Busting the 10 Biggest Myths About Grad School
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According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), over 3 million students enrolled in U.S. graduate programs in fall 2019 — that's an 8% increase since 2009. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, graduate enrollment rates rose in the U.S.
Graduate school may be more popular than ever, but myths around it persist. No, grad school isn't just like college. Yes, grad students can qualify for financial aid. No, getting a graduate degree doesn't automatically mean you'll make more money.
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Before considering pursuing a graduate degree, make sure you know the truth behind the most common grad school misconceptions.
Myth 1: Grad School Is Just Like Undergrad
Many students assume grad school is merely a continuation of college. Like undergrad, you attend lectures, submit projects, and write papers. But the truth is that grad school differs from undergrad in several key ways.
First, grad school sets much higher expectations. Instead of sitting at the back of a lecture hall taking notes, you'll engage with professors in seminars and debate ideas with your fellow grad students.
In many fields, you must conduct original research and publish your findings.
Grad school also has a different focus than undergrad. Most bachelor's degree programs encourage students to build well-rounded skills in multiple disciplines. But in grad school, you'll take focused, harder, and more advanced classes in your chosen field.
Myth 2: It's Easy to Work While Attending Grad School
Can you take on a full-time job and go to grad school? Some people make it work.
According to a 2015 Georgetown University report, about 76% of grad students work 30 hours a week or more.
Some programs design their curricula for working grad students. Many business schools and nursing schools, for example, offer grad programs meant for working professionals. In other fields, working students may need to enroll part time to balance work and school.
In some programs, grad students are not permitted to work while enrolled in classes or are strongly discouraged from working. Likewise, graduate fellowships often bar outside employment.
So before you apply to grad programs, carefully consider the pros and cons of working while in school.
Myth 3: Grad School Means a Bigger Paycheck
Education pays — right? Many assume grad school translates to a bigger paycheck, but this isn't always the case.
Generally, it's true that people with a master's degree tend to earn more than those with just a bachelor's degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a master's degree can boost salaries by more than $12,000 a year.
But this difference varies a great deal by field. In nursing and business, a master's degree can boost your starting salary by a whopping 44-51%, according to 2021 data reported by CNBC.
Yet in many other fields, the salary boost is far less impressive.
Social work majors, for example, see their starting salaries rise around $13,000 with a master's degree, while accountants reported a $2,000 starting salary boost. That's much less than the average cost of a master's degree, which exceeded $19,790 per year in tuition and fees in 2019-20, according to NCES.
Myth 4: You Can Only Go to Grad School for Your Undergrad Major
You majored in sociology, so you can only go to grad school for sociology, right? Wrong.
In reality, grad programs admit applicants from an array of educational backgrounds. Many professional programs, including law and medicine, don't even offer undergraduate majors. So think beyond your undergraduate degree for grad school.
When researching graduate programs, pay attention to prerequisites. Some master's programs offer courses for non-majors, while others recommend or require specific classes before applying.
Myth 5: Only the Best Students Should Consider Grad School
It's a common myth that grad school is only for straight-A students who were academic superstars in undergrad.
The truth, however, is that grad school isn't just for people with strong academic records — many graduate programs also look for students with professional experience and unique perspectives.
Check the minimum GPA for grad programs. At many schools, students need above a 3.0 GPA to gain admission. But applicants with lower GPAs can often enroll after boosting their GPAs or balancing lower grades with strong standardized test scores and/or relevant experience.
Myth 6: You Should Go to Grad School Right After Undergrad
While some students go straight from undergrad to grad school, taking time off is very common. In many fields, it's even encouraged.
For example, MBA programs typically want applicants with professional experience. Similarly, most education leadership programs require teaching experience. Master's in nursing programs also typically prefer applicants with nursing experience.
In addition, taking time off before graduate school can help you choose the right program for your career goals. According to a 2020 study in Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment, and Rehabilitation, one or more gap years translated to lower burnout rates in grad school.
Myth 7: Grad Students Don't Qualify for Financial Aid
Yes, it's true that grad students don't qualify for some financial aid programs, like the Pell Grant, which is only for undergraduates. And undergrads do qualify for lower-interest federal loans. But grad students can still use financial aid to help pay for their degrees.
According to NCES, 58% of grad students received financial aid in 2017-18, with an average aid package of $23,800.
Grad students can submit the FAFSA to receive federal loans. They may also qualify for scholarships, grants, and fellowships. Some liberal arts graduate programs offer assistantships to support grad students, which can include stipends and tuition remission.
Myth 8: Grad School Is the Only Way to Get Ahead
The educational requirements for many positions have risen over the decades, a phenomenon known as "degree inflation."
It might feel like grad school is the only path to career advancement. And some career paths do require a graduate degree — lawyers, doctors, principals, and professors must all have graduate-level education.
Still, grad school isn't the only way to advance. In many fields, work experience and professional certification can lead to promotions and raises.
Before applying to grad school, consider the return on investment. Leaving the workforce for two years and taking on debt for a master's degree might not pay off as much as investing in your professional development and building up work experience.
Myth 9: Grad School Is for People in Their 20s
Grad school isn't just for people who recently earned a bachelor's degree. While it might seem as though everyone in grad school is in their 20s, many start graduate programs later in life.
At the University of British Columbia, the average age of a master's student was about 29 in 2021, while the average doctoral student recently celebrated their 31st birthday. What's more, over 9% of grad students at this school were over 40.
Taking a longer gap between undergrad and grad school can pay off. Older grad students often have a clearer sense of their professional goals and the self-determination to finish their degrees.
Myth 10: If You Can't Decide What to Do, Apply to Grad School
Unfortunately, a lot of undergraduates apply to grad school because they're uncertain what they should do after college. Grad school offers a clear path, especially for successful students who received a lot of positive feedback in school.
But going to grad school without clearly defined goals can backfire. You might find yourself with an expensive master's degree in a field with few job opportunities. Or your goals might change, and you'll realize you need another graduate degree to work in your chosen field.
Take time to carefully consider your aspirations and your alternatives to grad school before applying to graduate programs. Grad school is a big commitment, and you want to make sure you're going for the right reasons.