I’ve been mulling this idea over for a blog post for a while now, and as it is a timely piece for many college seniors right now, I decided to sit down and hammer out whether or not to go straight in to graduate school or wait a year or two before making that decision. Now keep in mind that I can only speak from my own personal experience, which unfortunately leaves me lacking in knowledge of how things are done in academic fields like physical sciences, medical sciences, business, languages, music, art, and education. Career outlooks and academic expectations may be very different in those fields which would render this decision entirely different than how I am approaching it. However, because I took an extra semester (rather than a whole extra year) to finish my senior year of college, I have a rather interesting perspective that allowed me to see both the benefits and dangers of both waiting a while after attaining your B.A. (or B. S. or other four-year degree) to enter graduate school and going straight in to school. I graduated in December of 2010 which meant that by the time that I had walked across that stage, all of my graduate school applications had been sent in full (I decided to make the earliest school deadline my overall deadline and just be done with it by the 15th of that month). But I also had a semester and summer break that was free as well. That meant that I had 8 whole months of freedom and “real world” time to experience before heading back to school.
The pros of going right in to graduate school
You won’t talk yourself out of going. Grad school is tough. It’s a completely new set of expectations for the student. Most students are aware that there will be a big scary change if they go to any forum for prospective grad students, or if they even talk with a grad student. It’s scary, new, disorienting, and grad school is designed to weed out the stragglers and people who’s hearts are just not in it. But, hundreds of thousands of people successfully go through graduate programs each year, so it’s not impossible. If you don’t give yourself the time to over think the struggles that you will go through in grad school, you won’t give yourself time to talk yourself out of going.
You won’t lose your momentum. Yes, grad school requires a new set of studying habits, but going straight in to grad school gives you the advantage of already being in the habit of setting a certain amount of time away each day for homework and studying. Take it from someone who’s been there, it’s a lot easier to adjust your studying from 3 hours each day to 6 hours each day than it is to go from 0 hours each day to 6 hours each day. Not that it cannot be done, mind you, but grad school’s tough enough as it is, so you should try to cut yourself as much slack as possible whenever and wherever you can.
Student loans. There are two parts to this section. The first pro of going right to grad school is that there’s no gap large enough for you to be out of deferment on your student loans. That means that you don’t have to start paying them back until after you are out of grad school. This gives you extra time to save up for those first few payments (yeah right, more like scrounge up enough cash to just keep you off ramen noodles every night). Additionally, one of the better kept secrets (at least it was kept from me anyways) of grad school is that they actually want you to come! Grad students are research machines, not only on their own, but they assist the professors in completing their research, which is where the university gains respect as an institution, and, of course, money. In my experience interviewing at various state universities back when I was searching for schools, most graduate programs will find some way to pay for some, if not all, of your schooling. At my program, any out of state student is granted “in-state tuition” so long as they remain in good standing with the university (and if you don’t, you’re pretty much out of the program anyways, so you either get it or you aren’t in the program anymore). And that’s just the baseline. For me, because I was already an in-state resident, I had half of my tuition waived right off the bat (it also helped that the grad student coordinater was my undergraduate research advisor… connections can make a world of difference). After that, there are scads of assistanceships, fellowships, scholarships, and jobs (with tuition perks) available only for grad students! That means that you don’t have to compete with all those pesky undergrads who are “Like, totally going to change the world!” (ugh…)
The sooner you get in, the sooner you can get out. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Every year that you spend in school, or thinking about school is one year less that you will be potentially employed and making money. There it is.
The pros of waiting a year (or more) before going into grad school
What the hell are you doing with your life? If you’re anything like me, you chose your degree path as an undergraduate because it was something that was interesting to you and somewhere along the way an advisor or professor convinced you that you can totally get a job with just a B.A. in Psychology (or insert field of choice here). All of a sudden, you’re looking graduation in the face in a year and realize that, yes, you can get a job with your degree if: 1) you are willing to move to either Alaska or rural Texas 2) you are willing to work for a wage that falls below the poverty line and 3) you are ok with completely selling out and working a mindless, repetitive, pencil pushing job that is nothing like your classes told you it would be. Most people are not to thrilled with these ideas, so they start to look for a way out of this trap without completely having to throw out the last four years of their life. This usually leads to either Alaska or grad school. But before you run off three copies of applications to sixteen different grad schools, take some serious time to think about what you want out of life. And by serious time, I don’t mean an hour. Take a week, better yet, a month to really ponder this over. Think not only about what you want from your career, but also what you want for a future family, and where you see yourself living (coast, midwest, rural, urban, suburbs, etc.). If you are like many people and cannot come up with a solid answer in this time, do yourself a huge favor: don’t go to grad school. At least don’t go right away. You will be miserable, and you will be potentially taking the place of someone else who really wanted to be there. If you do have an idea of what you want out of life, first, figure out if grad school will get you there. If it does, awesome! Now, go find someone who is where you want to be and talk with them about the ins and outs of their jobs. For instance, I wanted to go to school to be a university professor of social psychology when I started grad school. I’ve since discovered that I really don’t like the world of academia all that well, and would probably be fairly miserable being a professor full time. I didn’t figure this out until I found a mentor who was going through the tenure process and was more than willing to share the frustrations of the ordeal.
Save some money. Yes, six months after you graduate, the government will come knocking for the thousands of dollars that you borrowed over the past few years. The good news is, they are very willing to work out a payment plan that works for the both of you. If the payments are (or are nearly) too much, even after finding some full time work, the government will work with you to lower them. All it takes is a phone call, about 20 minutes on hold, and another 20 minute or so conversation with a representative with the student loans, and maybe filing some paperwork with the government. Take this opportunity that you have to work full time and save up some cash. Who knows, you may actually find that you like having money. And if you’re even luckier yet, you may find that you really enjoy (or really, really hate) your new job, making your decision to go back to school that much easier.
Gain some real world experience. When I took a semester off between undergrad and grad school, I found myself working part-time for an organization that assists mentally handicapped and/or injured adults in their homes. Now, I really have little interest in clinical psychology or abnormal psychology, but this job has done a wonder for my resume and marketability. Firstly, it shows that I’m at least vaguely interested in my field. I guess that may be a little important. Second, it get’s me involved in the healthcare field, so if I can’t find a job that I like and can use my degree in right away, I have connections and valuable experience and training in a rapidly growing field. Third, I now understand and appreciate the gravity of the term “red tape”. Working within an organization that works with the U.S. and Iowa state governments (Medicare, Medicaid, EBT cards, Social Security benefits, etc.) has not only taught me patience, but how to work within the system as well. These are very valuable traits to have, even if they cannot be put on a resume.