Lately I’ve been thinking and starting to plan for grad school so I thought I would share some things I’ve been learning on the way.
When should I start planning?
I think students shouldn’t wait longer than the end of second year/beginning of third year to start checking out interesting grad programs. What I did was just lightly research a couple different types of grad programs. I spent more time looking at the supporting requirements such as amount of experience required, whether I would have to write an admission test (like the GRE), and how many supporting letters I would need from professors and other professionals. It’s also important to check out the course requirements – for instance in my field (Psychology) a lot of different grad programs require specific class types from your undergrad to even be considered. It’s important that you are aware of these requirements before you apply so you don’t get a letter back that you were denied because you weren’t fully qualified.
Another thing to keep in mind, especially in the upper years, is that it’s good to start networking more and work at building professional relationships with your professors. You will need at least one supporting letter from a professor in most cases and they won’t just give it to you. You can start to build a relationship by offering your opinions in class, by asking questions, by visiting their office hours, etc. Don’t wait until the last minute for a letter either, give your professor an appropriate amount of time. I think it’s likely common practice to ask any professors that you feel connected with to write a letter, and my opinion is that is a great idea. Why settle for one letter when you can have a couple that all offer a different perspective? You might find one more useful for your application than another, just something to consider though 🙂
What are some general steps I can take to prepare?
Hands down, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to get volunteer or other related experience in the field. The more specific idea you have about a grad program, the more specific your volunteer experience should be. For example you might find a position in the field of Psychology but if you are planning on applying to a degree in Counselling, only specific types of experience in the field would count. For instance, research positions might not help your case as much because you aren’t necessarily developing your ‘people’ skills. You might also want to check to see if your grad school prefers long term experience or a mix. Volunteering here and there is awesome, but what looks better in your portfolio is committed volunteering – especially a year or longer with the same organization.
Once you have settled more on a grad program or two, you can do more research into them and various schools to see what would suit you the best. I encourage you to look online and read other students’ experiences so you can a better idea of the pros and cons of each program. You could also look up articles from professionals speaking candidly about their fields. See if they enjoy their job. If they don’t, what makes their situation different than another person that does like their job? Is it where they work? Is it where they live? It’s important to investigate all of these factors. What is becoming more common now is that students are considering doing their grad programs out of province or even abroad. These programs generally cost more but there are positives such as experiencing other cultures, becoming more well rounded, possibly learning other languages, etc. Sometimes you can also get funding to study abroad, so that would also be something to look into.
What if I want to go to grad school but I can’t settle on a program?
My advice here is to not rush into it. Applying to grad school is expensive and so is grad school itself. I don’t think anyone should feel pressured to jump into a grad program right after their undergrad if they don’t feel prepared (or at least mostly prepared), don’t want to do a grad program, or just have no idea what they want to do. There are some steps you can take to help you get closer to finding a program however. One great option would be to check out the many great resources that York’s Career Centre offers. They offer workshops and advising sessions that have been more than helpful for a wide variety of students. Another option would be to use a career resource such as Career Cruising. This is one of the most helpful websites I’ve ever used. You can take large inventory type tests which will lead the software to recommend careers that are suited to both your interests and your strengths. From there you can read more about each career, including the education, job roles, salary, and more.
There are two last things that you could try. The first is just to be patient. Try to find work with your undergrad degree, travel, just pass the time with life until you get your ‘Aha!’ moment – I literally just had my moment a few weeks ago after three years of thinking and research. The second option is to spend time reflecting. Ask yourself some questions such as “What do I want to get out life?”, “What are my strengths?”, “What impact do I want to leave behind?”, “What makes me happy?”, etc. Sometimes we just need more time actively thinking about things to come to a conclusion (instead of just passively thinking). And sometimes we already know what we want to study but something is holding us back – remember, your education and future career are for YOUR benefit. If it makes you happy and it’s not hurting anyone else, go for it!
I don’t know if I want to go to grad school…
Hey, that’s okay too! Everyone takes different paths. If you’ve weighed the pros and cons and not going to grad school is a better option for you, then settle with that. Going or not going to grad school doesn’t have any affect on your worth as a human. There are plenty of jobs across all fields that you can find if you work for it and are determined. Many don’t even need grad school for education! Another option is that you can always go to grad school later in your life. I think a lot of students start to get tired of going to school and they just want to move on with their life (I’m there myself and I still have 3 1/2- 4 1/2 years left to finish my undergrad and complete a two year Masters program). And I’ve also heard people say ‘Don’t take a break in your education or you will never go back‘ – that’s not true. It CAN be true. If you are feeling burnt out from school there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking half a year, a year, or even years off. You can ALWAYS go back to add on to your studies. Even if you already have a career. Even if you have children. You can find a way. And if you end up deciding to not go back, again, that’s okay too. You’re allowed to change your mind.
What do you guys think, are you ready for grad school? I completed step 1 in knowing what specific program I want to apply to (Counselling Psychology) but I still have to get experience and letters under my belt ^_^