map with plan for going to grad school after undergrad

Should you go to graduate school right after college? Or should you take time to get work experience and travel before you go? You’ll need to consider your goals carefully, and then work methodically toward achieving them. Graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint—and your race starts the moment you decide to pursue a graduate degree. Here are six things you should do to figure out your ideal moment to start grad school.

Insider Tip #1: Know Your Goals

Before you start graduate school—whether you opt to do that immediately after college or after a hiatus from school—you should have a clear career goal and realistic expectations of what you can expect to achieve. This is not to say that those things can’t change (they very likely will!), but without them, you’ll have difficulty launching and succeeding in your graduate studies in the first place.

For Academics

If your career goal is to become a professor, do your research to find out how many job openings there are in your field during any given year. Take a look, for instance, at the disparities between job postings and PhDs awarded in the field of history. This is not meant to discourage you from applying to graduate school—only to underscore how important it will be to ensure that you’re a competitive candidate in a tight job market.

Do specific research on job placement for the programs you’re considering. (Many programs make job placement information available on their websites; if a program doesn’t, you should inquire!) If a particular program has a poor record of placing PhDs in tenure-track positions—and if landing such a position is your ultimate goal—then it may not be the right fit for you. If you need to accrue additional work or field experience to be a competitive candidate at a program with better placement rates, then take that time! It can make all the difference.

You should also have realistic expectations about what achieving your goal may look like. Because PhDs are specialized by definition, there won’t be many openings in your specific field when you’re on the job market. Even if you land a tenure-track job, you are likely to have to relocate when you accept it. If you’re tied to a specific geographic area because of family commitments or personal preferences, then a tenure-track job may not be in your future. (You could probably get adjunct positions in your area with greater ease, but these often do not come with liveable salaries, job security, or health insurance.) Be clear about what you’re willing to do to get a tenure-track job—and then adjust your goals accordingly.

For Non-Academics

If your goal is to work in industry (e.g., pharma, data science, government, nonprofit, or a research institute), then you are likely to have a greater number of options after graduation. Still, long-term planning is key—and a product of the same mindset that will ensure your graduate-school success.

Start by identifying several target organizations—places you’d be happy to work one day. Look at job postings on their websites. Find out what the qualifications are for the types of positions you hope to hold. Look up current employees on LinkedIn to get a sense of their career paths. Did they take time off between college and graduate school? If so, how did they spend that time? If not, were they able to acquire work experience during graduate school? Set up informational interviews with people who occupy jobs that Future You might have, and ask them about how they got from where you are to where you want to be.

Insider Tip #2: Understand How Graduate School Differs From College

In college, you probably had at least one advisor, as well as professors and TAs, who regularly checked in with you about your progress. This advisor would have helped to ensure that you were on track to graduate in your senior year—with all requirements for your major, minor, and core courses met or in progress.

While you will certainly have an advisor in graduate school—and, in all likelihood, a Director of Graduate Studies—you will have to take much more initiative to ensure that you’re on track to meet your future career goals. Those advocates will likely offer insights into your academic work and remind you of major program deadlines, but they will not always tell you what to do and when to do it. For example, you’ll probably want to write (and publish!) academic papers that you’ll be able to adapt and use as part of your dissertation. Establishing the strategy and timeline for those papers will be up to you. You’ll also want to ensure that, to the best of your ability, you’re getting the right teaching experience for the field you hope to pursue.

Insider Tip #3: Know What Makes a Successful Graduate Student

This brings us to a crucial point. You’ll have a lot of (apparent) flexibility in graduate school—with very few requirements to be anywhere at a specific time. But you’ll also need to possess the maturity to know how to plan, on a long-term as well as a short-term basis. In the long term, you’ll need to figure out major benchmarks—research trips, conference presentations, publications, and chapter deadlines. In the short term, you’ll need to divide up each day so that you’re steadily, logically working toward achieving those longer-term goals. You’ll need to keep in mind that with the freedom to set your schedule comes the immense responsibility of executing reliable productivity.

Insider Tip #4: Remember That Finances Matter—Even If This Is Your Calling

Once you’ve done the work of figuring out your future career goals, you’ll know whether you need a terminal graduate degree—a doctorate (e.g., PhD) or terminal master’s (e.g., MFA)—or a non-terminal graduate degree (e.g., MA or MS).

Many PhD programs provide funding for students—tuition scholarships, stipends for teaching, and fellowships for research. While master’s programs (whether for terminal degrees or not) may offer teaching opportunities (and accompanying stipends), they may not also offer scholarships and fellowships. You’ll need to weigh the cost of graduate school against your future earning potential, and then figure out how much you can afford to spend on your degree. Keep in mind that in addition to the out-of-pocket expenses of graduate school, you’ll also pay opportunity costs. The years during which you’re pursuing your degree(s)—even if you are fully funded—will be time during which you’re not collecting a salary or building your earning history. For a program whose duration is upwards of five years, you’ll pay a very high opportunity cost.

Moreover, graduate studies can sometimes take a decade (or more!) to complete, and it’s unlikely that anybody will be making sure you’re on track to finish your degree within a specific number of years. You have to determine how long you can afford to spend finishing that degree. After all, funding—when you’re fortunate enough to procure it—is time-limited. You’ll want to plan your graduate research and writing so that it fits within your funding term—and so that you’ll be well positioned to find a new source of funding (in the form of a job or post-doc!) once you complete your degree.

In some cases, getting into your dream program may require you to develop your résumé through a one- or two-year (non-terminal) master’s program. Keep in mind, however, that such master’s programs are not likely to come with funding. You would probably have to bear the considerable out-of-pocket costs of an MA or MS program. Then, assuming you landed a place in a PhD program thereafter (during which you’d probably earn another non-terminal master’s along the way), you’d still bear the costs—even if they’re just opportunity costs—of your further studies.

Pursuing your calling is almost always worth the cost—but you should be as strategic as you can, as early as you can, to ensure that your calling will also earn you a living.

Insider Tip #5: Plan Ahead—Far, Far Ahead

Regardless of whether you decide to go to graduate school right away, you’ll need to plan your studies in advance. The further ahead, the better.

Application Timeline

If you’re reading this during your junior year or earlier, then you still have time to apply for graduate school immediately following college. Many graduate programs have deadlines as early as October, especially for doctorates. If you think you’ll want to go directly from college to graduate school, you’ll have to hit the ground running your senior year. You’ll need months (or more) of preparation to research programs and scholarships, study for and take the GRE, and get letters of recommendation.

If your senior year has already started, or if you just don’t need the added stress on your plate, then you might strongly consider waiting that extra year (or more) to apply. 

GRE and Recommendation Letters 

Either way, don’t wait to take the GRE or ask for your recommendation letters. The longer you’ve been away from school, the harder these will be. Your GRE scores will be valid for five years, so you can take the exam while you’re still in “school mode”—as long as you plan to apply to graduate school within that five-year period.

If you opt to take a year or more between college and graduate school, then you should decide—while you’re still in college—who among your professors you’d like to request letters of recommendation from. Mention your future plans to them, and keep copies of the work you did in their classes. When you ultimately decide to apply, ask for letters of recommendation (giving plenty of notice), and supply them with a brief list of your relevant accomplishments as well as copies of any assignments of which you’re especially proud.

You may opt to get all of your materials ready in time to apply during your senior year of college—even if you do ultimately want to proceed directly to graduate school. Here’s an inside secret: If you’re accepted to start a grad program one year, you can ask to defer to the following year. The request is not a guarantee, however; it’s still up to your faculty advisor whether you’ll be permitted to defer. 

Graduate Program Research 

At this point, you should already have done research into which programs are likeliest to launch you into your desired future career. Next, try to meet with faculty members who are doing the most interesting work that aligns with your aspirations. See if you connect with these professors; as a graduate student, much of your time will be spent working directly for or with them and their other students. For many graduate degrees, your admission decision will be made by your prospective future advisor (and his or her available grant funding).

Remember that not all graduate programs accept new candidates every year. It’s possible that your perfect advisor or program won’t be taking anyone at all next year. 

Insider Tip #6: Know That There Are Benefits (and Drawbacks) for Both Choices

There are positives—and negatives—no matter what you choose. Some are universal (if you start earlier, you’re likely to finish earlier), and some will be specific to you (how graduate school fits into your personal plans, for instance). You’ll need to consider all of the pros and cons carefully before you settle on a graduate school timeline.

Taking a Break

A break brings a number of benefits. In addition to getting a (perhaps much-needed) hiatus from school, it frees you up to do anything you want (so long as you can afford it). Perhaps you’ll want to work or travel, or work and travel. You can likely look forward to a steady income and free time. (No more studying on weekends!) You’ll also build your professional experience and gain a working-world model for how to organize your time into a 40(ish)-hour work week. If you end up taking time off between college and graduate school, you can try to pick up research-assistant work from a professor you hope to study with, volunteer, join community organizations, or complete your own creative projects to build relevant skills. All of these can be incredible experiences, and they’ll undoubtedly provide fodder for your future graduate school personal statements. Most of all, the time management skills you’ll cultivate are likely to help you immensely as you embark on your graduate studies.

Still, taking time off can present challenges for returning to school. Taking extra time will also extend your studies further into the future. If, for instance, you’re planning on finishing a doctoral program, then it’s going to take a huge amount of self-discipline to get through those four to seven-plus years. In addition, as you get established in a career, your goals might change. On a personal level, you might meet your soulmate, and even decide to start a family. None of this means that you can’t still apply to graduate school later, but you’ve got to know yourself, and consider whether you would be disappointed if your goals ultimately change.

Going Directly to Graduate School

There are many benefits to pursuing graduate school immediately following college. As we said, the sooner you begin, the sooner you’ll finish. Graduate school is a long haul, and an early start can help reduce the effect of prolonged study on your personal life. You’ll also have momentum from your college days—and lots of current relationships with faculty members.

Still, you may not have the experience, maturity, or time-management skills to succeed in graduate school. You may not (yet) have the credentials to gain admission. And even if you do get in, starting too soon may mean that you don’t finish at all. You’ll also be forgoing the opportunity to earn (and save!) money, and to get real-world experience before you go back to school. Even if you land a fellowship, those four to seven-plus years come with opportunity costs of their own: money not (yet) saved, and career experience not (yet) accrued.

A Final Word

The right time to go to graduate school is when you know you can be a successful graduate student. You’ll need to be an effective planner and initiative taker; you’ll need to have the maturity to rebound from disappointments and the stamina to complete a long project on your own, without much interaction or (potentially) direction. Above all, you’ll need to be mentally ready for the marathon of graduate studies.

If you’re not ready yet, you can be in the future! With practice and commitment, you can learn to be great at anything. In the meantime, prepare for your future by keeping an eye on those top programs and deadlines. Think about where you want to go and how you’re going to get there. You’ll never be too old—or too young—to pursue graduate studies.