Going back to school? Do your research.

“To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.” Chinese proverb

I spent nearly four hours talking with undergraduates at the career and graduate school fair on Wednesday.  The students I talked with had great questions about the graduate school application process.  Many were doing a little bit of recon work, expecting to graduate in May, work for a year and then go back to school.  Others knew they were going straight to grad school this fall.  And then there were some that figured if they couldn’t get a job, they’ll just get another degree.

My response for those who fell in the last category is, “Don’t go.”  Sure, it’s easy for me to say that when I’m employed (by a wonderful institution which I wouldn’t imagine leaving because I love it and my job so much :-)), but the simple truth is graduate school is a major investment of your time and money.  As Robert L. Peters states in Getting What You Came For, “there are certainly more cost-effective ways of figuring out your life.”

Now, if you’re considering going back to school but are not sure which program is right for you, or don’t want to commit yet to a master’s degree, there are options.  For one, you can apply to a graduate certificate program.  A graduate certificate is typically a year-long program that offers fundamental career training in a specialized field.  The certificate is made up of four to six courses, and in some cases these can count towards your master’s degree if you decide to continue your course of study.

Another option is to apply as a non-degree student.  In fact, that’s what I’m doing at the moment.  I am currently enrolled in a 600-level Public Administration course, and I haven’t even taken the GRE yet.  Within the next year, I’ll submit my application to a master’s program and this course will show that I am able to do well at the graduate level.  It’s also my hope that this course will count towards my degree, which I know it will because I’ve spoken with admissions reps who tell me that this course is necessary for graduating.

This leads me to another point: if you haven’t taken your entrance exams (GRE, GMAT, LSAT, etc.) yet, start studying!  These scores are typically good for five years.  If you’re still in college, make it a goal to take your entrance exam before you graduate.  I would aim for the end of your Junior year so you have enough time to retake the test if necessary.  Students and alumni should look to the Center for Student Learning on your campus for free study preparation resources.    Our Center offers free study workshops on a weekly basis to all students and alumni, and other colleges may offer similar resources.

There are so many options for going to graduate school.  Doing your research will help you get the most out of your master’s or doctoral degree.  Some resources you might find helpful are

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