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  • Testing the Water: Are You Ready for Graduate School?

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    For many people, going to graduate school is a great move. It can deliver a vital intellectual wake-up call or start you on the path to a new, more satisfying career. It can even increase your earning power (once you pay off those student loans, of course).

    But attending graduate school can also be a mistake. If you don't know why you're going, or don't have the focus to succeed once you're there, grad school can leave you with a whole lot of debt—and not much else. Make sure that you're choosing a program because it makes sense within a larger plan and not simply because you're frustrated with your current job or unsure of the next step.

    Here are some questions to consider as you make your choice.

    Do I know what I want to study

    You don't need to know the exact topic of your dissertation or master's thesis before you apply. But you should have a clear sense of your field of interest, and you should feel confident that you'll be able to study this field without growing bored.

    The more specific you can get about your interests, the stronger your application will be. If you're considering earning your masters degree in communications, it will help to pinpoint a particular interest such as broadcast journalism; if you're applying for a PhD in English, try to identify a focus such as 19th-century American literature. If you don't yet have a clear sense of what you would like to concentrate on, take some time to meditate on the topic and hold off on applications till you feel confident about your choice.

    What are my prospects after grad school?

    Though you may not want to start thinking already about what comes after grad school (getting there in the first place seems stressful enough), this question could prove the most crucial when deciding whether or not to return to school. Research your chosen area and contact professors or other knowledgeable advisors about what you'll actually be able to do with your degree after graduation.

    Some fields are a no-brainer: Law, business and medical schools attract so many applicants because they provide solid promises of careers after graduation. The PhD track often leads to a career in academia (though academic jobs are growing increasingly few and far between in proportion to the number of doctoral candidates). Other fields provide less career certainty: An MFA in fiction writing or a master's degree in art history promises to be intellectually enriching but may offer limited practical returns.

    Am I financially prepared?

    If you've recently come into an inheritance or your trust fund is burning a hole in your pocket, you can skip this question. For the rest of us, the financial repercussions of attending graduate school will have an impact on the decision to return. While most PhD programs are fully funded—and might also grant you a stipend to cover living expenses–master's programs offer less financial assistance and often require taking out loans to cover your tuition and/or the cost of living.

    Of course, this is no reason to back away from the graduate school plan. A well–chosen program is an investment in your future, and, theoretically, you will be able to pay back your loans when you have become professionally established. And keep in mind that many schools do offer financial aid, merit scholarships and student loans with manageable interest rates. If you are thinking of attending a master's program, you can also look into the possibility of going to school part-time while you hold down a job to cover the rent.

    How much time do I need to apply?

    The calendar for graduate admissions varies. Applications for most PhD programs are due in December or January while deadlines for master's programs tend to be in January, February or March. No matter which program you choose, you'll most likely need to allow more than a couple of months to get your applications in order. Taking the GRE or any other standardized test; asking professors for recommendations; writing your personal statement; and researching schools and deciding where you will apply–these all require planning and focus. You might be able to scrape together your applications if you decide to take the plunge in November, but you'll be happier with your application package if you start preparations in August or September.

    Should I panic if I've been out of school for several years?

    No way. Many programs appreciate candidates who have taken some time to put their careers in perspective–and might even prefer them. If you're nervous about getting back into the academic swing of things, take a deep breath. Before you know it, you'll be highlighting and note–taking like a pro. If you are really nervous, you can ease your transition by taking a class or two as a non–matriculated student in your field of study before heading back to the classroom full–time as a degree–seeking student.