After 13 years of K-12 education and at least four more of college, graduate school isn’t always the top choice for students right after graduation. But for some it seems like a more viable option than traveling, getting a temporary job or searching for a way into their career field.
Graduate school is for students who are sure which career path they want to follow, Career Counselor and Program Coordinator of Career Services Carole Moore said.
“Graduate school is a time to be really passionate and focused and really know what you want to do,” Moore said. “We like students to explore and get experiences as an undergrad, but graduate school is where you really go full out for what you really want to do and what you love.”
Career Services helps students find jobs and internships from freshman year until they’re alumni, Moore said. The career counselors also help students apply to graduate school.
The Career Services website offers an extensive list of tips for students to take into account when pursuing graduate schools — how to write a personal statement for the application, recommendation letters and interviewing, as well as links to information about financial aid and graduate schools in law, education, medicine, psychology, social work, business and schools abroad.
Moore said she likes to help students generate opportunities for themselves and then choose between their options, rather than agonize over hypothetical decisions.
“I try to have students actually pursue options and create opportunities, and then, if you get a job and into grad school, then we have to struggle with what to do,” Moore said.
Political science graduate Andrew Ariey finished his undergraduate degree in three years and decided to take a year off after graduation to consider his options.
“I got an internship at a law firm last spring and now I’m working there full time,” Ariey said. “It’s great because it has given me the opportunity to see what lawyers do every day.”
In order to prepare for applying to law school, Ariey said he spent about an hour a day for three to four months studying for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and took about 20 practice exams.
He thinks he did well enough on the LSAT to get into the schools he’s going to apply to, “but probably by the skin of my teeth,” he said.
Ariey is keeping his options open by taking the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) as well so he can apply to graduate schools in political science or psychology, he said.
“I’m going to take a lot of steps (through the rest of this year) that will hopefully give me a lot of options at the end,” he said. “Hopefully by the time I start hearing back from grad schools and law schools I’ll have a better understanding of where I want to go.”
Graduate school is so specialized, from law school to medical school to business school, there aren’t really general tips for applying to it like there are for undergraduate schools, Moore said.
“Graduate school isn’t one of those things that’s across-the-board,” she said. “Some require GRE’s, MCAT’s, LSAT’s or nothing at all. So we handle each individual student as they come in.”
Moore said graduate school is both time consuming and expensive so she likes to talk over the decision to make sure students aren’t just doing it because they don’t know what else to do.
Mechanical engineering junior Graham Garvin said the extra time and cost for graduate school will be worth it once he has a job.
“Pretty much everybody says it will pay itself off within the first 10 to 15 years easily,” Garvin said. “A lot of companies have a ‘glass ceiling’ where even if you’re qualified to be promoted, you have to be part of the executives club, and have a higher degree than an undergraduate.”
Garvin applied and was accepted to Cal Poly’s 4+1 Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering program. He said the application process was simple, requiring only a personal statement and three letters of recommendation.
Garvin is also finishing school faster than most.
“I’m getting my undergrad in three years, so I just figured I might as well stay here for another year and make it an even four years,” Garvin said.
Although graduate school will probably pay itself off, it still has a high price tag. The Career Services website provides information about financial aid options. Most aid is merit based, but loans are available and need based assistantships, or positions that help with research or teaching. Graduate assistantships typically mean the student works 10-20 hours each week and half or full tuition is paid, along with a stipend, according to the website.
Although financial aid is available, Ariey said he took this year off, “to consider all my options so that before I spent $150,000 in law school, I knew it was something I really wanted to do.”