The best way to know if graduate school is right for you is to talk to professors and current graduate students as much as you can – and to ask the right questions. Chances are, your professors have had the “talk” with many students before you and can give some personal direction. Some professors at your school may even work on the admissions committee that selects new students, or at least have some say in the process.
Current graduate students can offer you advice on what it is like to be a graduate student in today’s economy. Your professors may not be prepared to offer you advice on handling the financial burden and stress of being a graduate student in a recession, so be sure to seek out guidance from students who have recently gone through the process.
As a last resort, seek out impersonal advice from recent articles. Just like all advice, this advice will be biased – but you can’t have a conversation with the author, so the dialogue ends with what the writer has to say. You can’t (necessarily) get the author to weigh in on your personal situation, so take the advice with the caveat that it is catered to the masses and graduate school is not for everyone.
So, to expedite your process of inquiry and to prepare you for the discussions ahead, here is a list of questions to ask yourself and others before you apply:
1. Am I qualified to get into the program I’m interested in?
It may sound harsh, but this is the first thing you need to ask yourself. I’m all for going for your dreams despite the odds, but the application process is unfortunately impersonal. I’ll post more specifics on this later, but for now many schools will post statistics on their admitted graduate student’s average GPAs and GRE scores on their websites. The competition for getting into a funded PhD program is more like competing to get a scholarship than getting into an undergraduate program – and with application fees of $50-100, it’s a good idea to assess whether it is worth your time before you apply.
2. What motivates me to do my best work?
Or more specifically: does the academic setting motivate you? In the corporate world you’re expected to show up from 9-5 without fail and in turn you expect to get paid consistently for your efforts. That’s not how it works in graduate school. You need to find the motivation to show up to class and do your work knowing that it’s an investment for the future. You’ll be expected to do all the work (quite possibly more) of a person with a full time job without compensation beyond your basic living expenses. This may sound dismal, but the 9-5 schedule doesn’t motivate me the way an intellectual challenge does – you just have to know yourself and what will make you happy in the end.
3. Can you prioritize your time well?
Sure, graduate students have the reputation for procrastinating papers and late-night studying. However, at school you will be not “forced” to be an your desk 8 hours a day with your boss handing your tasks out as they come. Most of your work in school will have to be done on your own time. I know that I work best when I’m allowed to create my own schedule; I like to work out in the afternoon and then split my work time between a cup of coffee in the morning and the evening before I go to bed. Staring at the computer for long hours at one time isn’t my thing. The good news is that if you’re applying for an advanced degree, you’ve at least had experience with an undergraduate college schedule, if not at the master’s level. Were you able to effectively manage the work load of advanced-level classes and could you handle more?
4. If I had to choose a specific concentration within my field, what would it be?
Do you have a clear idea of what your concentration would be and can you articulate it clearly? While you don’t have to write your dissertation proposal just yet, admissions committees don’t just want to see that you love your subject and are SO excited to do your homework. They want to see that you have the type of thinking skills to move the field forward. The ability to articulate a clear, purposeful set of interests within your subject shows that you are ready to contribute to the ongoing discussion within your field. If you have no idea how you would narrow down your field of study within your program, it may be a good idea to step back and think before you take the plunge to apply.
5. How well do I respond to criticism?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about taking your work to the next level (something that is often necessary to accomplish before you apply to a graduate program, not after you’re in one), it’s that you need to be prepared to take criticism and use it to your advantage. Often, the type of students that get the grades necessary to apply to graduate school have not received many harsh critiques of their work in the past. If you’re not the type who can accept criticism and, more importantly, seek it out, grad school may be a difficult road for you. It’s also good to get a fair dose of humility before you experience what it’s like to get your first rejection from a school.
6. What kind of relationship do I have with my professors?
Recommendation letters are a huge part of the application to any program. A lukewarm recommendation can kill an application more decisively than a poor GPA or GRE score. I would hope that your professors would tell you upfront whether they are willing to write you a good recommendation letter, but there are some that would send off a crummy, generic letter (or worse, a letter denouncing you and your abilities) rather than confront you. That is why it is essential to have numerous positive interactions with professors well before you ask them to write you a letter. Even if you consistently get good grades, you’re instructors can’t provide you with a stellar recommendation if you’re a back-seat student who never raises her voice in class or talks to the professor. At best, they’ll write “came to class, got good grades.” Since the application process is impersonal, you need someone who can say with confidence “my student would be an excellent graduate student for these reasons.”
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, these are just a few things to get you started as you decide whether to apply. If you can answer all these questions with confidence, then you’ve taken the first and most important step in the application process!