What is Graduate School and Why Should You Go?

Graduation cap on stack of books symbolizing grad school - image by Magoosh

So you’re thinking about applying to graduate school! It’s an exciting time, but it may also be an overwhelming one. But don’t worry! Whether you’re wondering, what is graduate school? or why you should (or shouldn’t) apply, our experts are here to answer your questions. Read on to learn about what is grad school, pros and cons of attending, and what you should take into consideration before going.


Table of Contents


What Is Graduate School?

Before you even start considering which graduate programs to apply to, it’s important to step back for a second and ask: what is graduate school?

The answer can really vary, depending on your field. However, generally speaking, graduate school is higher education that focuses either on developing your research skills or your professional skills in a particular discipline. Of course, this division between research and professional skills isn’t always clear-cut, and some programs involve training in both areas.


Graduate School vs. Undergrad

If you’re hoping to draw out the college experience a little longer, look elsewhere—grad programs tend to be very different! Here are a few ways that graduate school is different from your undergraduate education.

  • Courses are more specialized. You won’t find many (if any!) “Intro to” general topics courses in graduate school. Instead, faculty members will expect you to already have a solid foundation in the topic you’re going to study for graduate-level courses.
  • Class sizes are much smaller. Furthermore, they’re more likely to resemble senior seminars than they are lectures.
  • Research becomes more important. Instead of learning about other people’s research, you’ll now be expected to conduct your own. This means a stronger emphasis on primary sources, experiments, and original work in general.
  • You’re expected to commit to your subject. No changing majors here: in grad school, you’re either in a particular field of study, or you quit the program.
  • Classmates have a variety of different ages and backgrounds. While in-person residential undergraduate programs tend to skew younger, people in graduate school may enroll after years in the workforce—or they may enroll right after college. This leads to a more diverse age range.

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Types of Grad School Programs

Graduate studies break down into four categories: professional programs, specialist programs, master’s programs, and doctoral programs. These degree programs take different amounts of time and involve different mixtures of research and coursework.

  • Professional programs train you extensively for a specific field. Usually, graduate students enter a professional school with just an undergraduate degree, though advanced degrees in another or related field may help your application stand out! These are programs like medical school, law school, and business school. Degrees include MD, JD, and MBA.
  • Specialist programs provide you with in-depth education in a particular area. These are programs like those offering teaching credentials. People usually enroll in them to qualify for a particular job. One example is the EdS, which school principals may need.
  • Master’s programs offer a more specialized education in a field than you’ll receive in undergraduate studies. A wide variety of disciplines provide masters’ degrees, from social work to social sciences to hard sciences. Note that there can be some overlap between master’s degrees and professional degrees (as in the Master of Business Administration, or MBA, which is also a professional degree). Master’s degrees vary a lot in terms of the academic work they require: some require only coursework, while others may require you to complete research or internships, as well. Examples of master’s programs in the United States are those leading to the Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS), or Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degrees.
  • Doctoral programs are the highest level of graduate school. Students normally enroll after completing a master’s degree, though some doctorate degrees offer a master’s degree en route to the Doctor of Philosophy, or Ph.D. (i.e. after one or two years of coursework). For a doctoral degree, you’ll be expected to contribute to original research, producing a dissertation after 5-7 years. A doctoral program traditionally leads to a Ph.D., though it may also lead to an EdD or other doctorate.

No matter what level of program you’re looking at, though, graduate school will involve a deeper dive into your area of specialization. Grad school requirements are generally more challenging than undergraduate requirements.

Compared to your undergraduate studies, you’ll find that studies are more focused, with few (if any) electives. Similarly, in comparison to undergraduate programs, graduate program classes are much smaller, and you’ll be expected to participate extensively. Finally, it’s likely you will be expected to produce or contribute to original research. Along with this comes a higher level of evaluation—an A in a Ph.D. course is much rarer than an A in a bachelor’s degree course!

Graduate school can take as little time as nine months or as long as seven (or more) years to complete. How long it takes will depend entirely on the program and how much time you’re able to commit to it, as well as the options (part-time, online courses, summer semesters) for meeting grad school requirements the program provides.


Graduate School Pros vs. Cons

After understanding what is grad school?, the next natural question is: why go? The answer is as varied as individuals are, but one thing is for sure: there are a ton of benefits to graduate education—but there may also be some drawbacks. Many of these factors are related to what you do after grad school, so keep that in mind as well.


Top 3 Benefits of Grad School

1. Career Advancement (Promotion and Pay Raises)

You may find that, within your field, a graduate degree is needed to progress to the next job level. Many business settings have degree requirements for particular positions. In some corporations, managerial positions can require MBAs—just one reason among many that you may want to check out business schools. With these kinds of opportunities, an associated benefit of a grad degree is also higher pay.

2. Prepare for Research and Academic Work

In academia and research, upper-level jobs demand graduate degrees. Professors are usually required to have “terminal degrees,” or the highest degree in their field. In many cases, this is a Ph.D., but it can also be a JD for a law school professor, an MFA for a creative writing professor, or a variety of other degrees depending on the area.

3. Advance Your Subject-Specific Knowledge and Expertise

For many people, the reason they seek out graduate education is the same reason that grad school can open up more opportunities and higher salaries: it offers the chance to obtain extra training, particularly specialized training, and credentials in their field.


Possible Drawbacks

1. Cost/Student Debt

Full-time graduate programs at private universities can cost upwards of $50,000 a year—or even more for programs like MBAs and JDs. If you don’t have this money saved (as many people won’t), or get a scholarship, it can mean years of high student loan payments. This can be particularly onerous if you’re not planning on pursuing a high paying profession afterwards.

2. Time Commitments

Time can present a particular issue if you’re planning to work while attending grad school. Many programs are designed as full-time commitments in their own right, demanding 40+ hours of combined classroom, research, and/or internship time a week.

Part-time degrees may offer a solution in this case but will almost always involve a substantial time commitment. It’s a good idea to talk to current students to see what the workload for different programs is.

3. Limited Job Prospects

This varies widely by field. However, there are many anecdotes from people in the humanities, for example, who pursued an expensive master’s degree in their field only to find that it didn’t open up any additional career opportunities—and in the meantime, saddled them with student loan debt.

Again, this differs so much by field and program that the best way to see how helpful a particular program may be for your own career is to talk to current and former students.

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A Final Word

When you’re thinking about going to graduate school, try evaluating each factor as it applies to you. How does grad school fit into your career plans? Your financial situation? Your ideal life path?

These questions can seem overwhelming, but by thinking about them carefully, you’ll be better able to make the right choice for you about whether attending grad school is worth it. Good luck!

More Grad School Resources


  • Rachel Kapelke-Dale

    Rachel is a Magoosh Content Creator. She writes and updates content on our High School and GRE Blogs to ensure students are equipped with the best information during their test prep journey. As a test-prep instructor for more than five years in there different countries, Rachel has helped students around the world prepare for various standardized tests, including the SAT, ACT, TOEFL, GRE, and GMAT, and she is one of the authors of our Magoosh ACT Prep Book. Rachel has a Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Literature from Brown University, an MA in Cinematography from the Université de Paris VII, and a Ph.D. in Film Studies from University College London. For over a decade, Rachel has honed her craft as a fiction and memoir writer and public speaker. Her novel, THE BALLERINAS, is forthcoming in December 2021 from St. Martin's Press, while her memoir, GRADUATES IN WONDERLAND, co-written with Jessica Pan, was published in 2014 by Penguin Random House. Her work has appeared in over a dozen online and print publications, including Vanity Fair Hollywood. When she isn't strategically stringing words together at Magoosh, you can find Rachel riding horses or with her nose in a book. Join her on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook!

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