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Questions to consider before you pursue graduate study

While you may be required to earn a master's or doctoral degree for your intended field, you may also find going to grad school is necessary for your next promotion, a larger salary, or even just for personal enrichment. Regardless of your motivations, read on to learn about the questions you need to consider before starting your graduate school search.

Marcus Hanscom, Director of Graduate Admission
Students pose in graduation regalia
2022 M.S. Leadership students Mary Santoro, Stephen Laliberte, and Tracey Pratt pose for a photo at their Commencement on May 20, 2022. Image Credit: Marcus Hanscom

So you’re interested in potentially going to grad school. While it’s easy to simply run to Google and start your search, it’s important to assess your own motivations for going to graduate school and create a plan for next steps that takes into consideration your readiness, financial circumstances, time commitments, and other factors. Let’s take a look at some important questions to ask yourself as you plan for grad school: 

Why are you considering earning a graduate degree or certificate? 

Everyone has different motivations for going to graduate school. While some people need a specific credential to work in their intended field, others may be simply looking for a promotion or even just personal enrichment. Regardless of your reason, you should be clear on why you’re considering this path as it’ll require substantial time, effort, and money. You’ll want to make sure that what you put in is worth the return. 

Are you ready for graduate school? 

This may be a hard question to answer, but it’s important that you’re set up for success. Graduate level coursework is different from what you may have experienced as an undergraduate. You’re generally expected to be more self-reliant and driven with less specific oversight and direction from professors and your peers. Coursework is often more project- or research-based and you’ll be expected to do a lot of reading outside of class time. While you’ll encounter exams here and there (and it’ll vary significantly by your program of study), your grades are generally more dependent on papers, presentations, or other projects. The amount of hours you need to commit outside of your classes will likely be more significant than what you’re used to. 

One of my least favorite conversations to have with students is about low grades in their undergraduate studies. If you’re currently an undergraduate and planning to go right to graduate school, you need to be honest with yourself about your academic performance and the likelihood that you’ll succeed in the programs you’re considering. There are often exceptions to GPA requirements, but it’s important to keep in mind that faculty and staff are looking to admit students who will be positive contributors to their programs and be successful both during the program and after graduation. Faculty and staff aren’t trying to just take your enrollment dollars; we genuinely want you to succeed. That unfortunately means that admission decisions are not as favorable as students would like. I personally hate sending denial letters, so I work with students during their search to understand if they are a good academic fit for their chosen program. 

If you’re a working professional, your undergraduate academic performance may be less important when being considered for admission. This is particularly true if you’ve been working for some time. Depending on your intended program, your professional work history may play a larger role in your admission decision. 

Finally, your life circumstances really need to allow for you to dedicate the time and effort to be successful in your graduate studies. Because you’ll be pouring a lot of time and money into your program, you want to be able to gain a lot from your experience. I’m always amazed at the students who are able to have a stellar academic record while juggling family caregiving responsibilities, full-time jobs, and other activities. That said, I see the enormous amount of dedication, exceptional time management skills, and often significant lack of sleep that is often required to make that all work. That kind of recipe doesn’t work for all students, so you should be honest about your commitments and the space you have to allow yourself to successfully complete your graduate studies. 

What kind of credential do you need? 

Every discipline and industry has different educational requirements to successfully gain employment. If you want to become a physical therapist, earning your DPT is required. If you want to be a clinical mental health professional, you can do that with a master’s level, license-eligible degree or a doctoral degree. If you want to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), you need 150 academic credits between your undergraduate and graduate studies, but a combination of a bachelor’s degree and 30 graduate credits satisfies your academic requirement without necessarily needing a master’s degree. Become familiar with the academic requirements of your individual discipline so that you can determine what type of education you’ll need. 

How do you want to complete your studies and how quickly? 

If you’re just looking at graduate education for the first time, you’re probably hearing all sorts of terms that may be new or confusing to you about course delivery - hybrid study, blended learning, low residency models, hyper flex learning, asynchronous or synchronous study, and more. Particularly since the pandemic, schools have added even more flexible learning options to accommodate different learners and learning needs. 

Current or recent full-time undergraduate students looking to go directly to graduate school are likely able to commit more time to graduate study, so programs geared toward these students are often offered on campus with a full-time schedule. These programs can be done quickly, though they require substantial focus on your studies and likely involve commitments during daytime hours. Some programs can be done full-time in the evenings or fully online as well. 

Full-time study at the master’s level typically involves nine credits or more per term; doctoral students usually take six credits or more per term to be considered full-time students. Most master’s degree programs can be completed in one or two years on a full-time basis. Doctoral programs typically involve four or five years of study and residency or research work. These commitments can vary by discipline, particularly in medical science fields. 

Part-time study options are abundant and are offered in varying schedules and formats. Depending on your area of study, you may find less flexibility in scheduling or delivery if your program requires substantial fieldwork (i.e. residencies or clinical hours required for licensure). The length of part-time programs can vary greatly and depend on the number of courses you wish to complete at a time. 

The vast array of delivery models can be particularly confusing. Here are just some you may encounter: 

  • Hybrid study 
    Hybrid typically refers to the structure of how individual courses are delivered in your chosen program. A hybrid course typically involves some in-person class meetings and some online coursework (i.e. a common hybrid model is courses that meet in person every other week). 
     
  • Blended study 
    Blended study typically refers to a program schedule that includes a combination of courses that are offered on campus, online, and/or hybrid. For example, you might have a research methods course that meets only on campus, but you might also have an evaluation course that meets fully online in the same term. 
     
  • Asynchronous study 
    Asynchronous is a term most commonly used for online study and denotes that a class does not meet at specific times, but instead has self-directed work that you complete on your own schedule. Asynchronous courses typically have deadlines for assignments, but you can log in at your leisure to complete your work. These types of courses typically include readings, recorded lectures, projects, online discussion forums, and more. 
     
  • Synchronous study 
    Synchronous study is also a term generally associated with online courses and refers to courses that have a set meeting time. A program or course with synchronous delivery would require that you log in and participate live in a virtual class wherever you are. 
     
  • Low-residency model 
    While each school may deploy these models differently, a low residency model typically refers to a program that has mostly online study (asynchronous or synchronous) paired with some limited, required in-person commitments on campus. Some common models may include a two-week summer residency before and after your first year, one weekend commitment per month, or one weekend in-person meeting each semester of study. 

How will you pay for your graduate studies? 

This is always a challenging question because it has a lot of variables. While some programs may offer institutional aid (like scholarships, assistantships, and/or grants), master’s programs and graduate certificates typically have far less institutional aid available than doctoral programs. Students often utilize federal student loans, which are affordable loan options with flexible repayment terms and reasonable interest rates, to pay for their studies. Many working professionals will find options for tuition remission through their employers, reducing or eliminating their educational costs. A wealth of private scholarships and grants are also available with a little bit of time and effort online. For others, personal finances or support from family or friends make their graduate education a reality.

Regardless of your finances, you should become familiar with all of the resources available to you to pay for your graduate studies and have a plan for your costs both during and after your schooling. 

What factors are the most important to you when selecting a school? 

When I work with recent undergraduates, their focus is often on finding a school with specific research opportunities or internship placements. Conversely, many of the working professionals I work with in their grad school search are focused on course delivery and flexibility so they can continue honoring their commitments to family or work. Regardless of your circumstances, it’s important to identify the most important factors to you as you embark on your search. 

If you are fortunate to be able to consider relocating for school, I always encourage students to keep their search open to maximize the opportunity of finding the best fit school for your interests and goals. I’ve worked with many students over the years who relocated across the country for their studies, often to pursue very specific research placements or job opportunities. Many relocated to places that weren’t areas they would’ve otherwise considered, but have embraced once in a lifetime learning or research opportunities that led to their dream outcomes. 

What is your end goal and how will you define success? 

Starting with the end in mind will help you pinpoint not only if grad school is right for you, but also which program will best serve your interests and long-term objectives. Identify what it is you hope to achieve after you graduate and then research programs that will get you there.
 
I wish you the best on your next steps. 

Marcus Hanscom is the Director of Graduate Admission at Roger Williams University. You can reach him at mhanscom@rwu.edu

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