As more individuals seek out graduate school, it is important for us to talk about how to determine whether grad school makes sense for you and if so, what steps you can take to ensure your acceptance into a program. Although there is no guaranteed method that will get you into grad school, the best thing that you can do for yourself is engage in self-reflection. Whether you are thinking of applying for a Master’s degree in Student Affairs, a PhD/EdD in Higher Education, or even a graduate level degree in any other field, I can promise that reflecting on these three questions will set you up for success.
The first question to ask yourself is why are you interested in the field of study that you are going to grad school for? What is it about that field that is unique from others? What is the difference between a degree in Student Affairs, Higher Education Administration, College Counseling, or Educational Leadership? Although we often use the terms “higher ed” and “student affairs” as broad categories, programs may use certain terms intentionally. Also, depending on the position you want, a degree in student affairs might not even be necessary. Although many entry-level jobs are now starting to require a Master’s degree (something I personally am unhappy about but we can explore that in a different blog post), there are still a number of jobs that do not require a Master’s degree. So spending some time thinking about what you want to do and why will help you figure out what kind of program to apply to.
The second question that you must ask yourself is why are you interested in graduate school in the first place? I often hear from folks in student affairs that they went to grad school because they enjoyed working as an Orientation Leader or as an RA and figured they would just continue on that path. And while uncertainty can absolutely lead to some exciting adventures, it can also come with a cost. After all, grad school is not light on the purse. In addition, I do not think that I would be underestimating if I said that the majority of folks that are in grad school do not particularly enjoy being in grad school. Don’t get me wrong, they still see the value of it; however, as Marie Kondo would say, grad school does not spark joy.
I am neither here to encourage you nor discourage you from going to grad school. But do understand that it is vastly different from undergrad, and I would argue even more so in a grad program in a field outside of student affairs. For example, my first graduate program was a PhD program in Music History/Theory and the workload was far more brutal in terms of readings and research papers. On the flipside, in my Master’s program in Higher Education & Student Affairs, I had multiple reflection papers that asked me to think deeply and critically about the ways my identity and lived experiences show up in the work that I do. Similarly, there is a level of emotional labor that went into my assistantship and practica experiences that I did not have to exude in my music program. So before committing yourself to an education that will last a number of years, you should do some reflection ahead of time and really think about whether that is a path that you want to do, have to do, and are able to do.
The third and final question that you need to ask yourself is, once you’ve narrowed down the list of schools to apply to, why are you interested in each program specifically? Believe it or not, just saying “I want a free ride for my education” likely won’t win over the faculty reviewing your application. So other than a possible tuition waiver and stipend for an assistantship, what else excites you about the programs you’re applying to? Are there faculty you’re excited to learn from? Does the curriculum include classes on topics that you want to learn about or feel would help you in your career when you graduate? Does the program offer you the opportunity to customize your educational experience in any particular ways (e.g., assistantship, internships, research, mentorship programs)? Since we have already established that you probably won’t be having fun in grad school, will you at least be learning what you want to learn? Grad school is too costly (financially and emotionally) for you to not even be getting the experience that you want out of it.
As I said before, there is no guaranteed path to acceptance; however, reflecting on these three questions will prepare you for all aspects of the grad school search and application process. In addition to helping you find the right program for you, these questions will also help prepare you to write the dreaded personal statement as well as answer any interview questions you may get. The application process often seems terrifying but when you are confident in yourself and your motivations for going to grad school, that will come across more clearly in your application and set you up for success. Good luck!
Author: Steven Feldman (he/they) works as the Assistant Director of the Center for Trans & Queer Advocacy at West Chester University. They also serve as the Pennsylvania State Representative for the NPGS KC. In their free time, they enjoy Animal Crossing, iced coffees from Dunkin’, and binge-watching shows on Netflix. Steven can be found on LinkedIn at @sfeldman990.