Radwan: Graduating seniors: are you considering a graduate degree?

Aziz Radwan, Staff Columnist

Similar to last year, this year’s graduating seniors are having a hard time figuring out their next step after graduation. Some of whom are asking themselves: should I seek a job in the midst of a job market that hasn’t yet recovered from the pandemic? Or should I apply for a graduate degree in order to improve my qualifications while I buy myself some time? I expect that the class of 2021 faces greater concerns compared to previous classes. 

As a STEM graduate student, I would like to provide some insight into my experiences to those graduating seniors who are considering pursuing a graduate program, whether it’s at Case Western Reserve University or another institution.

When you were graduating high school, you probably were considering schools that had a high national ranking, a competitive undergraduate program or an excellent reputation. These factors might have played a vital role in your decision. And now that you are graduating from CWRU, the fact that CWRU’s current ranking is 42nd in the U.S. will be considered, and hopefully favored, by employers. 

Similarly, the graduate school application journey starts with searching for the right school. However, keep in mind most graduate programs don’t have the same objectives as undergraduate ones. Undergraduate programs are designed to give you general knowledge and prepare you to become a capable employee in the job market. Graduate programs, on the other hand, are aimed towards making you an expert in a specific field. In addition to coursework, graduate degrees require teaching assistantship, publication work and a dissertation. That said, before you apply for graduate school, you need to find out if that school has a relevant field of study, is active in research and has a suitable advisor for you.

You might ask yourself: How can I get to know a prospective advisor from afar? This is a question I asked myself while I was searching for a graduate school.

The first step to finding your advisor is to get information about a prospective academic advisor. Most advisors have web pages describing their research projects, interests and publications. Do your research by skimming through those publications and then figure out whether the advisor’s interests align with yours. 

These are the steps I took while I was considering CWRU. Afterward, I reached out to my potential, now current, advisor and expressed my interest in joining his research group. I asked him if I could touch base with his research group members to inquire about the labs, areas of research and life in Cleveland. 

All of the extra measures I took gave me a better idea about CWRU, which helped me in making a final decision. I was also considering CWRU’s national ranking, but it wasn’t a major deciding factor in my mind.

After you get accepted into graduate programs and decide where you will be attending, you need to meet with your advisor and discuss your plans with them. You can ask your advisor what the general theme of their dissertation was or even how you can get involved with their research group. You can also ask about the graduate courses that are most relevant to their research. Normally, this will give your advisor the first impression that you’re proactive and have plans, and it will be more likely that the two of you will work well together. Academic advisors like to work with graduate students who are driven, diligent and independent.

Additionally, you need your advisor to help you select the right graduate courses, get involved in a research group, figure out a dissertation topic and receive continuous guidance. While this relationship may seem one-sided at first glance, your advisor also needs you, because you can help them in getting more work published; publications and citations help faculty members get promoted. Most of the time, they cannot independently publish their work, since they can be overwhelmed with teaching assignments, departmental committee work and other administrative duties.

Later during your graduate school journey, when you’re at the point of fully committing yourself to dissertation work, you can assess whether your progress is going well or not. One good sign is if you notice your advisor allocates meeting times with you on a regular basis. Another thing to notice is that if your advisor cares about your progress and gives constructive feedback, because then, it’s likely you’ll have a better chance of getting your work published. For a graduate student, publications matter in your credentials because employers will think of you as a dedicated self-learner and collaborative person. These are traits that distinguish graduate students from undergraduate ones. Also, peer-reviewed publications can convince your department’s technical committee that your work has been recognized by a scientific community. This, as a result, can help you pass an oral defense, a graduate degree milestone.

The graduate school journey is as challenging as it is beneficial. Some students consider a graduate degree in order to get an increase in pay, although pursuing a graduate degree isn’t only about earning more money. If you decide to get an advanced degree at one point in your career, then you should look at it as a way of increasing your knowledge, skills and network, which also opens opportunities down the road.

Overall, spend a good amount of your time planning for your career. Revisit your plan on a regular basis. Get as much information as possible about the occupational outlook so you can better decide when and what graduate program you should pursue.

I wish all graduating seniors the best of luck in their careers.