As our Virginia Tech seniors in STEM soak up their final Hokie experiences, the question of whether or not to attend graduate school is a decision these students must seriously consider. 

I spoke with Robyn Hansen, a senior in mechanical engineering pursuing a graduate degree in biomedical engineering. Here are her top pieces of advice for STEM students considering attending graduate school.

Tip 1: Ask yourself, “Why?”

A crucial first step when considering whether or not to pursue a graduate degree is to ask yourself why you are doing it. Not all careers necessitate a graduate degree in order to excel in the field, so spending time and money on the higher degree might not be worth it. 

“I don't see the benefit of going to get your graduate degree just to have a graduate degree,” Hansen said. “That doesn't really make sense to me. I think you should choose to get a graduate degree because you're extremely interested in that topic. A lot of STEM majors get to focus on research, and I think that’s really why you want to go to grad school — to research.” 

If you know what you want to do, have passion for it and know that a grad degree will help you achieve your goal, then you can start the search for prospective programs.

Tip 2: Work hard for the workload.

It is no secret that graduate school is no piece of cake, but not many know exactly what the workload entails. It is more than just tough quizzes and projects — it is a lifestyle. For Hansen, this lifestyle requires 10 hours of senior design classes, 10 hours of research and multiple meetings discussing the program per week.

“You really have to be on top of your schedule and things that you need to get done to make sure that your thesis is ready,” Hansen said. “It's about just figuring out the little logistical things and painting a timeline of how you want everything to go. ​​I'm still able to hang out with my friends on the weekends and be a normal human being, but you got to make those sacrifices.” 

Tip 3: Consider what kind of grad program is best for you.

Graduate programs come in many different forms that may take different amounts of time to complete. Consider full-time versus part-time options. For Hansen, that looks like only one additional year of schooling at Virginia Tech. She is a part of the Virginia Tech – Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences (SBES), an accelerated graduate program that allows her to take graduate courses during her senior year and finish out the program in one additional year. This option could be ideal for some students due to the fact that it is cheaper than a longer program, is based in the same location as undergrad and offers many opportunities for research. 

Attending an accelerated program requires you to have good grades and a strong work ethic due to the rigor of the program. However, not every STEM graduate program is offered as an accelerated program here at Virginia Tech. If what you are looking for is not at Tech, then looking into longer programs elsewhere may be best. While these are more expensive than an accelerated program, they may offer classes at a more manageable pace if you also intend on pursuing work opportunities in conjunction with graduate school.

Tip 4: Consider the prestige of the grad program, but don’t make it a top priority.

In terms of a specific school, keep your horizons open because only certain schools offer specific programs. Just because a grad program is widely considered prestigious does not mean that it is the right fit for you. Going to a school with a bigger name or reputation could potentially be a bad decision because smaller schools with lesser known programs could provide education more specific and useful to your future career.

“It kind of goes back to what the school is known for,” Hansen said. “I don't love the ranking systems because a lot of companies do rely on just ranking. A person who went to [a] lower school could be a super hard worker, super passionate, and willing to learn and explore. So, I think it does depend sometimes on how you're ranked, and what school you go to, but I think it also depends on the person as an individual.”

Take the prestige factor of a program into consideration, but also remember that is not the only factor that goes into being chosen for a job in the future. Hard work can go a long way and exceed the reputation of a specific graduate program.

Tip 5: Don’t limit yourself.

While grad school can be a crucial stepping stone toward dream careers, it might not be for everyone. If you do decide to go forward with pursuing a STEM-related graduate degree, take these tidbits of advice into consideration, but remember to prioritize yourself. Your career goals, your wants and needs, your financial considerations and your time are the most important factors to take into consideration. Put yourself out there to seek out your future — attend major-specific career fairs, talk with your professors and advisors, apply for co-op programs and actively pursue any STEM career-related opportunity that may come your way, no matter how big or small it may be. What’s best for you is specific and unique. For more information on the specific graduate programs offered right here at Virginia Tech, explore its graduate degrees and programs website. Good luck to all our Hokie STEM seniors faced with this important decision; you got this!

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