1. Some students walk away from their undergraduate experience—or from high school, or trade school—with a perfect plan and most of the accreditation they need. These students just walk straight into their career and start earning money. But for the rest of us, the route to our dream job is more circuitous. We need more time—sometimes we need extra time just to figure out what it is we want to do, and for many of us, what we want to do means we need more time in school.

    Are you one of the many whose path will take them through graduate school and a Master’s degree before it’s all said and done? If so, the task of figuring out the best way to take that next step can be a daunting one. So here we’ve come up with a list of the five things everyone should do before they enroll in any Master’s program.

    Step One: Survey Your Situation

    Students enter master’s programs from all walks of life, and from all different kinds of backgrounds and starting situations. This includes the teenage genius whose master’s degree is going to be a stepping stone to a long and ambitious career, as well as the retiree looking to back to school part-time purely to develop a lifelong interest, and everyone in between.

    Before you can make and execute your best path through a Master’s program, you need to learn everything you can about yourself, your situation, and your own approach to grad school. First, try to ascertain your personal readiness to go to graduate school. Are you already prepared for graduate school? For many students, graduate school means a vast commitment of time, energy, and money. Are you in the right position to commit these things right now? Or do you need to get other things in your life straightened out first?

    Beyond merely your readiness to take the step of grad school, ask yourself: what are you passionate about? And how does that passion—in addition to your long-term goals—relate to the grad school landscape?

    Some students are born knowing the answer to that question, and their path through school is decided by the nature of what their passion is. For other students, the question of their interests and career path is less certain than the basic assumption that grad school is the next step after undergrad. This will all vary depending on the nature of your interests and what kind of master’s program you might ultimately attend.

    What are your motivations for getting your Master’s? Do you primarily want to help further your career in some obvious way? Is a Master’s degree a conventional step forward in your overall career path? Or do you simply want to spend more time learning something because you’re passionate about it? Or do you have some marketable skill/interest that doesn’t need the accreditation of a Master’s degree, but could use extra practice, education, and development?

    The answers to all these questions will start to give you an idea of whether or not a Master’s program is for you—and the answers will also help you learn more about how to choose the right educational path for you.

    Step Two: Survey The Field?

    Now that you’ve learned more about yourself and what you’re interested in, it’s time to start learning about the educational landscape, and how it relates to your interests. What kinds of master’s (and doctorate) programs are available in the fields you’re interested in? One way to answer this question is to look around for examples of people who represent some model you’d like to emulate, and to see what kinds of education and training they’ve attained.

    Some fields have multiple kinds and levels of degrees, with multiple kinds of subspecialties. For example, let’s say you know you want to go to graduate school to help you launch a career in business. Well, there are many different kinds of graduate business programs for different kinds of students—there’s the Master’s in Business Administration, the Master’s of Management, the Master’s of Finance, and more.

    Step Three: Investigate The Degree You Want

    Now that you’ve learned more about what kind of degree program seems right for you, it’s time to learn more about those programs, in order to learn more about how you can best fit in and make use of them. Look at other people who have enrolled in the kinds of programs you’re looking at. Are you equally qualified? Are you similar to other applicants in this field?

    Also, make sure you continue to stop and ask yourself how, exactly, the degree will help you. You can try to communicate with alumni of the kinds of programs you’re looking at to ask them how their education and degree have affected their careers and lives.

    Are there people working in the kinds of jobs and industries you desire who don’t have the degree you’re considering? Is the Master’s the last step before joining the workforce for them, or is there more education in the future? For some fields, the Master’s is what’s known as the terminal degree—the highest form of education and accreditation recognized by those hiring in the industry. For other fields, further education, such as a doctoral degree, is possible or even required.

    Step Four: Investigate The Contenders

    Now that you know so much more about what you’re looking to get out of a master’s experience—and now that you know more about what kinds of programs seem right for you—it’s time to start investigating the actual schools you might attend in more detail.

    Are there schools that specialize in the degrees and fields you’re interested in? To what extent does the specific school someone attends have an impact on their career goals? This also varies by industry and job type. For instance, the MBA is currently considered a very valuable degree, though studies suggest the benefits of the MBA go disproportionately to graduates of the top-ranked MBA programs.

    There are many other criteria to consider in narrowing the field to a list of schools that make sense for you. Ask yourself how affordable the programs you’re looking at are for you (in addition to what kinds of financial assistance are available).

    Also, ask yourself whether the schools you’re looking at make sense according to your personal needs. Do you need to be close to home? Far from home? Do you need a flexible class schedule so you can continue working or raising a family?

    Don’t be afraid to reach out to alumni of the schools you’re looking at. You can also try to find people who work in the field you’re interested in and ask them about their educational experiences. Ask them about their experiences in particular. Ask them what they wish they’d known or thought to consider before they enrolled in graduate school.

    Step Five: Figure Out How To Get There

    Once you’ve decided on a few schools that would be right for you, your job becomes figuring out how to get accepted to them! Depending on the nature of the industry and program you’re interested in, this might be a very competitive (and anguishing) process.

    You can start by talking to admissions committees, as well as alumni. First figure out the things you absolutely have to do before enrolling. Are you qualified to walk into school tomorrow, or do you need more prerequisites? Do you have all your financial information in order? Do you need to take some more classes to get your GPA up so you can be a better applicant? Depending on the field, you may find, paradoxically, that before you can go back to school, you need to get some work experience first.

    One thing you are very likely to find is that, for better or worse, the days of standardized testing have returned. Many graduate schools require applicants to take some kind of standardized test, such as the GRE or the GMAT. Try to get a sense of how important a factor testing is in the admissions process of the programs you’re looking at. This is an appropriate last step, because once you move onto test prep, it becomes a whole world and path and strategy unto itself. That’s why it’s good to have all the other questions asked and answered in advance!

    Dave Green
    Senior tutor and professional test-prep writer. Interdisciplinary wizard, with Master’s degrees in economics, philosophy, and political science at HUJI.

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