At this time of year, there is a lot of discussion of “grad school” as an option for what to do after graduation. This can be an excellent next step in your career development, but “grad school” is not just one thing. Any student making a decision about whether or not to pursue an advanced degree needs to be aware of the different types of options.
The most important distinction that prospective graduate students must make is between graduate programs that are research oriented and those that are professionally oriented. This is not always a clear delineation, and many programs have elements of both. When you are considering and applying to programs, it is vital to determine their emphasis so that you can make the best selection for your interests and produce the strongest possible application.
Do you have a passion for working in the lab or the field to make new discoveries? Do you want to go to graduate school to improve your knowledge and skills so that you can design better studies in the future? If so, then you should seek out a graduate program with a research focus. If your answer to those questions is no, and you want to go to graduate school to enter a particular profession or to gain the knowledge and skills to move forward in a non-research career, you should consider programs with a stronger professional focus.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD or doctorate) programs in the sciences clearly have a very strong emphasis on the pursuit of new knowledge through the use of the scientific method. On the other hand, law school and medical school are easily identifiable as professional programs, because they prepare you for the licensing exam(s) in a particular profession. Likewise, Masters of Business Administration (MBA), Masters of Public Administration (MPA), and Professional Science Masters (PSM) degrees, while not preparing you for a particular license, have a strong focus on developing professional knowledge and skills. This is not to say that these programs do not involve scientific learning and research, clearly medical school and PSMs do, but there is a difference in emphasis.
The type of degree that can cause the most confusion is the Master of Science (MS). There are MS programs that are very research oriented and others that are more professionally oriented. So how do you tell the difference? You should look at what the program’s web page and materials feature as important and also at their advice for your application. Programs with a more research focus often ask you to explore potential advisers and/or discuss the topic you want to research. If the materials seem to assume that applicants will eventually pursue a PhD, that also generally means that it likely emphasizes research.
As you consider graduate school, make sure that you are comparing programs for how they will move you toward your goals. If you do not know what your goals are, graduate school is often a very expensive way to try to discover them. Make an appointment to talk with your academic adviser and/or me (Piper Hodson, NRES Student Services Coordinator) about the grad school option. The Career Center here at Illinois has terrific sources of information available athttp://www.careercenter.illinois.edu/gradschool/resources. Another good resource for considering and applying to graduate programs is Getting In: An Applicant’s Guide to Graduate School Admissions, available online athttp://www.gettingintogradschool.com/book/applying-to-graduate-school.