Finding the right graduate degree program is like searching for the perfect home. There are so many styles, sizes, neighborhoods, and financial considerations; it can be simply overwhelming.
All the more so because you’re not just looking for a house you can stand to live in. You don’t just want four walls, a ceiling, and a floor. You want a place that you’re proud to call home. A place that you’ll love for years to come.
Well, if the first rule of real estate is location, location, location, then the first rule of graduate school is intention, intention, intention! You must be intentional about finding the right graduate school for you, because each degree has its own unique benefits and requirements. If you don’t consider what you want to get out of graduate school and make your application decisions accordingly, you may find yourself with a framed piece of wall decor rather than a powerful tool that will get you where you want to go in your career.
Start With Your Why
If you’ve made it to this point, it’s likely that you view graduate school as a serious option. My first question to you is: “Why do you want to go to graduate school?” It sounds simple, but many people don’t have a convincing answer. Would you ever move houses without good reason? I would hope not.
The same is true of graduate school. If you don’t yet have your why for graduate school, you need to take a step back and think on it, because this one critical why will drive the rest of your application process. Additionally, if you don’t know why you want to attend graduate school, it will be significantly more difficult to convince an admissions committee that you have a compelling reason to go. Needless to say, this will hurt your chances of success.
- These are some of the most common reasons to go to graduate school we hear:
- “I need this degree to continue on my chosen career path”
- (e.g., doctors, tenured professors, and lawyers)
- “Deeper technical knowledge will drive my career growth”
- “I want to change careers” or “I want to shift functions”
- (e.g., moving from engineering to marketing)
- “I want to build an extensive network”
- “I need these credentials before my boss will consider promoting me”
If we didn’t cover your “why graduate school?” in the list above, let us know! Comment a brief description of your reason below.
As you can see, these reasons vary in both their degree of intention and their angle of attack. But for most people, graduate school is about advancing or pivoting their career in an intentional way. While we’re on the subject of intention... “My parents will pay for it” and “My company is footing the bill” are not defensible reasons to go to graduate school. If you already have your why, then these factors might prompt you to go sooner rather than later. But on their own, they’re simply not good enough reasons to justify such a significant investment.
Define the Goal
If your why is derived from your overarching career goal... what do you do when you don’t have a goal in mind? It can be tough to choose between graduate programs when you don’t have a concrete goal. What makes one program better or worse? If all you want to do is get somewhere, or pass the time, then every program will look equally appealing to you. You’ll have a tough time filtering through choices when you don’t have an end goal in mind.
That said, it’s OK if you’re not sure of the exact goal yet. Start by brainstorming potential career goals and searching for convergence. In some cases, goals are similar enough that they share a common path forward or require some of the same prerequisite knowledge.
These are a few good examples:
- An investment banker, a hedge fund manager, and a sell-side researcher walk into a bar I mean, might all pursue an MBA or an MS in Finance.
- Lawyers, political analysts, and those seeking public office would all benefit from obtaining a J.D. or a Master’s in Political Science.
Applicants who are pursuing these interrelated careers often take similar or even identical graduate school paths. However, if you find yourself hemming and hawing over whether to become a dentist or an account, you probably have some work to do! Do additional research, talk to people in those careers, and get an internship if you can. If you’re still unsure, it makes sense to pause here and dig deeper before you go through the arduous and expensive process of earning a graduate degree you might never use.
Common Graduate School Degrees
MA vs. MS
The most common type of graduate degree is a master’s degree. But even within the master’s degree, there are several subtypes, the two most common being the MA and the MS. An MA can refer to a Master of Arts (M.A.) or a Master of Fine Arts (MFA), while an MS refers to a Master of Science (M.S. or MSc). Some master’s programs may require research or require the completion of a master’s thesis before graduation.
Master of the Arts programs are very diverse and fall under many subject areas, including social sciences, education, music, writing, and art, to name a few. Master of Science programs are also quite diverse across fields, but may have more technical requirements or be more research-based. Sometimes there are MA and MS programs that cover the same subject, in which case the latter will usually require more stringent academic pre-qualifications and additional graduation requirements (e.g., thesis).
Master of Business Administration (MBA)
An MBA is one of the most common types of master’s degrees earned in the United States. It is widely considered to be a practical degree because it is meant to provide knowledge that can be directly applied to a professional career. It is a highly respected degree in most business fields because its academic training stretches across all different business functions, including marketing, operations, finance, accounting, strategy, human resources, and entrepreneurship.
In addition, MBA programs typically allow students to focus on a specific industry or function of interest. Most MBA programs don’t require a particular background, and depending on the program, graduates can look to change careers post-MBA. Lastly, MBA programs typically look for 3+ years of work experience as a requirement for entry, because so much of the MBA experience is based on shared learning among classmates.
Doctoral Degrees (PhD)
A doctorate degree is a degree that requires deep subject-matter expertise and is offered in a wide variety of subject areas, with some of the most common pathways including health professions and related sciences, education, engineering, biological and biomedical sciences, and law, which is discussed in further detail below. There are lots of different types of doctoral degrees (PharmD, ThD, DA, etc.), but for the sake of simplicity, they will be collectively referred to here as the commonly used Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).
These degrees are generally required for a career in academia at the college level and perceived as a standard credential for certain career paths in research. Nearly all PhD programs require the development of a research-based dissertation on a topic of interest that has support from the professors at the university. These programs are a significant step up in terms of both commitment and time, and should not be pursued without a clear sense of direction and passion for the field. PhD programs often include multiple, simultaneous responsibilities, including:
- Performing research of significant breadth and depth
- Teaching university classes
- Publishing academic works alongside university professors
- Developing a dissertation
- Pursuing a residency or internship
There are two main ways to enter a PhD program. First, you can apply to a PhD program directly. This is a practical route if you have previous research experience or you’ve already worked under a professor through an internship. Second, you can apply to an MA or MS program and apply to the PhD program while you are finishing your master’s degree. This is a strategy we recommend if you’re not sure you’ll be able to get into your top choice PhD program due to lower grades in undergrad or lower test scores. This route gives you another opportunity to prove yourself in an academic setting prior to being evaluated by the PhD program admissions board.
Keep in mind, PhD programs typically have very low enrollment numbers, and program size varies significantly depending on your area of focus. For these two reasons, you may find your list of potential PhD programs quite limiting.
Law Degrees (JD, LLM, and MLS)
If you are interested in practicing law in the United States, you will most likely need a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. The JD degree is the most recognized degree in the field of law and the terminal education for a lawyer. The typical JD program will provide internship opportunities throughout its length, and all programs will prepare you to take your state’s bar exam.
Passing this exam will allow you to practice law in that state. Almost all U.S. states require that you attend a law school that is accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) before attempting the bar exam. Before committing to a program, check to make sure that your target school is accredited, or that your state accepts your school as an approved institution.
Another option in the field of law is to pursue a Master of Laws (LLM) degree. It is common practice for lawyers outside the U.S. to get an LLM from a U.S.-based program in order to prepare for their state bar exam and for law practice in the United States. Additionally, lawyers who have a JD from the U.S. may pursue an LLM in a highly-specialized area, such as tax or intellectual property, in order to create a stronger academic brand and differentiate themselves in the job market.
Lastly, you might consider a Master of Legal Studies (MLS), or Master of Studies of Law. This is not a replacement for a JD should you want to practice law in the U.S., but it does provide a working knowledge of law that will make you conversant in legal matters while pursuing a career outside of law, or allow you to work in and around the legal profession. Neither at LLM or an MLS typically require that you to take the LSAT.
Medical Degrees (MD and OD)
The Doctor of Medicine degree (MD) is still one of the most highly-esteemed graduate degrees on the market. In addition to clinical training, USMLE completion, and board certification, the MD is required to practice medicine in the U.S. The MD path requires taking the MCAT and graduating from an accredited university, preferably with a B.S. in biology, pre-medicine, or a related field.
If you don’t have a science-related undergraduate degree, you might consider taking supplementary courses or even pursuing a one-year MS degree in order to prepare for medical school. The MD academic program generally consists of two years of pre-clinical work, two years of clinical work, and a subsequent residency of up to eight years. Depending on the program and the specialty, additional USMLE testing and research may be required.
While the traditional MD is considered an allopathic physician, there is another type of physician, known as an osteopathic physician or Doctor of Osteopathic (DO) medicine. A DO is a fully-licensed physician who is trained to treat the whole patient (mind, body, and spirit), including patient behavior and preventive medicine. DO’s tend to concentrate on primary care, including GYN, family practice, internal medicine, and pediatrics.
The academic, certification, and residency requirements are similar to that of an MD. DO’s are certified to practice in the U.S. by the American Osteopathic Association and receive additional musculoskeletal training (osteopathic manipulative treatment) as part of their education. If you are going this route, be sure to apply only to colleges that are certified by the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM).
There are certainly lots of other types of degrees, but this article outlines the benefits and requirements of some of the most common ones. Hopefully, this gave you some additional clarity on the various degrees that are available, and engendered some confidence in you about how to think through your options.