How to Think About Graduate School

Starting a master’s program this fall.

June 17, 2020

In our last post, we gave some advice for those starting a doctorate degree this coming fall. While Ph.D. and Ed.D. enrollments account for a relatively small proportion of three million graduate students enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, much of that advice applies to all graduate students, regardless of the degree. Still, we think it might be helpful to offer some broader thoughts for all graduate students starting in fall.

Every year, U.S. colleges and universities grant about 820,000 master’s degrees, with an additional 26,000 medical doctors (M.D.s and D.O.s), 6,000 dentists, 15,000 doctors of pharmacy, 3,000 veterinarians and 35,000 lawyers. Added to these professional conferrals of degrees are about 55,000 research doctorates awarded annually by U.S. institutions. These include 617 Ph.D.s in foreign language and literature (Eddie’s degree) and 669 Ph.D.s in sociology (Josh’s degree). Graduate school is a major activity, and you will be joining a large cohort of students poised to develop academic, professional and applied skills, whether transitioning to a new career, a deepening of your current one or the beginning of a lifelong academic journey.

This fall will be a bit different.

As we said on Monday, we think it’s crucial to enter into the fall understanding both the challenges and the possibilities of what the new semester will bring under COVID-19. We actually think that fall 2020 will be an incredibly interesting and exciting time to be a graduate student. We are in the middle of a profound dislocation and change in higher education, and you will be entering school at a time when the attention of the entire school is focused on making the student experience as rich and as engaging as possible.

We want to suggest this is a good thing.

There is a high probability that courses will be some mixture of residential and online, face-to-face and blended. Many graduate programs will be evolving their programs in real time. Professors will be developing and teaching courses in ways that they have not done before. Use this opportunity to engage in the educational process. Find opportunities to step up to improve the learning environment for yourself and your fellow students. Offer solutions to the challenges of learning under likely conditions of social distancing, rather than expecting only that the professor or the school will come up with all the answers.

You might have opportunities to help institutions respond to the challenges of the moment, by serving as TAs and course assistants. By working on challenges your schools are confronting and by learning about how your discipline and field responds to the moment.

The advice we gave last time -- about finding balance, about entering a discipline, about networking, about mentoring -- applies to any graduate degree. It’s important to approach graduate school as an opportunity to learn and as an opportunity to grow. Be ready as a new graduate student to take an active role in the construction of your learning.

The fall will be different, but this may be a good thing. It will be an opportunity, and one of the reasons why many of us choose graduate school in the first place is to explore new opportunities. We encourage you to not only see the fall in this way, but to be proactive and to engage the challenges of a new graduate program, intentionally and meaningfully. The payoff will be great.

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