Grad School: Should You Go?

students-reading-in-libraryMaybe you’ve been thinking about it since you started college. Maybe you’ll need an advanced degree to enter your field. Maybe you’re a senior, and you’re wondering what comes next.
At some point during your time at Castleton, you’ve probably considered graduate school.

A graduate degree can help you advance in a particular career or even enter a new field. In a master’s or doctoral program, you will learn from experts in your field and conduct research in your area of interest. Armed with your new credential, you will enter the job market ready to command a higher salary.

So graduate school is a great idea. Except when it isn’t.

There are two good reasons to pursue graduate school:

1.) You have a passionate desire to conduct research in a very specific area of your discipline: for example, you may want to explore a particular author’s work or the lifecycle of a species of grasshopper.

2.) You are committed to entering a profession or advancing in it.

However, students often pursue graduate school for the wrong reasons. Here are some:

1.) “I don’t know what to do next.”

2.) “My dad wants me to become a doctor, lawyer, physical therapist, or MBA.”

3.) “I’ve always done well in school, I love learning, and I really don’t know what to do next.”

4.) “The economy isn’t good. If I’m in school, I won’t have to get a job for a couple more years.”

Yes, job-hunting is scary. Yes, parental pressure can be overwhelming. Yes, having the opportunity to learn is among the greatest privileges we enjoy. But graduate school demands even more focus and commitment than an undergraduate program. It’s not enough to love history: you must have intense interest in a certain period, enough to write 20,000 or even 100,000 words about that topic.
And do you really want to spend two, four, or six years of your life and maybe go into debt to pursue something that doesn’t excite you?

If you’ve decided graduate school is right for you, support is available on campus. Your professors can offer insight about programs in your field. All of us at Academic Support and Career Services are also happy to help you with the application process. We’ll even explain how you can further your education without accumulating more debt.

If you’re worried about what comes next, schedule an appointment with Career Services. Renee Beaupre-White, Director of Career Services, will be happy to discuss your options and help you fine-tune your resume. And your choices aren’t limited to work or further education: you can explore internships or volunteer opportunities. These experiences can increase your chances of obtaining a paid position. They also provide something even more valuable: clarity about what you do want to do with your life. Who knows? After a year or two or ten, you may be ready to apply to graduate school.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Really Free Money: Strategies for Scholarships

teenage student giving thumb up while using laptop

If you’re like most college students, your financial aid package is a mixture of loans, grants, work study, and scholarships. And if you’re like many of your peers, you may be pretty vague about the details of your package. No question about it, college financing is confusing; that’s why colleges and universities employ experienced professionals to staff their financial aid offices.

But even if you avoid financial details, here’s one principle you need to remember: you want to borrow as little money as possible. You’ll have to pay back loans, whereas you won’t have to pay back scholarships and grants. Therefore, you want to apply for as many scholarships and grants you can.

Unfortunately, many students don’t bother applying for scholarships. Often, they assume they won’t qualify; sometimes, they think the application process isn’t worth the award. Above all, they’re simply unaware of the breadth of scholarships available. The fact is, if you’re a college student in decent academic standing, you qualify for scholarships! Here are some tips to maximize your scholarship earnings:

Get Creative – and Confident. Devote time to researching possible scholarships. There are scholarships for academic excellence, of course, but also for students from certain backgrounds or geographic areas, cancer survivors or their family members, and individuals with specific career goals or interests. Start by applying for the Returning Student Scholarship at Castleton (due March 4th). Next, look at resources in your community: businesses and service clubs, such as the Rotary or Lions Club, often offer scholarships. VSAC maintains a database of scholarships for Vermont residents (also due March 4th). Finally, check out Fastweb, College Board, and Finaid.org to search for scholarships. On Fastweb and other sites, you may have to spend some time filling out questionnaires to be matched with scholarships; however, your effort could be worth hundreds – or even thousands – of dollars.

Get Organized. Make checklist of all of the items you’ll need – essays, letters of recommendation, transcripts, etc. – to apply for each scholarship. (You’re applying for than one, naturally.) Include the scholarship’s deadline at the top of the checklist. You may even want to maintain a folder for each application.

Get Deadlines. Remember: the deadline is the absolute latest date you can apply. Play it safe, and make sure your application materials are ready at least a week in advance.

Get Help. If you have any questions about any aspect of your scholarships applications, check in with a faculty member or any of the counselors at Academic Support. We can also assist you with scholarship essays. Whether you need help getting started or want someone to review your draft, you can visit the Writing Clinic or schedule an appointment with Bill Wiles, our Writing Specialist. Call 468-1347 or stop by to schedule an appointment.

Like college itself, applying for scholarships takes time, effort, and organization. Expect to devote several hours to each scholarship application. Although you may prefer to use your free time to relax or socialize, think of your scholarship search as a part-time job: one that will help you on your journey to your ultimate goal. Now, that’s exciting!

Good luck and don’t forget to stop by with questions!

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Majors and Minds: Should You Change Yours?

confused1Maybe you always wanted to be a teacher. You enjoyed your time in elementary school, and you love babysitting, right? But then you got to college, took your first education course, and discovered the field is not for you. You still want to work with children, but you’ve decided to pursue social work instead.

Or maybe you came to college because of the nursing program. Your parents encouraged you to become a nurse: that way, you’d always have a job. But you’re really enjoying your psychology course: you actually look forward to doing homework. You’re thinking of becoming a counselor and switching majors – if your parents don’t explode, that is. Then there’s your friend who started off as an exercise science major, but wants to enter the nursing program.

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Studies suggest between 60 and 80% of undergraduates change their major at least once. Sometimes, this results in a happier, more successful student: if you love what you’re doing, you’ll be motivated to work hard and reach your goals. But a switch can also add years – and debt – to your college career.

Here are some questions to ask yourself before you change your major:

  • How much time and money would a change cost? Figure out exactly what classes you would have to take to complete a degree in your new field. On the VSC Portal, under Web Services, select Student Academic Planning and then Program Evaluation. This tool allows you see what classes you would need to take to meet that major’s requirements. Your current adviser, a professor in your new field, or any of us at Academic Support can help you figure out how much time your new program would take. Adding semesters or even years to your education isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but seeing exactly what is required can help you decide if the change is worth it to you.
  • How closely are your major and career goals aligned? Without a nursing degree, you can’t become a nurse. However, many liberal arts graduates find themselves in fields unrelated to their college major. For example, English majors work in finance and law enforcement, art history majors in human services, philosophy majors in broadcast journalism, and theatre majors in business management. Employers are often more interested in transferable skills –ability to work independently and with others, time management, writing, and verbal communication – than they are in your precise degree. If you have a career goals that doesn’t coincide with your present major, you may not have to change your academic program. However, you should definitely pursue internships and work experience in your chosen field.
  • Would a minor work just as well? Perhaps you’ve discovered a passion for art, biology, or Spanish. That’s wonderful; finding new interests is an important part of college life. You may want to change your major, add a second major, or select a minor. Think carefully before you make this decision: do you love this new discipline enough to fulfill the major requirements? Would taking several courses to complete a minor be enough to satisfy your curiosity?
  • Does the new major make you more excited about your education? If the answer is an emphatic “Yes,” then switching majors – or adding a new one – is a good idea. College, unlike high school, is not compulsory. You are not here because you have to be. You are here to study a discipline that fascinates you or prepare for an exciting career. Higher education is a privilege, and it should be enjoyable.

 Only you can answer these questions. But just make sure you weigh your options carefully – and start every new path with a whole heart.

– Dorothy A. Dahm