Graduate school: the right choice for me?

There are several questions that can help you determine if graduate school is right for you.

Is graduate school right for you?

Many SUNY Oswego students have considered graduate or professional school.  To achieve success at the graduate level, you need to give a great deal of thought to your educational and career goals.  Attending graduate school should be for the right reasons.

Why pursue higher education? 
There are many reasons for going on for further study.  The best reasons for enrolling in a graduate program are 1) the love of a particular subject and the desire to study it in depth and/or 2) the need for an advanced degree to enter or move up in your profession of choice.  If other factors are influencing your decision, be cautious.  Reasons you don't want to attend graduate school include avoiding the "real world", not wanting to conduct a job search, etc.  Many students face pressure to attend graduate school from parents, peers or well-meaning mentors.  Perhaps the practice of law or medicine is a family tradition or as a high achiever, you've been urged to pursue an academic career.  Be sure the advice you receive confirms your career goals; it is difficult to succeed in such a highly demanding environment when you are unsure of your reasons for being there.

Prepared to commit to a career field? 
Graduate school serves to focus your energy and education in a specialized discipline.  If you are unsure  of your career field, you may be able to refine your interests by researching areas of study in the Career Services Office, talking to professors, reading institutional literature and participating in an internship.  If that doesn't help, a year or two of valuable work experience may enhance your perspective.  Consider how interested you are in studying a particular body of knowledge.  Are you interested in theory or research or it is the degree at the end of the program that excites you?  An advanced degree may not be the only way to achieve your goals.  For example, in the performing arts or business fields, real-life experience can be more valuable than graduate coursework.

Your long range career and lifestyle goals 
Whatever your motive for going to graduate school, it is a good idea to think about the impact that experience will have on your life in 3-5 years and beyond.  Will the degree prepare you for a specific occupation or career field?  If so, what is the employment outlook?  When you select a graduate field of study, you're also to some degree defining a profession and lifestyle.  Can you envision yourself as a lawyer, an art history professor, or a psychologist?  Make arrangements to talk with people in the field (professors, alumni, family and friends) about the rewards and drawbacks of the path you're considering.  Currently enrolled graduate students can provide valuable insights.

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

Cost-benefit analysis
Virtually every student in graduate school will need some type of financial aid at some point.  It is a major investment for which you'll need to develop a sound financial plan from the very beginning. Ultimately, you'll need to decide if graduate school is worth the financial sacrifice. Prior to making that decision, you'll want to familiarize yourself with potential funding sources.  There are basically two types of funding: money you don't have to pay back, and self-help aid which must be repaid or earned.  Fellowships and scholarships may be awarded based on need, merit or both and are the most sought-after type of funding - and the most difficult to receive.  Typically, these are awarded by the institution or outside agency, generally lasting throughout the academic career (although some must be renewed yearly) and often awarded to doctoral or post-doctoral students.  Institution-based aid most frequently takes the form of a graduate assistantship, graduate (or teaching or research) work part-time in exchange for a stipend and tuition reimbursement.  Loans are the primary source of governmental assistance.  Part-time employment is another way to offset the costs of graduate school.  The type of aid available to you vary widely from one institution to another.  Make sure you investigate fully before making decisions.

Researching graduate schools
Graduate and professional school information is housed in various locations on campus.  The Career Services office has assorted books and directories with descriptive information on a wide range of programs.  We have bulletins for graduate admissions tests (GRE, GMAT, LSAT, etc.) and additional information on scholarships and fellowships.  Familiarize yourself with publications and related journals describing current research in your field in Penfield Library.  Make an appointment with a Career Counselor or faculty member to review your admission strategy.  You can also find valuable resources on the internet such as the US News and World Report rankings.  

Deciding factors
You'll need to figure out which institutions and programs are best suited to you and how the application process works.  There are many factors to consider:

Reputation - Is the program/institution nationally recognized?  Recognized on a regional or local level?  For those looking into program rankings, be advised that there is no single rating for graduate and professional school that is universally accepted.  Read several reports and ask your professors about the reputation of the schools. Rank the schools to which you want to apply; then consider two to four schools in each of the following categories:

1. Reach, 2. Probably, 3. Safety, for a total of about 6-12 target schools.

  • Program of study - What emphasis does the program use? Theory? Research?  Case Study? Thesis vs. Non-Thesis? How many students are enrolled in the program? What is the student mix and attrition rate?
  • Geographic location - Is this an area in which you want to spend two or more years? Ties that you develop could lead to jobs in that area.
  • Post-grad school employment
  • Where do graduates of the program typically find work? How much help is provided by the institution to find employment?
  • Faculty - Are the faculty conducting research in areas that are of interest to you? Are professors seen on the cutting edge of their field? What have they published? What is the student-faculty ratio? Have you visited the campus to meet with any faculty to discuss their program?
  • Facilities - What type of housing is available? How extensive able are labs and facilities?
  • Cost - How will I pay for school?  What are the average starting salaries of graduates in my field?  Will I be able to support my loan payments?  Is financial aid available?