Face it, most of us who have even thought about a graduate degree generally fall into two categories: those of us who want to earn more money and therefore are willing and committed enough to go back to school; and those of us whose career goals require the further education, such as a doctor, counselor, or lawyer.

Of the category of increased earnings, which ultimately affects the decision of those in the second category as well, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) published a study in 2010 that shows that “with increased education, median earnings rise and average rates of unemployment fall.” It also doesn’t hurt to have the advantage of a graduate degree when interviewing in the competitive job market.

What types of graduate degrees are there?

The two most common graduate degrees to pursue are the master’s degree and the doctoral degree. Master’s degrees typically require one to three years of additional training at a college or university as a full-time student. It can take up to five years for those who work and go to school part-time. A bachelor’s degree is usually required before starting a master’s program, although the bachelor’s degree doesn’t always have to be in the same subject as the desired master’s degree. At some institutions work experience can determine a specialized track to receive a master’s degree.

Master’s classes are usually conducted more as seminars, with much more discussion expected and more analysis required. Not surprising, since you are training to become a specialist in your field.

Most master’s programs also require what to many is the most nerve-wracking part of earning the degree, the thesis. A thesis is basically an extended research paper, which, depending on your field of study, may entail scientific experimentation and documentation, or analysis of text. Some programs offer an alternative to a thesis, such as comprehensive exams or other written projects, or internships in some cases where new skills are put into practice.

Doctoral degrees are usually a continuation of the master’s degree, but at times can be received in an entirely different subject. They typically require two more years of additional training on top of the master’s degree, although they usually don’t have set length, but rather a deadline that all required work must be completed by. That work often times includes a dissertation that has to be completed and defended.

Some graduate programs stand alone, such as medical doctorates and law degrees. These are referred to as professional degrees.

If earning a graduate degree is your path, learning how to get in is the next step.

How do you get into a graduate degree program?

The ideal scenario is to start preparing for a graduate degree during your undergraduate work. That way, with the help of an advisor, you can enroll in courses that could fulfill requirements for both degrees. Grades matter–most schools want students with a GPA of at least 3.0.

If you missed that Utopian boat, then what? Decide where you want to study. This is an important step because not only will you know what courses are required to be completed before you can enter the program, you will also know what application material needs to be completed for admission as well.

Most application packets request a personal purpose statement where you clarify why you are seeking a graduate degree. Two to four letters of recommendation may be required from former professors or employers, as well as a copy of your transcripts, a resume, and financial aid forms. This can be time consuming, so start early. Give yourself time to submit quality work. That paperwork is key in selling yourself to an admissions board for programs that can be competitive to enter.

Entrance exams are typically required to enter a graduate program, as well. Different tests are administered for different fields. These tests examine your understanding of different subjects and general fields of study. The most general assessments are the GRE and GMAT. Business schools generally use the GMAT. The LSAT is required for law school. The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is used for medical school, and DAT is the dental school assessment.

Be aware of minimum score requirements for the school you choose and take the tests early enough to retake them if necessary.

After finishing your paperwork and tests, put your game face on and prepare for an interview with an admissions board. This isn’t always required, but if it is, be prepared to ask questions that show you have interest in their program, and practice answering questions they may ask. You have to prove that you are the candidate they’re looking for for their program.

All in all, whether you want to earn a graduate degree to help you work in the field you desire or to just plain earn the money you are hoping to, follow these steps and make it happen. Like the Bureau of Labor Statistics encouraged, “Learn more, earn more.”

If you’re interested in exploring some specific graduate degree programs and what they require, visit our Graduate Degrees page.

So what graduate degrees are you interested in? Or maybe you’ve already been through one? Tell us in the comments how you prepared, or are preparing, for your graduate degree!

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