You’re graduating from college—what comes next? Do you look for a job or do you continue your education in graduate school?
If you’re a recent college graduate, you’ve probably been plagued by this question. In fact, many graduates with diplomas in hand don’t know exactly which profession they’d like to pursue, let alone the right graduate degree. This conundrum is especially perplexing for graduates with broad majors, such as the liberal arts, because their career options are so vast.
Sarah Cotton, a 24-year-old alum of the University of New Hampshire and a former intern at StudentAdvisor, found herself in exactly this situation when she graduated two years ago.
Yet even with seemingly endless choices, Cotton was not doomed to wander aimlessly from job to job until a career path presented itself. With some exploration, networking, and initiative, she honed in on a field of interest and found the road to a graduate degree was for her. Cotton recently started a master’s degree program in international education at NYU.
[Need a flexible master’s program? Learn more about online graduate degrees in higher education.]
If you’re wondering what to do next, here are Cotton’s tips on how she found her path to grad school:
1. Take time to explore.
I started off as a Secondary English Teaching major and actually switched my major during my senior year to Journalism. I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to major in—I just loved learning! I’m still honing in on what I truly want to do, almost two years later. The liberal arts are tricky, I think, because there are so many options and avenues. I was overwhelmed with the idea that I could move in so many different professional directions. I dabbled in magazine writing, photography, social media marketing, and have ultimately come back to education, though not in a teaching role.
2. Get some work experience.
I started researching companies I liked, checking their websites for job listings, emailing them about any potential unpublished opportunities, and finding them on LinkedIn. I went back to UNH’s Career Services center to get some feedback on my résumé and advice about interviewing, something I definitely should have done as an undergraduate. I had to get used to the idea that networking wasn’t slimy—it wasn’t using someone to get a job, it was building relationships and developing trust, putting your name out there and establishing yourself in the job market. Ultimately, it was persistence and good timing that landed me my first job working in an international language school in Boston.
[Need more job search tips? How to Get a Job: Know the Yankees Score]
3. Talk to the pros.
Once I started working at the international school, I realized that if I wanted a career in higher education, I needed some more of it for myself. I set up a lot of informational interviews with higher ed professionals in the Boston area who encouraged me to seek out a degree program, so I started researching.
4. Work backward.
LinkedIn was a huge help. After connecting with professionals at colleges I was interested in working at, I viewed their LinkedIn profiles and sort of worked backward. I noted their current position and looked back to see how they got there. Did they have a master’s degree? Where did they go for that degree, and what was the program? What sort of work experience did they have after completing the program?
5. Make sure it’s worth it.
I started a spreadsheet of grad schools, programs, cost, and contact information, and then I called the program coordinator at each school to ask specific questions. I was particularly interested in the ROI (return on investment) of my grad school experience. How well known was this program in the field, and what sort of alumni base and professional networking would I receive during my time there? I had to be sure that I was making a smart investment.
[Find everything you need to know when going back to school in our ultimate Graduate Degree Guide.]
6. Take the decision seriously.
There were a lot of factors [to my decision]. For starters, I wanted to begin my program in the spring, which knocked a handful of schools off my list. My conversations with the program coordinators, admissions counselors, current students, and alumni of each school gave me a better sense of the strengths and weaknesses of that particular program. I also did a lot of personal reflection. I asked myself to be as specific as possible in determining what I wanted to do and where I wanted my career to take me. After all, the purpose of grad school is to hone your expertise in a specific field, so there was no room for wavering like I did during my undergraduate career. The final decision was easy then. Now, when I read the description of my program and the courses offered to me, I can’t help smiling and feeling so excited about what I’ll be learning. I think that’s how you should feel—like the program was designed for you.
7. Ask questions about the process.
I actually received a lot of good advice because I had seen my older brother go through the process just before me. And I reached out to a lot of different people with a lot of detailed questions. Aside from the anxiety of writing my personal statement and then waiting to hear back from my schools, I think it all went pretty smoothly.
8. Search for scholarships.
One thing I do wish I had done was spent more time looking for scholarships. They are difficult to find for grad programs because most have some sort of graduate assistantship or teaching assistant position involved. My programs didn’t offer much in the way of financial support. In the end, I decided to take out more loans in favor of a better program, and I feel confident in that decision.
[Find scholarships for grad students.]
9. Grad school is what you make it.
Graduate school is an entirely different experience than undergrad. Now that I’m older and wiser (at least I think so), I know that my program is what I make of it, and if I stay proactive and take advantage of everything at my fingertips, I will go so much farther than I could have imagined.
Sarah Cotton is pursuing graduate studies in International Education at NYU. She has experience working in journalism, higher education, and international student services. Above all, Sarah is passionate about education, travel, and helping students achieve their academic and personal goals.