Three things to think about if you’re thinking about grad school

After you ask whether you should go to grad school, your grad school might have more questions for you (like this window at Harvard Kennedy School had for me).

After sharing some notes from my grad school visit, I’m back to discuss an important precursor to any such visit: The decision to apply to grad school. It seems that many Princeton students – myself included – did not come to campus with the expectation of pursuing an advanced degree. Yet somewhere between junior spring and senior fall, the question “Should I go to grad school?” starts lurking in everyone’s mind.

If you’re a rising senior, you may have already noticed this. If you’re a rising sophomore or junior, you can expect it to happen soon.

There’s no easy way to answer post-grad questions. However, if you’re considering grad school, there are three things you might want to keep in mind:

• Know what you don’t want

In the months leading up to your senior year, you will be presented with an incredible array of graduate school opportunities: Fellowships. Scholarships. Research grants linked to graduate study. It’s normal to see something exciting in each of these opportunities – and, by extension, to overlook the things that you do not think are exciting. With such a rose-colored outlook, you might feel compelled to apply for multiple opportunities. So many, in fact, that you start to lose track of why you are applying to them.

To avoid this headache, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what you do not want. If you are primarily interested in domestic affairs, for example, it is possible that you do not truly want an international fellowship, regardless of how exciting it could be. Being honest with yourself will help you resist the urge to apply for opportunities that ultimately would not make you happy.

• Ask the right questions

Too often, questions about grad school take the form of “Should I get a job, or should I go to grad school?” as if the former is totally separate from the latter. This phrasing is harmfully misleading. Grad school is not the opposite of a job; it’s the precursor to one (you’d be amazed at how easy it is to forget this).

When weighing grad school vs. job applications, the right question to ask is whether you can get the job you want, in the timeframe you want, without going to grad school. The answer undoubtedly varies depending on your field and your prior experience. But you can only get an accurate answer if you frame the question in this way.

• Keep your options open

Suppose you know what you don’t want (✓), and you’ve asked the right questions (✓), but you’re still not sure if grad school makes sense for you.

First: That’s normal!! And it’s okay, because you have time to figure this out.

Second: Proceed as if grad school and jobs are both realistic possibilities. That means taking the GRE in the summer before your senior year, so you have scores just in case you need them. It means applying for both schools and jobs during the fall semester, so your incredible achievements are given full consideration. And it means sitting down in March or April, when all options are on the table, and making whatever decision feels right to you.

I know the post-grad process is easier said than done (especially because that whole ‘senior thesis’ thing happens at the same time). But if you think carefully about your preferences, your goals, and your options, you will definitely make the right decision.

That decision might just happen to be grad school, even if your freshman self never imagined the possibility …

— Melissa Parnagian, Social Sciences Correspondent