It’s that time of year when college seniors start to sweat. The barrage of questions comes from all circles of your life and from yourself: What are you doing after graduation? Do you have a job yet? What’s your plan? What the heck are you going to make of your life?
I’ve certainly been there. And—at the risk of freaking some of you out—I’m still asking some of those same questions at age twenty-five. (That last one in particular.) While I can’t provide you with specific answers, I can at least speak semi-confidently into one question you may be floating around as you figure out your next steps:
What if I went to graduate school?
I’ve gone through one master’s program and I’ve just started a second one (with my sights set on a PhD). Having gone through the fire once and jumped back into it again, there are a few things I wish I knew before diving into grad school, as well as a few encouragements for those of you set on that path. Whether you want to attend grad school as the necessary next step in your career, to pursue scholarship on a higher level, or to delay getting a “real job” (whatever that even means), here’s what I would want to tell you:
Things To Know
First, before you even apply, manage your expectations about acceptance. Depending on the school and program, the application process can be competitive. Acceptance into some programs are more lax, provided you have a certain GPA, but others are much more rigorous. My master’s program at Baylor was extremely competitive, which I knew going into it but didn’t quite believe. While you may be set on going to grad school, I’d encourage you to not put all of your eggs into that basket. Think about some alternative ways to move forward if grad school doesn’t work out, but don’t stress about planning everything out perfectly. Just take the next step as God directs. Move forward in the application process with humility and openness.
I’ve written a lot in the past about how my gap year—triggered by not getting into grad school my first go-around—ended up being the best thing for my soul. It can be really hard if you put too much hope into this particular path only for the door to close, but trust me: God’s got you. God ordained my path at the right time, and He will yours, too. Trust me, all of us face setbacks. You’re certainly not alone when hopes go unfulfilled. Also, just because you receive a “No” the first time doesn’t mean grad school isn’t for you. I ended up getting into Baylor’s program the year after my rejection. And now I’m going for a Master of Arts in English Literature, a degree that I thought I wouldn’t ever go for after choosing my Student Affairs graduate program. Our plans never quite work the way we think they will—and I’m so thankful for that.
Second, before you apply, ask yourself: Do I really want to do this? To be extremely blunt, the school part of grad school is insanely difficult. Granted, this is colored by my experience at Baylor (and I’m not in deep enough in my second program to compare yet). Still, be prepared to ramp up your academic experiences to an 11. It’s tough, and if you don’t care enough about it, you’re not going to be able to persist.
On the flip side, school also isn’t the most important part of our lives. One of my biggest takeaways from Baylor that I’m carrying into my current master’s program is this: life is more than our academic achievements. You guys, this was so hard for me. I’ve always been a person defined by my straight As and teased for my passion for schoolwork. But going to grad school in the middle of the pandemic certainly helped me recognize my higher priorities should be outside of academics. Church, family, friends, the day-to-day stuff of life—that’s worth much more than any perfect grades. It may take you a semester or two (or five) to find that balance, but keep it in mind when you prepare to enter your program.
Third, enter into grad school with the idea of an end goal in mind. This can be tricky, especially if you’re jumping into grad school just because you don’t know what else you want to do with your vocation and school feels like a safe choice. That being said, it does help your chances on a competitive application process if you can clearly articulate your interests related to the program and your ultimate goal. Post-acceptance, write that end goal down and stick it in your primary workspace. It’s okay if that reason changes, but having a visible reminder of why you’re in grad school can help you stay motivated while you’re in the thick of the program, especially when that academic existential dread inevitably pops up.
Encouragements For The Storm
Okay, I know I keep talking about how hard grad school academics are, but truly, the first thing I’d say as an encouragement: graduate school is a scholars’ paradise. Sure, there will be assignments you don’t want to do, readings you don’t care for, and classes you’d prefer didn’t exist as requirements. But it is way more flexible than your undergrad coursework. You can specialize in specific areas and build on what you learned or researched in previous classes. For example, I tailored a lot of my papers on spiritual formation of college students in my first master’s program, and I intend to focus on early English / Medieval literature in my current program. You start to make deeper connections about your studies because you’re spending so much intentional time with it. It makes learning super fun.
Second, remember that graduate school is only temporary. Building off of my caution that grad school is not the most important thing in the world, remembering that grad school is only for a season can be helpful, especially when you’re drowning in stress and almost overdosing on caffeine to finish that one paper. On the flip side, it’s also a good reminder to take advantage of your student status while you’ve still got it. This goes beyond the academic part of being a student (which, yes, I love, or else I wouldn’t want to subject myself to a PhD program). It includes soaking in the student life side of campus too, which can make grad school fun. Events, student perks, all that good stuff—they’re still there for grad students too. So make sure to enjoy the moment you’re in, too.
Finally, when you go into your grad program, don’t forget to invest in the people around you. I was lucky to be a part of a cohort in my first program, and I’m excited about the new relationships I’m starting to form in this new program. To this day, over a year since I graduated with my first master’s from Baylor, many of us from my cohort stay in touch. We share what we’re learning and cheer for one another’s successes. It’s very cool to be a part of!
As a final disclaimer from me, my grad programs are in the social sciences, education, and English literature fields, so some of what I’ve said may not apply to other disciplines (like the medical field). Still, I hope you were able to take away at least one helpful thing from this post!
Have any questions or concerns about graduate school I didn’t speak into? Happy to dialogue in the comments below!