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Thinking About Grad School

If you’re like many Vassar students, you’ve probably given some thought to attending graduate or professional school. Success in grad school can depend on the extent to which you have thought through your career and educational goals. Here are some issues to think about:

Why are you motivated to attend?

The best reasons for enrolling in a graduate program are: 

  1. You love a subject and want to study it in depth, and/or
  2. You need an advanced degree to enter the profession.

If factors other than these are shaping your decision, you may want to think carefully before proceeding.

For instance, people who are apprehensive about venturing into the job market may view grad school as a way to postpone difficult career decisions. While an advanced degree can make you more marketable for some occupations, it’s not necessarily the key to finding satisfying employment.

Many students also face pressure to attend graduate school from parents, peers, or well-meaning mentors. Perhaps law school is a tradition in your family, or as a high achiever you’ve been urged to pursue an academic career. Make sure the advice you heed from others reaffirms your personal goals. Graduate study is focused and highly self-directed; it’s difficult to succeed when you’re not motivated from within. 

Are you ready to commit to a particular field of study?

Perhaps you’re sold on the idea of graduate school, but are unable to choose a specific field. You may be able to define your interests before graduation by researching areas of study in the Career Library, talking to professors, and reading institutional literature. If that doesn’t help, a year or more away from school may give you a clearer perspective. Many professional schools actually prefer that applicants have a few years of work experience before applying.

Also, consider how interested you are in studying a particular body of knowledge. Are you attracted to theory and research, or is it the degree at the end of the program that excites you? An advanced degree may not be the only way to success. In the performing arts, for example, or the business world, real-life experience can be more valuable than graduate seminars. Understanding your preferred learning style can help you not only to choose what sort of program would be most appropriate, but also to assess the benefits of graduate or professional school in general. 

Is an advanced degree required to do what you want to do?

In many fields, such as medicine, law, psychology, and education, an advanced degree is a must. For others, a graduate degree can enhance your earning power in an occupation and influence how far and fast you will advance in your field. 

Have you thought about long-range career and lifestyle goals?

Whatever your motives for going to graduate school, it’s a good idea to think about the impact that experience will have on your life. Will the degree prepare you for a specific occupation or career field? If so, what is the employment outlook like? When you select a graduate field of study, you’re also to some degree defining a profession and a lifestyle. Can you envision yourself as a physician, an art history professor, or a psychologist? Make arrangements to talk with people in the field (Vassar professors, alumnae/i, family friends) about the rewards and drawbacks of the path you’re considering. Currently enrolled graduate students can provide valuable insights as well.

A full-time Master’s program usually takes one to two years, while PhDs and some professional degrees require three or more. During this period you’ll focus intensely on your academic subjects and the people in your program, forfeiting salary, workday routine, and free time. Are you comfortable with the thought of spending two to seven more years as a student? Perspective is important, and a sense of long-term direction can make your graduate school experience more meaningful.

Do you have the financial resources?

Given the costs you and/or your family have incurred at Vassar over the past few years, this can be a legitimate concern. Everyone places a different value on education, and ultimately you’ll have to decide if graduate study is worth a financial sacrifice. Before making that decision, however, you should familiarize yourself with potential funding sources.

Fellowships, or scholarships, may be awarded by individual departments or institutions, as well as outside organizations. Institution-based aid most frequently takes the form of a graduate assistantship. Graduate (or teaching, or research) assistants work part-time in exchange for a stipend and/or tuition reimbursement. Loans are the primary source of government assistance. If you are open to the thought of working full time and taking classes on the side, there are some employers who offer tuition reimbursement as part of their benefit package.

The types of aid available to you will vary tremendously from one institution or program to another. Make sure you investigate fully before closing off your options. The Office for Fellowships and Pre-Health Advising (Main North, Office 162) has information on both Vassar and national fellowships.

Should you take some time off?

Review your energy level. Do you have the motivation to stay in school for one to seven more years? In many instances it may be best to take some time off to determine if graduate school is the next best step for you. Many students find that after taking time off to work they have clearer professional goals and are better prepared for advanced graduate study. Additionally, some graduate schools will not accept students without some prior work experience (this is true for many MBA programs).

Should you go to school full-time or part-time?

Going to graduate school full-time is a more intensive process and allows you to interact with colleagues in your program more often. Some programs require that you attend full-time and it may be difficult (or impossible) to get some types of financial aid without attending full-time. Attending school part-time allows you simultaneously study while also gaining valuable work experience (and some employers will cover the graduate school expenses of their employees). 

Where can you locate more specific information?

Graduate and professional school information can be found in various places on campus. Our office has assorted directories with descriptive information on a wide range of programs. You can also speak with a counselor about how to identify alums who attended particular schools or studied in specific areas.

Prospective medical students, as well as those interested in fellowships, can find assistance in the Office for Fellowships and Pre-Health Advising (Main North, Office 162).

Finally, we strongly encourage you to consult with faculty members. Most academic departments maintain information on graduate programs in their disciplines, and college and university catalogs are often on the internet.