The Overwhelming Pressure to Apply to Grad School

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I received constant questions about my plans after college as graduation creeped up fast. These questions focused on whether I planned to apply to grad school to pursue my Masters of Fine Arts (MFA). But, there was also an assumption behind them. Among English majors and writers, there’s an overwhelming idea that a graduate degree is a necessity, and not an option.

This is a common way of thinking about liberal arts degrees, but it is also something that affects a growing number of fields and majors. As college graduates, we are facing an overwhelming pressure to continue our education and apply to graduate school to make our degree “worth anything.” We need to ask the questions: “What is going to graduate school worth to us?” and “Is all this pressure warranted?”

What is graduate school worth to the student?

The idea of degrees having “worth” is largely based on the type of career they lead into, and how well those careers pay. Using this type of thinking, statistically some degree fields are definitely worth more than others, and graduate degrees are worth more than undergraduate ones. According to a survey by Pew Research Center, people between 25 and 34 years old with a Master’s degree have a median monthly salary of $4,772, versus $3,836 for their peers with only a Bachelor’s degree.

Looking at education this way is limiting. It ignores the fact that students have different goals they are looking to achieve with their education. It says that any type of degree is, in the end, vocationally focused, which is simply not true. This mentality also suggests that there is a formula to finding a career that starts with a specific degree, when this couldn’t be further from the truth. According to Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, employers are actually pretty much split between preferring workplace-specific skills and a broad range of knowledge when looking at prospective new-hires. Though some jobs do highly value, or even require, a graduate degree or higher, this doesn’t replace having the right skills and knowledge that hiring managers look for in a candidate.

Look at your own situation and decide how you value grad school. It might be worth it to you to apply, and go get your Master’s degree, and if that is the case, then you should absolutely do it. It might not be, though. Make your choice, and do not let pressure from other people make it for you.

Is the Pressure Warranted?

After I graduated, I immediately started to prepare to apply to grad school. I studied for the GRE and started preparing my writing portfolio. I was doing this because I thought graduate school was necessary in order to pursue a life and career as a writer. It wasn’t until I read something that my favorite writer, George Saunders, said about grad school in an interview with The Missouri Review, that I ever questioned this. Saunders said that there isn’t one formula for when a student should pursue grad school (at least in the case of writers).

Saunders earned his undergrad degree in geophysics and spent years working in the engineering field before getting his Master’s in English, and said this experience was vital to his success as a writer.  He also commented that there are other writers who immediately followed their undergrad degree with grad school, and were incredibly successful because of it. There are plenty of others who never received a Master’s, or even Bachelor’s degrees. Success isn’t tied to a certain way of approaching school, and this is true across the board for other degrees.

You are the one who knows best what your goals are and can make the choice about what graduate school is worth to you. You will likely face immense pressure to continue your education and apply to grad school, but this shouldn’t be your key factor in making this decision. Instead, you should make the choice that is right for yourself, and not anyone else. Though society may say that you need to find a job within your field of study, it is completely okay to take a job that is not, whether it is because of difficulties finding a job in your field, or you find something you would rather do. Sometimes, doing this can actually lead to finding a job that uses what you studied at a later time, something I feel incredibly fortunate to have experienced.

I came to the personal decision that pursuing an MFA is worth it to achieve my goals of becoming a better writer and going on to teach creative writing at a college level. I also know that I don’t need to be in a rush to enter this path. The pressure that so many of us feel as recent graduates to apply to grad school can feel truly overwhelming. With all of the pressure, grad school can feel like the only option. You need to remember that this pressure is unwarranted, and you should base your decision on your own choices– not what other people think.

written by Zachary Evans

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