What You Should Know When Considering a Graduate Program
Thomas A. Underwood, a Harvard Extension lecturer and acting associate director of the Boston University Writing Program, shares tips for navigating the grad school process.
Pursuing a graduate degree is a big commitment. Aside from the many practical considerations, the decision to earn a master’s or doctorate also takes deep self-reflection.
Through his years as a senior lecturer and his own academic experience, Thomas Underwood has developed tips to help students make informed decisions. If you’re thinking about a graduate program, following Underwood’s advice can help set yourself up for success.
1. Ask Yourself, “Am I Ready?”
According to Underwood, prospective graduate students often underestimate the sacrifices involved in academic immersion. The time commitment and its effect on one’s life can be dramatic.
“The [strain involved in each field] will differ, but the common denominator is that it takes a toll,” Underwood says.
Many graduate students today want to continue working full time while attending school. The rise of online, part-time degrees makes this a viable option for many.
Still, a rigorous graduate program will occupy much of your free time. You’ll need to take stock of your commitments—including family responsibilities, professional demands, and extracurricular activities. What changes will you have to make to prioritize school? Do you have a strong support network?
“One hard thing is the expectation that your studies are your primary activity, and life doesn’t always cooperate,” Underwood says.
Keeping those close to you involved in your decision-making process and helping them understand the temporary yet substantial time commitment involved can help ease the transition.
Given the potential impact grad school may have on your personal life, it’s important to closely examine why you want a degree. Consider whether the school you’re eyeing can give you the knowledge and experience you seek.
2. Research, Research, Research
Underwood recommends conducting research into graduate programs at a variety of institutions. Seek information that may affirm or negate preconceptions. More than just seeing if a school offers the credential you want or the financial aid you need, you’ll want to dig deep and think ahead.
Here, we’ll cover some key factors you’ll want to explore.
Schools and Programs
Schools can vary widely in terms of the intensity of programs, culture, offerings, and requirements. Make sure you know your wants and needs, and evaluate each school based on this criteria.
“The better the match between you and the graduate school, the better you’ll manage the workload and the experience of being a graduate student,” Underwood says.
If you’re passionate about a certain field and want to study a particular aspect of it, be sure that you’ll have that opportunity. The more driven you are to master certain knowledge and apply it, the better you’ll acclimate to grad school when surrounded by professors and people who also specialize in your field.
“Motivation to study something translates to success,” Underwood says.
Costs and Benefits
There’s also the economic cost to consider—particularly if you’ll have to reduce your employment to pursue a degree. You’ll need to fully understand the financial investment. If you must take out loans, consider the time it’ll take to pay them off.
Of course, a big motivator for getting a graduate degree is enhancing your earning potential. If getting a higher paying job is the main goal, Underwood recommends doing a cost-benefit analysis to determine if it’s worth it in the long run.
Additionally, look into whether the school has statistics about job placement for those who have graduated from the program to which you’re applying. That’s practical, valuable information. And known quantities are always useful.
While you’re checking out stats about graduates, you might also want to find out about the culture on campus. Even distance learners interact quite a bit with their peers during virtual classroom discussions and group projects.
Seek out recent graduates on social media and ask about their experiences. Not everyone is going to be willing to talk. But those who are will have potentially valuable insights into the type of people you might meet, general attitudes on campus, and what it takes to succeed.
You might also look at your prospective school’s social media accounts and blog posts to see how they position themselves and the values they most prominently display. News articles, both positive and negative, can also tell you what life is like within the school.
If you’re local or are planning to be on campus often, plan a visit beforehand. Meet with students to gauge their experience. And walk around the campus and surrounding areas to see if it seems like a place you would enjoy spending time.
More importantly, ensure that the campus culture is conducive to learning and exploration, whatever that means for you.
Faculty comprises not just the people who will be teaching you, but also those who will advise you, direct your studies, and give you letters of recommendations later on. As such, cultural and intellectual alignment between you and faculty members is key.
Research whether there are faculty members who have done important work that’s relevant to your areas of focus. Your graduate program will culminate in a thesis or capstone that will require you to generate innovative ideas or solutions. You’ll want someone who can steer you in the right direction.
Whether it’s a scientific discovery, an invention, or a new way of looking at a certain piece of literature, you will need to make an original contribution to your field during your studies. Doing this requires a real passion for a subject. Is your motivation strong enough to see you through to graduation?
Additionally, you must be willing to spend a lot of time doing independent research and writing. Most fields will require good writing skills that follow the conventions and style used in your industry.
“The expectation is that you’re quite devoted to what you’re doing in a way that transcends the college level considerably,” Underwood says.
Ready to Move Forward?
The flexible offerings at Harvard Extension School let you enroll in courses before committing to a program. If you’re interested in hearing more about enrollment and admissions, contact our Enrollment Services team today. To view your options, click one of the links below.