We asked current and former grad students from around the country to share their top tips for incoming graduate students, their “what I wish I had known before grad school” insights. It’s not all pretty advice—but it might just be what you need to hear.
Don’t think of it as undergrad 2.0
In general, graduate school is a lot more demanding than undergrad. Undergrad tends to be more about the experiences you have and friendships you make. But graduate school is “Let’s get down to business. This is what you need to know. This is what the exam’s about.” You’re not taking classes in various disciplines like you did when you were in undergrad. You’re now in one discipline, learning the ins and outs of that field. You really have to have a liking toward that discipline.
M.M.S., Duke University
Founder and CEO, Krish Media & Marketing
Get your money’s worth
Calculate the ROI of your graduate degree above and beyond just gaining the training from a program. It really just comes down to “will the degree pay for itself in X amount of time.” Like any investment you can forecast and use the PI/NPV (profitability index/net present value) to do the analysis.
Be yourself in the application process
Don’t try to be someone you think grad schools want you to be! Having been on an admission committee, schools are looking for a diverse class that can deliver different perspectives, which makes the classroom experience that much better. Choosing the “same” type of candidates, regardless of pedigree, work experience, and expertise, makes for a flat learning environment and can potentially lead to group think. Applicants should focus on what they bring to the table that makes them unique and not try to fit in a mold. If the candidate’s brand is articulated well, it should be enough.
M.B.A., University of Pennsylvania
Founder and President, Admit Advantage, Admit.me
Scout a good location
When choosing a graduate school, look not only at the quality of the school and the desired program but also make a decision based on location. Is the school located in a city or region in which you would want to live post-grad? Is the school located in a city or region that has a lot of opportunities in your chosen field? Location is just as important as the quality of the school because you will likely build a strong network and get offers in the city of your graduate school. If you do not plan on staying there long term, your hard work during school and the network you build can prove to be not as valuable after relocation.
Jessica L. Lawson
M.A., University of Miami
International Nonprofit Professional
Explore your options if you’re unsure
Some college graduates feel overwhelmed by decision paralysis. They don’t know what they want to be when they “grow up” and are afraid they’ll make a bad decision. I advise students in this situation to work and/or volunteer before committing to a graduate program, so they can think through their options. Look at graduate school as an education consumer and ask yourself: “Is the training and degree that I am buying the right one that I need to reach my goal?” Oftentimes it actually may take you further away from what you really want to do as a career.
M.S., Ph.D., Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Tenured Professor of Preventive Medicine and Chief of the Division of International Health, Mount Sinai School of Medicine; mentor
Choose your professors and committee members wisely
Research the professors by talking to former or current students when deciding on a program. Be sure that research mentors are accessible and involve their students in their work. Then, when it's time to choose a thesis or dissertation committee, be selective! At this intense point, students are so close to the finish line, so it's great when a student chooses a committee where members prioritize the student's progression through the work. Too often students are held up by absent dissertation members.
Be crystal clear about your intentions
Graduate school is not the place to figure out your life. Have a clear goal, do your research to find the right program to position you well professionally, make a plan, and commit 100% to your plan. Have a picture of what you will be doing professionally when your degree is done. Do you need to go to graduate school to fulfill that picture? Too many people invest time and money in a degree that they don't need when a course, certificate, or specific skill would do just as well.
Remember: you reap what you sow
You get out of it what you put into it. If you try to juggle full-time employment with a demanding grad school program, you may find that even if you can balance both, something will suffer—either your work performance, school performance, or your personal life. Upon graduation you may be one of those people who feels they didn’t learn much in grad school, because you weren’t able to focus on maximizing your return on investment.
M.S.W., University of Maryland
Clinical Social Worker, Therapist
Keep the faith
At times you might feel like you made a mistake. You're overwhelmed and short on money, and you don't necessarily see a concrete end benefit. This is especially true in the humanities, where the job market isn't as stable or lucrative. In those times, think about all of the ways graduate school has had a positive impact on your life already. I had a rough time in my program, but I didn't regret it. I made some wonderful friends as well as professional contacts. Plus, while my initial career plan didn't pan out, my experiences in graduate school did give me what I needed to put me on a fulfilling career path.
Don't lose sight of what's important
You are not your grades. Don't get me wrong, a grading system is necessary for evaluating and accountability, but your worth, your intelligence, your dignity—all of who you are—is not in that number or letter. It is easy to get lost in the mentality that the goals and dreams you set out to accomplish, the small portion of the world you seek to make better, is not possible because of a poor grade. Well, that grade is wrong. You can be the good you wish to see in the world because you are learning more, challenging yourself, and growing your heart.
M.Div. candidate, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary