Some of you are eager to get a break from the books, but for those of you who can’t get enough of the classroom, graduate school might be the way to go post-college. We’ve outlined the pathways to law, medicine, business, master’s, and doctorate programs, complete with advice from women well-versed in each process so you can figure out which one (or none) is right for you.
Degree: Juris Doctor (JD)
Test: Law School Admission Test (LSAT)
Class time: 3 years
Lawyers you may know: Hillary Clinton, Mohandas Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher
What law school is like: “Law school can be very stressful,” says Eimear, a graduate of Villanova University and Capital University Law School. “Your grade is based on how you do in comparison to other people, and some individuals are extremely competitive because of that. Having said that, I made some very good friends in law school, who would help me with anything I ever needed.”
Aside from that competitive atmosphere, Eimear has identified plenty more to take into consideration: “If anyone asks me today about going to law school, I try to tell them that it is a decision before which you should really weigh the pros and cons,” she says, the latter of which include that “it is a very expensive, three-year degree, and there are not a lot of high-paying jobs available. The economy has taken a toll on the legal field.” While she laments the scarcity of jobs in this economy, though, Eimear’s story is proof that hard work and getting involved in graduate school can contribute to employment success afterward. As a law student, Eimear had worked in the legal clinic at Capital, which aided her transition to a post-graduation job: “My professor [at the legal clinic] called to say they had a job opening, so I decided to take it.”
What you can do with a law degree: Eimear explains her decision to law school by pointing to her desire “to do something in the health law and health policy areas.” But keep in mind that not everyone with a JD lives a real-life rendition of Boston Legal. Though Eimear works in the courtroom now, she pursued a JD in part because it kept several options available to her. “I realized that a law degree could help with many different careers, so I thought that it was a degree that would not pigeon-hole me into one career,” says Eimear.
How to prepare: As with most graduate programs, GPA and test scores are important features of any law school application. One characteristic specific to law school, however, is that the admissions process allows for a fair bit of flexibility regarding coursework. “My undergraduate degree is in finance, which is not a typical degree for law school,” says Eimear. Despite this leniency, some law school hopefuls attempt to strategize by structuring their coursework such that they get a better preparation. “I had friends who were political science majors who tried to take specific classes that would prepare them more for law school, [classes] that sometimes included publications in law journals. These friends also tried to work in law firms during the summer breaks to try to make them stand out,” says Eimear. Whether or not this strategy was effective is up in the air, but as for Eimear herself, she chose to boost her credentials outside the classroom. “I was in a sorority that did a lot of volunteer work, so I tried to focus on that work because I thought that would stand out as compared to other applicants.”
Degree: Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)
Test: Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)
Class time: 4 years
Doctors you may know: Sanjay Gupta, William Carlos Williams, Ken Jeong (The Hangover, Community)
What medical school is like: Most medical school programs consist of general scientific coursework for the first two years, after which clinical work is incorporated in the curriculum. Throughout all four years, though, the work is notoriously intense. “One of the biggest adjustments from college to medical school is the sheer amount of information that you are required to learn in a relatively short amount of time,” says Lisa, an MD candidate at the University of Toledo College of Medicine. “The exams themselves are infrequent, but you have to stay on top of the material. It is near impossible to cram for medical school exams the way you may have been able to in undergrad. In terms of the amount of studying and the general atmosphere of medical school, it is like it’s always finals week.” This density of work is med school’s biggest downside; as Lisa says of any successful medical student, “Your life is medical school. Your social life will most likely diminish, your interests and extracurriculars outside of class will be mostly medically related, you may lose touch with friends outside of medical school, and you will probably spend an absurd amount of time studying.”
Lisa lists some perks of med school, though. Aside from the obvious incentive of receiving a license to practice medicine, the benefits of attending medical school include “independence and the fact that you are expected to own your learning, and more professionally relevant extracurriculars in which you actually get to take part in the process instead of just watching. For example, I was able to scrub in on surgeries.” If that sort of unparalleled intellectual experience is not enough, though, you always have the option of developing an inner monologue and pretending to star on Scrubs.
What you can do with a medical degree: In contrast with Eimear’s assertion that a law degree is useful for a variety of careers, Lisa admits that “medical school on its own does not prepare you for career paths outside of the field of medicine.” The path after graduation is rather structured, including a paid residency stage during which med school graduates gain hands-on, supervised experience in the specialty of their choice. “All medical students go through a process in their last year of applying to residencies in whatever specialty they choose,” says Lisa. “Each student then ranks the residencies at which she interviewed and gets matched into the program highest on her list that is willing to offer her a residency.”
Lisa herself aspires to specialize in bariatric surgery after medical school, which requires a fellowship on top of a surgical residency, though not all physicians are required to complete such a fellowship. “In order to do this, I would apply to general surgery residencies in my fourth year,” she says. And while success in medical school allows you to pursue any number of specialties, the years add up. “I would spend five years in residency followed by a fellowship in bariatric surgery,” she adds. The path to becoming a physician in any subfield of medicine is a long one. Bring snacks and good music. Maybe get married along the way.
How to prepare: Pre-med students can apply to MD or DO programs, which differ slightly but both of which have similar requirements for admission and prepare graduates for residency. Medical school requires specific undergraduate coursework for admission, typically one year each of physics, biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, labs in each of the above, English and math. GPA and MCAT scores remain crucial elements of any undergraduate application, though many applicants elect to gain some experience in research, employment or community involvement as well, either between classes or after graduation. “There are so many applicants that have the basics of a good MCAT score and GPA that you really have to have something more than that,” she says.
Based on her own admissions process and success, Lisa offers the following advice for medical school hopefuls: “Instead of involving yourself in everything possible, pick a couple of things and get really involved, whether it is an extracurricular activity or research. An additional possibility is doing something in between undergrad and medical school,” adds Lisa. “I did Teach for America for two years before going to medical school, and the professional and personal development I got from this was unparalleled. I’m sure it not only helped me get into medical school, but it also made me a much better student. The extra level of maturity you gain from experiences as an independent adult gives you more perspective, which is helpful when dealing with the pressure of medical school.”
Degree: Master of Business Administration (MBA)
Test: Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) or Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT)
Class time: 2 years
Business People you may know: Donald and Ivanka Trump, Warren Buffet, Shaquille O’Neal
What business school is like: “The MBA program is like your undergraduate program in that you will have classes, papers, and exams,” says Dr. Sherry Peck, who received her business degree from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. “Depending upon how challenging your undergraduate program was, [business school] may require more or less of your time; many MBA programs require group work and that is often time consuming.” Dr. Peck now teaches undergraduate Business majors and MBA candidates as an associate professor at Capital University, and is therefore familiar with multiple types of business programs: “I attended a full-time MBA program and the assumption was that our time was primarily devoted to classes and finding a job. I teach in a part-time MBA program, and my students juggle work and families as well as their course work.”
Dr. Peck may have graduated from a full-time program, but she recognizes the advantages of attending business school part-time. “It is possible and much cheaper, however, to get an MBA in an evening program (often referred to as a manager’s program) while you are working. Many employers will even pay some or all of your tuition,” says Dr. Peck. This flexibility in time commitment is an advantage to business school, which means it’s never too late to go back and get your degree. “These programs tend to put more emphasis on your experience and less emphasis on your GMAT and GPA. The students range in age from the mid-20s to the mid-40s.”
What you can do with a business degree: As Dr. Peck says, a business degree allows someone with a bit of experience to propel to higher positions. “[After college,] I ended up getting a clerical job at the Boston Stock Exchange. The job itself was tedious but I became intrigued by business. My boss told me that to do anything interesting I should get an MBA.” After being admitted to what is now called the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, Dr. Peck found that her MBA was well worth the time and effort. “I worked on my MBA during the last ‘great recession’ and jobs were hard to come by, even for B-school graduates.” By the time she graduated, however, Dr. Peck had two job offers, proving that the value of a business degree could withstand a weak economy.
How to prepare: While law and medical schools accept applicants right out of college, most business programs prefer that they have at least two to three years experience in the workforce prior to enrolling. As such, those planning to attend business school should proactively network and seek valuable employment post-graduation, on top of maintaining a solid GPA and preparing adequately for the GRE or GMAT. “To get into a top notch business program, you need to demonstrate both intellectual ability and an interest in and/or desire to be a successful leader,” adds Dr. Peck. For example, “leadership can be demonstrated in a not-for-profit environment.”
That isn’t to say you can’t get a head start in college, however. “I actively think about attaining as much experience in my career of choice and networking with individuals within the industry to learn more about the value of getting my MBA and how it will help me further my career,” says Simmone, a rising junior at Tufts University who hopes to attend business school. “I do this by participating in relevant extracurriculars such as Entrepreneurship Society, Economics Society, and a marketing and advertising group on campus, as well as gaining leadership experience in another campus group.”
Degree: Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in nursing, or Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
Class time: 3 to 6 years
Nurses you may know: Kate Gosselin, Bonnie Hunt, Naomi Judd (all registered nurses)
What nursing school is like: Nursing is the hipster of graduate schools — alternative and continually changing its style. Registered nurses (RN) need only complete an undergraduate education in nursing and pass a licensing exam. Nurse practitioners (NP), on the other hand, must complete a graduate education as well. To add to the confusion, the previous norm of attaining an MSN is soon to be outdated; recently, nursing schools have been encouraging aspiring nurse practitioners to pursue DNP and Ph.D. degrees instead. On top of that, graduate students in nursing come from all levels of experience, so an RN can easily transition into the position of NP after some time. This system’s complexities shouldn’t detract from the schooling itself, though. “Nursing is very hands-on; theory doesn’t do it justice,” says Crystal, a nurse in Columbus, Ohio. Since an undergraduate degree is sufficient preparation to be a registered nurse, aspiring graduate-level nurses don’t have to wait quite as long as MD candidates to gain clinical experience. This can help with footing the bill, as well; “it’s very easy to work while you’re in nursing school,” adds Crystal.
What you can do with a nursing degree: While getting a bachelor’s degree in nursing is enough to gain exposure to the field, a graduate degree permits more freedom and responsibility. In general, though, being a qualified nurse has several advantages: “Nursing is a guaranteed job, you get decent money, the ability to work anywhere, and a thousand different options within the field itself,” adds Crystal. “The job itself is comfortable, too — you can work just nights or weekends.” And keep in mind that you don’t have to aspire to be the next Florence Nightingale to enjoy nursing: “I didn’t get into nursing for altruistic reasons,” adds Crystal, “but now I really enjoy it because of them.”
How to prepare: Like medical school, graduate schools in nursing require the completion specific coursework prior to admission; in some cases, this means an undergraduate degree in nursing. “Nursing students can just go directly from their BSN [Bachelor of Science in Nursing, an undergraduate degree] into a Ph.D. or DNP program,” says Crystal. She adds, though, that working for a few years in a hospital can be more valuable than transitioning immediately into graduate school. “Nursing is experience-based; the theory in the books is a lot different than the practice,” she says. “So while graduate admissions offices don’t necessarily reflect that disparity, and you don’t need the work experience to get into a graduate program, I personally think you’re missing out on a big part of nursing if you do the program straight through.”
Other Doctorate & Master’s Programs
Degree: Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Master of Arts (MA), or Master of Science (MS); varies
Test: GRE; varies
Class time: Up to 7 years
Attendees you may know: Sigourney Weaver (Master of Fine Arts), Condoleezza Rice (MA, Ph.D. in political science), your college professors!
What these programs are like: You’ve already seen the words “doctor” and “master,” but the aforementioned descriptions cover only the most common professional degrees. In fact, doctorate and master’s programs exist for countless other subjects, all of which can be incredibly valuable. “Graduate school involves much more focus on a targeted area,” says Ms. Carol Spector, director of Career Services at Emerson College. “You do not need to take the general requirements of an undergrad degree. It also allows you to conduct more research or perhaps gain more samples of work for a portfolio.”
Dr. Peck has valuable insight into doctoral programs, as well; she doesn’t only have an MBA, but also a Ph.D (and Superwoman status). “My doctoral program was an all-consuming, year-round endeavor,” shares Dr. Peck. “Doctoral students took classes for two years but were expected to help faculty with research and begin their own research by the end of the first year. About half the students in my cohort completed their degree requirements— classes, field exams, dissertation proposal defense and dissertation writing and defense—in four years. The other half took five years.” Master’s programs may not take as long, but are similar in structure and are characterized by a focus on one particular subject.
What you can do with these degrees: Graduate-level work in a specific area can qualify students to do more in-depth work in any number of ways, including teaching and research. “My reason for getting the doctorate was to allow me to teach; this is not the reason most people enter doctoral programs. The ‘usual’ reason is a desire to do research,” says Dr. Peck. This disparity between her reasoning and her peers’ had no effect on her happiness and career success afterward, though: “I have been at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio for nearly 20 years,” she says. “I spent six years as the MBA director, but the rest of the time, I have been focused on teaching both undergraduate business students and MBA students. I still love teaching and I am still glad that I followed the path I followed.”
How to prepare: Before pursuing higher education in any one field, Spector advises that students “first consider whether they need an advanced degree for the career they are seeking. Then, it is important to look at the courses and the professors in the program areas, perhaps review their research to see if this is what they are interested in pursuing.” As for getting a one-up in admissions beyond the basic academic qualifications, says Spector, a graduate school applicant “may want to see if she can do an interview for the admissions process. It may allow them to make a more personal connection with admissions.” Finally, Spector is an advocate of spending a few gap years between college and graduate school: “It is important to know why you want to go to graduate school, before jumping in too quickly. Sometimes, it can be very helpful to experience the workplace first.”
Like what you see, but can’t narrow down the options? Universities often offer joint degree programs, which allow candidates to pursue multiple degrees at once. This differs from a plan of study for getting both degrees separately, as these programs typically consolidate the two academic tracks into fewer years than the sum of each. One example is the JD/MBA, or a degree in law and business administration. While a student can receive her law degree and later choose to pursue a business degree as well, she can save some time by enrolling in a more intense but also more efficient three- or four-year program for both.
But aside from the convenience of time and money, having a dual degree can broaden your skill set and expand your employment opportunities. As Bloomberg Businessweek notes about business school graduates, the advantages of pursuing yet another degree include “being able to assume leadership roles in nontraditional MBA careers, increased job options due to specializing in two fields instead of one, and greater leverage when negotiating for salary and promotions.”
There also exists the option of pursuing degrees one at a time. As someone with a dual degree, Dr. Peck admits that she started out as “one more confused liberal arts graduate trying to figure things out” whose path to a second degree was somewhat serendipitous. About seven years after receiving her MBA and working in Chicago, she tried teaching on the side and found that she loved it. “The dean informed me that my MBA was sufficient for adjunct work but I would need a doctorate to become a full-time faculty member.” Dr. Peck then earned her doctorate from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern, though she had never considered getting a Ph.D. prior to trying teaching.
If neither the JD/MBA nor the MBA/Ph.D. strikes your fancy but you’d still like to dominate the world of academia in some way (or two), here are some other degree pairings ambitious learners have pursued in the past:
MBA/M.Ed.— Educational reform junkies inspired by documentaries like Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere should try going to class themselves. A Master of Education allows for greater insight into the educational system, while a business degree teaches the entrepreneurial skills to implement change.
MD/MBA — The New York Times attributes the increasing popularity of this degree to the fact that “more and more physicians across the country are learning to think like entrepreneurs.” The MD/MBA allows experts in medicine to start and lead health care companies on a larger scale than the confines of their exam rooms.
JD/MPP — A law degree coupled with a Master of Public Policy makes for an impressive combination; an understanding of the legal system and policymaking skills are both invaluable when drafting legislation or revising current policies in the courtroom, for instance.
MD/Ph.D. — With a focus on both medicine and research, MD/Ph.D. programs prepare graduates to be research physicians as well as university and medical school professors.
MD/MPH — In the words of the Harvard School of Public Health, “the Master of Public Health (MPH) degree is the most widely recognized professional credential for leadership in public health.” Not only is someone with an MD/MPH trained as a physician, but also as a leader in the medical field and the public sector.