Is Now the Time to Go to Grad School?
While many people begin college right after high school without giving it a second thought, the question of when to start a graduate program can be tricky one. Choosing to commit to two years of intense study – not to mention expensive student loans – is a huge responsibility. How do you know you’re ready for graduate school?
I started my MFA immediately after undergrad; I was 23 when I finished. On the opposite side of the spectrum, my husband just completed his Master’s degree after many years away from school; he is 40. Having seen the process through two very different lenses, I have a new understanding of what a difference age can make.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I realize now that it was very easy for me to apply to graduate school. I was surrounded by teachers who were used to writing letters of recommendation, I knew exactly where to get a copy of my transcripts, and there were tons of people around for me to ask questions of. I was in the academic mix, so information about schools came to me very easily.
For my husband, it was a different story: He had been working in an office in an unrelated field for over ten years. We have some friends he could ask advice of, but all the advice was anecdotal. It was up to him to investigate schools on his own. He took his time – it became a very slow and deliberate choice, involving talking to current students and visiting a lot of schools – and stretched the process of choosing the right program for him over a few years.
When it came to actually starting the program, it was pretty effortless for me. I had already spent much of my life being a student, and I was well-prepared for what school would bring me. Socially, it was seamless as well – over half the students in my graduate program were my age, but if I ever tired of hanging out with them, there was a whole world of undergraduates who were about my age as well.
My husband bounced back into the grind of being a student pretty easily – writing papers and attending classes felt like a treat after working a 9-5 job for so many years. But socially, it was a bit difficult – I remember about two weeks after he started, he came home and remarked that everyone in his program seemed like they were from a different planet. Who were these people who had ideas and opinions so totally different than his? Well, they’re people who are almost twenty years younger – and while intellectually he knew there would be an adjustment period to being around so many younger peers, actually living it was another thing entirely. After a few weeks, he settled in and had made some very good friends in his department. But the first few weeks were jarring and should be something you prepare yourself for, should you go back to school as an older student.
When it came to coursework, I wasn’t a slouch – while I undeniably felt a bit burned out from being in school for so many years, I attended all my classes and did all the work that was assigned. I knew that graduate school was only a short two years, so I made the most of it, and to this day I’m proud of the work I did there. But my husband really took it to the next level. Having had that break, he was able to approach the opportunity fresh and with full energy. He took on extra coursework and had the depth of experience to wring every last little bit out of it.
So with background, you might be wondering: Do I think you should go to graduate school right after undergrad, or is it better to wait? Even though I have a very deep appreciation for what older students bring to the experience, I still urge my students to apply within a year or two of finishing college. This is for one reason only: The longer you wait the harder it becomes. When you’re in college, the time in the future when you will be married, have children, a career, and/or a mortgage might seem like a lifetime away – but all those things happen surprisingly quickly. The longer you put off going to graduate school, the harder it is to put your life aside to make time for it.
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Having said that, if you have put off school and now find yourself able to go back and finish, you are likely to have one of the best experiences of your class. My husband got an enormous amount out of his program and was able to contribute so much as well – his maturity really enriched his experience.
What do you think? When is the right time to go to graduate school?