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Grad School Options

By Christopher Schonberger
Quick Tips
  1. It’s not just JDs and MBAs – There is a degree out there to suit any interest, so don’t put up the blinders to all the opportunities available. That said, certain degrees tend to lead to higher salaries in the long-run, so if stacking that paper is your goal, think about the post-graduation implications for your career.
  2. Why are you going back to school? – Don’t go back to school just because you feel lost and can’t think of anything better to do. Consider things like how it will aid you in achieving your goals and whether or not you can get an employer to subsidize it.
  3. Brainstorm your options – If you feel like you have an academic hunger that's still unfulfilled after your time as undergrad, figure out what type of program would really satiate you (and what you could gain from it). Or, save the money and enjoy a little DIY Education.
  4. Choose the right program – Consider the obvious: location, size, reputation, cost. But also realize that you might want to be a little bit pickier about the program and professors you seek than you were in high school.
  5. Figure out your finances – This is not the ideal time in life to be racking up more debt and not making money, but there are certainly ways to make it work.

So you’re thinking about grad school, eh? If you’re looking into law school or business school, we’ve already got you covered. And if medical school is your dream, you probably started taking pre-med classes when you were a freshman (or you decided being a doctor was “stupid” after flunking Bio). But what about

all the other degrees out there? Where did those “Masters of Philosophy” and “Earth and Environmental Sciences Ph.Ds” that you see lurking around coffeeshops and college campuses come from? If you think you’re ready to go back to school but not exactly sure where or for what, this is the guide for you.

Why Go Back to School?

The decision to go to grad school is not all about standing up on your parents’ kitchen table and declaring boldly, “The keg is not yet kicked—college does not have to be over!” While no one seems to blink an eyelid when you’re wandering aimlessly through your undergraduate life, a worthwhile Masters or Ph.D. requires a certain degree of focus and purpose. There are three main reasons for this: 1) Grad school is another major expense at a point in your life when you probably have negligible income (and maybe a lot of debt). 2) Grad school programs usually have a (somewhat) clearer professional/career bent than undergrad degrees. 3) No one likes a lecherous “academic” who keeps going to college parties to scheme on young ‘uns.

That said, there are many good reasons to pursue further education. For example, if you’re at a job where your employer is willing to subsidize a degree, why not take advantage of their kindness? Indeed, the best reason to attend grad school is if it will help propel you toward your professional goals (on the flip side, it’s not so great for “figuring out if you like East Asian Studies,” for example). Another reason might be if you can study abroad and gain an opportunity for cultural immersion that you wouldn’t otherwise get, or if you’re making a drastic shift into a new industry and need to fill in the gaps in your experience. Finally, if you want to be an academic or professor in a given field, grad school is certainly worth considering (and often necessary).

The important thing to realize is that while a small number of professions require advanced degrees (e.g., you need a law degree to become certified to be a lawyer), most do not. And while a Masters or Ph.D. may be associated with higher-paying jobs and greater responsibility, there’s not always a direct correlation in every field (e.g., a journalism degree will not get you a higher salary than someone without one—though it may help you get a better job).

Brainstorming Grad School Options

Our same golden rule about jobs applies to graduate degrees: the options are endless, so don’t get tunnel vision. Perhaps the best approach is to look at people in the job or field you aspire to and see what type of educational background they have. But if you’re totally uncertain, try pinpointing this little brainstorming game. The examples below are by no means comprehensive, but hopefully they get the wheels turning to do your own research.

If you’re into public health…

Don’t know what public health is? Basically, it’s a field focused on the prevention (as opposed to the treatment) of disease—for example, handing out condoms or vaccinating people for the flu are both examples of public health initiatives. It’s a way to promote healthy behavior and help people avoid illness. Interested now?

In the field of public health, the most popular degree is the Masters in Public Health (MPH), which includes two years of coursework with a summer internship in the middle. As Lindsay Stricke, a first-year Doctor of Public Health at UCLA, explains, "An MPH graduate can work in a wide variety of environments (hospitals, schools, policy, government, research, private sector, abroad); work opportunities will be greatly improved (people love hiring an MPH graduate) and the MPH degree is sufficient on its own and can lead to leadership positions.

“Another common degree is an MS in Public Health, which leads primarily to the PhD in Public Health. People with this degree usually work in academia as professors and do research full-time. Finally, there is the Doctor of Public Health (DrPH), which is what I’m getting at UCLA. It is basically the MPH coursework, with a year-long internship and a dissertation. It is known as an ‘applied’ PhD, because you learn skills in population-wide analysis of health care systems, cost, and patient outcomes.”

Some of the most popular areas of study in public health include biostatistics, epidemiology (the study of a large-scale disease like HIV or Malaria), environmental health, nutrition, health policy/management, and global health. The best resource for getting information on public health graduate schools in the U.S. is ASPH.

So, you want to be a writer…

Join the party! Becoming a published author, reporter, or magazine contributor is no easy task, and in many cases school is not the way to get there. Many news organizations value experience over a degree, and book deals aren’t handed out based on your resume. Also, writing is rarely a lucrative career and you won't be able to negotiate a higher salary based on your educational background, so starting out with debt from grad school tuition is not ideal. That said, there are some options worth considering.

  • Journalism School. The benefit of J-School is often a point of contention amongst those in the news business. Simply put, a journalism degree is almost never required for a media job (in fact, no graduate degrees are). However, its benefits are basically three-fold: you’ll develop some extremely well-polished clips, you’ll get a leg up on hiring for entry-level jobs (even though a degree is not required), and you’ll make some contacts who could help you get published or get a job (e.g., your professor happens to be best friends with the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal). On the flip side, you may get more hands-on newsroom experience working, and you can begin to network even if you’re at a smaller publication.
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA). While being called a “Master of Fine Arts” is pretty cool, this isn’t what you would call the most practical of degrees. MFAs can be in visual art, filmmaking, and theater, as well as various forms of creative writing (fiction and nonfiction). Programs are generally 2-3 years, and as with J-School, the benefits are not guaranteed. One reason to go is if you know it will be the only way to force yourself to sit down and write, get a lot of feedback, and figure out if you’ve got what it takes—an expensive way to do that, but nonetheless a way. Also, you can make good connections and develop a polished body of work, but that’s no guarantee that you’ll get published.

Find journalism schools, and check out this list of the top graduate programs in creative writing from The Atlantic. Bear in mind that in either case, writing samples are a key aspect of the application process.

If you’re into philosophy…

What do you do with an advanced degree in philosophy except annoy people at the dinner table and take long, thoughtful walks? “In general, there's just not really much to ‘do’ with philosophy except A) lead a philosophical life, which can be sweet; or B) teach it," explains Ben Herzberger, who received his Masters in Philosophy and Literature from University of Chicago. "That said, people that graduate with a Masters in Philosophy go on to do the general humanities things: teach high school, edit, get into publishing...the lucky few write books, and then a lot go to law school. For example, of the 120 people or so in my program, half the people get Ph.Ds, and the other half, from talking to my friends around here, have gone into those forenamed things.”

Masters programs generally take 1-2 years, while a Ph.D requires 4-8 years of study. Because Ph.Ds generally live off measly stipends (max. $27K/year), they are generally very committed to the subject and end up teaching at the university level. From there, the goal is to get tenure, which requires a lot of time, brown-nosing, and bureaucratic wrangling.

There are also opportunities for joint degrees. As Herzberger explains, “Many philosophy students without a Ph.D go to law school, because the philosophy training with all its emphasis on argument is perfect for law. Two other routes that go together very well are law and philosophy (JD + Ph.D) and a bio-field degree and philosophy of ethics. Lots of schools, including Georgetown and Northwestern, offer JD/Ph.D programs in philosophy. The nice thing about this is that you can teach in law schools (where the big bucks are), teach in philosophy departments (where some of your more intense interests might lie), and in general speak fluently about practical issues, not just things that a sliver of academics no about.”

If you’re into crazy people…

First things first: what’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist? Essentially, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can prescribe drugs, while a psychologist may have a doctoral degree but can only perform counseling and psychotherapy. In psychology, there are two main paths: masters and doctoral degree. A Masters degree in psychology can be applied to many fields, including social work, market research, public policy, and much more. Essentially, having a grasp on human behaviors and how people process information and act can be extremely valuable in a wide variety of positions. However, those who are more interested in the clinical side (i.e., treating patients) need to continue on to a doctoral degree, but you can generally lead to higher-paying positions both as a practicing psychotherapist or in academia.

To become a psychiatrist, on the other hand, you need to go to medical school for four years like anyone else trying to become a doctor. After that, you can seek a residency and become a practicing psychiatrist. There are also ways to get training in your sub-specialty of choice, such as child psychiatry or addictions.

Some states are currently working to allow psychologists to prescribe medication, so keep your eye on current trends and regulations as you determine what your goals are in the field.

Check out this article for more info.

If you’re into art history and museums…

If you love museums, you have a few options right off the bat—you could go to them on special “free” days to avoid breaking your recent grad budget, or you could become a docent. But if you’re a bit more ambitious, there are also ways to move further up the museum totem pole, or find roles in academia and administration that allow you to work in close proximity to your passions.

The same sort of “humanities” track that we discussed with regards to philosophy applies to Art History Masters and Ph.D programs. However, while Art History Ph.Ds certainly tend to work in academia in some capacity, the options are arguably a bit more varied. As Nick Schonberger, a graduate of the Winterthur American Material Cultures program, explains, “You can become a university-level professor or administrator, but you could also become a museum professional (e.g., curator) or art director at a publishing house, for example.”

Those who wish to get into museum work without the 5+ year time commitment of a Ph.D can also consider an MA in Museum Studies (perhaps the most renowned program for aspiring museum professionals is at Cooperstown).

Of course, there are other academic routes that blend art history and material cultures studies with other disciplines. One example is an American Studies Ph.D. Originally conceived to combine literature with history, this field brings in visual arts more and more, and can be an interesting launching point for a career as an academic, curator, researcher, or public historian (perhaps making documentaries for PBS, consulting for museums, or putting together public history projects for large corporations).

Choosing the Right Program (and Getting In)

Once you’ve narrowed down your choice of degree, it’s time to look into specific programs. Here are some specific criteria to think about:

  • What type of study appeals to you? Remember when you thought about whether a liberal arts school or state school was right for you back in the day? Well, now you should really have a fuller sense of what type of learning appeals to you most. Would you like a theoretical or practical focus? Do you enjoy doing research? How much flexibility would you like to determine your own course of study?
  • Whom would you like to work with? There may be professors who are particularly renowned in your field that you’re dying to study under. Also, certain programs may be strong feeders into the specific things you want to do. Ask faculty in your chosen field for recommendations of programs and professors.
  • How long? There’s a big difference between a two-year masters and being in school for another eight years. Clearly, you can decide whether or not to pursue a Ph.D later down the line, but it’s still worth giving some thought to the “time horizon” of your further education.
  • Do all the things you did as an undergrad. Consider location and size. Visit the campus and do your research. Connect with alumni. You know the drill.

Needless to say, there's no sure-fire way to get accepted. But what we can tell you is that you'll probably need some test scores, as well as an application involving essays and, in some fields, samples of your work. What I'm trying to say is this: don't procrastinate! If you're thinking of applying to schools next year, get the ball rolling now!

Paying for Grad School

Ah, the thorny issue of the fee. While it might not seem like the ideal time in life to pour more money into schooling and forgo the salary you could be raking in with a full-time job, the decision is all about weighing the long-term benefit and assessing your goals. Read our article on funding grad school, and be sure to look into fellowships and grants at the school's where you're applying. Also, be sure to research industry-specific scholarships. (Of course, good old student loans are also available for graduate students.)

In thinking about the money issue, keep in mind these tips from Marc Scheer’s book No Sucker Left Behind: Avoiding the Great College Rip-Off (and, for good measure, here's another good article about paying for grad school).

  • Weigh Risk and Reward. The graduate school investment is often riskier than the college investment, since “graduate schools often encourage students to pay expensive prices and borrow too much, even if the degrees have little financial payoff.” College is a given for many people (though Scheer suggests it shouldn’t be), but the decision to go to grad school may require greater practicality.
  • Bang for Your Buck. Vet tuition fees to make sure you are getting the best value. Often, professors at grads schools are more devoted to research than teaching, and Scheer notes the specific problem of non-English speaking instructions in mathematics programs. Also, schools often charge high fees to fund off-campus “training” activities (e.g., internships, work study) that offer little benefit to the student.
  • Know what you’re getting into. Scheer states the facts bluntly: “The average graduate or professional student leaves school with a grad school loan debt burden ranging from $27,000 to $131,000, or a total loan debt burden ranging from $50,000 to $154,000 (including the average college loan debt of $23,000, but credit card debt is extra.)”

We hope that this overview has provided a little bit of guidance in your grads school quest. And remember, if it’s just a thirst for knowledge rather than any specific goal drawing you toward further education, why not save the loot and try a little DIY Education?



I am a recent college graduate and have started a career working at a historical landmark. I am interested in finding out more information or any helpful information about how to advance myself in this career setting in terms of continuing education. Graduate school is something for me to definitely consider, although just a bit unsure as to what degree would help me advance into a director position. My initial thoughts are public administration/policy, but maybe there is another degree that would be more specific?

My background is in Recreation Management: Program Administration with tourism planning and development emphasis.

Any insight would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

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