Graduate education is very different from undergraduate education. You will have a closer relationship with faculty than you had as an undergraduate, and you will rely on your fellow students for ideas, criticism, and stimulation. To be successful, you must be self-directed, intellectually curious, hard-working, flexible, and committed. Graduate school is designed for people who enjoy researching one topic in depth. If you cannot find satisfaction with extensive writing, researching, and intellectual discussion, graduate school is probably not the place for you.
When thinking about what you want from graduate school, be sure your goals and the purpose of graduate education match. For some fields, a graduate degree is crucial, while for others, it will not help you advance to a higher level on its own. Graduate school is not the place for you if you simply cannot decide what else to do with your life. There should be some purpose. Education for its own sake is a valid reason, but delaying inevitable decisions about your future is not. Deciding whether to attend graduate school is a decision that requires some careful thought and is one that should not to be made lightly.
There are several questions to ask yourself which will assist in this process.
Do you really love the field enough?
Going to graduate school usually involves a career choice. You really need to be enthused about this career area to be able to keep up with the demands and intensity of graduate life. Take some time to investigate your field of interest before applying. Talk to alumni or professors in the field, and read resources on the subject.
Is an advanced degree required?
In many professional fields, such as medicine, law, psychology, and education, an advanced degree is a must. For others, a graduate degree can enhance your earning power in an occupation and can influence how far and fast you will advance in your field. Most human service fields are examples of this. Your chances of obtaining increased responsibility in your job will be enhanced through obtaining an advanced degree.
Do you have the financial resources?
You may feel you need to take a couple of years off to work to save money for graduate school. Many graduate students, though, are able to cover all or a substantial amount of the cost with grants, fellowships or assistantships. Obtaining a loan is also a possibility. Make sure you investigate these options before deciding you don't have the financial means. Also, remember that most fellowships are competitive and are awarded early.
Should you take some time off?
Take some time to assess your energy level. Do you have the motivation to stay in school for one to seven more years? You may need to take some time off to "discover yourself" and/or gain some work experience. Many students find that after taking time off to work, they are better prepared academically for graduate school and have clearer defined goals. They also find that they have a better perspective on life in general, and they have the energy to invest themselves in their education. Taking time off can also give you the information needed to determine exactly what program you need for a particular field. In addition, some graduate schools won't accept students without some prior work experience. (This is true of most MBA programs.)
Do you go to school full-time or part-time?
Going to graduate school full-time is a more intensive process and allows you to interact with colleagues in your program at a closer level. Some programs require that you go full-time, and it may be difficult or not possible to get some types of financial aid without attending full-time. Attending school part-time, though, does allow you the chance to work in the field, earn money, and complete your degree during a longer time period. Another option may be to work in an organization that is willing to foot the bill for graduate school.
When to Attend?
If you plan to attend graduate school, you will need to decide if you would like to attend immediately after graduation, or wait a year or two. Though many seniors begin the year pursuing graduate school plans, only about 20-30% of the senior class end up enrolling in graduate school immediately following graduation. Most graduates opt to work a year or two and then pursue graduate school plans. There are advantages to both choices.
In looking at the advantages to proceeding directly on, there is more continuity of learning between undergraduate and graduate school and you will probably still be in the "studying mode." Secondly, many students find it is easier to finance graduate school when there aren't other major financial obligations, such as marriage, mortgages and children. Undergraduate loans can be deferred while attending school, as well. Lastly, if you are enthusiastic and certain about a career decision where graduate school is needed, attending right away will quicken the time in which you can enter the profession.
The advantages of waiting a year or two before attending graduate school have already been outlined above. To recap: if you are uncertain about the field you would like to study, if there are goal conflicts on the reasons for attending graduate school, and if it would be advantageous to gain some work experience and/or, take some time off.