If you’re considering grad school, don’t expect it to be a repeat of college. Working towards your master’s degree, PhD, MBA, JD, or MD is a completely different experience from undergraduate life, both socially and academically (although you might still eat lots of instant noodles and prefer sweatshirts to suits). Here are six distinctions you should be aware of before committing to several more years of higher education.
1. NOT EVERYONE WILL BE THE SAME AGE AS YOU
For the most part, college students tend to be in their late teens or early twenties. But in graduate school, you’ll find a wide array of ages. Some of your classmates will have just earned their bachelor’s degrees, but others might be mid-career. A few of them might even have spouses and kids, or be closer in age to their professors than their cohort. These individuals might be in a different stage of life (no closing a bar at 3 a.m. for them!), but they also bring diverse viewpoints and strengths to class discussions and projects. Given the range of experiences they have, they may also be able to help you gain perspective about the path you’re on, either by offering advice, or by introducing you to members of the professional network they’ve built through the years.
Your grad school colleagues and professors will someday become a vital part of your professional network. The relationships you form are nearly as important as your classes, so make sure to be polite and professional with everyone you encounter. After all, they might someday provide you a reference—or even hire you.
2. YOUR SOCIAL CIRCLES TEND TO BE SMALLER IN GRAD SCHOOL.
You’ll make new friends in grad school, but chances are you won’t be the social butterfly you were in undergrad. For one thing, many graduate students don’t reside in on-campus student housing. They typically commute to school, leaving fewer occasions for social interaction outside of class. Plus, you’ll likely be so involved with your particular academic department that you won’t have as much time or opportunity to participate in campus-wide activities and events.
3. SEASONAL BREAKS DON’T MEAN YOU’LL GET 'TIME OFF'
In college, spring vacation was code for “beach time” and summer provided a precious three months to unwind. Your academic year will likely be similarly structured in grad school, but keep in mind that you’ll probably be just as busy—if not more so—during seasonal breaks as you are during a typical semester. Instead of attending classes, you’ll be working, completing internships, performing research, attending academic conferences, submitting articles for review, or simply studying for upcoming exams.
4. NOT ALL LEARNING TAKES PLACE IN THE CLASSROOM
Not a fan of long classes or cramped lecture halls? Good news: In grad school, a lot of your learning takes place outside the classroom. Some programs require you to work closely with a professor on their research or teach undergrad classes. In others, you’ll spend more time in the library. Plus, students enrolled in PhD programs typically only take classes for the first few years and focus on a dissertation during the final stretch. There’s a lot more opportunity for independent work, but the flipside of this, of course, is that grad school demands excellent time management skills. If you’re thinking about applying, know that you’ll be responsible for juggling your (intense) workload, without as many external deadlines as you’re used to.
5. GRAD SCHOOL IS MUCH MORE SPECIALIZED THAN UNDERGRAD.
College curriculums tend to provide students with a broad educational experience. You’ll take courses in history, math, English, and the arts—but in grad school, you’ll be focusing on one area of expertise, so your classes will be much more specialized. They’ll also be more advanced—think of all the 300-level courses you took in college, but with even more reading.
6. THERE ARE MORE PROS AND CONS TO GRADUATE SCHOOL THAN COLLEGE.
College might be expensive, but it pays off in a competitive economy: According to one 2013 projection by Washington, D.C.-based researchers, 65 percent of all jobs in America will require postsecondary education by 2020. The economic benefits of grad school aren’t as cut-and-dry.
You’ll have to get a graduate degree if you want to work in fields like law, medicine, social services, and higher education. But in other professions, hiring managers often view work experience among applicants as favorably as they do advanced degrees. And while many grad programs provide students with partial or full funding, other programs are very expensive—and the field they provide entry to might not be enough to pay off any debt you incur as a student.
In short, there are pros and cons to higher-higher education that you won’t necessarily have to consider as a college student. Will a master’s degree or PhD help you stand out among other applicants, score a raise or promotion, or break into a competitive field? And more importantly, will you be able to pay for your tuition and living expenses? Think carefully before investing your time—and money—in a program.