Deciding to Attend
The fact that you're reading this site suggests that you may already have made the decision to attend graduate school. If you have, and you feel fairly secure in the choice, feel free to move on to the next section. But if you're still wavering or aren't sure that you've given the matter enough thought, we suggest that you pause here, take stock of the situation, and consider the following points.
Graduate schools are going to be very different from your experience as an undergraduate. For instance, you'll no longer be taking courses on a variety of subjects. You'll be focused almost completely on your field of interest, the one that you plan on making your career. And your studies will require you to master that subject to a high degree. It will no longer be enough to have a general grasp of the materials. You'll need to know them well enough to do original thinking and original research. Students in graduate schools also have a closer relationship with their professors. They'll treat you with greater respect because now they'll regard you as not just a student but also a colleague. By choosing to pursue an advanced degree, you'll have shown that you regard the subject just as seriously as your professors do.
People are, however, expected to work harder at the graduate level than they did at the undergraduate level. Your social life may suffer and the time you have for extracurricular activities will be greatly reduced. You'll be concentrating on your studies, possibly harder than you've concentrated on any one thing in your life. On the plus side, you may find this work more rewarding than anything you've done previously. You'll experience a sense of belonging to a very exclusive club and the work you put into your studies will be the price of admission. You'll also make lasting friends and form partnerships in both the business and personal spheres that you'll keep for the rest of your life.
There are two types of graduate degrees-the master's degree and the doctorate. The first will require somewhere between one and three years in school as well as, in many cases, the writing of a master's thesis. There are master's degree programs available in hundreds of different fields. Among the most common are the Master of Business Administration (MBA) and the Master of Social Work (MSW). For other programs the degree will often be either a Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS). At the next and highest level is the doctorate. A doctoral degree will generally take longer to earn than a master's, with a typical doctoral program taking between three and seven years, though this will vary by field of study. We often think of a "doctor" as having a degree in some area of medicine-medical doctor, dentist, or pharmacist-but lawyers (who are given the Juris Doctor degree when graduating from law school) are also doctors in the sense of having a doctorate-level degree. Neither medical doctors nor lawyers have to write a thesis or dissertation in order to graduate. However, a dissertation is required of those earning the other major doctorate degree, the PhD, and these dissertations can be hundreds of pages long. As with master's degrees, PhDs are awarded in a large number of fields. You'll certainly need a PhD if you want to pursue a career as a college professor.
Which of these degrees do you want? Do you want to go for a PhD at all? You'll have to come up with your own answer to that, but there are some things you should consider before you make up your mind. A lot depends on the field in which you want to have a career. If you're entering the business world, or advancing an existing career in business, you really don't need a PhD. You need an MBA. This is the degree that will impress companies that might consider hiring you. In many other areas, where your work will involve writing, mathematics, computer programming, social work, and so forth, a master's degree may be just fine. For a career in teaching, a Master of Education is probably all you need to get ahead. A master's degree will give you an advantage over job applicants who hold only a bachelor's degree, and this is probably going to be the majority of your competition.
But some fields will absolutely require the PhD. If you want to become a tenured professor some day, a PhD is indispensable. Few schools are likely to hire you as a professor without your doctorate. This is also true if you want anything other than an entry-level position in fields such as chemistry and physics. Similarly, if you have a bachelor's degree in computer science or history, getting a master's in these disciplines isn't likely to improve your job prospects. A PhD, on the other hand, could catapult your career into the stratosphere. Don't be afraid that you'll earn your PhD and wind up doing a low-paying job like driving a cab. While this occasionally happens, it's rare and there are probably other factors involved when it does. A PhD is a valuable thing to have and will almost certainly increase your income. This is true even if you have no intention of becoming a college professor.
Another question you should keep in mind is how many years you're willing to commit to earning your degree. Given that a PhD can take as many as seven years and a master's takes only three, you may simply not want to put the rest of your life on hold long enough to get the more advanced degree. These are years during which you will earn relatively little and during which you may have to neglect the rest of your family. If you go for only the master's degree, on the other hand, you may be finished with your education in less than three years, maybe as little as one year. Also consider that it's possible to earn a master's degree in a subject without having a bachelor's degree in it. Many schools have master's degree programs for those with no previous education in the subject (though there's a requirement that you have some kind of undergraduate degree), and while it may take longer to earn the degree this way, it won't be necessary to go through the undergraduate program again. This can save you a lot of time if you already have a bachelor's degree in another subject. Considering all the time and effort that will be necessary to earn a doctorate, or even a master's, you need to ask yourself whether you're willing to make the commitment that these degrees require. You'll need to do massive amounts of research, to write lengthy scholarly papers, and the exams will be more open-ended and essay-oriented than those that you're used to. The effort required of you won't be trivial, and if you drop out before completing your degree because you decide you're not up to it, you'll be wasting a tremendous amount of time and money. Still, the rewards will be great and if you think you can do it, you should seriously consider taking the plunge.
Not sure whether you want a master's or a doctorate? Your best course may be to put in an application for the doctoral program. The advanced program will give you access to financial aid that wouldn't be available in the master's program, and you can reapply for the master's program if you aren't accepted for the PhD program. Once you've proven yourself in the master's program you can then reapply for the doctoral program. If you've made the decision to go to grad school and believe that you can make the time and work commitment, start looking for the program that you want to apply to and decide which degree you want. Then you can start narrowing down the list of schools and making applications.
Last Updated: 10/01/2013