A s an undergraduate, Austin Williamson was uncertain about how he would use his majors in psychology and sociology—until an influential professor sparked an interest in research.
The professor “was really encouraging. I did some honors work with him, and he helped me to think about doing research for a living,” says Williamson, of Des Moines, who is in his first year in The University of Iowa’s graduate program in clinical psychology. Ultimately, Williamson hopes to earn a doctorate and teach at a research university.
Students pursue graduate and professional degrees for a number of reasons. For some, an advanced degree is required to land jobs in their fields. For others, it’s a path to higher salaries and career advancement. Still others plan to pursue careers in research or teaching.
Parents are probably most familiar with professional degrees, which prepare students for a particular career, such as law or medicine. But students who earn graduate degrees in the sciences and humanities have career options beyond academia.
“You don’t have to be a professor at a Big Ten university,” says Daniel Tranel, chair of neuroscience in the Carver College of Medicine. “There are more and more opportunities in government, industry, and business” for people with advanced degrees, particularly in the sciences, he says.
While the undergraduate years provide a broad education and a foundation of knowledge in a subject area, a graduate education allows students to dig deeper and think critically. Many graduate degree programs culminate with a thesis or dissertation based on individual research.
Undergraduates who have a passion for a particular subject, are motivated by ideas, and are filled with interesting questions should consider graduate school in the sciences or humanities, says Dan Berkowitz, associate dean for student services and administrative affairs in the UI Graduate College.
“When I advise students, I tell them, ‘Don’t do this as the path of least resistance, just because you don’t know what else to do,’” he says. “‘Do this because you have a purpose for it. Do this because there’s something that really fascinates you about it.’”
For undergraduates who are considering graduate school, the best way to test the waters is to participate in research, says Tranel, who mentors undergraduates in several of the summer research programs offered on the UI campus. Summer research programs pair undergraduates with faculty members working on a particular area of research.
One of the best outcomes of a summer research experience is being mentored by a faculty member, says Diana Bryant, who coordinates two University of Iowa summer programs for underrepresented students—the McNair Scholars Program and the Summer Research Opportunities Program in the UI Office of Graduate Ethnic Inclusion.
“Students spend the summer with a mentor who has a very good idea of what the student’s potential is as a grad student and as a researcher,” Bryant says.
When should students start thinking about graduate school?
As outreach coordinator in the UI Office of Graduate Ethnic Inclusion, Joe Henry advises prospective students about the application process for graduate school and holds open houses and other events to encourage underrepresented students to consider graduate school. Henry urges students to allow plenty of time to research graduate programs in order to find the right fit.
Not all students will go straight to graduate school. In some professions, a few years working in the field is recommended.
“In my own discipline, journalism, we usually say, ‘Don’t earn your bachelor’s and then head straight into a master’s,” says Berkowitz, who worked for eight years before returning to school. “Really you need some time in the field to sort out what you want to do.”
When considering graduate schol, Tranel urges students—and their parents—not to focus too much on post–graduate school outcomes, like how much money students will make or what job they’ll find.
“Worry more about how exciting the subject is and how exciting the questions are that you’ll be asking,” he says. “If you love what you’re doing, and you have a passion for doing it, everything will fall into place.”
by Madelaine Jerousek-Smith