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Deciding on Graduate School
Reasons to Consider Getting a Graduate Degree
Four reasons why you might want to pursue a graduate degree
- Your career objective requires a graduate degree.
- A graduate degree may open additional career opportunities in your current field of work.
- All else being equal, a person with an advanced degree will earn more than someone with only a bachelor’s degree.
- You have great interest in a subject area and want to further your knowledge and skills in this area.
A decision to attend graduate school is a matter of considerable importance and should not be taken lightly. Although it makes sense to seek guidance and recommendations from others, such as counselors, professors, graduate program representatives, current graduate students, those employed in a career you seek, family, and friends, the ultimate decision is yours to make. It’s probably not a good idea to seek a graduate degree merely because you can’t think of anything else to do, haven’t yet found a job, or somebody else is insisting you should do this. Be convinced in your own mind that you are making an informed choice.
Deciding When to Go to Graduate School
Immediately after Graduation
There are a number of reasons why you might want to pursue graduate school immediately after graduation:
- Your career goal may require an advanced degree, and delaying graduate school means delaying your career.
- Immediately after graduating, you are still in “student mode” and may have an easier time in transitioning to graduate work than if you delay graduate school.
- Pursuing other things after graduating may lock you into a way of life and reliance on a steady paycheck that will make it very difficult to transition to graduate school later in life.
Delay Going to Graduate School for a Year or More
There are a number of reasons for deciding to delay going to graduate school:
- After four or more years as an undergraduate, you need some time off from school to recharge your batteries.
- Your financial situation dictates that you earn some money before starting graduate school.
- You want an employer to pay all or part of your graduate education, full or part time, but this isn’t available right away.
- Some employers prefer to hire workers with work experience and a graduate degree, so working before going to graduate school can get the experience you need for such employment.
Going to Graduate School Part-Time While Working
Many graduate programs are structured so that students can attend part-time while working full-time. There are some advantages and disadvantages for doing this:
- Remaining employed may make the difference between being able to afford graduate school and not being able to afford it.
- Going part-time while employed may allow you to build up valuable work experience that will be useful for your long-term career goals.
- Going part-time will mean taking longer to obtain an advanced degree, thereby delaying your long-term career plans.
- Working and attending graduate school at the same time can be arduous and stressful, and is not the preferred choice for everyone.
Deciding Where to Apply/Attend
Make a List of Schools that Interest You
Finding the right graduate school and program is an important task and requires time and effort. Call upon UMD faculty who specialize in the field you are interested in to help you make selections of those schools and programs that you should consider. Here are some factors to take into account when making your decision:
- Does the faculty teach and conduct research in the areas that interest you?
- Does the program and institution have a nationally recognized reputation for excellence and is it accredited?
- Is the program and institution located in an area where you would enjoy living during the time of your studies?
- Does the program have scholarships/internships/assistantships that will give you valuable experience and financial aid?
- Is the available housing suitable for your needs?
- Is the program affordable?
- How extensive and good is the library, both the physical facility and online access to materials?
Required Qualifications Exams
Most graduate programs require you to take a qualifying exam, with the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) http://www.gre.org being the most typical. For the MBA degree, it is the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) http://www.gmat.org, for law school the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) http://www.lsac.org, medical school the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) mcat.com, and veterinary school, usually either the GRE or the MCAT.
Most graduate programs require you to submit a personal statement or some other form of admission essay. You should carefully read the instructions given by the program for this requirement, as some programs merely ask for a personal statement whereas others want you to address specific topics of particular interest to the admission committee. Whether they ask for it specifically or not, you can expect that the admission committee wants to know such things as your interest in the field of study, your reasons for selecting their program, that you have realistic expectations for completing the program, and that the degree you seek is calculated to further your stated career ambitions. The personal essay is your one best opportunity to demonstrate unique traits you have that make you an ideal candidate for their program, so you should attempt to show, most especially by drawing on examples of things you have accomplished, participated in, or overcome during your time as an undergraduate, that you possess such traits as:
- Hard working
- Skilled at writing
- Intellectually curious
- Ability to lead
- Respectful of others
Graduate programs want to be convinced that you write well, so your personal statement must be of the highest quality. To help you achieve this, you should involve others, especially faculty and/or career development advisors who can assist you in writing the best statement possible. One way to improve any writing is to read it aloud to someone else. Ideally, the spoken words should flow well and sound right, and should grab and keep the attention of the listener. If the writing falls short of this, then it’s time to revise. Additional perspectives and help on writing a personal statement can be accessed at the UMD Career & Internship Services Office [http://d.umn.edu/careers/services/critique.html] or at the UMD Writer's Workshop/Writing Center [http://www.d.umn.edu/writwork/main/index.html].
Letters of Recommendation
Most graduate programs will require two or more letters of recommendation, usually from professors who know you and the quality of your work quite well. Pick your letter writers carefully, as letters of recommendation are extremely important. You should only ask for a letter of recommendation from a professor who knows you well and in whose course or courses you did extremely well on graded assignments and class discussions. The key here is to perform at a high level in all of your courses so that you have many professors to choose from. Also key is to develop relationships with your professors over time so that they can comment on features about you other than how well you did in their classes. Professors typically enjoy interacting with students, so go visit them during office hours or by appointment. You don’t have to have any particular purpose or reason for visiting a professor. If possible, pick letter writers from the same academic discipline as the program you are applying for (e.g., a sociology professor if you are applying for admission into a sociology graduate program). It is best to ask for a letter of recommendation in person, although you can follow up with an email thanking your professor for agreeing to write a letter and reminding him or her of any deadline you are facing. Seek these letters early in the process, not late.
Some graduate programs will ask for a cover letter with your application materials. Whether specifically asked for or not, you should submit a cover letter if the application process gives you an opportunity to do so. If the application guidelines specify that your application be sent to a named person, then the letter should have a date at the top and be addressed to that person, using the full name and title of that person and other pertinent information. Here is an example:
November 1, 2016
Kathryn K. Jones, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Graduate Advisor
Department of Sociology
Holman Hall 301
St. Paul, MN 55102
Dear Professor Jones:
If you are not directed to any particular person, then your cover letter should be addressed to “Graduate Admission Committee” instead of an individual and the salutation will be “Dear Graduate Admission Committee.”
The letter itself should indicate the program you are applying for, because many academic departments offer more than one graduate degree (e.g. M.A. and Ph.D., or M.P.A. and Ph.D.). You might write your letter like this:
Dear Admission Committee:
I am writing to apply for admission into your M.A. degree program in Sociology, to begin graduate studies in Fall 2016. As instructed, I have posted on your website a formal application for admission, a personal statement, and a resume of my background and qualifications. I have requested that an official transcript of my undergraduate coursework and degree be sent to you directly by the University of Minnesota Duluth, which you should receive shortly. I have also requested two of my undergraduate professors to post letters of recommendation on your website, and I believe they will be doing that in the next few days.
I believe I am well qualified for your program and look forward to your review of my credentials. As you will see, I have a 3.86 grade point average in my sociology undergraduate major, and 3.75 overall, and was quite active in student activities, including being president of the Sociology Club and vice president of the Students for Social Justice Club. I also was a research assistant for one of my sociology professors, an experience that contributed to my strong interest in pursuing an advanced degree.
I await hearing from you after completion of your admission review.
John Q. Student
328 Kirby Plaza
112 Cina Hall
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