Graduate school students need to meet a higher academic standard than undergraduates, experts say. To thrive in a graduate program, they also need purpose, focus and passion.
“Grad school is a lot more focused and specialized than college,” Michelle Vakman, director of admissions at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies in New York, wrote in an email. “Students don’t often change majors, and classes are targeted toward a specific field or area of study.”
Grad programs appeal to students who are fascinated by a specific academic subject and committed to working in a field where a graduate degree is valuable, experts explain.
“The main difference between undergrad and grad school is that the student has an opportunity to focus on the subjects he (or) she enjoys the most,” Helen Godfrey, a senior career development specialist at the University of Houston’s Bauer College of Business who has a master’s degree in counseling, wrote in an email. “The coursework is more intense but the student will find that he (or) she really enjoys the topics so it can be an invigorating challenge.”
Graduate students are expected to not only absorb information and gain knowledge, but also to conduct their own research, make unique discoveries and produce compelling scholarship, says Tamara Underiner, an associate dean for professional development and engagement at the Arizona State University Graduate College.
“In college you acquire knowledge,” Underiner wrote in an email. “As you progress through the levels of higher education, you master and then become the producer of knowledge. It’s this growing sense of agency, accompanied by experience, that allows wisdom to grow.”
Should You Go to Grad School? How to Decide
Although this type of advanced education can be fulfilling and valuable, it is not appropriate for everyone.
“If a student is not sure what they want to do, graduate school is probably not a wise idea, because it does not provide opportunities for career exploration like the bachelor’s degree does,” Jillene Seiver, a senior lecturer in psychology and an associate chair in the school of psychology at Eastern Washington University, wrote in an email.
People who found the academic workload of bachelor’s degree courses to be extremely challenging may not be prepared to handle the rigors of grad school. But college alumni who excelled throughout their undergraduate experience often possess a love of learning that can make them a good fit for a graduate program, higher education experts say.
However, even individuals who thrived in college ought to reflect on whether a graduate credential will help them in their career before applying to graduate school, according to experts.
What’s key for success in grad school is a sense of purpose, says Jody Britten, a co-founder at SheLeadsEdu, an organization that provides career advice and training to women working in the education sector.
Grad school students are most successful “when they know what they are very passionate about … . If they’re going to grad school because they feel like they need to go to grad school or they don’t know what they’re going to do or they just want a pay raise, that’s when it doesn’t pay off,” says Britten, who has a Ph.D. in education. “That’s when we don’t see them completing their degree.”
What Are the Different Types of Graduate Programs?
There are numerous graduate credentials, including some that can be obtained quickly and others that require substantial time.
Universities sometimes offer short, nondegree postbaccalaureate certificates and diplomas that can be completed within a few months. In contrast, master’s programs last for at least one academic year while doctoral programs generally require multiple years of study.
A master’s education builds on the knowledge gained via a bachelor’s. A master’s degree typically precedes a doctoral degree, since the latter is ordinarily the most advanced credential available within an academic discipline.
There are two types of doctorates. Applied doctorates focus on using existing knowledge to solve real-world problems and prepare future industry leaders. Research doctorates address open questions within a particular academic discipline and train future scholars.
“Graduate school can mean many things,” Pierre Huguet, CEO of the H&C Education admissions consulting firm, wrote in an email. “There’s a big difference between starting an M.S. or M.A. program, going to law or business school and embarking on the five- to seven-year journey that is a Ph.D.”
Here are a few examples of graduate degrees and how long full-time programs typically last:
— Master of Science, or M.S., degree: one to two years
— Master of Arts, or M.A., degree: one to two years
— Master of Business Administration, or MBA, degree: two years
— Master of Fine Arts, or MFA, degree: two to three years
— Juris Doctor, or J.D., degree: three years
— Doctor of Medicine, or M.D., degree: four years
— Doctor of Philosophy, or Ph.D. degree: six years
The word “terminal” is sometimes used to describe degrees, but the meaning of the term depends on the context. Generally speaking, terminal refers to a degree that indicates mastery of a particular subject, which is typically the most advanced academic qualification available in a field. Although experts sometimes disagree about which degrees fall into this category, there is consensus around the idea that doctorates qualify.
Sometimes, though, when a degree is described as “terminal,” it is simply because that degree is or could conceivably become the final step in a student’s educational journey.
Grad School and the Job Market
A graduate degree is mandatory or highly beneficial for certain careers.
“If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, for example, you will need to continue your education past college,” says Huguet. “Additionally, certain post-graduate programs, such as MBAs, often provide students with important networking opportunities that can be as important professionally as the education students receive at business school. If you want to go into academia or conduct advanced research, you will most likely need a Ph.D.”
However, grad school isn’t necessarily ideal for “natural entrepreneurs,” Huguet says. “I know many students who founded successful businesses while in college, and chose to work for themselves full-time after graduating. For these kinds of individuals, I believe graduate degrees … are a waste of time and money.”
Prospective grad students should think carefully about their career goals before applying to grad schools, Huguet recommends. “Begin by asking yourself what kind of career you’d like to pursue, and then do some research to see what kinds of degrees are necessary for your dream job. In some cases, advanced degrees are not necessary, but can lead to higher salaries and better positions.”
Prospective doctoral students should also assess the job market within their potential field of study.
“A Ph.D. in biology may lead to more options down the road than a Ph.D. in German Literature, for example,” Huguet says. “If your goal is to teach German at the college level, go for the Ph.D., but understand that your degree may not be particularly useful outside of academia.”
How Does Graduate School Compare to College?
A common misconception about graduate school is that it is similar to college. But higher education experts say that graduate courses tend to involve more self-directed learning than undergraduate courses.
“Too often, college students or people who only have had a college experience somehow think that graduate school is going to be more of the same, and it’s not,” says Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University in California and an adjunct faculty member at the California-based Stanford University. “It’s going to look very different. So students might be tired of sitting in small plastic seats in large lecture halls and listening to professors drone on and then taking tests and things like that, and they don’t realize that often graduate school is not that way at all.”
Plante says graduate courses tend to involve small classes as opposed to large lectures, and grad students typically engage in academic research outside of the classroom.
Luz Claudio, a professor in the environmental medicine and public health department of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, says graduate school typically requires significant motivation and personal accountability, since students frequently work independently.
“There’s generally no ‘homework,’ quizzes and few exams in most graduate programs,” Claudio wrote in an email. “So students need to learn to be motivated to study because they want to learn instead of being motivated by the threat of exams or grades.”
Many graduate programs require students to create and submit a faculty-approved dissertation, portfolio or thesis in order to qualify for a degree.
“In the graduate school setting, the teacher becomes more like a mentor and the student is more like an apprentice,” Claudio says.
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Update 05/13/22: This story has been updated with new information.