At the beginning of your senior year at university, you will begin being hounded by graduate and professional schools. There are a number of different options for the prospective student, and we’ll go through them now.
- The Ph.D., M.A., M.S., M.F.A. degrees are academic degrees. In theory, the Ph.D. will take you five years, while the M.A. and M.S. will take you two. At the end of the typical program, you write a book-length publication called either a thesis or a dissertation. Successful completion qualifies you to speak, teach, and write on your own authority. A popular misconception is that you have to get an M.A. or M.S. before you get a Ph.D.. Once you have a B.A./B.S., you typically apply for one or the other program; though about halfway through your Ph.D., you may be awarded an M.Phil., which qualifies you to teach and write. Are you confused yet? Me too.
- The J.D. is the degree that allows you to take the examination given by the local bar association. Passing this examination qualifies you to practice law in your state or province. This degree typically takes three years to complete.
- The M.D., D.O., D.D.S., which is the degree which qualifies you to enter a medical or dental residency. A residency is sort of like an apprenticeship. Successful completion allows you to open up a practice and see patients. This degree typically takes three to four years, and the subsequent residency takes two to four more.
- The M.B.A. is a general business/finance degree. Some programs have specialized concentrations. Given that so many people come back to school in middle age to obtain these degrees, there is a wide variety of options available. These take 18 months to three years to obtain, with most students finishing two years after beginning.
There are various examinations which are given, in order to assess your abilities as a post-graduate student. One of the most common is the GRE. Even if you take the LSAT or the MCAT, a good GRE score is worthwhile, and you should consider taking the GRE in your senior year even if you aren’t sure you want to go ahead to more school. Both the GRE and the LSAT are quite expensive to sit, and your school’s admissions officer can help you get both waived or reduced. I know this, because I decided to be the typical stingy Mormon and get my fees waived. If I recall correctly, my school paid them both.
Should you go to graduate school? That depends on a lot of factors that I can’t properly assess. In my case, I went because my father’s side of the family places a very high importance on education. I reacquainted myself with my father while I was at university, and while he never pressured me, I knew this was a tradition and I felt obligated to at least investigate a law degree. Even so, I hated the idea of being a solicitor. It seemed (and still seems) like a high-stress life, where I’d be surrounded by unethical people.
One of the reasons I got an academic degree, rather than a JD, was due to the funding I was offered in my academic program. The reason I got such funding was my GRE score. I got a much less impressive LSAT score (I believe it was 155) which didn’t qualify me for anything. If Sigmund Freud were here, he’d tell you that I subconsciously threw the LSAT. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but anything is possible.
One thing people told me, when I was starting out, was that I would make a lot more money with a J.D. or M.B.A. than I would with an academic degree. I knew this was true, and for me it wasn’t much of a factor. A life of reading and writing about interesting stuff was worth the pay cut. One benefit of a graduate degree was an opportunity to continue learning, simply for its own sake. Once I was awarded a graduate degree, I started teaching. Once I started teaching, I was able to easily slip into other programs, and keep taking graduate coursework, and I ended up with a couple of other graduate degrees.
Upon arriving at graduate school, I was shocked by the workload. A graduate degree is very demanding, and you’ll never appreciate this without diving in and doing it. For this reason, I’d encourage any young man to put off marriage until he is out of graduate school. There was a joke circulating at my program, aimed at incoming married students. The punch line was, “you won’t be married when you’re done…” It’s simultaneously cruel, funny, and true. It is very difficult to keep a woman happy when you’re working 16 hours per day on your book.
Of the people who entered graduate school with me, over half failed to finish. Of this population of washouts, about half left because they got good job offers, and decided not to finish. The other half failed a class, failed the comprehensive exam, or just weren’t sufficiently motivated to finish and defend their work.
A common assumption is that such people aren’t intelligent enough to complete the program; but, I believe that a larger factor in washing out was inadequate commitment. A lot of people go to graduate school simply because they feel insecure about finding a job, and getting out into the world of work. They go off to a new school and find that they’re met with a huge pile of work, which doesn’t pay well, and courses to take on top of that. Suddenly, a straight job doesn’t seem so bad. If you are considering graduate school, be honest with yourself about your motivations. Completion is not really possible without the underlying drive to get it done.