Should You Go to Graduate School?
Yes, no, or maybe?
Posted Nov 03, 2019
Fall is almost over. At this time of year, many undergraduate psychology majors (as well as students in other college majors) begin to consider applying to graduate school. Graduate education—pursuing a master’s degree or a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. in psychology (or some other degree) is a big step. It can be the right one for many students, but it can also be a mistake for some students (at least at this point in time).
Pursuing an advanced degree requires considerable time, effort and commitment, and money (sometimes loans, sometimes putting off making a reasonable living wage for several years). Such a big step is not for the faint of heart—and it can be an exciting move, one that launches you into the life you always imagined and wanted. Still, I suggest students proceed down this path with care by asking themselves some of the following questions and then answering them fully, sincerely and honestly.
Should I go to graduate school? Are you passionate and committed to studying psychology or another field? Are you willing to put your life on hold for four to six years, engaging in in-depth study year-around, forgoing many creature comforts, and doing research? Grad school is more than undergrad life on steroids; it requires developing the ability to think, write, work, and research increasingly independently. It can be a heady time for many people and a real downer for others. If you are not self-motivated and a self-starter, you might want to think twice.
In what? Just because you majored in psychology doesn’t mean you have to go to grad school in psychology. You could—you can—but there are many other graduate degrees worthy of pursuit. Don’t rule them out unless you know psychology is for you.
Which degree? Some students think getting a master’s degree and then applying for a doctorate is the way to go. Others just want to go for the doctorate as soon as possible. To be fair, master's degrees vary in their utility—some allow students to obtain the career they want right away, others are just a placeholder or indicator of moving towards the terminal degree. Speak to your academic advisor about what degree(s) you should (and should not) consider. Do your homework (research) on the employment possibilities with whatever degree(s) you are interested in. Speak to professionals who have the degree(s) you are seeking—learn from them, their triumphs as well as mistakes.
Is it a real choice or an escape from facing a different future? That is, are you going for the right reasons? Do you really want to be a graduate student or is doing well in school all you know? Just because you are a great student (and congratulations on that!) doesn’t mean that you must go on for more education. Becoming a professor is a very difficult path at present. There are very few academic jobs and a glut of doctoral-level people searching for elusive research and teaching positions. I am not suggesting you won’t succeed in doing so, but you need to be realistic and understand you may need to adjust your expectations.
Why not wait a year before going? Many undergraduates take a gap year between college and grad school—a breather, if you will—so they can recharge and be ready to tackle the challenges and rigors of graduate school (or law school or medical school or business school or whatever). There is no shame in doing so. Why not work for a while or travel before committing to further education? This choice is a monumental one and not to be entered into flippantly.
The only correct choice is the one that fits your needs, goals, and life. Good luck!
Dunn, D. S., & Halonen, J. S. (2020). The psychology major’s companion: Everything you need to know to get where you want to go (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Worth. https://www.macmillanlearning.com/college/ca/product/Psychology-Majors-Companion/p/1319191479