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Advice on Getting Through Graduate School

"Don’t wait for a professor, colleague or mentor to tell you what you should be learning. Continue to be curious and hungry for the information you feel will help you in your personal journey"

Taking the next step with graduate or professional school can be a big leap. Explore the advice and resources below!

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I wanted to continue learning and ensure I was prepared to take the next steps in my career. I knew it would open up new doors. ’16

I graduated in 2016 and am just now applying to grad school. MPH schools almost always prefer at least two years of experience. ’16

I chose to attend grad school to give myself more career options. By the time I’ve earned my Ph.D., I’ll be qualified to work as a professor at a research institution, an educational administrator, or a psychologist working in a school or private practice. I still have time to figure out exactly what I want to do, and if I want, I can do a little of everything throughout my career. ’17

I wasn't sure what to do with my undergrad degree in political science! That’s not a good reason to go to law school. ’18

My area of interest (clinical psychology) requires graduate education. I was mentored by wonderful faculty members at Vandy that pushed me to consider a Ph.D., something that I had never even considered as an option for myself. ’16

After student teaching in a high poverty and high racial diversity school, I realized that I needed to learn more about educating diverse students before going into the classroom. ’17

I want to be a college professor. In neuroscience and psychology, getting a Ph.D. is necessary training for an academic career. ’18

I chose to attend graduate school to develop myself further and become the best teacher possible. ’19

I had an interest in medicine starting in college and wanted to continue to develop research and clinical experience to confirm my interest in medicine. It sounds cliche but I wanted to combine my interest in science and helping others solve their complex medical issues as well as work to improve public health. ’19

I followed my passions, wanted more skill-based, technical training in the area of policymaking, and hoped to find my niche while surrounded by experts in the field. ’21

I attended an MFA program because I was looking to grow creatively outside of my day job. I attended teaching school because I did a career change after working for three years. ’17

I chose to attend graduate school because it allowed me to enhance and expand my skill set in a new environment. ’18

I am studying to become a Catholic priest in the Order of Preachers. I am working on two degrees in order to become a well-formed preacher of the truth, for the salvation of souls. ’20

For me, a J.D. was an investment in the sense that it has opened doors and elevated my ceiling. By this, it got me a seat at the tables I wanted to be at and put me in the tax bracket I wanted to be in. With a B.A., I think it would have taken me 15 years to get here, but with a law degree it’ll take me three. ’20

I wanted to continue my education, using my molecular and cellular biology major as a solid foundation to dental school and beyond. ’21

Appreciate how well your Vanderbilt education has prepared you for the challenges ahead! It’s been easier than I’ve expected, in many ways, to succeed. I also wish I had known that it was going to be a very different life from Vanderbilt. The community, at least where I chose to go, is very different—people just go to class and leave. Finding friends in grad school is much more difficult, though it can be done successfully. ’15

I wish I had known before that grad school is totally different than undergrad. There’s way more studying but less homework; and there’s way fewer people who are interested in being social. Don’t expect to come in and make friends right away. It takes serious time to talk to people about stuff other than school. ’18

Early on in my first semester of graduate school, I felt a lot of pressure to have a mastery of the science and research skills immediate. I had to remind myself to be patient—I still have a lot to learn, and that’s OK! The whole point of graduate school is to build upon and learn from the information you studied in undergrad. ’18

Reach out to people first to make friends. It’s harder when we aren’t all living on campus! ’17

Treat it like a full-time job. ’14

Don’t be afraid to go back even after a break. My experience in the workplace made grad school that much easier. ’16

Make the most of your time off—learn to cook, find a new hobby, travel (when not in a pandemic), spend time with family and friends. There’s so much value in life outside of school, it’s important to make that a priority early on so you don’t lose sight of it during school. ’19

Don’t be afraid to reach out to other students your first year. Try to make some friends or form a study group since classes can be pretty tough, and it’s always nice to have people to work with. ’19

I wish I knew beforehand that the classes are much less structured than in undergrad. ’19

Reach for the stars when applying for jobs/programs that might seem outside your wheelhouse. There’s a huge pressure at Vanderbilt to secure a high-paying job midway through your senior year. This simply isn’t reality for people outside the Vandy bubble. Don’t let your banking/consultant friends pressure you into seeing the world through their narrow lens. ’21

I wish I knew how vast higher education is and how many parts of this ecosystem exist that are so far from my reality. Granted, this was also why I went to grad school, but I was always surprised by how much I didn’t know about. ’18

Prior to being a graduate student, I wish I knew how much free time I had available as a graduate student. Graduate school is the best opportunity to really focus in on your craft and grow. ’18

It’ll feel weird to watch your friends start real jobs and still be stuck in the student role where you don’t feel like a real adult, but it’s also so so so much fun and you have the rest of your life to spend in the real world. Also, medical school is hard but not as scary as everyone says; every week feels like finals season but you do adjust to it. Remember that grad/medical/law school is a full-time job, and you’ll put at least as much time into it as you would working. That said, you’re never too busy to spend 15 minutes on something that makes you happy! Fifteen minutes to call someone you love, do some yoga, or watch a YouTube video is way more valuable than doing 15 extra flash cards or reading a few more textbook pages. ’21

How to best manage my time, what to do to de-stress, how the labs work at the professional level (as opposed to the undergrad labs). ’21

I wish I’d known how important it is to have close relationships with your professors. ’17

I wish that I had spent more time for myself before and during graduate school. While it is easy to say that now, as I was accepted, I had more free time during my gap year that I could have used to explore my hobbies and interests that I could carry with me to school. ’15

The importance of school/life balance. ’15

While initially unsure if I wanted to attend graduate school or take a gap year after graduating from Vanderbilt, I ultimately decided to go straight into graduate school. I made this decision because I got into an excellent program at a price I could afford. I also predicted that, for me, it would be easier to continue in a ”student“ mindset for a few more years rather than take a break from schooling and have to regain that momentum and headspace. For students who are unsure if graduate school is for them, the greatest piece of advice I have heard is “You can always apply to graduate school and decide not to attend. It is very difficult to attend graduate school if you did not apply.” ’18

I chose to go straight into grad school, and it has worked well for me! The few months of summer were just enough time to move to my new place and relax a bit before starting my new academic adventure. I think starting right away gave me a lot of momentum, since I was still in the “school” mindset when I started this fall. ’16

I chose not to take time off because I want to continue school while my mind is in “study mode” so to speak. ’17

Vanderbilt makes you a professional student, and I kept up that momentum by going straight to grad school from Vandy. While I definitely feel burned out at times, I know that when I (eventually) finish, I’ll still be young as compared to others with my training in my field. ’16

I took a gap year, and I’m so glad I did! Having a regular job after graduation gave me the time I needed to really put my best foot forward on applications, because I had time to complete them in the evenings and wasn’t stressed about getting homework done at the same time. I don’t think I would have gotten nearly as many grad school interviews if I had applied during my senior year. ’17

I decided to take time off because I was very overwhelmed and burned out by the end of the final semester. I knew I needed time to recharge before I’d be ready to give so much energy to school again. I also did not want to spend more time and money on school unless I had a clear goal for the future and additional schooling would help me get there. ’18

I took two years before going back to grad school. I was ready for a break from studying, and I wanted to focus on my new career. ’16

I’d considered pursuing both an MBA and my J.D. at various points, so I wanted to work after graduation as a way to figure out what I wanted. That led me to working in marketing at a tech company that specializes in legal software. After about a year there, it became clear that I should pursue my J.D. I’m glad I took that break because I not only know where I want to focus my legal career, I also have a recommendation from my CEO in my application! ’17

I'll have taken two gap years by the time I matriculate this fall. Gap years are honestly so important—I used the time to gain several hundred hours of clinical experience by scribing. It allowed me to bolster my application while making amazing connections with physicians and ensuring that I was committed to my path. Stepping away from school also gave me a much-needed break to prevent burnout. ’19

I went straight to school because I was sure that I wanted to be a lawyer. But, I wouldn’t recommend going straight through! Professional school is a way different environment than undergrad. Most of my classmates took one or two years off to work before law school, and I feel like those two years helped them become more mature and also let them have fun. I wish I had taken two years to develop more of my personal identity and to be able to explore the world more before the grind of law school. ’15

I went to nursing school right after I graduated from Vandy. I knew that I’d lose motivation if I pushed it back a semester or even a year. By the end of grad school I was pretty burned out on school, though. So while it was tough, I think it was the right choice for me. I’d definitely recommend that anyone planning on grad school at least consider taking a gap year. ’16

I took time off to work full time, and I HIGHLY recommend it. The burnout can be real if you go straight to school, and you learn so much about yourself in your first full-time job out of undergrad. Plus that way you can have a bit more freedom to travel before you have to go back to school. There’s no rush. ’17

I took no time off before starting medical school and absolutely made the right decision. All the information from my premed classes was still locked in my memory, and I was still in a great mindset to work hard and study. One summer is plenty to relax and decompress. It will be nice to be finishing residency at age 30 instead of later in life. ’15

I went straight to school, because I was worried about adjusting to having a paycheck and forgetting how to study. Some of my classmates who took time to work first definitely had these problems when they had to adjust back to a student schedule and budget. ’18

I honestly took a gap year based on intuition and because the prospect of applying (and the MCAT) seemed too daunting to me junior year. I worked for a year prior to medical school which, in retrospect, was one of the best decisions I ever made. The “gap year” enabled me to strengthen my medical school application, grow as a person, explore New York City, and ground myself in the “real world.” If you feel as if you need to take a “gap year,” follow your gut. ’19

I took time off. I got my degree in engineering and the slower lifestyle was something I needed while I thought through my next steps. I held part-time jobs during that year to keep myself from being idle. ’16

I decided to take a year off before going to graduate school and it was by far the best decision. I needed a bit of a break from school, but I also needed to spend some time figuring out what it is I really wanted out of life and gaining certainty on what I wanted my career to look like. This year off also enabled me to gain more research experience and be a more competitive applicant for graduate programs. ’20

No. A requirement of my fellowship program was that I had to enter grad school the subsequent fall after receiving it which for me meant starting right after I finished undergrad. One of the main advantages of not having a large gap was that my mind was still used to being in school. This helps because academia is much different than the real world, and the way you write, do presentations, etc. is not the same. I’m glad I started early though because I’ll have finished at a young age and won’t have to interrupt my career. ’19

Definitely take a year off before attending professional school. It’s important to learn life skills as an adult and work a full-time job before school becomes your life again. ’19

I worked a couple years before attending graduate school and did school part time alongside my full-time job. I liked this style of school because it allowed me to apply my learning directly and make the most of my time back in grad school. Not to mention still getting a paycheck while in school! It was a lot of work but well worth it as it helped me realize the type of impact I wanted to make in college admissions. ’18

I took time off because I didn't know what I wanted to go to graduate school for when I graduated from Vanderbilt. Grad school is always there and there’s no timeline for life! ’17

I am applying for programs for the fall 2022 admissions cycle, so I will have taken off from school for about three years. Personally, I felt like this was an appropriate choice: I needed a break, and if I had not recognized that boundary for myself, then I think I would have fared worse in the long term. I had also always been one of the youngest in my grade level, and I thought I could use some more time to figure out myself before launching into another big commitment. In my experience, taking the time to plot your course and to steady yourself is almost always worthwhile. ’19

I worked for about a year first because I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to go to grad school. I eventually found a program that suited my needs and decided to just go for it. ’20

I went straight into my program because I was certain I wanted to go to medical school. If there’s something you really want to do in a gap year, go ahead and do it because this is the most free you’ll ever be before things like school, work and family start to anchor you in one place. But if nothing else is calling you, don’t be afraid to just start. Going straight through was nice because I was still in student-mode and a lot of review material came back quicker, but I also think my peers who took time off in the real world were more prepared for things like networking and knowing how to find research positions and mentors, so both options have their advantages. ’21

I’m what’s known as a KJD (so straight through). Honestly, I wish I had worked before starting, just as a buffer period to mature a little more and to learn some new things, but, at the time I applied, there wasn’t anything I really wanted to do. So, in that sense I didn’t want to waste my time on a position I didn’t really want. All in all, I don’t think you can tell a difference in students based on work experience though. ’20

If you’re paying for graduate school yourself, seek scholarships and ask for more money. It sounds crazy, but it works. Asking for more won’t make you lose your acceptance. ’10

Search for odd scholarships. If there’s something you’re interested in studying, then Google search word combinations and apply to obscure scholarships. Friends in my cohort found full scholarship and stipend funding to study a language (such as Swahili) alongside their graduate degree program. You might be awarded support to do things you already wanted to do. Also, don’t worry about deadlines, there’s no harm in emailing the contact even months after the deadline to see if any scholarships are still available and that you’d like to apply. ’12

Consider your finances in making the decision to go to graduate school. If you are entering a program that does not cover your expenses, make sure you understand what sort of situation you will likely be in financially at the end of your program and DO NOT assume you will get the best paying job after graduation. ’09

Law school is the start of your professional career. Your classmates are not just your friends, they are also your professional colleagues, so act accordingly. People will remember if you are rude, if you are willing to share your notes, if you act cooperatively or competitively. Be nice to people. ’12

I wish I had known how regionally focused legal hiring markets can be even for students from top 20 law schools. Most of the people I spoke to when considering law school weren’t involved in hiring for their firms and hadn’t searched for jobs in decades, so their advice was a bit outdated. If you know that you want to stay in a particular region, or even a particular state, it could be better to attend the best law school in that area rather than a top 20 or top 14 law school in a different region. If you’re more flexible or you want to get a job in a bigger market like New York City, you should attend the highest ranked school that you can. ’11

I chose to attend law school to pursue a career in juvenile justice reform. I am so glad that I did, but I am particularly grateful that I took the time to find a school that has a really strong program specifically for law students who want to do social justice work (UCLA!). ’17

Medical school is really time consuming. I had heard that a lot before enrolling, thinking it was a myth. It’s not. ’14

Medical school is a lot of work, but it is definitely still possible to have a social life. The important thing is to treat it like a regular job. If you put in the hard work on a “9 to 5” schedule, there is still time to pursue your passions. Learning early in medical school about the core Step 1 learning materials like Pathoma and First Aid is really helpful in allowing you to learn efficiently. ’15

I am graduating medical school this year. I wanted to be a doctor because doctors have an incredible opportunity (and responsibility) to help and improve their community—whether it be local, regional or global. Medical school is hard. But no matter what, dedicate time to yourself, your family and your friends. ’15