Debunking the Top 10 Common Myths about Graduate School

Choosing to pursue a graduate degree can be a difficult decision. While it is true that graduate school is not for everyone, many people base this decision on false preconceptions of what graduate school actually entails. Here are 10 myths debunked in no particular order. 

Myth 1: You can keep a full-time job while being a full-time graduate student.

Graduate school is about becoming an expert in your chosen field. The most direct way to achieve such status is by devoting time to the subject. While you may be able to work part-time while studying, holding down a full-time job while being a full-time student will be a disadvantage for you on both fronts. There are graduate programs designed for working professionals (MBA, nursing, some masters); however, most STEM programs do not offer this option due to lab time or teaching and research hour requirements.

Myth 2: I can’t afford graduate school.

School is expensive; there’s no denying that. It is unrealistic to expect to pay off college loans or start saving for retirement as a graduate student. It is true, however, that graduate programs offer financial support. Typically PhD programs provide a tuition waiver as well as a teaching or research assistantship, which creates a stipend enough for you to live on. Masters programs may also offer the same benefits, but it is important to look into the specific program you are considering as the financial support differs greatly by institution. There is also federal financial aid available to students who qualify. 

Myth 3: Graduate school is only about taking more classes.

Graduate school is multifaceted. In addition to taking advanced classes, you also have added responsibility. Throughout your years in the program, you will find yourself working as a research aide under an advisor, teaching an undergraduate class or lab, conducting your own research, attending and presenting at conferences, and eventually writing a Masters’ and/or a PhD thesis.

Myth 4: Only the students who get straight A’s belong in graduate school. 

Research shows that grades are not the sole indicator of intellectual ability. While having a good GPA may boost your chances of being accepted into a program, the admissions committee will focus their attention on other parts of your application to make their decision. This includes your personal statement, letters of recommendation, classes you have taken, internships, prior research experience, and other relevant experience. If you do have a low GPA, a good score on the Graduate Readiness Exam (GRE) may improve your application (depending on the school, see below). The bottom line is that success in graduate school is determined by perseverance and passion rather than by the ability to get straight A’s.

Myth 5: It is really important to get an impressive GRE score.

The long reign of the GRE actually may be coming to a close as more and more schools are slowly but surely dropping it as an admissions requirement. Recent studies have shown little correlation between scores on the GRE and success in graduate school. This has raised concerns that requiring the GRE puts underrepresented groups at a disadvantage, so many schools are opting out. It is important to note that this decision has come with pushback with some critics claiming the studies are flawed. You can read more about these studies and the GRE controversy here. Although it may be a while before the GRE is eliminated altogether (if ever), getting an extremely high score is not one of the most important portions of your application. As mentioned above, you can balance a lower score with better grades, supportive recommendation letters, or with an impressive CV that includes research experience (such as participation in SURE!).

Myth 6: Graduate school programs are always extremely competitive.

While this may sometimes be the case, not all graduate programs are this way. Graduate school can also be a time where you establish strong bonds with fellow classmates, often over shared effort and struggles. The bonds you establish with people in graduate school can last a lifetime; these friends could become your future coworkers, partners, collaborators–even possibly your boss or employee.

Myth 7: It’s only worth going to graduate school if you get into a top-ranked school or program.

Choosing a program based solely on how highly it is ranked is not a good strategy. There are lots of stories in which students who graduated from top schools failed dismally. Employers know this and are more interested in hiring motivated, driven, and dedicated workers. What matters most often is the degree itself and what you bring to the table.

Myth 8: You have to pursue graduate school directly after college.

Statistics show that, for many institutions, the average graduate student is in his or her early 30s. No matter the school, it is almost certain that a variety of ages will be represented in the graduate program. When you pursue graduate studies, a lot of personal factors come into play (financial, personal, etc.) that can affect your timeline. Some people may want to take a gap year or two while others may not realize until after a couple of years in the workforce that they want to go back and study something else. For many others, it makes sense to start directly after college. It’s a personal journey!

Myth 9: Graduate students have no social life.

You’re bound to make close friends in graduate school. Afterall, you are surrounded by people with a shared effort, vision, and passion. Embrace the late night study sessions and communal struggles of graduate school. Those friendships often last a lifetime. While there might be an initial struggle to find a manageable work-life balance, eventually you will find what works for you. Some people even claim that graduate school is the ideal time to start a family because of the flexibility of the academic schedule.  

Myth 10: After completing graduate school, you have to become a professor.

Yes, many people do pursue a graduate degree with the intention to stay in academia for the rest of their lives, but many people pursue a fruitful career outside academia. One study cites that among the doctorate holders in natural sciences, engineering, and life sciences, only 30% of them continue their career in academia. That means 70% pursue a career outside academia whether it be through industry, government, or hospitals. Regardless of the career you choose, earning an advanced degree will boost your earning potential and employability.

Learn more about what graduate school actually entails at our seminar on Wednesday, June 24th!

Written by Drs. Marie Meyer and Brittany Stephenson – Assistant Professors of Computer and Mathematical Sciences

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