What to Study: Choices, Choices, Choices

what to study in graduate school


Beyond the obvious choices you'll have to make about graduate school such as where to go to school and how to pay for it, there are less obvious choices that will both shape your graduate experience, and play a major role in how you pursue a career once you graduate. While these issues may get less attention, they are critical and require serious thought.

Like, for example, what to study. It may seem obvious, but the truth is that the exact degree you pursue will have the single most transformative effect on your professional life after you graduate. And yet, no one talks all that much about the confusion and unexpected issues that tend to manifest themselves when it comes to dealing with this most pressing decision.

Here, then, is a brief rundown of what your options may be, how to look at them clearly and in the context of good decision-making, and how they might affect your career goals upon graduation.

Choices, choices, choices...

Unlike college, where the academic programs allowed you a breadth of experiences while still majoring in one specific area, graduate school is designed to hone your skills in the specific area that interests you most academically, intellectually, and one assumes, professionally. Graduate school, in many ways, is more like a trade-school program in that the goal is to produce graduates who possess not merely a deep understanding of their field, but a bonafide expertise.

What does this mean in practical terms? Simply this: You should make certain that the specific area of study you choose to pursue is perfectly suited to both your strengths and your goals. Because the effect of this most basic decision will continue to be felt for years to come, long after you graduate.

No Visine necessary

The key to making a good decision is to ensure that you consider all your options with clear vision, with eyes wide open and with all those other sight-related clichés in mind. Essentially, don't choose a field of study without having looked at all the possibilities or having scrutinized how that choice will affect your professional life after graduation.

There are some fields that have undeniable glamour; the risk with them is that students may be lured to them for reasons that have little to do with reality. For example, the field of theoretical physics holds undeniable romance: plumbing the deepest secrets of our universe, solving problems whose answers have long eluded human understanding, working with some of the finest minds in the world. Appealing, no? 

But remove the rose colored glasses and theoretical physics may not seem so hot: the likelihood that true understanding will elude you for your entire career (ponder the minds and years involved unravelling string theory, with no definitive proof in sight), the long hours of solitary work, the classes you'll have to teach to maintain your tenure at the university that employs you, and all those grant applications you'll need to write. Still interested? 

The point is this: make sure you take a good, long, 360-degree look all the ramifications of choosing a specific area of study before settling on it. It may be just the right one for you, or it may not.

Like those international soccer stars

The whole point of pursuing a graduate education is to reach your goals. And while they may run the gamut from professional, to intellectual, to academic, to personal, you need to be comfortable with the result of your decisions. Moreover, there is a lot of overlap in those issues; do some soul-searching and consider the following: Will you be happy in the work environment typical of the field in which you'd like to work? Do you understand what the financial compensation will be, and how much work and time will be required of you in order to succeed? Are you aware of the geographical centers-of-gravity of your field, and are you willing to move in order to make the most of your professional life?

There are no broad-spectrum right or wrong answers to these questions. In fact, the best solutions to any of these problems are profoundly personal. And as long as you understand that, and as along as you're able to make decisions wisely, you'll be just fine. In fact, you'll be more than fine. You'll be successful.

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