From upper-level job opportunities to a higher salary and improved job satisfaction, grad school can lead to a variety of noteworthy benefits. Choosing the best time to attend, however, can be surprisingly tricky. Two main approaches are common: enrolling shortly after graduating with a bachelor's or waiting several years and getting work experience first. In this guide, we explore both options to help you figure out the right time for grad school.
Should I Go Straight to Grad School After Undergrad?
After successfully graduating with your bachelor's degree, you may feel ready to move on to the next stage in your academic career — or you may be due for a break. Advantages of heading straight to grad school include the following:
Many students simply find it easier to transition to the challenges of grad school when they're already in the habit of committing long hours to studying and writing papers. After spending a few years in the workforce, it can be difficult to revert to student mode.
Focus exclusively on school
While some students who immediately attend grad school also hold down part or full-time jobs, many prefer to stick exclusively with their studies for the duration of their master’s degree program. This approach isn't available to everybody, but it can be incredibly valuable when possible. Instead of needing to split their effort between several pursuits, students can dive into the academic rigors of grad school. This limits the stress and inconvenience of juggling multiple full-time obligations.
Jump straight into a high salary
While many employees think of the entry-level job as paying their dues, it's sometimes possible to bypass such positions. This is a more viable possibility when job candidates have their master’s degree. Employers may be willing to look past a lack of professional experience when applicants instead boast impressive academic credentials — especially if these are accompanied by noteworthy internships, practicums, or research initiatives.
These benefits make the prospect of heading straight to graduate school compelling, but there are also a few significant downsides worth considering:
This is a common roadblock for many aspiring graduate students. After paying tuition at the undergraduate level, some feel the need to earn a solid income before they pursue graduate studies. Others hope that, if they take some time to find the right job, they may eventually be able to get their employer to cover all or part of the cost of grad school. Many are unaware of the extent to which scholarships and stipends are available to grad school students. These options are worth exploring for students who like the idea of continuing with their studies but are worried about the financial implications.
Employers demand experience
While employers value graduate degrees, some prefer to hire employees who have worked in the field for at least a few years, regardless of the level of academic achievement. For this reason, some students try to either briefly work entry-level jobs before returning to school or take on their first job during grad school.
Should I Take a Gap Year?
When determining the right time to pursue graduate studies, many prospective students go to the extremes of the school versus work spectrum. Often, however, the best approach involves a compromise between these two strategies: taking a gap year. This is increasingly common between high school and college, but it can also prove beneficial between your undergrad and graduate education.
Your gap year can take many forms. This could be a great time to find an internship or a temporary contract. Self-employment or starting a business are also viable options. These work experiences will give you a better sense of where you might want to specialize once you proceed with graduate school. Some students are even able to work on a part-time or remote basis as they travel the world.
When deciding to take a gap year, consider how you might spend this time and whether you'll be mentally or financially prepared to resume schooling after a year off.
Is It Better to Work Before a Graduate Degree?
Whether you spend several years in your field of choice or simply stick with a gap year, there are a few considerable advantages to working before you seek your graduate degree:
Earn a full-time income
Finances may be the greatest benefit to waiting for grad school; after years of living on an undergrad's limited budget, you'll finally earn a salary and benefits as a full-time employee. Your income may not be as high as it potentially could be with a master’s degree, but it might give you extra time to save up for grad school tuition. With a little effort, you may even be able to find an employer who is willing to cover the cost of your graduate studies.
Discover the realities of your chosen profession
Grad school can provide valuable preparation for the work world, but actually entering the workforce is the only way to really know what you’re in for. Working first provides this insight. Should you decide that you aren't entirely thrilled with your career track, you can adjust before committing to a grad school program. As such, many students look to grad school as the ultimate opportunity to successfully pull off a career change.
Take a break from academia
The academic world has a lot to offer — but after years of studying, some students are ready to take on the professional sphere. They find that they appreciate academic opportunities far more after time away. Upon returning to school, they find greater joy in the discoveries they make both in class and while studying on their own.
Of course, there are also a few downsides worth examining before you press the pause button on graduate school. Many of these have already been mentioned. The most noteworthy, however, may be the difficulties of concentrating on grad school once you've established yourself in your career and personal life. Whether you're dealing with the struggles of parenting, homeownership, or stressed by a demanding employer, you may never again have the freedom to dedicate yourself exclusively to your studies.
Other Things to Consider
The details outlined above should give you plenty of food for thought as you determine your ideal grad school trajectory. These factors may also influence your decision:
How long does grad school take?
Your willingness to begin grad school right away may depend, a bit, on how long you can expect to be involved in your program. This varies a bit from one master’s degree to the next, but many students are able to graduate within two years. Do you feel you can wait this long to start your career? Will you be willing to take a one or two-year break from the work world later?
When to start applying?
Wait too long to apply for graduate school, and you may find that your planned timeline is completely thrown off. Check deadlines at your school of choice and then build at least three months in for planning and completing the application process. When possible, submit your application at least a month before the deadline.
Preparing to apply
Once you have a basic idea of application deadlines, it's time to learn more about the actual process — including basic requirements and opportunities to gain an edge. It may take you some time to gather the materials you need for a successful application. Be prepared to submit transcripts, and documentation of your professional license or work experience.
Is grad school worth it?
As you consider grad school timing, be sure you're making the right decision seeking a master’s degree in the first place. There are many reasons to attend grad school, but you'll need to clarify these on your own. Perhaps you want to attain a certain status in your career field — or maybe you're passionate about a particular niche and want to dedicate yourself to in-depth research. Examine your reasons for attending grad school and make sure you're prepared to make this major commitment. After all, grad school will take a lot of dedication regardless of whether you apply now or several years down the road.
No single timeline is ideal for every aspiring grad student. A lot depends on your chosen industry, your financial situation, and your personal goals. Think carefully as you determine whether to move forward with your career or begin applying for grad school. Your intuition can get you far — listen to it and you'll know when it's the right time for grad school.