Starting your Career in D.C.: Grad School Edition

I cannot begin to count the number of times I receive questions about grad school. Probably once per week. If an intern isn’t asking me about grad school advice, I just offer it up unsolicited because I know that most people in D.C. will go through a crisis of purpose and ask themselves whether graduate school is right for them.

If you had asked me post-undergrad whether I would ever go back for additional school, I would have said unequivocally and vociferously — no! It wasn’t that I didn’t love my undergraduate experience. I did. And I consider my time at Patrick Henry College incredibly formative to my career and thought life even to this day. I just thought that I had enough formal education and was ready to experience the working world.

After a few years in the think tank world, my bosses began encouraging me to pursue grad school. And I watched my peers enroll in graduate programs and flourish.

That wasn’t really enough for me, though. I’ve always wanted to know why I should take the next step and maybe you do, too. What was so special about grad school and why did I need to get another degree? I’m not usually about just checking the proverbial box.

I’m not going to lie. Part of grad school in D.C. is about checking a box. There are opportunities you simply won’t be eligible for if you don’t get the additional degree. But for those looking for additional reasons to go to grad school, here’s my story and a few tips that convinced me to take the plunge.

My grad school experience

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I remember when I first started having questions about going to grad school. In my line of policy work, promotions are tied to educational advancement and I was about to plateau if I did not take the leap and apply to grad school.

Disclaimer: The advice below is not as helpful for individuals considering an MBA or law school, it is more helpful for people looking to pursue terminal masters degrees or for individuals debating between pursuing a masters or jumping straight into a Ph.D.

When reality hit, I wasn’t convinced that grad school was the right choice for me. So I sauntered down the hall to the office of a more senior colleague to seek advice.  He received his masters from the University of Chicago and graduated with his Ph.D. from Stanford. I figured if anyone had good answers it would be him.

I asked the question that I think is probably on every prospective grad students mind:

Why go to grad school?

He told me to pursue graduate school to master a skill that I wouldn’t have the self-discipline to learn on my own. More specifically, he said: go to grad school to hone a particular skill, like quantitative methods or a foreign language.

In contrast, he told me not to pursue grad school to gain additional “knowledge”. He said that anyone with half a brain would have the discipline to read and learn more in their specialty apart from grad school. Any additional material and concepts learned in grad school would be a benefit, but not the primary purpose, of pursuing higher learning.

I took that advice to heart and used grad school to improve my Korean language skills. I purposefully selected the Masters of Asian Studies at Georgetown University because Georgetown is one of a limited number of schools designated as a strategic language institute by the Department of Education. Subsequently, all of my language studies were fully funded and I received a stipend during the summer to either work abroad or do a study-abroad language program. I did a study-abroad program at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. I would definitely say this was a major highlight of grad school.

Other Top Question on Grad School

Should I go to grad school?

Not everyone needs a graduate degree. Pure and simple.

And everyone’s answer to why they want to pursue grad school will be different. I outlined above what one of your primary objectives for grad school should be, but I didn’t really answer why or whether you, in particular, should go.

I won’t try to answer those questions for you, but rather provide you with a few questions you should ask yourself:

  • Do I need a graduate degree to advance in my career?
  • Will graduate school meet a need that I could not meet otherwise?
  • Will graduate school open doors to opportunities I could not otherwise access?

The bottom line is simple: Is the cost worth the benefit?

The answer will be different for every person. And the answers to these questions should also hopefully help you to decide whether a masters, Ph.D., law school, or MBA are the right fit for you. It may also help you to eliminate going to grad school altogether.

Do not, do not — DO NOT! — go to grad school ONLY because someone has told you that you have to. You need to have better reasons than that to keep you going through grad school. You will not make the most of the amazing opportunities you are presented with if you don’t have any other reasons besides checking a box to explain why you are going.

When should I go to grad school?

I usually encourage folks in D.C. to take a few years off in between undergrad and grad school. Time in the working world can give some much-needed perspective on what type of grad school you want to pursue and what you want to concentrate on when you go.

For example, I knew when I started my job at the think tank that I wanted to work on Asia. I also knew that I was interested in North Korea, and more specifically, in human rights issues in North Korea. The extent of my recognition of the issues I was interested in so early in my career is somewhat unique. Most people have broader interests or are not in a career where they have the opportunity to hone very specific interests.

The few years in the working world helped me to realize that I could be happy working only on human rights in North Korea as well as on human rights issues more broadly.

Even though the masters program I pursued was a regional concentration (which frankly may not be the right fit for most people), I wanted to deepen my functional expertise in human rights. That meant tailoring a lot of my classes into deepening that knowledge.

I know that many other people in my program had a completely different experience with their masters. Some focused more on security issues, others focused on a single country, and others took a sampling of various regional and functional specialties.

Without a few years to hone your experience prior to grad school, I think you are less likely to select the classes that are right for your future career aspirations. This may limit your ability to develop the best connections with professors and peers to land a job in the field you want to work in. This is a less effective use of grad school. Grad school at a school like Georgetown was as much about networking as it was about learning.

There are only a few circumstances where I would recommend attending grad school immediately after undergrad: 1) if you are positive you want to pursue a Ph.D. and have a clear vision of what you want to study (and, more specifically, are positive you want to be a professor), and 2) if you absolutely cannot find a job after a year plus of searching. I am reluctant to include these caveats because I generally think it is unwise to do this.

Should I work during grad school?

This depends on so many factors.

I worked full-time while attending grad school for the first year and continued full-time work with part-time school for the second year. This happened to be the right decision for me. My work provided tuition assistance, was flexible with my hours, and supported me when emergencies came up and I needed to be at grad school. The level of understanding I received from my employers was over-and-above most.

I also lived within three minutes walking distance of my work and a half hour drive from school. When combined with a supportive husband, family, and friends, this made for a very positive environment within which to have a hectic schedule.

There was enough overlap in both my work and school that the two practices reinforced and arguably improved my performance in both. That made it worthwhile for me.

I also did not have the stress of switching up internships each semester, or applying for jobs during my final semester in grad school. This freed up time for me to do more work travel and even write a masters thesis in my last semester with limited stress.

This is not the case for everyone. I was very intentional about separating my work life from my school life, and also carved out time to have a personal life. I usually took off time on either Friday night or Saturday morning for brunch. And attended church regularly. I also made time for just me and my husband and prioritized sleep.

That being said. I was exhausted. And some evenings my husband had to cradle me in his arms while I was crying over the stress of managing this schedule. Ultimately, he and I both emphasized that this was a season of heavy commitments and that we would press through it to cross the finish line. It was a real challenge and the challenges of balancing that busy schedule were really exhilarating.

That being said. It’s okay to not work during grad school — especially if you can afford it. It’s an opportunity to really dig into the literature. To take internships at various places if that will help you to answer questions about your career. And it’s great for networking.

Having the extra time of not working also means you can develop deeper community with your graduate student cohort — something I kind of missed out on due to my busy schedule. This can be incredibly worthwhile.

Disclaimer: I think that this advice truly only applies to masters programs (and ones with somewhat flexible evening class time offerings). My husband is in law school and I would generally not advise working during law school — especially if you want a job in big law. And I have nothing to say about working while pursuing an MBA.

Again, there are lots of other questions that folks have about grad school. Happy to answer any additional questions you may have, or do a second series on it.

Cheers loves,

Liv