Why Graduate School?
Because people do not make career decisions based purely on reason, it can be difficult to explain why you have chosen a particular field of study. What follows are some categories into which your ideas may fall, but your focus should be on your unique, personal details. Also, keep in mind that you are not limited to any one of the following, but should develop multiple reasons as you see fit—so long as your points are focused and coherent.
Early Exposure to Your Field
Graduate school is a serious commitment, and it may have been your goal for a long time. Describing your early exposure to a field can offer effective insight into your core objectives. Watch out, however, for these two potential problems:
- Avoid offering your point in such a clichéd, prepackaged way as to make your reader cringe. For example, you should not start your essay, "I have always wanted to…." or "I have always known that [X field] was my calling." Instead, you should discuss specific events that led to your interest in the field.
- Do not rely solely on your initial reason and forget to justify your choice with more recent experiences. Think about what you have learned about your chosen field—and yourself—that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well suited to that course of study.
This applicant traces his interest in photojournalism to his collection of baseball cards and sports pictures at a young age. The youthful sense of curiosity and passion he conveys is sincere and draws the reader in to his individual mindset. The writer goes on to describe the evolution of his hobby, which becomes a vocation after he earns some publishing credits and enrolls in a BFA program.
Graduate school is, of course, a means to an end, and admissions committees prefer students who know where they're going and to what use they'll put their education (though the occasional soul-searcher, who may exhibit exceptional raw potential, is welcomed). For many people, the long-term goal is to work in academia, and to differentiate yourself in such cases, you can stress more specific objectives such as your research interests (see the following section).
Other degrees can lead to work outside the academic setting. This applicant describes his reasons for pursuing a degree in public policy: "Providing health care to 44 million uninsured Americans, while keeping insurance affordable, is one of the most difficult challenges facing policymakers. I want to work in state or local government to resolve this health care crisis and ensure that the disadvantaged get the care they need and deserve." Rather than offering a clichéd sentiment about wanting to "help people" or "change society," he identifies a specific issue and explains the origin and evolution of his interest.
Read the instructions carefully: Sometimes schools will ask for a statement of purpose describing your specific research interests in lieu of, or in addition to, a personal statement that emphasizes your character and qualities. For these types of essays, you can assume that a faculty member will be reading your statement, but it should still be accessible enough for a non-specialist to understand. Remember that such essays should also still aim to engage the reader, in a way that conveys your own enthusiasm for the subject matter.
This applicant demonstrates the depth of her knowledge about her subject. To engage the reader, she identifies specific problems that she hopes to investigate: "My junior year and private studies of Anglo-Saxon language and literature have caused me to consider the question of where the divisions between folklore, folk literature, and high literature lie. Should I attend your school, I would like to resume my studies of Anglo-Saxon poetry, with special attention to its folk elements." The essay is not scholarly, but it offers a glimpse of her intellectual character and proves the maturity of her goals.
Addressing the School
While professional schools tend to have similar curricula, the differences between graduate programs abound. The highest ranked institution in your basic subject might not be strong in the particular areas that you want to pursue. Moreover, graduate school involves more direct faculty relationships, so you want to evaluate your potential mentors carefully.
You should do this research for your own sake, of course, but discussing your discoveries in your personal statement can help convince the admissions committee that you are a good fit. Avoid mistakes like discussing the school's rank or prestige, or simply offering generic praise. Instead, mention faculty members by name and indicate some knowledge of their work. Consider contacting faculty members first and discussing their current research projects and your interest in studying under them. Then refer to these contacts in your essay.
This applicant demonstrates a carefully considered interest in the school's program in paragraphs 7 and 8. She explains, for example, that this particular university's cross-disciplinary focus holds a specific appeal for her. Additionally, she reveals an in-depth understanding of the work of one of the school's faculty members, mentioning Akhil Gupta by name and expounding upon Dr. Gupta's influence upon her own work.
Similarly, this applicant, after describing how her laboratory experience has led to a heightened interest in neurological diseases and their underlying causes, demonstrates in detail how Mt. Sinai's Ph.D. program is an excellent fit for her. She is clearly familiar with Mt. Sinai's faculty, which includes many experts in her field of interest, several of whom she mentions by name. Note, however, that mentioning several professors is not as effective as describing one in further depth. The previous applicant left no doubt that she knew Dr. Gupta's work well, while it's not clear that this applicant did anything more than superficially research the areas of specialization of four professors.
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Many GSAS students have more than a single reason for considering graduate studies at the master’s level. Students often enter master’s degree programs:
- To start a new career in a chosen professional field
- To prepare for graduate study at the doctoral level
- To expand their knowledge of fields related to their current areas of professional specialization
- To study a field they love and to explore future employment in a related area
- To acquire skills in new technologies and methods that have developed in their fields
- To improve their relative standing in a competitive field and a challenging job market
- To prepare for entrepreneurial projects that require expertise in a specific field of study
- To gain access to the professional resources available in New York City
- To take advantage of the outstanding resources available at a world-class research university
- To gain recognition and credibility
- To get out from behind the desk
Benefits of Obtaining a Master’s Degree
Securing Your Career
- In the highly competitive global marketplace, a master’s degree sets you apart from other job candidates.
- With a master’s degree, you’ll be eligible for more jobs. The number of occupations that typically require a master’s degree will increase by nearly 20% between 2006 and 2016. In many career sectors, such as higher education administration, public affairs, and social services, a master's degree is replacing a bachelor's as the minimum requirement for employment. With a bachelor's degree in the 1980s, one could secure an entry level position as an admissions counselor, academic adviser, or student services coordinator. By the 2000s, applicants for these same entry-level positions were not even considered unless they held a master's degree. While holding a graduate degree is not a guarantee of ultimate success, it certainly opens many more doors for employment.
- A master’s degree helps give you job security. Data from the 2012 U.S. Census Bureau show that the unemployment rate for holders of master’s degree is 3.5% compared with 4.5% for those with only bachelor’s degrees, while unemployment rates among those with doctorates (2.5%) and advanced professional degrees (2.1%) are approximately half that of those with only a bachelor’s degree.
- Master’s degree programs are increasingly becoming professionalized, with a new focus on preparing graduates for careers in business, government, and non-profit settings.
- For graduate degree holders, the numbers are favorable: U.S. workers between the ages of 21 and 64 with a master's degree or higher earn an average annual salary of $55,242, versus those with a bachelor's degree whose average annual salary is $42,877, according to the United States Census Bureau. That represents nearly a 30 percent difference in average annual salary—and offers clear evidence that completing a graduate degree can make a positive impact on one's financial situation.
- Master’s degree programs combine discipline-specific, advanced coursework with skills like critical thinking, analytic ability, and time management that are easily transferred if your career path changes.
- Earning a graduate degree is evidence of persistence, determination, intellectual prowess, and the ability to handle challenging environments—all of which are sought-after qualities for individuals filling manager and director positions. An employee who has demonstrated success in a long-term situation that requires stamina, discipline, leadership, and the ability to work well with others is going to be in line for growth opportunities within his or her organization.
- Employer Incentives: Some large corporations have funds set aside that will pay partial or full fees for qualified employees.
- A master’s degree not only deepens your education, but also allows you to contribute out of the classroom.
- Demand for services in education and not-for-profit sectors continues to grow and, as a highly-skilled master’s degree recipient, you’ll be able to fulfill those roles.
- Choosing to pursue a master’s degree takes initiative and commitment. The same traits, along with your newly gained knowledge and skills, will make you a successful leader and innovator when you complete your degree.
- Enjoy travel opportunities. Some programs, such as archaeology, require studying abroad for research purposes. For those who like to travel, this is a bonus.
- Be part of a chain of knowledge. Just imagine that the knowledge handed to you by your professor came from another professor who learned it from someone who learned it from a famous scientist or philosopher. You become part of a chain of knowledge.
- Greater recognition and credibility: There are countless numbers of graduate degree holders who have gone on to accomplish great things, and who are afforded the respect and recognition they deserve and have earned. Unquestionably, an advanced degree makes a difference on a résumé. It says something about who you are and the dedication you have to your chosen field.
- Sense of accomplishment: The effort put forth to complete your studies, despite moments of doubt and uncertainty, will stand as a central character-building life experience.