The 7 Things You Need to Consider Before Going to Graduate School

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Hey ppl! Today’s post is dedicated to all of the college seniors & recent college grads who are trying to decide if graduate school is right for them. To help you guys out, I’ll be sharing 7 things that you should consider before deciding to go to graduate school. Grad school is a big decision & shouldn’t be entered into lightly. I hope you enjoy this post and please share with the college senior or grad in your life!

Let’s Get Into It…

For those of you who don’t know, I finished graduate school in 2015 with my master’s degree in Pharmacognosy and it was the best/worst experience of my life. I know that everyone says this but it is so true, grad school is no joke and should be considered with the utmost certainty. I decided to write this post because I wish that I had a resource like this when I was considering & applying to grad school. Here are the 7 things you should consider before going to graduate school.

Disclaimer: these tips are based on my experience in a science-based, research-oriented Ph.D. program. These tips may not apply to all graduate programs.

  1. Establish a CLEAR understanding of why you want to go to grad school

    • When I decided that I wanted to go to grad school it wasn’t because I had always dreamed of being a researcher and getting my Ph.D. I chose it because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and didn’t feel prepared/qualified for a “real job”. So, I went with what I thought was the path of least resistance and went to graduate school. In hindsight, I should have taken a year off to REALLY figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I don’t regret going to grad school but I do wish that I had taken more time to understand how big of a commitment it was.
  2. Research, Research, Research!!!

    • When I was looking up grad programs, I knew that I didn’t want to pursue a Ph.D. in Chemistry nor Biology (my undergrad majors) but I knew that I was interested in cancer research & drug discovery. I used those two research fields to fuel my hunt for the perfect program (which does not exist). What I wish I paid attention to the most was:
      • the graduation/completion rate
      • the length of the program
      • where graduates go after graduation
      • how much the program costs
    • These four variables will tell you a lot about a program. The graduation/completion rate will show you how many of the students that are accepted to the program actually make it through year one, the preliminary exam, and on to defend their dissertation. If this rate is low that could be an indication that this program is particularly difficult or does a poor job of retaining its students (which can be due to funding, support, etc). The length of the program can vary from school to school and even PI (Principal Investigator aka your boss) to PI. It would be great to know the length of the program ahead of time to determine if you feel comfortable dedicating the next 4 to 8 years of your life to getting a graduate degree. Also, it is important to know where the graduates go after they finish the program because it tells you what kind of job you can look forward to having and the variety of specialties that people enter after school. In my program, a graduate went on to become the head of the Office of Dietary Supplements at the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and another went on to work in patent law. Some of our graduates have created their own businesses, became consultants to major companies, etc. This information helps you design the life you’d like to live after school. Lastly (and most importantly), please research & consider the cost of the program. Most science Ph.D. programs will actually pay you a few coins to go to school and work as a teaching assistant (TA) or a research assistant (RA). But please know that those coins are TINY and often do not match the amount of work you have to do so do not expect to be getting a big check or anything lol. Oh, and for all that is holy AVOID SALLIE MAE AT ALL COSTS!!! 
  3. Don’t be Thirsty

    • Girl, I know that at the end of the day you just want to get into someone’s grad program but don’t be so thirsty for an acceptance letter that you just choose any old school. When we feel like our choices are limited and we have to just take whatever we’re given we end up cheating ourselves! A friend of mine told me that she wished she had chosen a different field of study over the one she chose but she was so desperate to get into a school that she just went with whoever took her. I was the same way, in fact, my crazy ass only applied to ONE school. Please don’t do that! Apply to as many schools as you can and be sure that you are choosing to go to this school because you want to and not because you are desperate to get into grad school. If it’s meant for you to get into grad school you will!
  4. Ask the right questions during the interview

    • Man, do I wish that I asked the right questions during my interview. I was so focused on impressing the professors that I didn’t even think to ask some very important questions. You should ask potential PIs what their funding status is and if they will have enough money to take on another student. You should ask current graduate students what the culture of the department is like. Is it super competitive, pretty laid-back, intense, etc.? Ask current students what internships they’ve attained, what it was like, and what year they suggest that you apply for them. Lastly, I would ask current students, and even a PI that you are interested in working with, how many students have applied for and were awarded research grants to fund their own research projects.
  5. Establish an End Goal or Endpoint

    • Ask yourself, “what does my life look like after I’ve gotten my degree?”. Do I still live in the same city? Are my research interests the same? Where am I working? Do I want to become a Principal Investigator leading my own lab or do I want to focus on teaching? The options are endless but you should definitely create a mock-up of what the end-goal will look like. This will help you stay on track when you want to give up and will help you stay true to what you really want to do when different opportunities are presented to you.   Also, don’t be afraid to let your end-goal evolve as time goes on. In the beginning, my end goal was to become a post-doc (post-doctoral fellow aka your job after graduating with your Ph.D.) at the NIH, then to become a PI at the NIH and study cancer. By the time I finished school my end-goal morphed into getting my masters and going on to naturopathic medical school to become a naturopathic physician. Life changes, we change, and that’s totally okay! I suggest that you make it a habit to check in with yourself after every year to make sure that your end-goal is still an accurate reflection of what it is that you want/need. 
  6. Go with your gut

    • This tip is rather straightforward. If the program feels right, go for it! If it doesn’t feel right, for any reason, take lots and lots of time to think about why it doesn’t feel right and whether those reasons can be fixed, removed, or changed to make you feel more comfortable about entering the program. Listen to your gut and don’t force things.
  7. Consider taking a gap year (or two)

    • The term “gap year” has become rather popular since the super smart & gorgeous first daughter Malia Obama decided to take a year off before attending Harvard. The girl is smart & I really wish that I did the same thing. Taking a gap year would have given me the time & perspective to figure out exactly what I wanted to do with my life and whether or not grad school was the right move for me. I actually went to grad school straight after undergrad with only a 4-week break in between the two. (Again, please don’t do that!). If you are feeling burnt out after undergrad or are confused about what you want to do, a gap year may be the right move for you!

I hope you all found these 7 tips helpful. The pursuit of higher education is awesome but shouldn’t be entered into blindly. Research everything you can about it, apply, get in, and kick ass!! If you’ve gone to grad school let me know below in the comments what you wish you were told before you went to school.

Xo,

Sarah

5 responses to “The 7 Things You Need to Consider Before Going to Graduate School”

  1. These are great (and incredibly accurate)! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Megan! I’m so glad that you enjoyed it! 🙂

      Like

  2. I’m currently doing my PhD as well, and I must say your words are true, it also helped me get a handle on starting my doctorate

    Like

    1. Hi Oluwatobi! I’m so glad that you enjoyed this post. Congratulations on starting your doctorate program! what are you studying?

      Like

      1. Thank you. I’m studying Botany, with a focus on Plant anatomy and botanical digitization

        Liked by 1 person

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