How do I Choose a Field in Graduate School?

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.

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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 their MBA program.

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

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First Round of Elimination

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.

Now What?

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 passion need to be determined. Some ways to discover where your interests lie are:

  • Take some classes or reflect back on classes taken at the undergraduate level. Which classes or subject matters held your attention best? Or were there classes that didn’t hold your attention at all?
  • Arrange to meet with professors (if still an undergraduate) and talk with them about their interests or your work in their class. Sometimes a teacher can see where a student excels better than the student can.
  • Meet with professors at graduate schools of interest. Talking with prospective professors will give prospective students a feel for a department or graduate school. An excellent professor may inspire a student to a focus that they may not have chosen otherwise.
  • Peruse all course outlines for various concentrations and fields of study within prospective graduate schools. Some courses may not reflect what students expect within a concentration.
  • Try choosing potential theses in various fields of study. See which field promotes the most personal interest. One of these subjects may turn into a real thesis project and imagining the process of research in a subject can clarify how much interest one may have in it. Also, running a thesis idea by a prospective graduate school professor may assist in seeing how one fits into a program.
  • Talk to other graduate students about their experiences and how they chose a field of study. Questions to ask may include what they would have done differently and how happy they are with the degree they acquired.

Will it Pay?

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.

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:

  • What are your areas of expertise and interest?
  • Are there areas of research that you would like to see pursued by a graduate student?
  • What kind of funds are available?
  • Do funds cover conference expenses?
  • Are you currently advising new graduate students?
  • How many graduate students are you currently advising?

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.

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Dr. Jared Goff
Chief Editor