How to Tell If Grad School Is Right For You

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There’s one area where you feel pretty qualified as an expert. Crafting edible meals out of questionable cafeteria food? Well, that’s up there. Going the longest possible number of days without doing laundry? That has earned you respect (and maybe a dirty look or two in lectures), but that’s not it, either. Pounding out a term paper on nothing but Red Bull and fumes? Again, impressive, but it’s only part of the bigger picture.

We’re talking about being a student. You’ve spent what feels like a bajillion years in school, going to class, doing homework, and enjoying all those other student-y experiences.

So it only feels natural to freak out when your school days are coming to a close.

And you might be thinking that the best way to deal with the big, scary “real world” is by avoiding it slightly longer by going to grad school.

We understand why that can be tempting, but there are tons of reasons why that’s not a good idea (going into more debt with student loans happens to be a BIG one).

That’s why we caught up with Margaret Okada, Assistant Director of Admission at Teachers College, Columbia University, to talk about the grad school application process and how to tell if this decision is right for you.

What is your current role at Columbia University?

I am an Assistant Director of Admission at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City. Teachers College is the largest and most comprehensive graduate and professional school of education in the US and is a leading research institution in the fields of education, psychology, health, and policy. We have over 100 degree programs in 10 broad departments, all at the Master’s and Doctoral degree levels.

My job is to advise and recruit students to our school, and to administer the admission processes for two departments (the Department of Organization and Leadership and the Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis).

What was your own grad school experience like?

When I first graduated from undergrad back in 2003, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. I applied for graduate programs and didn’t get into any of them because I am sure the fact that I was lost came across in my application.

Fast forward seven years, I finally found my passion of working with prospective graduate students and working in graduate admissions. I knew that to get ahead in the field of higher education, I would really need to get a graduate degree. I was really lucky to discover the Master of Education program in Special Studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE).

The Special Studies program provided me with an amazing opportunity to create an interdisciplinary program that ranged across several different areas of study. I was able to take courses with incredible faculty from a wide range of fields and was provided with awesome advising and support while going through the program. I also loved being in a cohort program with other students who are some of the smartest and most inspiring people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.

What are some common good reasons to go to grad school and why?

There are a wide range of reasons why going to graduate school might be a great fit for students.

Some students are passionate about research and want to work in a lab or analyze data or conduct qualitative studies to push the boundaries of what we know about the world around us.

Others know that they want to practice medicine or law and to do so requires further schooling.

Finally, there are some careers where it is recommended to obtain a graduate degree in order to move upward professionally.

What are some common bad reasons to go to grad school and why?

Being in the field I’m in, I can’t really say there are bad reasons to pursue more schooling. After all, I truly believe in the transformative nature of education and so can’t really say that there are bad reasons. But there are misconceptions about what grad school can and can’t do for you and so some of the most common are:

  • I want a PhD (but have no real idea of what this actually means or what I plan to do after getting one)
  • I can’t find a job
  • I still haven’t found my passion/calling/profession so I’m going to continue with school until I find it
  • My mom/dad/grandparents/aunt/neighbor/dude-I-met-at-the-laundromat told me that I should go to law school
  • I want to be a millionaire and so I need to go get an MBA/JD/MD

The one thing I want to say is that graduate school, like any other kind of schooling, can provide great tools, networks, and a more in-depth understanding of your field. It will not get you a job. You get yourself a job. My biggest recommendation is to first figure out what you want to do with your life and then figure out if graduate school is the best way for you to get there.

What is something you wish all applicants knew about grad school before they began the application process?

After you figure out what you want to do, then you start figuring out which school is the best fit for you. There are a dizzying array of graduate school programs and degrees out there and it can definitely feel overwhelming. Graduate School rankings can provide some insight, but I strongly dissuade people from relying too heavily on them. It is more important to find the right fit for you. Various aspects to consider are:

  • How the program matches with your discipline and research interests
  • Full-time or part-time degree program
  • Geographic location
  • Funding and financial aid

After you figure out which schools are the best fit for you, then you should begin checking out each admissions office website for each school. Every program can have different requirements or different deadlines, so it’s really important to read all instructions in full. Attend online or in-person events for prospective students and schedule appointments with admissions representatives. They can provide you with a whole host of information and often can be very helpful to you as you go through the process.

Finally, dedicate A LOT of time on your statement of purpose. This is the most important part of your application. This should explain three things:

  1. What brings you here – your background story
  2. What you want to do – your future story
  3. Why you are applying to this specific program – the fit

Many applicants I speak with stress over standardized test scores and their undergraduate GPA, but many overlook the statement of purpose. And so I really can’t emphasize this enough. These statements are also really short (usually around 2–3 pages), and so you will need a lot of time to condense your entire life story and make it presentable to the admissions committee.

Any final words of wisdom?

If there is any ambiguity about the application process or you have questions about the program, please contact the admissions office. It’s our job to answer questions and to assist you through the process.

Homework time! Margaret gives you a lot of suggestions about how to evaluate grad school programs and see if they’re right for you, like researching the programs and meeting with students and faculty. If you’d like to learn specifically about law school, check out our post on deciding whether law school is right for you. And if you or someone close to you is going to be entering a graduate program, you’ll want to prepare for how that can affect your romantic/social life, so be sure to check out this post.

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