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It is generally presumed that the higher the degree, the more focused the curriculum, instruction, and research will be within the program. By this point, a student should have figured out what they want to do with their career and seeking a graduate degree within their chosen field will help ensure that they are qualified and ready for that career path.
However, anyone who has looked at the course of study for a graduate program quickly realizes the breadth and depth of knowledge they will be required to gain before graduating. Whether you are entering into a two-year master’s program or a five-year doctoral program you will be required to enroll in an array of classes that help you prepare for that real world career. Of course, it will be different than your bachelor’s degree experience. A typical bachelor’s degree requires 120 credits or about 40 courses during the course of a college career. About half of these are more general interest courses with typically the last half more specified to a major. A master’s student will take anywhere from 36 to 54 credits or 12 to 18 courses and a doctoral student will most likely complete 90 to 120 credits or 30 to 40 classes. While these courses and credits fall under a much more narrowed curriculum, it is safe to say the classes will still cover a range of topics. Additionally, master’s and doctoral programs often require more practicum hours, larger projects and research, a thesis or dissertation, and possibly an internship. Checking off how many classes you have taken is only a small part of the overall program requirements compared to those of a bachelor’s degree. Involvement in real world opportunities and experiences is key in graduate school for career preparedness.
Checking off how many classes you have taken is only a small part of the overall program requirements compared to those of a bachelor’s degree.
While you are being faced with all these classes, there is a bright side. As a graduate student you’ve reigned in your focus and so have the graduate programs. You will not be required to take that “history of modern art” class if you are aiming to receive a master’s in statistics. The new, specific focus is good. It allows you to align your interests and goals with an appropriate college, program, advisor, research, course of study, etc. A lack of specific interests or goals may make navigating graduate school slightly more difficult. Trust me, there is plenty of room for distraction (intentional or not) in graduate school!
So how can we make sure we are prepared for the real world after graduation? The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016) reports that for at least the past 10 years, individuals average a 4 to 4.5 year tenure at a job. Clearly, the former trend of obtaining a job and retiring from that same exact job is not there anymore. Based on the statistics, your work setting will most likely be changing every few years. While you may still be in your field of specialty other factors will most likely change. Job duties/responsibilities, clienteles, work environment, etc. will shift between companies or environments. No two jobs will be exactly the same. This is where a variety of experiences during graduate school will prove beneficial.
While you may have applied to the program to work with a specific faculty member, reaching outside your specific interest might provide you with the opportunity to engage in other interests you did not know you had. Or…make you go running back and feeling validated that you want to stick with your interest!
When entering my graduate program I initially intended to work with children with anxiety. This was an extremely focused interest. Turns out there was no “children with anxiety” class just as in the real world there is also no “I only help children with anxiety” option. As various opportunities arose within my program, I often took them. By doing that I ended up working with a wide variety of populations. I conducted therapy with children and adolescents in a hospital/clinic setting, performed evaluations for juveniles at a detention center, worked at a K-8 school for children with emotional disabilities, did research and wrote my dissertation on homeless students, and completed an internship primarily at a special needs preschool. The diverse experiences gave me a greater understanding of children in all age levels and a variety of different settings. It also turns out that in each setting and experience there were children with anxiety. If I had only followed my initial interest and intent of working with anxious children at an anxiety clinic it would not have opened my eyes to what anxiety looks like in a classroom setting, in a preschooler, in a juvenile offender, or in children in a self-contained classroom.
Many students go to graduate school to pursue specific interests. Perhaps to work with children with special needs or perhaps to be a statistician. You research the best program, apply, get in, and start working away. Then comes the realization that “children with special needs” is broader than you had ever imagined or the role of statistician comes with job duties you were not expecting. One advantage of graduate school is that the faculty and nature of the classes set you up for diverse learning experiences. While you may have applied to the program to work with a specific faculty member, reaching outside your specific interest might provide you with the opportunity to engage in other interests you did not know you had. Or…make you go running back and feeling validated that you want to stick with your interest!
How do you know if you like something or not if you do not try it? Graduate school is an optimal time to try out new work-related experiences. There are a few reasons for this. You are constantly being supervised. Since you do not have your degree yet, there is most likely someone checking your work, progress, skill level, etc. on a regular basis. It is expected that you have questions, make mistakes, grow, and learn. By taking opportunities in areas you might not have originally been interested in you have the ability to learn in a temporary setting. For example, taking on a semester-long research project or a one academic year long graduate assistantship that may not be within your very specific focus but gives your learning experience and resume more depth. While my graduate program emphasized school-based learning experiences we had opportunities to gain experience in other settings as well. During my fourth year I was given the opportunity to conduct therapy with children and adolescents in a hospital setting. While completely out of my comfort zone, I decided to take it. I have to admit that at the beginning of the year I strongly disliked the entire experience and quickly decided I would not conduct therapy in the future. However, I knew it was temporary and it would be over within a year. I met with my supervisor weekly and while I felt like I was stumbling through it I was also gaining invaluable experience from her and my clients. By the end of the year I did not want to say good bye to my clients and most surprisingly, I learned that I do in fact want to provide therapy again in the future.
Overall, graduate school is a balance of maintaining your focus but not pigeon-holing yourself into a niche that may make future employment difficult. Being open to new opportunities and experiences within your research, practicum, courses, collaborations etc. can make for a more fulfilling graduate school experience and robust resume upon your inevitable graduation!
Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016). Employee tenure summary. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/news.release/tenure.nr0.htm