It is that time again: new beginnings, fresh outlook, annual resolutions, and for some, the what-will-I-do-after-graduation question. Even if you are not yet asking yourself this question, others surely will be asking you about your plans. So, what are your thoughts about your near-term future? Will you work? Will you continue your studies? Will you take a “pause” to consider various alternatives?

Fortunately, the Anthropology Career Readiness Network has a great tool to guide you as you contemplate your options. (You do not need to have a background in anthropology to use it since it will be useful to those in various fields.) Making Graduate School Decisions is organized into seven basic steps. Your goal is to figure out what will work best for you at this point in your life as you use this process.

Step 1 gets you thinking about whether graduate school is (or could be) a possibility for you. It suggests focusing on your longer-term career vision. Key is the connection between your career vision and the graduate degree: to what extent is a graduate degree important in fulfilling your goals? What is your rationale for applying to graduate school? Will you be able to command more income or have a greater range of career opportunities than someone with a BA or BS degree? What is your reasoning if you were to pursue a PhD degree? The vast majority will not work in academia as professors but will have plentiful options in industry, non-profits, or government. Alternately, if your decision is to choose a path that does not involve matriculation, what will you do? To what extent will that choice enable you to gain experience toward your career goals—at least for now?

The remaining six steps assume you have made the decision to explore graduate school with the aim of completing one or more applications for entry. Steps 2 and 3, for example, help you reflect on any of your own constraints (e.g., time available, location, accommodations, income) as well as specific preferences you may have (e.g., university or department prestige, faculty specializations, job placement rates after graduation). Informational interviews will aid as you consider your circumstances in relation to your ideal scenario. These two steps will help you develop a set of priorities.

The next two steps, 4 and 5, target the identification of potential graduate programs and a “deep dive” into those that you consider your top choices. Fortunately, there are many ways to search for programs. You could start with a general web search. Or perhaps you are already knowledgeable about research, professors, or practitioners in your area of interest. Figuring out those programs appealing to you and/or aligned with your long-term career goals will make the selection process easier. You might think of these two steps as a form of virtual data gathering that you will use to conduct your own evaluation. There are entry prerequisites and course requirements to consider, such as funding availability, and program length, to name a few. Of critical importance are the potential professors who might serve as advisors to you. Identify at least two with whom you share some common areas of specialization.

Step 6 can be the “make or break” step in this decision process. It emphasizes directly contacting individuals associated with those graduate programs that you rate highly. This step involves developing personal connections with the goal of validating your top choices. It entails gathering insider knowledge about the fit between your priorities and how the program is likely to work for you.

There are two facets to Step 6.

  1. You will want to get your questions answered—and from more than one source. Consequently, the best advice is to reach out to a mix of departmental members (e.g., faculty members, advisors, students) to give you the ‘inside scoop” on the program’s culture, methods you will learn, skills you will develop, opportunities for gaining various kinds of practical work experience, program alumni with whom you can network, and funding availability.
  2. The advisors or faculty members will want to begin their assessment of your fit with the department. For example, they will want to understand your motivation for and interest in their program. Typically, they will want to see overlap between your interests and the specializations of one or more professors. They will want to hear about potential research ideas you have and ultimately may expect a proposal. Thus, it is important to have prepared thoroughly for these discussions so that you are ready to answer their questions.

The seventh step involves developing and submitting the application to the programs you have targeted. Generally, programs will require official transcripts, letters of recommendation, and possibly test scores and a resume/CV. They also typically want a statement of purpose—a written document explaining your research and scholarly interests, how well your interests align with department faculty interests, and reasons why you were attracted to their program. For example, maybe the department offers a dual degree, integrates project work for clients into selected courses, or exhibits an excellent track record related to job placement once students have graduated.

Two tips about that application process:

  1. Attend to the deadlines! If you miss the deadline, it is unlikely that you will be able to reapply until the following year.
  2. Do not procrastinate! This seven-step process takes time—months, not weeks—if done well.

Graduate school is a big commitment of your life to a specific endeavor. You want to enter into an environment that is intellectually challenging and fascinating but supports your goals and vision for your future. If you are graduating soon, it is best to start planning the next chapter of your life now.

About the Author: Elizabeth Briody

Elizabeth Briody
Elizabeth K. Briody has been involved in cultural-change efforts for 35+ years—first at General Motors Research and later through her consulting practice, Cultural Keys. Her projects have spanned many industries including automotive, health care, research institutions, aerospace, insurance, consumer products, and petrochemicals.  Among her books are Transforming Culture and The Cultural Dimension of Global Business (9th ed.). She leads the Anthropology Career Readiness Network with Riall Nolan to improve student preparation for careers. She is Past President of NAPA and served as AAA Secretary. In 2020, Briody was honored by the Society for Applied Anthropology’s Bronislaw Malinowski award for lifetime achievement.