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Should you go to graduate school?

Deciding if a master’s or PhD is the right next step for you can be a difficult one. We asked for some advice.

by Sparrow McGowan

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Making the decision to go to graduate school, or continue further in graduate school, is a commitment in time, money and effort. How do you know if it is the best decision for you? We asked a selection of university career advisers from across Canada for some advice to help you decide:

"What should students consider when deciding whether or not to go to graduate school?"

Here are their answers:

Have you considered a second master’s?

From Susan Molnar

As a graduate student career adviser, most students I see want to know if they should do a PhD after having completed a research-based master’s degree. I would inquire about their reasons for doing a PhD and then suggest considering the following: research their career options, values, personality and lifestyle preferences beforehand to determine if this research intensive road suits them in the short run and long run. Are they doing a PhD for career reasons or passion? How realistic are these goals? Does being pragmatic even factor into the decision? The highly independent culture of academia, the impact of a positive supervisory relationship and how to build it, and financial considerations may also impact the decision. Some may consider completing a second master’s degree instead since it may broaden their career options or satisfy their need for a shorter course-based program.

Susan Molnar is a graduate student career adviser in the career planning service at McGill University.

Take cost and balance into consideration

From Julie Bowering

There are several factors to consider when deciding whether or not to go to graduate school. The choice is often based on very different personal and practical reasons. From a fervent interest in lifelong learning, a desire to advance or transition one’s career, or an interest in research opportunities, the reasons folks embark on a graduate program are diverse.

Cost is an important consideration when choosing to attend graduate school. Most of us have to plan for the financial implications of higher education well before making this decision. Time commitment is another significant issue and is certainly a huge factor for those who have full-time careers and are raising families.

Balance is essential to a healthy lifestyle and therefore a very important consideration as well. The support of family and/or friends can make a huge difference to a graduate student. Attending graduate school while maintaining a career and raising a family can be challenging, however it is definitely achievable and rewarding when a strong support network is in place. Consulting with current graduate students for their suggestions and keys to success based on their own experiences would be valuable as well.

The path to graduate school is unique to each individual. It is essential to take the time necessary to reflect on one’s own individual circumstances and motivation prior to entering graduate school.

Julie Bowering is a career development coordinator for graduate studies in the department of career development and experiential learning at Memorial University.

Make an informed decision

From Christine Fader

We encourage students considering graduate school to ask themselves:

  • Do I have a strong pull towards something that I want to learn more about (enough to sustain me through two-to-five-plus years of additional study)?
  • Are there graduate programs available that are a good fit with my scholarly or skills development interests? Are there other programs (post-degree diplomas, certificates) to consider?
  • What work do I want to do after my schooling? Is a graduate degree required and, if not, in what ways do I think it will help with my career goals?
  • What financial variables should I be considering (examples include available funding, tuition, supplies, living expenses, moving, loss of employment income if delaying entering a paid position)?
  • Does the program or supervisor seem like a good fit (location, social environment, employment opportunities, etc.)?

Grad school is a wonderful option but it is not the right decision for everyone. Sometimes students believe a graduate degree is necessary in order to get a “better” (or any) job, but haven't yet researched if that is true for the particular career options they are targeting. Other times students may default to graduate school simply because they don't know what to do next. We encourage students to do research to find out if their assumptions are correct. Our goal is to help all students feel confident they are making informed decisions aligned with their own personal goals and interests.

Christine Fader is a career counselor at Queen’s University’s Career Services.

Know your ultimate goal

From Matthew Geddes

The best advice I can offer to anyone considering graduate school is to make an informed decision! This includes knowing what your ultimate goal is for attending graduate school, whether it is at the master’s or PhD level, and assessing how achievable your goal is. Obtaining an academic position, securing an industry position or pursuing a passion are typical goals. As with all goal setting, the more specific you are about what your goal is, the more likely you will be successful with achieving your goal. If your goal is to secure a position in industry or academia, then consider details such as: possible job titles, functions you would like to perform, possible organizations and industries you want to work in and locations where you would work. If your goal is to pursue your passion, then I still suggest you think ahead to what you will ultimately be doing as you cannot stay at graduate school forever.

Consider how achievable or realistic your goal is. This involves finding out as much information as possible about your goal, including typical career paths, labour market conditions and possible challenges to securing your career goal. Talking to people who are doing what you want to do is the best way to research your goal. Of note, when exploring options make sure you clarify whether or not going to grad school is necessary.

Matthew Geddes is a career specialist at the University of Calgary’s career services.

Develop a professional portfolio

From Kelly Gallant

Besides telling students to execute a substantial amount of serious soul searching, my advice would be to develop a professional portfolio. Whether or not the student endeavours to attend graduate school or not, a portfolio is essential to career development.

Has the student considered his or her current skill set? Is the student aware of their accomplishments, strengths and competencies? Can the student articulate or understand their activities in relation to a career path? How are the skills honed and showcased? A career or professional portfolio can support the student’s reflections and it can act as a reference for the student, potential employers, mentors or even school admissions to track and organize the development or mastery of skills, knowledge and status of their professional development. This reference can support the decision making process; it is complimentary to the CV, something that is evolving and is instrumental in the planning process and the transition from school to the work world.

Kelly Gallant is a career specialist at the University of Calgary’s career services.

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Comments on this Article

Valuable commentaries. I keep asking myself the same question but end up going back to graduate school. I have been in graduate school three times but at the Master's level and twice in undergraduate level. My ultimate goal is to complete a PHD - as a retirement gift to me and career prospects - becoming a Distinguished University Professor and future Nobel Prize winner. The only hussle is that it comes with a cost but my passion and thirst for more academic credentials (just like the gold medals) is addictive. However, I am happy but I would like to be happier walking into the bank and leaving with a broad smile that says - Yes it paid after all. I hope to feel that way one day. As for now, the beat goes on at whatever cost as long as I am healthy and up to it. Once again, thank you for this enlightening and heart-searching comments!

Posted by Gatama Gachira, Jul 28, 2013 9:20 AM

The inquisitive title of the article: "Should you go to graduate school?" has a simple answer: No.

Posted by Stan, Jul 26, 2013 12:03 PM


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