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“Dude, should I go to grad school?”

Anyone considering applying to grad school should consider program fit, finances, job market before making the jump
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FATIMA ZAIDI/THE VARSITY
FATIMA ZAIDI/THE VARSITY

Back in February, I impulsively applied to the University of Toronto’s Master of Information program after a friend told me about the program over dinner and drinks one night. The program covered a lot of topics that I was already interested in, and I figured the worst that could happen is I’d waste a few hours applying.

However, once I got my acceptance, I had to decide if grad school was right for me. Did I really want to take two years off for another degree? I had to consider a bunch of factors, such as fit, finances, and the future of the job market before making a decision. 

The basics

Applying to grad school was relatively simple. I updated my curriculum vitae, wrote a short personal statement, downloaded my unofficial transcript from my alma mater, and asked two of my previous professors to be my references, both of whom immediately said yes.

Most programs at U of T have the same admissions requirements. You need a bachelor’s degree from a recognized university, a minimum GPA above a mid-B in your final year, transcripts, and two letters of reference.

While it is possible to enter a PhD program directly from your undergraduate, you’ll need to be considered an exceptional candidate, and it’s recommended that you have an A- average in the last year of your undergraduate degree.

For graduate programs, you’ll most likely have to procure other supporting documents and can also expect to pay an application fee — at U of T, it’s $125.

Money is the next consideration for potential graduate students. Most graduate students are able to access financial aid like the Ontario Student Assistance Program, in addition to funding packages if you’re enrolled in a research-stream program. 

Rachel Katz, an old friend of mine who recently finished her master’s degree at McMaster University, let me know that you can negotiate your funding package the way you would a salary.

“People don’t tell you this, but you are allowed to counteroffer as long as you’re polite about it,” Katz said. 

The right fit?

But why expend all the effort of applying? In addition to broadening your horizons, there’s evidence that completing another degree will help your career down the line. 

A 2019 report from Statistics Canada found that “for every graduating class from 2010 to 2015, master’s degree graduates were making, on average, 40 per cent to 47 per cent more than undergraduate degree holders two years after graduation.”

But that doesn’t mean that you need to do a master’s degree right now. That same report also found that the mid-career master’s degree graduates made more money than their younger counterparts, likely due to their prior work experience. 

Applying later can also have the added benefit of clarity. Stephanie Rotz, an admissions officer at Ryerson University who completed her master’s degree after taking some time off from school, found it recalibrating. 

“I had more of an appreciation for being there [at school]… to reflect on work-life balance, student-life balance, I think, made me a better writer and researcher,” Rotz said.

This, of course, does not mean that undergraduates are not successful. Adam Wu, an admissions officer at UTM, noted that many undergraduates he advised have been able to find meaningful employment immediately after graduating.

“The students who typically want to pursue gainful employment in their areas often take part in enrichment activities, like extracurricular or student involvement co-curricular activities,” Wu said. “And it’s those students who typically are more successful in getting a job at their preferred company because they’ve already worked with people in the industry; they formed connections prior to graduation.”

And from personal experience, I know this to be true. When I applied for my master’s program, I was already working full time in public relations, a job I had gotten through connections I had built during my undergraduate.

But, it’s still unclear how the post-COVID-19 job market will look, making it difficult to rely on past successes as guides for the future. If we look back on the 2008–2009 recession, we can see some trends that risk repetition in the coming years.

In a 2019 RBC Economics report, economist Andrew Agopsowicz noted that graduates of the 2008–2009 recession had seen their wages grow more slowly than those who had entered the workforce before the market crashed, and those graduates were less likely to be in a management position by the time they reached their thirties. 

The right time?

So, the question remains: should you avoid the COVID-19 job market for a couple of years and apply to grad school? While getting another degree certainly won’t hurt your career, it’s still a big commitment.

Katz recommends asking yourself: how will you react in six months when you start hearing about your friends and colleagues receiving admissions decisions?

“If they’re getting their results, are you going to be kicking yourself for not having put an application in? If that’s the case, then I do think it’s worth putting an application in,” Katz said.

Rotz noted that getting a master’s degree isn’t a silver bullet for employment.

“[Returning to school is] only going to help you in the long run,” she said. “But formal academia doesn’t necessarily translate into a specific job, I think, in the way that our parents might expect.”

I would recommend talking to people already in the program and starting to work on your application early. Remember, grad school will always be there, even if you don’t go right away, and, despite the impulsivity of my decision to attend grad school, I can safely say that it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made all year.