The most important questions you can ask yourself is why you really want to attend graduate school. Too many student enroll because they have been encouraged by others and because they haven’t explored other options. This is not sufficient! You should be very clear about why you want to devote the necessary time and energy to developing specialized expertise in this area. Many students counsel taking at least a year off after undergraduate studies to explore alternatives and to develop clearer focus.
You should also develop a clear idea about what doctoral studies entails. Doctoral work is very, very different from undergraduate, master’s or professional degree programs (MBA, JD, MD). It is much, much less structured. Typically, students take classes for 1-3 years, and then spend the remainder of the time solely pursuing research and scholarship. Often, students begin working on research from the very beginning of their time in school. The duration of the degree is unpredictable, but typically runs 5-7 years. The goal of the Ph.D. is to train students to be independent researchers and scholars, and so learning how to think, to theorize, and to conduct research is more important than learning more facts. Much of doctoral work is solitary and autonomous. It is also relatively flexible and individually determined. One student’s course of study and time table may be radically different from another student’s. Furthermore, doctoral training differs among disciplines. Be sure that you understand what the conventions and norms of your chosen field are.
The five questions you should be able to answer before you begin to look at specific programs are these:
1. Why do you want the degree?
Why a Ph.D. instead of work or a professional degree? Are you getting the degree to please someone else or at someone else’s suggestion, such as a family member or a faculty member? What other options have you seriously considered? One way to learn more about doctoral studies is to do research in a lab or with a professor, in the summer or during the academic year. Another good strategy is to take a year or two off between undergraduate and graduate school and work in or near your field of study in order to experience the realities of doing the work.
What is your driving passion? Why do you want to study in this field? What attracts you to this area of study? Are their other areas of study which would be good alternatives? Can you describe what you love about your discipline? What questions and aspects of the discipline arouse your passions? Is this passion sufficient to sustain you in difficult times?
2. What are your career goals?
It may be noble to consider graduate study for the sake of knowledge, it is important to consider what career you want to follow after the Ph.D. What career options does the Ph.D. give you? Can you enter your chosen career without a Ph.D.? What do you know about the day-to-day lives of the people who are in the careers you aspire to? What personal characteristics does a successful person in this field possess (persistence, enjoying working alone, marketing skills, etc.)?
3. What is the job market?
As you consider your career goals, find out what the job market is like in that area. For many fields the academic job market, that is the number of jobs as professors, are very small. There are many more people who are seeking faculty jobs than there are jobs available. In some fields there are many jobs in government or industry.
4. What is doctoral study like?
As described above, doctoral study differs from undergraduate studies. Be sure that you spend some time learning what doctoral study is like. Talk to graduate students at your current institution (or a nearby institution) about the realities of graduate school. Seek out graduate school-like experiences: write an honor’s thesis, work in a lab, take a graduate level course. If you have not spent time at a research-intensive university, you may want to learn how faculty-student interactions differ at such an institution.
You also should consider the work settings and challenges that will face you and determine whether you are suited to doctoral study:
§What kind of work settings are most conducive for you (lots of people, very quiet, juggling many projects, working on one thing)?
§Are you a persistent person? Do you finish things in spite of adversity? Did you have a lot of incompletes or dropped courses as an undergraduate?
§What kind of relationship do you envision with an advisor? Would you talk about personal matters or would you want solid boundaries between work and personal life?
§To what extent do you like being in charge of your own life? To what extent do you want your advisor determining your research agenda and your future career path?
§What other aspects of your life are important? How do you imagine balancing family, friend and personal responsibilities with graduate school?
§What if you don’t finish?
5. What is it like in that field?
Not only should you consider what graduate study is like generally, but you should consider what it is like in your field of choice. What are characteristics of the research? Do they suit you?
Related quotes from students
Introduction | 1: Questions for yourself | 2: Questions for program | 3: Questions for advisor | Resources
Survey on Doctoral Education