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3 Questions to Ask Before Applying to a Graduate School

Are you contemplating graduate school? If so, you may be eager to begin applying to programs, the path ahead one of excitement. Or you may be uncertain. After all, graduate school is a significant investment in terms of both time and money, so how do you tell if your ideal career path is one where graduate school makes sense? To start, you can ask yourself these three questions before submitting an application or committing to a program:

What will my career path be once I earn my graduate degree?

What career(s) will your potential graduate degree qualify you for? In some fields, such as nursing, your career path may be relatively clear. Other subjects – like history – may not lend themselves to the same clarity. Before you begin applying to graduate schools, do your research, and ensure that the programs you are considering will truly lead you to your intended career.

You can accomplish this goal by speaking to the program director at each school, as well as to former students. You can also use LinkedIn or a professional association in your field to connect with individuals who currently hold your dream job. If they are willing to speak with you, ask them what they wish they had known before starting graduate school. You can also ask for advice on the practical aspects of the field.

If you plan to become a professor, note that there is a vast disparity between the number of PhDs awarded and the number of professorships available. This pattern holds true for many subjects. Nationwide, more than 100,000 PhDs were granted to students between 2005 and 2009. During that same time span, only 16,000 new professors were hired. The unfortunate truth is that many colleges and universities are increasingly hiring adjuncts (or low-cost, part-time instructors who generally receive no benefits) instead of professors. A handful of lucky new graduates will have the ideal combination of exciting research, perfect timing, and great connections to land a tenure-track position, but is that a risk you are willing to take?

Will I succeed in this program?

While choosing which graduate school to attend is a topic for a different day, do keep in mind that not all programs are equally valuable. You do not necessarily need to attend Harvard University to succeed in your prospective career, but you should be capable of performing in the top 10% of your class. If your field is saturated with job seekers who hold graduate degrees, finishing in the middle of your class – or with a B average – may not guarantee you employment, even if you attended a competitive school. On the other hand, if your school was virtually unheard of, and you did not clearly distinguish yourself beyond academics, you may be equally short on prospects. The key, then, lies in ensuring a balanced fit between your abilities and the program’s prestige.

Can I afford to attend graduate school?

The cost of graduate school varies significantly among disciplines and programs. You will incur both upfront costs (i.e. tuition and cost-of-living), as well as hidden costs (like lost income and delayed entry to the salary ladder). Not all graduate schools offer full financial support, so you may need to pursue outside scholarships or rely on loans.

Again, consider your career goals and which degree you will truly need. Suppose Jane and Joseph begin graduate school at the same time. Joseph earns a Master’s degree in two years, and he starts a job at $60,000/year. Jane, meanwhile, earns a PhD. She lands a job after six years, at a salary of $80,000/year. Joseph spent $100,000 on tuition and living expenses for the two years he was in school, but then he began earning money. Jane paid no tuition, and she even earned $20,000/year as a teaching assistant. 10 years after Jane and Joseph began school, Joseph will have a net income of roughly $380,000 ($60,000 x eight years - $100,000 in school expenses). Jane, meanwhile, has earned $320,000 (four years of work at $80,000, assuming her stipend cancels out her living expenses). Meanwhile, Justine opted against graduate school, starting out at $30,000/year. Even when assuming no raises in 10 years, Justine will have earned $300,000 – comparable to Jane with her PhD. When you factor in the effect of raises and student loan interest, this scenario becomes trickier, but the point is that no choice is as obvious as it first seems.

This column may sound discouraging, but there are fantastic job opportunities for students who attend graduate school. However, they are not guaranteed. The trick is to do your research – find out if the path you imagine genuinely exists, and if you can afford it – before you begin the application process.

Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.

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