To Grad School, or Not to Grad School? That is the Question.

After graduating from UVA, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. So, along with trying a wide variety of jobs, I also applied to THREE different grad-school programs (at more than 12+ different schools).  Oye.  Although it all worked out for me, I wish I had thought the whole grad-school thing through more critically.

At UVA, I double majored in psychology and SWAG (Studies in Women and Gender) and I LOVED my classes immensely. I had no idea what I was going to do with those majors, but I figured that since I had thoroughly enjoyed my classes, perhaps I should just “keep right on going”. (This logic worked for Forrest Gump in terms of running across the US; seemed like a good plan to me!)

Grad School Applications #1: Thus, I applied to a bunch of PhD Programs in Gender Studies/Sociology IMAG2227-1-1/Psychology. I got into a few, but upon further reflection I realized: wait a second, I’m not sure enough about this AT ALL to commit to 5+ years of my life to this.  So, I didn’t go and continued trekking on in my career.

Grad School Applications #2: After working for a few years I decided that my passion had always been working with students, so a Master’s in Student Affairs would make sense. I applied to many programs, and even got into an Ivy League program (I may or may not have had that acceptance letter on my refrigerator for years), but then I started researching salary ranges for the types of jobs I’d likely land after earning the MA, and realized it would take me forever to pay back my student loans. Though I thought this career would be a good fit for me, I wasn’t sure enough to go into that much debt. And so again, I declined.

Grad School Applications #3: After a few more years, and a zillion networking events/job applications, I realized that to get into the types of jobs I was most interested in (HR/training/career advising/student affairs), I really did need to get a Master’s degree. I opted for an MBA because I thought having a broad business background would make me more marketable for a variety of interesting jobs.  In addition, instead of doing a residential program, I decided to pursue an online MBA while working full-time to make my student loans more manageable.

I took two years to earn my MBA through UNC Kenan-Flagler’s AWESOME online MBA program, and after I finished the program, I landed my dream job providing Career & Leadership Services through MBA@UNC.

Kenan-FlaglerLeadership Day


I believe there are two excellent reasons to go to grad school:

1)     You are passionate and in love with a subject.  Earning a degree in that subject would fulfill a life bucket-list goal for you, or would bring you joy and satisfaction, even if it doesn’t lead to career enhancements.

2)     You have done your homework, and you are 95% pretty sure you know what career path you’d like to pursue.  AND, it has become apparent to you that you cannot get there without this degree.

This means, before you apply to grad school, I recommend:

Taking self-assessments to ensure you have a really good idea of the type of career you’d find satisfying (that would also work for your life salary/life-style wise).

– I really like Career Leader, StrengthsFinder, Strong Interests Inventory and Stand Out.

Talk to many people in that field to investigate the best way to “get in”.  If NOT going to school is an option, TRY THAT FIRST!  Have you tried all of these options?

1)     Networking with people in the industry

2)     Having internal references submit applications for you

3)     Doing related internships/entry-level jobs/volunteer work

If the answer to any of the above is “no” or “well…sort of…” I recommend you go back to the drawing board and/or talk through your options with a career advisor. U.Va has great Career Advisors available to both students and alumni, and there are professional career advisors you can hire, as well.

If, after doing the above, earning the degree still makes sense, go for it!

If you do not fall into either of these categories, I recommend doing more soul searching. Grad school is HARD WORK. Everyone I know who has pursued a postgraduate degree has thought to themselves at some point…why am I doing this to myself again!? Unless you have a clear answer to that question, you are going to drive yourself crazy, or not do very well in the program, or drop out…or all of the above! Not to mention, grad school is expensive – both because of tuition, and because of the loss of income while pursuing your degree (unless you go the “working professional student” route, which I highly recommend). The financial piece alone should be reason to give this decision serious thought. That being said, if you determine grad school IS the right thing for you, I can’t recommend it enough. I loved my grad school experience, and am so glad to have been able to do it!


Before applying to/entering grad-school, be darn sure you need to earn that degree to get into a career path that you are 95% sure you’d love. OR, be so passionate about the subject that even with 0% monetary ROI, it would still be worth it to you. If you do this, you can pursue grad-school with no regrets and no doubts. Go for it, and good luck!


Mary Ryan-HeadshotPost by Mary Ryan (CLAS ’08). Mary earned her BA from UVA and her MBA through UNC Kenan-Flagler’s online program: MBA@UNC. She is thrilled to now be working for MBA@UNC as part of the Career & Leadership Services Team.



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