How do I Choose a Field in Graduate School?

Written by Grad School Center Team We are a passionate team of experienced educators and advisors at GradSchoolCenter.com, dedicated to guiding students through their graduate education journey. Our experts, with advanced degrees across various disciplines, offer personalized advice, up-to-date program information, and practical insights into application processes.

Reviewed by David Krug David Krug is a seasoned expert with 20 years in educational technology (EdTech). His career spans the pivotal years of technology integration in education, where he has played a key role in advancing student-centric learning solutions. David's expertise lies in marrying technological innovation with pedagogical effectiveness, making him a valuable asset in transforming educational experiences. As an advisor for enrollment startups, David provides strategic guidance, helping these companies navigate the complexities of the education sector. His insights are crucial in developing impactful and sustainable enrollment strategies.

Updated: February 13, 2024, Reading time: 8 minutes

choosing field of study

Choosing a field of study in graduate school may seem a little daunting especially for those who know they want to move into graduate work and are working on or have finished an undergraduate degree in general studies or the liberal arts.

Even for the specialized undergraduate, choosing a specific field as they move forward in their education can be an overwhelming task.

Curious about the benefits of earning a Master’s degree? 20 High-Paying Jobs That Require A Master’s Degree

For instance, when a student is looking at graduate business schools, an applicant must first choose between an MS in Business or an MBA. In an MS in Business, one has options such as the MS in Finance or Business Analytics.

When looking at an MBA, even outside of part-time, online, or executive choices the degree includes many options of specialization. For example, Penn State World Campus offers no less than 22 specializations in its MBA program.

Choosing between all these options can be overwhelming but narrowing down options at least initially can make the decision a little easier.

And, check this out: 20 Graduate Programs Where Women Are Leading The Way

First Round of Elimination: Discount the “no’s”

Using the example of the MBA from Penn State, starting with an initial “elimination round” can be helpful. A prospective student might glance through the list and immediately discount any accounting, architecture, or engineering emphases, leaving only 15 prospective specializations out of the initial 22.

Presuming a minimum of 20 initial prospective graduate schools, a student can apply this first round of elimination to each of their initial schools, going on to analyze and compare results. Because some graduate schools may offer only a few or no concentrations, some schools will begin to stand out as either more or less desirable while other schools with more concentrations will be easier to contrast.

Experts suggest applying to at least 5 graduate schools. An early exclusion of schools based on what available concentrations fit best with one’s interests will make the second round of elimination that much easier.

The Second State of Choosing Your Field of Study

The second stage of choosing a field of study for graduate school may be quite simple or it might be full of new choices. It is at this step that one’s interests and passions need to be determined. Some ways to discover where your interests lie are:

Will it Pay? Be sure to Like What You Do

Of first priority when choosing a field of study is one’s personal interest. Most people will be more satisfied within their field of work if they like what they do. If several different fields are being weighed, it may be helpful to look at the success of graduates, potential job openings, and income levels.

On the other hand, loving one’s work won’t necessarily pay bills, so knowing that work will be scarce within a given field of study can also be a red flag.

With a growing number of Americans acquiring large amounts of student debt and the majority of that debt coming from graduate school, it would be smart to evaluate the various costs of studying in different fields or programs.

When looking for scholarships, certain concentrations may open opportunities for grants or work-study programs while others may not.

Write Down Your Career Goals

It may go without saying but writing down career goals will help clarify which field of study you may want to pursue. This is especially important for adults who have already spent many years in the workplace and are going to graduate school to advance their careers. Priority given, in these instances, to a field that will directly relate to one’s experience and expertise can be the most efficient use of time and resources.

Meeting with a career coach can be helpful at any point in the process of choosing a field within the graduate school. Career coaches have expert knowledge of fields of work, are good at understanding hiring practices, and can assist people in planning for a career, building a resume, and completing a successful interview.

Events within a workplace such as career fairs or company presentations along with conferences can be good places to assess one’s readiness for a change or evaluate career goals within the context of the workplace. Often alumni or representatives of graduate schools will give valuable information. Also, one can see exactly what employers and recruiters are looking for in potential employees.

Contact Professors

In the third stage of choosing a field or specialization, it is a good idea to contact potential professors who may become advisors. If you are counting on working with a certain professor and he or she is not accepting any graduate students, it will be better to find out sooner rather than later.

In order to find out more about potential advisors, contacting graduate students who have worked with them can be helpful as well. Graduate students know best what applicants are experiencing and are usually more than happy to give them information and help in their process of decision-making.

Some questions to ask graduate advisors and students (about their advisors) are:

Take a Year Off

Graduate students who aren’t accepted into a program that is a good fit can always take a year to develop and work on their interests, gain some valuable work experience, or take a few specialized classes. It may be a better option to take a year off than to be in a program that isn’t a first choice or a great fit.

If a rejection letter comes late, it often means that the candidate was seriously considered before a choice was made. That student may easily be remembered and placed at the top of the list in next year’s round of applicants.

Also, taking a year off can clarify which area of study to enter. As the dust settles on all previous studies, a specific interest may stand out. Or, taking specialized classes can shine a light on an area of interest previously overlooked and will do nothing to hurt a second application. Perhaps more study for the GRE or other valuable experience can be gained along the way.

Life after Graduate School!

Remember, there is still life after graduate school! Although 2-3 years of one’s life given to a certain topic is a big deal and has long-term effects; on the other hand, 2-3 years is only a small portion of one’s life, and earning a graduate degree is never wasted.

Earning a second master’s degree, or dialing into a more concentrated field in a doctorate program are all still on the table. The majority of college graduates don’t work in their field of study. Graduates with master’s degrees are more specialized, but even those individuals often use their well-earned skills to pursue interests or careers that deviate somewhat from their graduate education.

20 Graduate Programs With High Levels Of Diversity

We’re certain of one thing—your search for more information on picking the best graduate degree or school landed you here. Let our experts help guide your through the decision making process with thoughtful content written by experts.