Deciding what to study in graduate school can be a challenging task. Though you may have a basic idea of what field you’d like to pursue, it can be helpful to identify what your goals are and what programs can offer the best path for your needs. In this article, we outline what graduate school is, why candidates decide to attend graduate school, and how to decide what to study.
What is graduate school?
Graduate school is an advanced educational opportunity through which candidates who have already earned a bachelor’s degree can hone their skills, develop expertise in an academic area and/or perform high-level research depending on their interests. Through graduate programs, candidates can earn master’s, specialist or doctoral-level degrees, some of which are terminal degrees—the highest possible level of study—in a particular field.
There are both academic and professional graduate programs available to eligible candidates. In academic programs, candidates typically focus on producing research within their specific discipline. Comparatively, in professional programs, candidates prepare for particular career paths by establishing the competency and knowledge needed to pursue a certain profession.
Some programs use a hybrid model that combines the traditional elements of academic and professional programs to offer candidates multiple angles of study and opportunities post-graduation.
Why go to graduate school?
There are various reasons why candidates decide to attend graduate school. Here are a few of those reasons explained:
Many candidates choose to attend graduate school to pursue certain academic interests that they’d like to explore in-depth. While undergraduate degree programs offer students a fundamental understanding of their discipline of choice, many who earn bachelor’s degrees choose to further their studies and develop their expertise. In a graduate program, candidates can take advanced courses in their subject area, explore interdisciplinary approaches, conduct research and contribute to their fields.
Graduate programs often provide students with the opportunity to develop important professional skills they can apply in a post-graduate role. In addition to their course of study, graduate students often assume fellowships, internships, teaching assistantships, research assistantships and graduate assistantships that give them hands-on experience in a certain career field. This is especially true in programs that employ a professional approach, such as law or medical school programs.
Post-graduate career opportunities
Since graduate school allows students to pursue academic interests and pre-professional roles, they often have access to more advanced career opportunities once they graduate. While graduate degrees are marketable for candidates in nearly every career field, some specific professional paths—like medicine and law—require candidates to earn graduate degrees as an entry-level standard. In addition, graduate degrees can help professionals develop the competency necessary to transition into a different career path.
Higher earning potential post-graduation
Those who earn graduate degrees may earn higher rates of compensation on average compared to their less-educated counterparts. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2013, the national average salary for those professionals working full-time with a bachelor’s degree was $56,000 per year, while the average salary for those working full-time with a master’s degree was $68,000 per year. The difference between these figures equates to $12,000, meaning those with graduate-level degrees may earn approximately 21% more on average than those who only earn undergraduate degrees.
How to decide what to study in graduate school
There are various factors to consider when deciding what to study while in graduate school. Taking each of these factors into account, here’s a step-by-step guide to help you navigate your decision:
1. Examine your academic interests
When deciding what to study in graduate school, first consider your academic interests. You may choose to continue your studies from your undergraduate degree or take a completely different academic path. You can use your academic interests as a guide when determining what schools offer suitable programs and what career opportunities you’d like to pursue post-graduation.
2. Determine what career opportunities you’d like to pursue
After considering your academic interests, think about what career opportunities appeal to you for post-graduation. If there’s a specific role you hope to secure with your graduate degree, you may want to research the type of programs that can make you eligible for that position. Understanding what your end goal is in attending graduate school may help you determine what you need to study to achieve that objective.
3. Identify what type of degree you need to jumpstart your career
If you know what career you want to pursue post-graduation, identify the type of degree you need to get started. You may pursue a master’s, specialist or doctorate degree depending on your needs. Further, some career paths require candidates to possess specific degrees. For instance, if you want to become a lawyer, you may need to pursue a Juris Doctor (JD) degree, and if you want to become a medical doctor, you may need to earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree. Knowing these entry requirements can help you narrow down your choices.
4. Figure out what type of degree program will help you achieve your goals
As mentioned above, in addition to different types of degrees, graduate degree programs offer different approaches. You can choose to attend an academically oriented program, a professional program or a program that is a hybrid of the two, depending on what your goals are. For instance, if your goal is to become a professor and contribute research to your discipline of choice, it may be best for you to attend an academic program to earn a Ph.D. rather than a professional program.
5. Research graduate schools in your area
With a better idea of what your academic interests are, the type of degree you need to pursue your career choice and the type of program that can help you meet your goals, you can begin to research options for schools in your area.
In your research, identify what schools offer programs that fit your needs. If you can’t find a school that accommodates all of your needs locally, you can expand your search to include other geographic locations.
6. Explore different programs and their courses of study
Once you determine what schools offer graduate-level programs that meet your academic or professional needs, explore those programs in-depth to figure out whether they’ll work for you. You may examine a program’s exact course of study and figure out what classes you might take if you enroll. Doing this can help you learn more about programs you can attend and allow you to omit those that don’t fully appeal to you.
7. Find out what faculty members you want to work with
While researching specific programs and exploring the type of classes they offer, it can also be useful to find out what faculty members work there. As a graduate student, it’s likely you’ll be working closely alongside a faculty member, and who you work with can make a significant impact upon the quality and angle of your studies. When reviewing different faculty members across programs, examine their areas of expertise, review the research they’ve published and figure out whose work most closely aligns with your interests.
8. Narrow down your research interests
Once you have a general idea of what field you’d like to pursue, you may consider what your specific research interests are. Many graduate degree programs expect candidates to complete a research dissertation to be eligible for graduation, and therefore, it’s important you attend an institution that can help you accomplish your research goals. With a stronger idea of what you want to research, you can apply to graduate schools and enroll with the confidence you’re pursuing the right course of study for you.