Last week I drafted a conversation between you and me if you asked me “Should I go to graduate school?” Thanks for reading (or for finding this post). I have to assume that I piqued your interest in graduate school and that you still want to go.
Here are several more questions to consider before postmarking those applications.
Have you spoken with current students or alumni of your intended graduate program?
The best way to know if the program will be right for you is to talk to someone directly. You will never know what it is like to be on the inside of graduate education unless you speak with actual graduate students. Don’t be shy. Get in touch with graduate program directors and see if they can recommend folks to contact. And when you contact current graduate students, ask respectful questions about their experiences and about their future plans. You could discover information about the program or about the institution that you would never know as an applicant blindly submitting their application.
Do you know what you will study?
This might seem like a no-brainer, but knowing what you will ultimately study is really important for understanding where you should apply. Even though you have chosen your field of specialty and you may have trolled departmental websites and faculty profiles to ascertain your fit in that department, know now that your interests could change, faculty members could leave or change the direction of their work, and in general things happen. Leave space for the possibility of love lost between you and your current dream dissertation topic.
Additionally, many prospective graduate students think that being in graduate school is like being an undergraduate student except NOW you get to study what you REALLY love. That’s only partially true. As a graduate student, you need to specialize in one area of your discipline or field but you also have a fair amount of hoop-jumping in your training. There will still be classes that you feel like are a waste of your time. If you have already built practical knowledge in your field and are returning to graduate school after many years of relevant work experience, there will be many moments when you feel frustrated or bored with your instruction and with your peers. As you think through what you PLAN to study, be sure to know whether you have time to discover your passion or whether you should enter your program with a clear direction.
Do you have a potential advisor in mind and is that person actively training students?
Choosing your advisor is an important decision. It is almost like choosing a life partner because your advisor will be intimately involved in your training and professionalization in graduate school. This is because American graduate education still operates largely as an apprenticeship model. As you find potential advisors who share your research interests, make sure that they have the ability and capacity to train you. Trolling the internet for potential advisors is not enough to know if you have faculty support.
How will your graduate program prepare you for professional life in your field or choice? What kinds of special opportunities does grad school offer you that you would not be able to come by on your own?
Figure out early on how your program will prepare you for doing the professional work in your field. Will you spend your time mostly in seminars or are there practical experiences like teaching and research assistantships available for financially and professional development? If you feel unprepared for your future work, can you pursue moonlighting opportunities to get other training? Teaching and research experience are some of the best job training outside of the graduate seminar room because they are the work you will do as a professional.
Serving as a research assistant can be enlightening or depressing. Research assistantships are typically coveted positions because they involve less face time and no tedious grading. But, that also means you’ll be self-directed and not everyone enjoys that autonomy. You might feel like a cog in someone else’s machine (because you are) or part of a never-ending project. To the extent that you can, understand how your research assistantship will be geared toward the publication process so you learn about academic publishing on the way to earning your degree. There are norms and expectations around academic publishing that still elude even seasoned professionals with minimal exposure to the process of “getting published.”
Your first foray into teaching is typically a teaching assistantship or eventually a lectureship. Make sure that teaching experiences come with oversight, evaluation and support–if your department cannot or will not offer this kind of support, seek it out from a center for teaching and learning or from trusted colleagues at your institution. Teaching is an art and good teaching is the product of preparation and practice. Make sure someone besides your students observes your teaching for your own improvement as a teacher and so that someone can comment on your skills. Consider asking your advisor to observe your teaching so that they can speak to your skills in a letter of reference.
The PhD offers lots of training opportunities but you don’t need to pursue a PhD to get exposure to all of them. You may feel like you don’t have much agency in how your training goes, and it is your job to pursue any and all opportunities for which you would be eligible. In graduate school, there are people who want to get students involved in research, work and activism at your institution. Sometimes those opportunities are harder to come by outside of the classroom. Some graduate programs, especially terminal degree programs, are too short to ignore the future possibility of employment.
How do you prove your worth in your field? What are the hidden costs?
Do you have to publish like crazy? Yes, yes you do. Are all scholarly publishing venues created equal? Nope. What does the scholarly product look like? What counts? Every institution values the product of scholarly work in a different way. Many graduate programs will say that scholarly work is the only way to establish your worth in your field, however, for those who plan to pursue an alternative academic path, the answer may vary.
What are the realities of professional life for a person with your kind of degree?
There is tracking in high school, leading you to post-secondary education and you can sure as hell bet that there is tracking in the world of grad school. Except in grad school, there is only one real path: the academy. Any other path will always feel at odds with the academic one. In the sciences, you often have to choose the academy or industry. On the humanities and social sciences side, you have to choose whether you teach as a research institution or a teaching college. One path is less venerable than the other. BUT, that does not mean that everyone is following the venerated path. Just know in advance what you’re up against.
The realities of professional life are going to look vastly different depending on your professional path. Just as you asked yourself questions before you applied to graduate school, constantly reconsider what you value and the kind of work you could see yourself doing. Make sure to consider how you value work/life balance, collegiality in your job, and proving your worth in your chosen grad after grad school.
Where should you go from here?
I wrote last year about things I wish I knew in my first year graduate school. I hope you will read it, share it and let me know if these two posts have been helpful.