When is the right time to go to grad school?

iStock_000003401233XSmallThat’s an important question that prospective graduate students should ask themselves, for many reasons. I suspect that many students today view going to grad school as a given, a step that they will inevitably take, often immediately after completing their undergrad degrees. There is the belief (not entirely unfounded) that to advance in one’s career, one must possess an advanced degree. I found myself being subjected to these pressures as I approached the end of college; family members and friends alike suggested I go to law school or business school or grad school. When I replied, “Why should I go to law school or business school if I’m not really interested in a law or business career?”, the answer I received was never really convincing. Typical responses were, “Well, it’ll come in handy in the future,” or, “Don’t worry about that for now—just get started, and you’ll figure it out.” Really!? Rushing into applying to grad school has several potential negative consequences.

  • First and foremost, going to grad school requires a big commitment of time, money, and effort. It’s important for students to be sure that they’re truly passionate and have long-term interest in the field of study they’re interested in pursuing. Otherwise, they may find themselves two or three years later with a piece of paper affirming they’re an expert in public health or English or whatever, but with a significant amount of debt and unsure of what direction to take their career in next.
  • Second, a student’s chances of getting into grad school, especially the top choice, competitive schools, are much higher if they can explain to admissions committees, in a convincing fashion, why they are interested in pursuing an advanced degree in that particular field. Expressing a general interest in the subject matter, or a vague passion for a particular line of work, will fall woefully short. Students should be able to state in their application, and in an interview, exactly why this is the right time for them to go to grad school, and what goals they hope the degree will help you accomplish. The more specific they can be, the better.
  • Finally, rushing into applying to grad school is not a good idea because they will get far more out of a graduate program if they enter the program with some clear goals than they will if going in with only a vague notion of why they’re even there. More so than in undergrad, grad schools leave it up to the students to carve out their course of study. Grad school students are encouraged and expected to pursue those courses and projects that most interest them. If they have clear goals and interests, it will allow them take control of their graduate education and reap far more from it.

So, before students rush into the grad school application process, they should ask themselves some questions to ascertain whether it’s really time to apply. Encourage students to ask:

  1. Is grad school right for you in the first place? Are you particularly passionate about certain topics or issues, and could you see yourself working on those topics or issues long-term? Are there certain career goals or positions that you aspire to and that require an advanced degree to achieve?
  2. Is now the right time to apply? You may be sure want to go to graduate school, and you may know exactly what program to apply to, but you still may not be ready to get the most out of grad school. You may need more experience in the field, or a chance to bolster your resume, before you begin.

An interesting litmus test to determine a student’s readiness to apply to grad school is how easily they are able to complete their applications. If they find that the application flows easily and naturally, that they’re able to explain their goals and aspirations clearly and specifically in their personal statement, that’s a good sign that they are ready to apply. But if filling out the application is like pulling teeth, and they have to keep revising and revisiting their personal statement, that could be a warning flag that now might not be the right time.