Last September, I decided to forgo medical school and apply for graduate programs in public policy or administration. Essentially, a 180 degree turn from the medical school mission I had been on for the last 8+ years.
While I knew the medical school application process like the back of my hand, I knew pretty much nothing about applying to Master of Public Policy/Affairs/Administration (MPP/MPA) programs. As a post-graduate working in the health care field, I didn't exactly have the resources around to ask for help applying to policy programs. Of course there was my undergrad career center and random people in the field who I didn't know. So I was essentially on my own and figured it out on the way. Hopefully, my experience and reflection on deciding to apply to graduate school will be helpful for you, regardless of which field you pursue.
Weighing your options
Choosing to apply to graduate school is a big decision in its self and (quite possibly/probably) an expensive decision. The first question to ask yourself is "Why do I want to go?" If your answer is about any of the following, you should not go: your current job, hating the real world, avoiding obligations, unsuccessful job hunting, unsure what to do with your life, wanting a new city, or curiosity. My advice for anyone who answered with one of those: take some time to reflect upon yourself and decide to be an adult. If you want a new job or hate the real world, be persistent and go get what will make you happy. Find new ways to network in that field. Get creative. If you are curious about a subject or unsure what to do, start searching for answers at your local public library before quitting your job and investing in graduate school.
Yes, even applications are expensive. So in weighing your answer to "why," you may want to start thinking about "how." Why did I apply? I wanted a career in a field which I had 1) no schooling in, 2) no experience in, and 3) no job prospects or connections in. When I asked myself what kind of job I want, every answer required a master's degree, which I researched to be sure. Entering the realm of public policy requires a master's degree in most circumstances (i.e. you didn't spend every summer interning for politicians on the Hill). If I wanted to work in politics, there were ins that I could work for, but I had no interest in being a field organizer or living my life as a representative of a public personality running for office.
Your options boil down to:
1) Find that job that you want or one that will be a stepping stone to get there.
2) Finding an internship in the perspective field.
3) Take the leap and apply to graduate school.
4) Move back in with your empathetic parents, sleep in your childhood bedroom still littered with boy band/Sports Illustrated posters, and try to create a start-up/internet venture (a.k.a. play video games and sleep all day).
Option 1: Get that Job
While switching fields may be difficult, it is definitely not impossible. First, sit down and re-evaluate your resume. Print off the descriptions and requirements of a few jobs you are interested in. Ask yourself how your current skill set can be applied to a totally different field. If you can convince yourself, you can probably sell it to some human resources person. Get creative. Showing that you have transferable skills that are desired in that field is not only appealing to an employer, it shows that you are innovative.
Option 2: Get Experience/an Internship
This is one option many people forget about. Just because you are a few years out of college does not mean you cannot get an internship. But this may require taking a low paying or unpaid job/internship. This is still a less expensive option in comparison to graduate school. You can make a job + internship work if you really want it. The internship of your dreams does not exist? Make one that fits you.
I recently read a study in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology that surprised me. It reported that if you ask someone a favor, especially in a situation where you are directly asking for their expertise, they are likely to do that favor and then willingly help with future favors. While it may make you uncomfortable to ask a favor, it is even more uncomfortable for the person to refuse. So take a deep breathe and ask for help.
Option 3: Taking the Grad School Leap
Graduate school is an investment... and sometimes a big one. Just because you want some letters after your name is not reason enough to go. I knew that I needed another degree to get the job I want so I decided to apply. Of course, the money is the largest concern for most people. Then, there is the likelihood of moving, uprooting your family, etc. If you have taken time between undergrad and grad school, there are a lot of factors to weigh. (More on the undergrad thing in a bit).
When you know the reward will be worth the initial investment, start saving some funds to apply and take the required standardized test for that field (e.g. MCAT and GRE). Application fees range from $25-$125 for (non-clinical) graduate programs. Those fees really add up. Since I knew nothing about applying to MPA/MPP programs, I also knew nothing about my chances to get in a school. Consequently, I applied to quite a few schools and a range of programs.
Luckily, I was able to explore and get a better idea at an Idealist Grad School fair. If you have the chance to go a graduate fair, especially one targeted on your field of interest, I highly recommend going. Where else can you get an idea of what programs are out there and the differences in programs? Plus, if you go to one hosted by an institution that has lots of graduates pursuing further degrees, you get an idea of where a lot of people apply (i.e. the hoovered tables). Since I attended at the beginning of my process/when I was still making a decision whether to go to grad school, I mostly grabbed literature and darted. I think that is totally acceptable if you are not in the place to inquire about details of different programs. I did chat with a few people here and there to if I had a connection to the school or to find out about funding opportunities. Also, note: apparently people dress in business or business casual clothes for these things. I was unaware.
I recommend that you do some research before being 90-100% set on a decision. Make sure the programs you are looking at will give you what you want. Americans think differently about school and college than they do about purchasing other items. If it was a television, you would make sure it had the specifications and really be a big improvement over the one you currently have or don't have. You would research opinions of consumers and professionals (lists of "worthless" grad degrees exist on the interwebs). When I started to look at buying a new television, I discovered there were options I was not previous aware of, like smart tvs. After discovering this, I then had even more things to consider in my purchase, like the long term costs of cable vs. Dish vs. Fios vs. Hulu, etc. Basically, get an overall picture of "the purchase" you are making before deciding on a brand (i.e. school). Ultimately, graduate school is a big purchase; it should be treated similarly to buying a house or apartment.
If you are still an undergrad, read below!
Unless you are set on being an academic, take a peak/glimpse at the real world first. Not enough people told me to do this. The real world is WAY different than I expected. There are jobs and opportunities you never imagined. If I had not taken time off, I would be half way through medical school with a solid $100,000 in student loans and unhappy. At that point, most people kinda have to follow through with what they started. If you have always wanted to get another degree, it will solidify that decision and give you a study break which you can return from with renewed umph. Plus, you will likely have that first awful full time job out of the way.
I am going to let you in on a bit of a secret. Graduate schools love students with work experience. The top MPA/MPP programs will not accept you without work experience. I expect other professional degree programs are similar. For a life science degree, I bet school will like to see long research experiences to show that you have what it takes to be in a lab everyday with experiments that often fail.
Honestly, my peers played a big part in my school decision; I wanted experience professionals rather than the seemingly naive students. In my case, there is a big difference in studying theory or examples of policy and actually seeing it implemented and really understanding the portions to evaluate.
I know I seem like every other "clueless" adult trying to give you advice. If you don't believe me, ask around. Talk to professionals in the field and professors. If you can, experience what it is like to work in that field everyday; it may turn out to be completely opposite of what you expect. Plus, did you know there are jobs that will pay you to get a professional degree? My sister is graduating next month with her free MBA thanks to Verizon. If they won't completely pay for it, a decent number of places have a tuition reimbursement program. I took a 5.5 credit physics II class for only the cost of the fees while my job paid the tuition. Just keep that in mind.
About Author / Additional Info:
Lisa Opdycke is a New York-based writer and editor. Lisa is originally from a small town in northeastern Indiana. She completed her undergraduate coursework in Human, Biology, Health, & Society at Cornell University in 2011. She received her Bachelor of Science with honors after completing her honors thesis project entitled, "Bovine Seminal Plasma Protein Loss during Capacitation of Fresh and Frozen-Thawed Sperm." Lisa begins her master's studies in public policy at Brown University in the fall following two years at Weill Cornell Medical College-New York Presbyterian Hospital.