in that time, I have learned that when students are questioning whether or not to go to grad school, they tend ask themselves the wrong questions. To that end, I want to share with you the five most misguided questions students ask themselves about grad school (while suggesting some other questions to ask instead).

Wrong Question #1: Will this grad degree get me a job?

We live in a time when the national narrative surrounding college is all about getting a job, and students often feel pressure to choose an undergraduate degree that already has a job title in its name. So, I understand asking the same question about grad school. But, as with an undergrad education, grad school will do more for students then help them get a job.

There are two types of graduate education: that which prepares someone for a specific career field (such as law school, medical school, veterinary school) through advancing knowledge and skills that are largely relevant to a single field; and that which can prepare students for advancement in a wider variety of careers through knowledge and skills that are broadly applicable. Wilson has both types of graduate degree on campus. Our Master’s in Nursing and Master’s in Education, for example, are designed to prepare students for careers in those particular fields. Our Master’s in Applied Leadership and Master’s in Humanities can prepare students for many different careers.

This doesn’t mean that going to grad school won’t help in getting you a job, no matter which type of graduate degree you pursue. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that individuals with a Master’s degree have a higher lifetime earning potential and lower rates of unemployment. And while nearly one quarter of Americans have a bachelor’s degree, the percentage of job seekers who have a Master’s is less than ten percent—meaning that students who have a Master’s degree will stand out from the crowd. Couple this with the fact that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, occupations that require a Master’s degree will grow at the fastest rate of any other over the next ten years, and it seems a very good time to earn a Master’s degree.

But committing to graduate school just to get a job may not be enough to guarantee your success in your program. The question you really should be asking is, “Is grad school part of my educational/career/life journey?” Being focused on the next steps after grad school is good. But don’t lose sight of the fact that it is the entirety of your journey that will take you where you want to go—and being open to the experience of grad school will provide more opportunities that you may never have expected.

Wrong Question #2: Am I even smart enough to go to grad school?

Students often imagine that graduate school is their undergraduate program on steroids. They read research from scholars in their field and simply can’t imagine producing such work themselves. Students often forget that such works are produced by scholars at the end of—and usually quite some time after—their graduate school journey, not at the beginning.

Worrying about your success in graduate school is good thing. Worrying about your smarts is not! Remember, in a graduate degree you will be focusing on a specific subject area that not only interests you, but is likely already something you know quite a good deal about. Plus, as a Wilson grad, you have successfully completed a rigorous, broad-based liberal arts education—and there is no better preparation for any graduate degree.

Rather, the question you should ask yourself, is, “Am I mentally prepared for grad school?” This doesn’t just relate to whatever knowledge you already possess. In graduate classes, students are often expected to do more independent learning and to take on leadership roles in class. You will need to motivate yourself, and you may be asked to make original contributions to the scholarly dialogues in your field. Grad school should represent a period of real growth for you: as a thinker and doer; as a student and scholar; and as a leader and a person. All of the tools you need to succeed will be at your fingertips—but only you can determine if you are ready for the path ahead.     

Wrong Question #3: Is going to grad school just delaying “real life?”

When I finished my undergraduate degree I went straight on to my Master’s—there was no stopping me! But I have encountered many students who feel pressure—from their families or friends; from parents or a significant other; or even from society in general—to stop going to school and join the “real world.” Students who continue their studies, especially full-time, often feel guilty in doing so, or feel less-than-grown up. Nonsense! I have never understood the depiction of college (undergrad or grad) as anything less than “the real world.” Deadlines, assignments, projects, expectations, portfolios, thesis work—what can be more real than that? And that’s just what is happening in the classroom!

Don’t ask yourself if going to grad school is “putting off the future.” Instead, simply ask yourself, “Is going to grad school what I want to do?” And never apologize for continuing your education. Being a full or part-time graduate student is about as “real” as it gets. Even if you continue to live on campus or participate in athletics or campus activities as a grad student, that doesn’t make you any less or any more grown up than any other person. It’s simply where you are on your educational and life journey. Trust me—the “real world” will still be there when you finish your degree!

Wrong Question #4: How can I afford grad school?

This is actually a very good question to ask yourself about grad school. The problem is, many students don’t get that far. They assume that grad school is even more expensive than undergrad and leave it at that. The reality is often something quite different. At Wilson, for example, the “sticker price” for an entire Master’s degree is actually less than the cost of one year of undergraduate tuition. That’s because, at Wilson, students only pay tuition per credit, and there are few fees for graduate study.

Not every school charges that way, and it’s important to understand any financial commitment you plan to undertake. It’s also good to remember that while most graduate schools do not offer traditional forms of financial aid, many (including Wilson) offer graduate assistantships. As a grad assistant, students work for an institution in exchange for tuition remission and (sometimes) a stipend—which means, in short, that you don’t pay for grad school at all.

Wrong Question #5: When is a good time to explore going to grad school?

If you are asking this question, then the answer is now! Students often wait too long to consider grad school as a viable option. Applications for the Master’s in Humanities and Master’s in Applied Leadership often ramp up in June—this is long past deadlines for assistantships and may leave you with fewer options than you like. Ideally, you should start having these conversations when you enter college, and certainly no later than the start of your senior year.

How do you ultimately know if grad school is right for you? Talk to your college’s graduate program directors and career services office. Talk to the faculty in your field. Talk to your advisor. And, most importantly, talk to yourself. If graduate study is something you want to do, or need to do, or think will benefit you as a thinker and a leader and a person, find a way to make it happen. No one was ever harmed by a couple more years of college! Just remember: asking the right questions will help you make the right decisions.

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