Whether you are researching which degree is right for you, or comparing a specific set of schools, an advanced degree in your field will give you an edge towards long-term career success and fulfillment.
And graduate schools continue to draw more applicants, more enrollees, and more graduates in almost every field, with a few exceptions. The most important thing for a prospective graduate student to know is that there really is no simple, cookie-cutter way to describe graduate school. While many elements from program to program are similar, like taking classes, writing papers, conducting lab or field work, studying advanced theory and sitting for exams, the category is so broad that it's helpful to pull back the covers on specific graduate program areas, examine the data and trends in each area (as well as associated careers), and understand opportunities or things to think about before making this critical life choice.
One of the best ways we have found to describe Graduate School is as a critical stage of career development. In fact for many careers, an advanced degree is a requirement in order to get a job in that field. While some might joke that getting an advanced degree is a great way to put off getting a “real job,” the reality is that graduate school programs are designed by professionals and researchers in each respective field to prepare students for the day-to-day demands and challenges for that specific profession.
Areas of Study in Graduate School
There are many master’s programs that are considered to be “professional” because they are designed not to prepare graduates necessarily for further study, but to step right into a recognized profession. These jobs typically require some kind of certification or licensure that is regulated by state law, as is commonly the case for counselors, engineers, librarians, social workers, teachers, and therapists. In such cases, master’s programs are often specifically geared toward and will include elements that prepare students for state-regulated exams.
Other master’s programs are also considered professional, not because they launch students into careers in regulated professions, but because they prepare students to enter jobs that require a high level of proficiency in a field in which there is a fairly well defined range of accepted practices. Examples of these fields include business management, government, information management, journalism, and museum curation. There are still other master’s programs that are designed to prepare students for either further study in the same field, or for careers in which their general skills are applicable, though perhaps not their full range of content knowledge. Examples of these programs can be found in the liberal arts disciplines, such as humanities and social sciences.
Doctoral programs prepare individuals to become experts in a particular field, but they also prepare graduates for specific career paths. Most PhD programs, for example, are designed explicitly to prepare students for careers as professors in higher education institutions or researchers in the private, public, or nonprofit sectors. Other doctoral programs, such as those granting a Doctor of Psychology and Doctor of Education, are designed to produce practitioners in selected professions, such as counseling or education. In a sense then, with the typical length of a doctoral program being in the range of five to eight years (depending on the discipline), it’s even more important for prospective doctoral students to understand what kind of career they’re preparing for than it is for prospective master’s students.
Degrees: Master's, PHd & More in Graduate School
Do you need a Master’s or a PhD? Generally speaking, if you want to conduct research and development, or teach in a postsecondary setting, a PhD is required.
PhD programs are designed to give you extensive expertise in a specialized field; they train you to pursue a life in academia as a professor or researcher (although not all candidates follow this path). Most candidates spend five to six years earning their degree, with the first three years focused on required coursework, writing a dissertation proposal, and developing relationships with your professors. In years four through six, you take fewer (or no) courses and focus on writing your dissertation, which is supposed to constitute a new and meaningful contribution to knowledge in your field. Some fields offer alternative terminal degrees to the PhD. For example, Engineering offers a Doctor of Engineering Science (EngScD). A Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) is a practitionerbased degree with less focus on research.
First year master’s students take courses to fulfill degree requirements, just like in college. However, the workload is heavier, the course topics are more specific, and much more is expected of you than in college.
At the beginning of the master’s program, you choose (or are assigned) a faculty member who will serve as your advisor. This person will help you develop an academic focus and potential topics for your thesis or final project.
As a second-year master’s student, you decide on your research focus and—in one semester or two—complete your master’s thesis or final project. If you show promise, you may be encouraged to continue toward a PhD.
Fields seeing more job applicants than job opportunities can experience growth in those opting for a PhD instead of a Master’s degree. Be sure to consider whether the programs you choose offer Master’s only, or offer PhD programs. Remember that within some programs, you can enroll for a master’s degree and later choose to pursue a PhD if you are so inclined; conversely, you can enroll in a PhD program and leave after earning your master’s if the academic lifestyle fails to entice you further.
The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a 2.5 hour, multiple-choice, computer-based test required by most graduate schools. It’s run by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the same people who run the SAT. The test is offered most weekdays and weekends through the year.
Beginning in August of 2011, the GRE general test has changed. The revised General test is longer, with a different score scale and major changes to the math section.
The GRE consists of an Analytical Writing section that contains two essay questions, a Verbal Ability (vocabulary and reading) section that contains 30 multiple-choice questions and a Quantitative Ability (math) section that contains 28 multiplechoice questions.
There is also a fourth, experimental section that will be either Verbal or Quantitative. This portion will not count towards your final score—ETS uses it to test questions for use on future exams. Unfortunately, you’ll have no way of knowing which part is experimental (it will look identical to the real Verbal or Quantitative section), so you’ll need to do your best on the entire test.
GRE Subject Tests
Some programs, like Psychology, require a GRE Subject Test in addition to the GRE in order to be considered for admission. Not every school requires a GRE subject test, but many of the most competitive programs do. Be sure to check the specific admissions requirements for the schools on your application list. There are eight GRE Subject tests:
- Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology
- Computer Science
- Literature in English
The GRE Subject Tests are similar to SAT IIs, in that they test your knowledge of a particular subject like chemistry or literature. ETS offers this paper and pencil test three times a year, in November, December, and April —they are not part of the standard GRE.
Letters of Recommendation
The value that an objective third-party can provide gives the application reviewing committee great insight into your value as a candidate for their program beyond the test scores, GPA and your own personal statement. Most programs require three letters of recommendation, so when selecting a recommender, consider that much weight will be given to recommendations from academics in your field. However, practice-oriented programs, particularly ones that value fieldwork as part of your application, would likely value recommendations from the professionals you worked with during your internship, job, or fieldwork. If in doubt about recommendations, consider what kinds of input your audience, in this case the admissions committee, would most like to see to help them make their decision, and don’t be afraid to ask them either.
Putting yourself in the shoes of the admissions committee is a good rule of thumb for essays as well. Research is the best way to prepare to write your essays. Of course it’s important to talk about the research you would like to pursue in a graduate program, but make sure you are able to demonstrate a solid understanding of what the school has to offer. Research their program strengths, their professors and professors’ research and publications; the more your areas of interest align with the programs’ strengths, the easier it will be to write your essay. Be as detail-oriented as possible.
Work Samples & Interviews
Remember that the application and admission process is all about giving the admissions committee the most complete picture of you and your work as possible, in a relatively short amount of time. Work samples and interviews are a great way to highlight your strengths, as well as make yourself stand out from other applicants.
Reading through the application requirements early will help you pull together any necessary requirements, like a portfolio or audio or video samples of your work (for areas like performing arts). Some programs will require or recommend an interview, so don’t be afraid to practice! Talking about your goals for graduate school with others, and being able to think on your feet, will give you an edge once you sit down for an interview.
Trends in Graduate School
The number of Master’s degrees and doctorate degrees conferred across Graduate Arts and Sciences grew by by 45 and 38 percent respectively, between 1997-98 and 2007-08. If we examine some of the most explosive growth areas in graduate programs since 1999-2000, a few areas stand out:
- Of the 625,000 master’s degrees awarded in 2007–08, over 50 percent were concentrated in two fields: education (28 percent) and business (25 percent).
- Of the 63,700 doctoral degrees awarded, over 50 percent were awarded in four fields: health professions and related clinical sciences (16 percent), education (13 percent), engineering and engineering technologies (13 percent), and biological and biomedical sciences (11 percent).
- Explosive growth: The number of doctoral degrees awarded in health professions and related clinical sciences increased almost fivefold.