Upon completing my undergraduate studies, I was faced with a difficult decision: do I face the real world head on or do I spend more time learning in graduate school? Nervous about the real world, thirsty for more knowledge about information security, and unsure of the answer to the dreaded question “What do you want to do with your life?” I chose to enter the Fast Track program at Syracuse University.  I accepted the offer to graduate school, and am now two courses away from walking across the stage one more time.

Current undergraduate students have asked me countless questions about my decision. “Why did you go to grad school? Is it worth it? Is the work hard?” The truth is that graduate school means different things to different people. Every student will gain something different based on their program of study, their background, where they go to school, and other factors. However, regardless of these factors, there are a few important things to consider before choosing to attend graduate school.

1. What do you want to study?

Although this is a seemingly simple question, it is still one of the more difficult ones to answer. I still ask myself what it is that I am truly passionate about. Undergraduate studies have lots of fluff. You are required to take lots of liberal arts courses to broaden your horizons and help you figure out what you want. Graduate school is for those who know what they want. Courses you must take will all be directly related to your field of study. This is one of the things that makes graduate school so intense and focused. Be sure you know what you want before you devote hours of coursework to the topic.

2. Do you have any real world experiences to support your studies?  

I found myself at a disadvantage as I started my graduate coursework. Students were older and more mature than I was. They had years of management, leadership, and work experience to draw from during class discussions. Starting my Masters as an undergraduate student left me with very little to contribute to some class discussions. Working a few years allows people to figure out what they like and don’t like (read #1).

Although you can learn a lot from textbooks and class lectures, nothing compares to real world experiences. Figuring out how the industry works can allow you to figure out how you work. Learn some more about yourself and bring that knowledge with you to a graduate program.

Undergraduate and Graduate students together after Syracuse University's Commencement

Undergraduate and Graduate students together after Syracuse University’s Commencement

3. Who’s going to pay for it? 

You’re probably sick of the student loan bills that have started coming in, and more debt probably sounds like it isn’t an option. Regardless of where you go to school, look into positions as a graduate assistant (GA), research assistant (RA), or faculty assistant (FA). Often times, these positions will provide good monetary compensation for your work. Whether it’s a stipend, tuition, or generous hourly pay, positions like these will help you greatly in terms of paying for your education. Make sure you inquire about positions like these within your program of study if finances are a concern.

4. What do you want to do with your life? 

Everyone’s favorite question. I  started looking for jobs within the past year and realized I should have started a long time ago. Internships, classes, as well as other real world experiences have led me to figure out the direction I’d like to take once I finish up school. As I page through job descriptions, I realize what it exactly is that employers want. Do the same for your field of study. Is a graduate degree necessary? It might be beneficial to look at the LinkedIn profiles of someone who works at your dream company. Did they go to graduate school? In some cases, a graduate degree is necessary while it may not be in other cases.

5. Do you really want to be here?

Writing this post became a big topic of conversation with some friends in graduate school. Joanna Kitts, a student in the International Relations Graduate Program at Maxwell, wrote that her biggest piece of advice “would be to consider whether you’re actually ready and want to go to grad school or whether you’re using it as an excuse to put off finding a job or because you don’t know what to do…because that’s what I did and I regret it a lot.”

Instead, Kitts suggests taking a gap year. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking a year off or doing something that isn’t necessarily related to your field for a little while in order to figure out what you really want…I wish I had done that.”

Graduate school is a big decision! Make sure you take it all into consideration before making a final decision.

Are there other factors one should consider before applying to grad school? Let us know in the comments below!