Grad School 101

Master Graduate School

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As an undergraduate student at UCSB preparing for the modern workforce, chances are that you have heard a thing or two about graduate school. If you are considering furthering your education beyond your bachelor’s degree, you may have wondered if graduate school connects with your specific career goals.

Graduate education does not only include master’s and doctoral degrees; law school, medical school, business school, and many more professional programs are considered here as well. As with any significant investment for your future, it is important to explore graduate school with diligence and discernment. Use this page to sort out the differences among the options available.

Get Familiar With Grad School

Understanding the Value

A common misconception among many aspiring professionals is the notion that graduate school is necessary in order to find rewarding, well-paid, or high-level work. Though this perspective is often spread through informal career advice in the 21st century, it is not useful as a widespread guideline. Graduate school comes in many shapes and sizes, with dozens of different factors that impact the overall value that a specific program has on your individual career development needs.

If you approach graduate school with the mindset of a career “consumer,” you can calculate the general Return on Investment (ROI) of graduate school for your specific goals. This will help you envision the outcomes you are likely to receive for the time, cost, and energy you provide upfront. It is also worth comparing the value of your options alongside various graduate programs and other ways to Gain Experience to build your qualifications.

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As such, we highly recommend that you identify your career goals with confidence before committing to several years of further education and oftentimes tens of thousands of dollars (or more) in educational costs. Before pursuing any form of graduate education, make sure that you fully understand how it will (or will not) further your individual professional ambitions. A graduate degree will not always make you more competitive in the job market. 


Identifying Motivations to Attend

To further explore your interest in attending graduate school, it is important to clarify your primary motivations for attending. In most cases, graduate school is a good option when you have accurately assessed its value and you can see that it directly moves you closer toward your professional ambitions, but there could be a variety of motivations involved.

Here are some potential motivations that could make graduate school a worthy option:

Some career paths simply require graduate school. For example, If you would like to go into Clinical HealthcareLegal Practice, or Teaching K-12, graduate school is a necessary part of your educational path. This is an obvious step for success with these examples. 

Would graduate school enhance your career success if you want to go into Marketing or Accounting? It is less guaranteed with these examples, or when a profession values work experience, applied skills, specific certifications, and demonstrated results in industry.

There are several instances in which graduate school is not required to pursue a specific career path, but most of the professionals that work within the field have obtained a specific graduate degree to be a well-prepared and competitive candidate. For example, if you are exploring careers related to Communications + Arts and want to become a museum director in the future, you may find that many of these professionals have a Master of Fine Arts degree, while others have alternative experience.

To learn more, we recommend that you Do Informational Interviews with about 10 individuals who are in the career path that you wish to pursue, and specifically ask about the role of graduate school in their field. If most of the professionals have obtained a graduate degree in the specific discipline you are considering, then it may make sense to move forward.

Graduate school can be a very good investment for changing career direction or gaining momentum toward a specific path. For example, if you have been working in the graphic design field for a while and you decide that you want to go into Finance for your next career move, you may want to consider graduate school as a catalyst for this transition.

In this type of scenario, graduate school may not be required for your new career goals, but it could be a direct and powerful way to jumpstart the process of reinventing your career. At the minimum, it can show future employers that you are committed to a new direction. When applying to graduate school in a different field than your undergraduate education, many applicants take foundational courses at community colleges or universities to gain some knowledge prior to applying.

Some individuals simply love to be in school. This may be more specific than a general love for learning -- as learning through formal schooling is one of many different ways to learn and develop yourself.

Undoubtedly, graduate school is one of the most evident opportunities to continue your role as a student. Though this comes with significant investments, a passion for learning about a specific area of study could provide enough motivation to find value in a graduate degree -- regardless of the anticipated career outcomes.

If this is your motivation, it will be beneficial to highly consider which graduate programs peak your interest and strategize your potential career options for after obtaining your graduate degree.

In certain instances, you may find motivation to pursue graduate school for other incentives or perks. While this should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, examples of this may include International Students in regards to visas, Military-Related Students in regards to educational benefits, and Undocumented Students in regards to status.

Other considerations could include strategic timing as related to deferment of student loan payments, striking a deal with family members who want to financially support your pursuit of a graduate degree early in your career, or "waiting out" an economic recession in school until a job market improves.

These are just a few of various reasons that could be driving your interest in graduate school, but it is helpful to identify your individual motivations before moving forward.

Many times, the answer is not obvious. There is always some level of uncertainty when making life decisions, and exploring graduate school typically relies on a personal sense of trust in your educated guesswork and investigation. To best understand the advantages and disadvantages that graduate school could yield for your specific career goals, we encourage you to conduct research through thoughtful Career Exploration.


Timing and “Gap Years”

While some students move into graduate programs directly after finishing their undergraduate studies, most do not. It is very common to take one or several “gap years” before pursuing graduate school.

These years are typically spent as less of a "void" of preparation, and more as a valuable addition to your qualifications to inform your career choices, gain experience, and grow personally and professionally. Taking time at the beginning of your career to clarify your career goals and obtain more exposure in the field can pay dividends in the end. One gap year may turn into the rest of your life in ways that are unexpected but could prove to be entirely welcomed.

Did You Know?

In most areas of study for most professional programs, the average age of matriculating students is increasing.

Students are more frequently beginning a graduate program with more experience in life, and thus incorporate more “gap years” into their overall career preparation.

A common sentiment that we hear from students is: “I am afraid I will lose my academic momentum if I don’t go straight to graduate school.” While this is a valid concern, it is rarely an issue in practice. Most individuals who take time gap years and decide to go back to school later return more confident and motivated in their graduate studies, not less. Graduate programs rarely evaluate gap years as a deficiency in applications; they are more likely to evaluate this positively due to applicants' deeper experience and inspiration.


Learn More

Certain graduate programs, such as Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs, typically prefer that you have several years of full-time professional experience before you apply. You can explore this further through our graduate school tips for Business + Entrepreneurship.


Degree Types and Formats

Degrees vary widely in the type of education that is delivered and the format it is offered within. Consider the below distinctions as an initial means to understand key themes.

There are two main levels of graduate degrees: master and doctorate. The degree level you need depends on what you want to do with that degree; sometimes, a master’s degree is all you need to pursue your career goals, other times a doctorate is needed.

Master’s degrees tend to be less extensive than doctorates, and usually take around two years to complete in most fields, while some may only take one year and others may take three years.

Doctorate degrees, on the other hand, usually involve more extensive training and research than master’s degrees, and tend to take around four to seven years to complete. In most but not all fields, the doctorate tends to be the terminal degree, meaning the highest degree possible in that area.

One of the most useful ways to understand the differences between graduate degrees is through the distinction between academic degrees and professional degrees. Academic degrees are obtained as a product of knowledge generation (i.e., research), whereas professional degrees simply prepare you for a certain type of work within industry. 

For example, using this same nomenclature, a Ph.D. in Statistics is an academic degree, while an M.D. is a professional degree. An individual earning a Ph.D. in Statistics may pursue a career as a statistician for a financial firm, a technical writer for a software company, a statistics professor at a university, or various other options. Instead of preparing for a specific job, their degree was focused on making new developments in the academic discipline of statistics, which could then be transferred to a number of different professions with some level of breadth. 

An M.D. degree, on the other hand, is meant to prepare a student specifically to become a medical doctor. Professional degrees are often required for acquiring licensure to practice in their respective professional fields, whereas academic degrees are usually not.

The type of degree you pursue will be largely based on what you want to get out of the degree. Are you looking to get training for a very specific job (i.e., law, medicine, business, etc.), or are you more interested in pushing the cutting edge of a research discipline? Choose intentionally, because your experience in a professional program versus an academic research program can be vastly different.

The format of graduate programs can vary quite a bit, from traditional in-person experiences, to fully online experiences, to some hybrid of both of these formats. The type of program that works best will depend somewhat on the field that interests you and the specific educational needs you have. 

For example, while a graduate program in business may work well in a fully online format, a program in clinical nursing may not work as well due to the need for hands-on clinical experiences. Are you highly motivated by group interaction and want a lot of in-person time with your peers and your professors? A traditional program may be best for you. Alternatively with online programs, you might value flexibility and low cost more, and be able to stay self motivated at a distance.

Whatever the case may be, use your best judgment when selecting a format for a graduate program. 

Some programs are more flexible in terms of timing than others. You may see programs described as part-time, weekend, or night programs, and others described as full-time. These are simply designators about the specific timing and the amount of time that a particular program will require. Some graduate programs offer classes at flexible hours of the day, in which you may be able to concurrently work a full-time job while obtaining your degree.

More often in recent years, an increasing number of graduate programs are being modified to fit around the lives of their students, especially online and part-time programs. Many other programs, however, are designed to require your full attention, and should be treated like full-time jobs.

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