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Applying to Graduate School? Questions to Ask Yourself

As winter dies down, a young student's thoughts turn to spring…and GREs. For those considering doctoral work in the arts and sciences, early preparation is the key to finding the right school for you—and convincing that school that you are the next hot scholar in your field.

But graduate school is like a Cambridge winter—a long, hard, often dark time that can be relentless and draining if you are not committed to and passionate about your goals. Here are some questions to ask yourself to make sure that you are on the right path.

Why am I applying to graduate school?

When counselors at OCS talk to graduate students seeking career guidance, we often ask them why they decided to pursue graduate work. Some of the most common responses:

“I enjoyed my undergraduate work, and my thesis advisor encouraged me to apply.”

“My parents are academics, so I always figured I would be too.”

“I wasn't interested in medical school/law school/business school.”

“I didn't want to pay for medical school/law school/business school.”

“I couldn't think of any jobs I wanted, and I liked being in school.”

None of these answers are inherently bad, yet those who rely solely on the recommendations of others or see graduate school as a default option tend to be unhappy, unmotivated students. Make sure that you are applying to graduate school because you have a deep, intrinsic desire to study a particular subject in depth. Otherwise, you will likely find it very difficult to keep up the energy you will need to succeed. Some students see minimal risk in pursuing a PhD because they anticipate receiving financial support rather than accruing debt as is common when attending professional school. But keep in mind the opportunity cost in the form of lost wages over the course the five or more years it can take to complete doctoral work. In addition, you will want to find out what the anticipated career prospects are in your chosen field, as well as average salaries.

What do I want to study?

Say you are a sociology concentrator, you enjoy the process of research and writing, and you know you want to learn more about the field. But what exactly is it that you want to know? How globalization affects class structures in developing countries? How changing demographics affect family formation in Western cultures? Unlike college, in graduate school you are going to be expected to have a narrow focus with the goal of becoming a specialist in a particular subfield. Building your professional identity as a scholar often begins with your graduate school application.

Where do I want to study?

For graduate education, prestige—and job opportunities later—stem from the reputation of your particular department and advisor, not necessarily the public perception of the university. Talk to faculty members in your department about your particular research interests and get their advice not just about where to apply, but with whom you could potentially work within those schools. Review online biographies of faculty and read their publications. Are you interested in their research questions? Would you like to learn their research methods? Are your potential advisors established in the field, but far enough away from retirement to see you through your thesis work?

It may sound like a small thing, but also think about how flexible you are geographically. While many students are more than willing to compromise on location for what they see as a short term endeavor, others are more particular with regard to cost of living, climate, proximity to a major city, or staying close to family and friends. Remember that a doctorate can take many years to complete.

Think about funding opportunities as well. Schools—and departments within universities—vary widely in how and to what extent they subsidize graduate education. Will you need to take out loans? Obtain outside funding? Will you be expected to teach or do research in return for a living stipend? Will you have sufficient health insurance? Financial support over the summer months?

How will I go about applying to graduate school?

Once you have figured out what and with whom you want to study, prepare a list of target schools and review their application guidelines carefully. Check to see which GREs you will need to take, and when. Be sure to give those writing recommendations on your behalf a clear sense of your research interests and rationale for applying to your departments of choice, and give them ample time to complete the letters and forms. (Come up with an estimate of how much time you think it will take faculty members to complete your recommendation letters. Triple it.)

The power of a well-considered, well-written statement of purpose cannot be overestimated. Simply proving through grades and test scores that you have the brain power to succeed in graduate school will not necessarily get you in. Faculty admission committees want to know that it is a well-thought-out decision on your part to apply not just to graduate school, but to their departments. For each essay, be specific about the work from that department in which you are interested. Do not be afraid to name names: they will be thinking about who your advisor might be, and you should be too. You are not signing your life away—the committees are aware that your interests may change—but by delineating a specific line of research you are demonstrating your commitment to the field and to the department.

When will I apply to graduate school?

Conventional wisdom holds that graduate education in the arts and sciences should be embarked upon immediately after completion of the bachelor's degree, so as not to lose academic “momentum.” But many, many new college graduates choose to take time off first in order to save money, gain experience outside academe, make sure of their professional goals, or simply to take a break from academic life. Do not feel pressured to apply before you are ready.

Graduate school is a long, hard journey, but can also be intellectually, personally, and professionally rewarding if academic life is truly the path for you. The Office of Career Services has counselors available to meet with you to discuss your goals and help you with your applications. In addition, we will be hosting a panel discussion on “Exploring Graduate School Options” on Tuesday, April 1 from 3:30-4:30 at our office at 54 Dunster Street. Hope to see you there!

This article originally appeared in The Harvard Crimson Guide to Summer 2008.

Sharon Belden is an assistant director for graduate student and PhD advising at the Office of Career Services for Harvard College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She is also a doctoral candidate in human development and psychology at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research focuses on the career experiences of Generation X in the business world.