What is graduate school?

Graduate school offers advanced degree programs that pick up where undergraduate studies and bachelor’s degrees end. For aspiring accountants, that might mean a master’s degree in business. For writers, that might mean a fine arts advanced degree. Med schools and law schools might even be considered graduate schools too.

Having an advanced degree is required to enter some industries. For others, it might provide a competitive edge. But there’s plenty more to learn about graduate school. 

Key takeaways 

  • Graduate schools are typically reserved for students who have already earned a bachelor’s.
  • There are different types of graduate programs—like master’s degrees and doctorates—that vary in length, cost and subject matter. 
  • The cost of graduate school can range from $30,000 to $120,000 and varies depending on the subject, institution and program length.
  • Statistics show that over time, people with graduate degrees earn more than those without.

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How does graduate school work?

Graduate school offers advanced education in a specific field or industry and is usually reserved for students who already have their bachelor’s. The curricula can vary depending on the institution and field of study, but a full-time graduate school program usually takes one to two years of study. 

According to the University of California, Berkeley, graduate school offers more concentrated study than undergraduate programs do, with higher expectations and more feedback and evaluation from fellow students and professors. The class sizes are usually smaller, with more interaction among peers. And teaching, research or internship experiences may also be offered as another way to learn.

What are terminal degrees?

A terminal degree is the highest academic degree possible in a certain field. It’s a relative term that can change. For some fields, a master’s degree might be considered a terminal degree. For others, a doctorate might be considered the highest academic degree possible.

Types of graduate degree programs

There are different types of graduate programs available. The cost, length of study and type of information taught can vary depending on the type of graduate degree program. 

Master’s degrees

A master’s degree is an advanced program that can be offered in a variety of subjects. In most cases, a master’s degree is offered to postgraduate students who have successfully completed a bachelor’s degree program. 

It typically takes one to two years to earn a master’s degree. Common types of master’s include a Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Arts (M.A.) and a Master of Public Health. But master’s degrees may be offered in many fields of study.

Specialist degrees

A specialist degree is a graduate-level opportunity that’s above a master’s and below a doctorate. It requires students to complete specialized training, coursework and certification in a specific field. An internship may also be required to earn this type of degree.

A specialist degree usually prepares students for training, licensing or a professional certification in a given subject. Some common specialist degrees include specialist in education or a specialist in psychology.

Cost of graduate school

According to the Education Data Initiative, the cost of graduate school tuition can range from $30,000 to $120,000. The total cost will depend on the subject, institution and amount of time spent to complete the program. For example, the average cost of a Master of Education is $55,200. Yet the cost of a Master of Arts degree averages $72,800. 

But earning a master’s degree at a public institution typically costs less than receiving one from a private institution. 

There’s also the cost of room and board, textbooks, equipment and supplies to consider.

How to pay for grad school

The cost of graduate school can be a big investment. But there are ways to borrow money or offset the cost:

  • School-funded aid: Some institutions offer loans or financial aid for graduate studies. Financial aid offices can help with determining eligibility and options.
  • Federal student loans: These loans tend to be more attractive than private loans because interest rates are fixed and payment plans tend to be more flexible. The process starts with filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • State aid: Certain states offer programs to help graduate students pay for or offset the cost of pursuing an advanced degree. Contact the state-specific Department of Education to learn more. 
  • Private student loans: Private student loans can be secured through banks or credit unions. Unlike federal student loans, private loans terms and requirements—like having a certain credit score—may vary from lender to lender.
  • Scholarships: There are various types of graduate scholarships available, and they can be school sponsored or privately granted. 
  • Research fellowships: Fellowships are funded, short-term arrangements that can consist of research, training or other working opportunities.
  • Teaching assistantships: Helping a professor teach a class or conduct research as an assistant is another way to offset the cost of graduate school. This work can sometimes be exchanged for tuition reimbursement or a living stipend.
  • Part-time employment or paid internships: Money earned from part-time employment or a paid internship on or off campus can be used to pay for grad school or other expenses. 

Benefits of grad school

Advanced learning opportunities

A graduate school curriculum offers specialized learning opportunities to build on lessons learned while earning a bachelor’s degree. Graduate schooling can also help students develop both soft skills and hard skills

Increased income potential

Statistically speaking, graduate students earn more than those with a bachelor’s degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly salary for undergraduate students with a bachelor’s degree is $1,334, while individuals with a master’s earn $1,574 per week on average. That $240 difference might not seem like much. But over the course of a year, it adds up to more than $12,000. The difference is even larger for professional and doctoral degrees.

More job opportunities

A graduate degree isn’t a quick fix, but it might open up more opportunities. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that those with doctoral degrees have a 1.5% unemployment rate, whereas individuals with bachelor’s degrees have a 3.5% unemployment rate. 

Building a professional network

While a graduate degree curriculum can provide in-depth knowledge about a particular field, it also allows for networking opportunities with faculty, other students and alumni that might not have been possible otherwise. 

Career advancement

In certain fields, a graduate degree is helpful for career advancement. And in other industries, it can be a requirement. Depending on the career path, a graduate degree can help a student stand out among a large pool of applicants. It could also help put students in a better position to be hired or promoted. 

Requirements needed to get into grad school

The admission requirements for grad schools vary depending on the institution and the type of graduate degree. But here are some typical requirements to expect when applying for graduate programs:

  • Undergraduate transcripts
  • Resume or curriculum vitae
  • Entrance exams results, such as the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), Law School Admission Test (LSAT) or Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Graduate school interview
  • Personal statement

Graduate school in a nutshell

Graduate school can be a big investment in both time and money. But students can develop valuable skills, gain specialized knowledge and increase their earning potential in the process. 

As you enter the real world with a grad degree in hand, it might help to learn a few tips about finding a job. And if you have life goals, like owning a home, it’s also helpful to know how to build credit. One way? Responsibly using a student credit card by doing things like staying below your credit limit and making payments on time every month.

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