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Are You a Confused Grad Student?

During the last few decades increasingly more students have elected to continue their education beyond the bachelor’s degree level. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment at graduate schools grew 57% between 1985 and 2004.

If you choose to attend graduate school you might find it a wonderful experience. Having met the picky course requirements of your undergraduate degree program, you have earned the chance to spend several years immersed in a topic you love–and emerge ready to launch a career in academia or the corporate world with the skills you need to snare your dream job.

What happens, though, when you find that graduate school is not all you expected it to be? How do you decide whether it is worth it to push ahead and earn your degree, or if it makes more sense to seek out other options? The answers require some difficult soul-searching, but finding them will make you feel confident that you have made the best choices about your time in graduate school and about your future career.

1. My Grad Program Is Preparing Me for a Career I Don’t Want
If you feel that your graduate program will no longer land you on a satisfying career path it is time to figure out why. Are you tired of the day-to-day work that you must do to complete the program? If so, talk to an advisor in your department. He or she can tell you what elements of your education will be applied in your career after graduation. For example graduate students in master’s of fine arts programs usually attend weekly workshops in which their work is critiqued by fellow students. After graduation, however, this workshop element disappears.

Perhaps you are working toward your master’s degree in business administration but you are quickly tiring of your economics courses. Your advisor might be able to suggest a career path that takes you away from the economic theory you dislike and in a fresh direction–human resources, for example. If you have not yet done any work in your chosen field, an internship is a great choice. During the course of your internship, seek out a professional mentor who can guide your future career decisions.

2. My Grad Program Is Preparing Me for a Job I’m Not Sure I Can Land
While some students are dying to escape the world of academia, others love their time there. It’s the real world that seems less enticing–even frightening. This is especially true for Ph.D. candidates who face extraordinarily tough competition for tenure-track positions. If you love your graduate program but hate the potentially dismal job prospects that await you after graduation, don’t give up hope. Many of today’s academic advisors realize that everyone who earns a PhD will not be able to embark on a tenure-track position in their chosen field. They are helping students find options outside of academia in which they can still put their skills and knowledge to work. Students with PhDs in the humanities are finding jobs doing research at nonprofit organizations, writing for new media companies, and coordinating communications at public relations firms. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that some PhD holders stay on campus but work as career counselors and college administrators rather than as professors.

This trend toward the non-academic is not just happening in the humanities. According to an article in the American Psychology Association’s Monitor on Psychology, 50% of students who have earned their PhDs in engineering or the sciences get jobs outside of academia. There are still job opportunities inside the ivy gates as well, but many students find it reassuring to know that their career paths are wider than they might have imagined when they enrolled.

3. I’ve Discovered that I Hate Teaching
Many graduate students work as teaching assistants as part of their financial aid packages. It’s normal to idealize the teaching assistant/student relationship. You may not plan to just teach your students–you expect perhaps to be a mentor and a friend. The reality, however, rarely mirrors new teachers’ fantasies. Graduate students are routinely assigned to teach required introductory courses which often contain some of the least-engaged students on campus. If you thought you would love teaching but now shiver when you consider the thirty pairs of distrustful freshmen eyes glowering up at you each morning, remember that you will not be teaching introductory courses forever. As you continue your academic career, you will get the chance to work with more advanced students who share your passion for the course material.

If you dislike teaching so much that you would consider leaving your graduate program in order to avoid it, try investigating other funding options. Maybe a favorite professor is looking for a research or lab assistant, or perhaps your department is home to an academic journal that needs graduate student assistants. These options can allow you to both further your career and keep your financial aid.

4. My Classmates Are All Smarter and Better-Prepared
It can be easy to find yourself intimidated by peers who seem much more accomplished than you, especially if you are a new graduate student. Just remember that most graduate schools admit only a small portion of applicants. According to a 2006 study by the Council of Graduate Schools only 58% of applications to master’s degree programs and just 25% of PhD applications were accepted. Simply gaining admission to one of these graduate programs proves that you can compete amongst your peers. It is important to bear in mind that many of your fellow graduate students have completed several years of work at your school already. Their experience shows in the polish of their comments in class, their stellar publication records, and their impressive research projects. Being surrounded by very accomplished peers is actually a blessing: they will bring out the best in you, just as you will bring out the best in them.

In fall of 2006 there were nearly 1.6 million graduate students studying in the United States according to the Council of Graduate Schools. With so many students seeking out graduate study it is inevitable that some students will find that graduate school is not for them and will exit their programs before graduation. Before you join them consider the hard work you have done and the rewards you have reaped so far. More likely than not, you will decide that spending another few years to complete your degree is worthwhile.

Publish date: June 5, 2008