What to think about before applying for grad school

Are you tired and weak? Do you have sore joints and muscles, reddened eyes, and chronic headache? Are you secluded from your friends and family? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you might have Ebola… or you’re in graduate school.

In 2010, I made both the best and worst decision of my life – applying to graduate school. I was in the last few months of completing an undergraduate degree in psychology, feeling lost. My friends with majors in other areas were going on interviews, enjoying their entry-level salaries, and preparing for law and medical schools. When they were asked, “what are you going to do after graduation?” they had a definite answer. If you come from a social science or humanities background, the answer is never clear-cut, unless you aspire to be a barista or receptionist for the foreseeable future. Let’s face it: you can’t get a job without MORE formal education.

So, I decided to go to grad school. Grad school is not for everyone. There are a number of things that need to be considered before you decide whether you can make the cut. I have learned a lot about myself and the people around me. If you are weighing the pros and cons of grad school, here are some things to think about:

Grad school is hard and also really easy.
Grad school is far from just an extension of your undergraduate degree. Aside from tortuous ordeal of successfully applying and getting in to the program of your choice (or second, or third), you need to prepared for an increased work load, extremely higher quality expectations, and collegial relationships with your professors. But, you’re (hopefully) in a program within an area you love. That’s what makes it easy. You’re finally able to create, produce and research the work that you are passionate about. It motivates you to get out of bed after 3 hours of sleep because you stayed up all night writing. It is what keeps you going after all the criticism. If you can manage time, and incorporate feedback to improve your work, it’ll be a breeze.

You might not make any friends, and you might lose some of your old ones.
Grad school is competitive. You have small classes (for me, 9 during my master’s, 4 during my PhD), everyone was at the top of their undergrad class, and everyone is competitive. It is hard to be friends with someone who is constantly trying to undermine your work. On the flip side, because you’re so busy, it is also hard to maintain your previous friendships and relationships (we’ll save Dating During Grad School for another post!). To avoid pushing people out of your life, schedule it in to your already overloaded schedule. A good glass of wine with a non-student friend might be all you need to bring you back to reality.

You develop an unhealthy level of patience.
“So, when are you going to be done school?” “Just wait until you get into the real world.” “Don’t you feel like you’ve wasted your 20s?” When I tell people I am working on my PhD and I hear these phrases, it takes all of my energy not to physically assault the person standing in front of me. Sometimes I make up outrageous responses (e.g., “When you stop asking.”) and sometimes I bite my tongue, put on a smile, and answer respectfully. This has been an invaluable skill!

You learn how to truly be accepting of criticism.
If you don’t, you will drown, you will hate yourself, and you may try to take your own life. You need to have a thick skin going into graduate school, and you need to use the feedback to your advantage. You won’t always agree with what they say, but you need to play the politics game and go along with it until you’re far enough along to argue back. Don’t be whiny.

You CAN have all of the things that your friends with jobs have!
I was blessed with middle-class parents who made me save every penny I earned, starting from my first job at 14. As such, I was able to own my condo by the time I was 25, adopt a very loving dog, and go on sunny vacations. I know others who married and had children while still in school (yes, you can take maternity leave during grad school!). If you are interested in trying to keep up with your salaried friends, I recommend applying for every available scholarship and working a part-time job. It is doable.

So if you’re thinking of grad school, why not!? In this economy, a master’s degree is slowly overtaking what the bachelor’s degree used to be. If you’ve already worked for a few years, then maybe you have some money in the bank to support you for the next few years. If you’re just about to graduate from a social science program, then your decision has been made for you. But before you apply, do your research and choose a program with great instructors and in a great city!

Note: My graduate school experience has only been in psychology. I cannot make these claims for any other type of program, although many of my MBA and science grad student friends do report similar experiences. If you agree or completely disagree, or have other things to add, please comment!

25th Team


All the peeps on the 25th team collaborating for your enjoyment.

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