If you’re getting close to finishing your bachelor’s degree, you’re probably grappling with the choice of what to do once you graduate. Join the workforce? Apply for grad school? Or take another path?
Maybe you’ve heard this sentiment before (I definitely have): “I don’t know what I want to do with my life so I guess I’ll go to grad school.” Trust me—this is not a strong enough reason on its own to commit to 2 more years of study.
Grad school is a great place for deepening your knowledge in a particular area, but it can also be gruelling, costly, and doesn’t always guarantee employment. When considering grad school, it’s important to take a step back and think deeply about why you want to go.
Don’t treat grad school as the next, inevitable step without doing some serious soul-searching.
Here are some questions I found helpful when deciding if grad school was right for me. Hopefully, they can help to clarify if grad school is the right option for you, too.
What are my career goals? Will grad school help me achieve them?
Grad school is a big commitment and it’s best to have clearly defined goals and a good idea of how grad school can help you achieve those goals before you apply.
Some careers—like lawyers, doctors, and accountants—require a graduate degree. Also, if you want to teach, do research, or become an expert in your field, grad school is almost certainly the right choice. So, if you know you want a career in one of these fields, the choice is pretty straightforward.
But the line leading from area of study to eventual career can become a lot more blurred in other fields, especially in the humanities and social sciences.
It’s not immediately clear if a Master of Arts in Political Science will get you a job in politics, for example, or if a Master of Fine Arts will get you a job as an artist. While graduate degrees in these fields can be helpful, they do not guarantee employment.
If you feel like your undergraduate degree did not give you enough training to prepare for a career, you might consider a more skills-oriented or applied graduate program, with components like practicums or internships, that can help give your career a head start once you graduate.
I don’t have a specific career goal in mind—will going to grad school help me explore my interests and lead to other opportunities?
Of course, not everyone has their life plan completely mapped out, and that’s okay. And not all graduate degrees need to be done with a specific career focus in mind. There is definitely value in learning for the sake of learning, if you have the time, means, and motivation to do it.
Even if you’re not 100% sure of the kind of job you want, grad school can open up a lot of opportunities by allowing you to do a deep dive into a subject that you are passionate about. Having access to all of the amazing resources a university has to offer is a huge plus.
Grad school can also give you a structured environment in which to practice and develop your skills. For example, if you want to get into creative writing, pursuing an MFA may be a good choice because you will have the opportunity to write on a regular basis and obtain feedback from your profs and classmates.
If you’re thinking about specific graduate programs, it’s a smart idea to reach out to the program administrator at the schools you’re considering. Ask them questions to find out more about the program and if it can help you get where you want to be.
Reach out to people already in the program and ask them about their experience. That’s what I did when I was deciding which grad school to go to. Talking to students who were currently in my program of interest was extremely insightful—and ultimately helped me decide to pursue graduate studies.
Will it be more effective to join the workforce to achieve my goals?
In some industries, work experience tends to be more valuable than the book-learning you do in grad school. That’s because certain grad degrees can focus more on theory, whereas employers really value hands-on experience and practical skills.
Do some research and see what kind of education and experience is required in the field you want to work in. Make a list of the different jobs you think you might want in the future. Dig in to the requirements—you can find these in job postings—and see what is typically requested. Do they ask for graduate degrees? Or work experience?
If you don’t know whether or not it will be more valuable to gain work experience, reach out to people in the industry. Ask your friends if they know anyone working in your field of interest and if you can meet them for a chat. Look for people on LinkedIn with the job title you want.
While the internet has a wealth of information, it is rarely as useful as talking to real people with real world experiences. I’ve also found that people are generally open to giving advice and sharing their wisdom. Ask and you might just receive.
Can I afford to go to grad school?
Graduate school is expensive. And while there are often entrance scholarships, bursaries, and other forms of financial aid available, you may also need to take out a student loan. Consider your current debt level, tuition costs, job prospects, and the expected salary once you graduate. A key benefit of forgoing a master’s degree is the ability to save money by avoiding tuition fees and the opportunity to earn money and work experience.
If you’ve already got heaps of student debt, it might not be the best option to jump right into another huge expense. If you really want to go to grad school, consider working for a year or two to pay down your current debt and save what you can for future schooling.
Remember: you’re never too old to go back to school and getting some work experience can even bolster your grad school application by making you a more well-rounded candidate.
Why I chose to go to grad school for journalism
In my case, I wanted to make a career change, into an area where I had no direct experience. I studied history and political science for my undergraduate degree and then moved abroad for 5 years, where I gained some valuable work experience (writing, editing, and social media marketing), but it was not relevant enough to ensure easy access to jobs in journalism.
Journalism does not require graduate studies by any means, and I could have started just doing freelance journalism work. But I would have been starting from scratch and I’m the kind of person who likes to learn in a structured environment.
The job market in journalism is currently very competitive and it's an industry in flux. There would be no guarantee of success if I tried to do it without any training. I’m still not guaranteed success but at least I’m gaining relevant experience, training, and skills that will give me a head start when I enter the job market.
Ultimately, grad school is helping to open up a door that would have been much harder to open if I tried to make it on my own.
There’s no wrong choice, only what’s right for you
Making big life decisions can be difficult.
In the end, it’s up to you to make the choice that is right for you. Just make sure you give yourself time to reflect and weigh your options, and to understand what’s motivating you to pursue grad school or another path.