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Graduate Matters

Is graduate school the right choice for you?

In this new series, we explore the ins and outs of graduate studies.


Welcome to Graduate Matters! This blog is written for readers who are curious about graduate school, wonder how an advanced degree could be professionally and personally rewarding or simply interested to know about options after a bachelor’s degree. The blog is also written for professionals who work with students and may be looking for resources or advice about graduate studies.

You recently graduated from a bachelor’s degree or are going to in the near future. You’ve been hearing about graduate studies. So, what is “graduate” school?

Think of education as a ladder. We start in elementary school, progress through to high school/CEGEP, and complete a bachelor’s degree. At this point, you have options: pursue a career, attend graduate school, embark on an interest, etc. Options may be daunting and some students we’ve met at advising appointments tell us that they are considering graduate school for a number of different reasons: because it is their dream, everyone in their family has a graduate degree, a trusted mentor told them it would be a wise choice, or they can more easily find a job with a graduate degree.

The graduate learning experience is distinct from an undergraduate education but usually builds on the foundations learned at the bachelor’s level. If, after years of formal education, you are curious to learn more and deeply about a topic, have solid research questions in mind, and are excited to conduct research and contribute to knowledge in a specific field, graduate school may be a fitting niche for you.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of graduate programs to choose from. Depending on which program stream you choose, your schedule may look very different:

Professional programs

These programs provide skills and knowledge to a specific professional field. They may include lectures/courses, lab work, experiential experience (e.g., internship, practicum), research papers or thesis components. Examples include the Master of Spatial Analysis at Ryerson University, Creative Arts Therapies at Concordia, or an MBA. Graduate programs may be offered as a graduate certificate, graduate diploma or master’s degree.

Some professional programs are designed for working professionals, offering intensive classes in the evening and weekends to allow learners to work during the day. Some professional programs may include designated credits between courses and practicum or fieldwork across semesters.

Thesis programs

These are done at the master’s or doctoral levels. The program may include lectures/course work and expects students to develop analytical skills to conduct research in the lab or in the field and to write a thesis on their work. Programs may encourage students to publish an article in a peer-review journal, a book chapter, or give a conference presentation about the research. The key is that your research has potential to create new knowledge or investigate a problem in a novel way to add to the existing body of literature in your field of interest.

A thesis program may expect students to take courses in the first two semesters and then dedicate their summer and following semesters to data collection, data analysis, and writing. Time may also be dedicated to research team meetings, reading deeply about the literature, and learning new analytical techniques.

In both program streams, you may find valuable opportunities working as a teaching or research assistant. Your time will be fully committed to learning, perhaps spending long hours working on a case study with peers or on the computer reading articles or analysing data.

So, what motivates learners to pursue graduate studies? Here’s a testimonial from grad student Bipasha Sultana, currently working on her MA in media studies:

“When my undergraduate studies in literature, art history and cultural studies were coming to an end, I realized that I was hungry to discover so much more and pursuing a Master’s in media studies had been my first and only choice. Learning about the myriad factors that contribute to the production of cultural products during my undergrad sparked a fire in me to explore the intersections between media and technology, particularly as it pertains to extremist propaganda. I realized that graduate studies could be a viable stepping stone to a career focused on fostering constructive dialogue to the pressing issue of radicalization in Canada.”

As you consider graduate studies as the next step in your professional path, talk to the graduate program assistant or director in the department of interest. Here are some questions to start your conversation:

  • What is the average time to completion in the program?
  • What are your recent alumni (1-5 years of graduation) doing professionally?
  • What programs or resources are available to support your personal and professional growth?
  • How are funding packages decided and what are common offers made in the last couple of years?

As you explore your options, be sure to look into a faculty member’s works to see if you’re compatible to work together. Prior to applying or committing to a program, it is common for graduate students to plan a conversation with the faculty member (phone, video or in person), visit the campus/lab/research space, meet and discuss experiences with current graduate students or to learn more about the city where they may spend some time.

Graduate studies could be a pivotal and wise investment. Hone your research and questioning skills as you explore the right journey for you.

Additional resources:

Niem Huynh & Matthew Stiegemeyer
Niem Huynh is an internship match-maker for graduate students and life coach for people seeking clarity. Matthew Stiegemeyer is currently deputy registrar at Western University overseeing undergraduate recruitment and admissions.
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  1. John Laprise / October 20, 2017 at 10:30

    Fundamentally, there are only two reasons to pursue graduate education:

    -Credentialing: If you’re seeking a position which has a higher education prerequisite, then grad school is a must.

    -The Burning Question: This is largely a rationale for research (PhD/MPhil) aspirants. If you have an insatiable, passionate desire to find an answer to a question, then a research degree is for you.

    If you have both, great! If you have neither, you should probably rethink attending graduate school. You might muddle through a taught degree program but you will likely lose focus and commitment once you complete coursework and begin research.

  2. Michelle Mu / October 21, 2017 at 09:19

    Besides getting credentials, individuals who are willing to have a career change can be the right direction as well. For instance, someone who has a background in finance that is interested in switching to innovation and technology will be a good reason because we are living in a world where industries will be filled with block chain etc.

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