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When you consider graduate school, you may be thinking of professional schools (law, medicine, business), master's programs, or doctoral programs, all of which require specialized knowledge and concentrated study in one area. There are four main types of degree programs available.
Remember that some schools offer combined-degree programs in which you typically obtain a master's and a doctorate in different fields. The Peterson's Guide offers a directory of these programs.
Before applying for further study, you need to be fully aware of the working conditions, employment prospects, and physical and mental requirements of the field you plan to pursue. In addition, the more immediate demands of research, course work and major papers which are all part of the graduate school experience must be considered. Although there are defined course requirements in most graduate and professional school curricula, by and large you are expected to be able to build a program for yourself based on your interests and goals. This is hard work.
Some individuals enter graduate study with the idea that they can postpone the inevitable -- deciding on a career and searching for a job for another year or two. If this is one's sole motivation for entering graduate school, it could have serious implications for one's career development. Therefore, before going any further, you may wish to carefully consider some important questions:
Two of the reasons most frequently given by students who have dropped out of graduate programs are because of a dislike of concentrated academic work and a realization that they have not defined their career goals clearly enough. By answering the above questions honestly, you hopefully can avoid similar problems in the future. Choose graduate school because you are working toward a goal.
In addition, through research, you should be able to get a solid idea of whether or not you would benefit from graduate study. In the process, however, be aware that further education is not absolutely required for every career field. It is, of course, if you are planning to enter such traditional professions as law, medicine, dentistry, or teaching at the college or university level.
You may need time to clarify your professional goals. This is not uncommon. A frequently asked question about graduate school is, "Should I attend now or later?" You will find advantages and disadvantages of delaying or not delaying your graduate studies. It is highly advisable to speak with faculty advisers and with people currently pursuing programs of interest to you in order to hear their perspective on immediate entry versus delay. But remember, what you hear from others is advice, not fact.
A common concern of individuals considering graduate education deals with which institution has the "best" program of study. Contrary to student opinion and wishes, there is no single reliable ranking of graduate schools. National rankings do exist, though, and are available online, such as the U.S. News Graduate School Rankings. When looking at online rankings, pay attention to the criteria used to rank the schools to find out if those criteria coincide with your own personal criteria.
Institutions and departments in which you might be interested may vary greatly in one or more of the following factors: programs available, size, location, facilities, faculty interests, reputation and requirements. Matching your own abilities and personal requirements against the varying factors above is an important task in selecting the institutions to which you wish to apply.
Formal applications vary from one institution to the next, but as you research each one you may wish to keep a record or file noting admission requirements and application deadlines. It is very important to pay attention to each program's distinct instructions and requirements throughout the process. Some graduate programs require a personal interview, and most require a non-refundable application fee.