Should I Go to Grad School? Decision Tips During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Brian Soika

'Should I go to grad school?' is a common question for prospective students, such as the ones who walk across a picturesque university campus

‘Should I go to grad school?’ is a complicated question for most people under normal circumstances. Add a global pandemic to the list of considerations, and the decision becomes even more complex. 

COVID-19 has disrupted seemingly every facet of life—including some individuals’ plans for a master’s or doctoral degree. If you’re wondering if now is a good time to attend grad school, Quade French, PhD recently drew on his expertise as a clinical psychologist and educator to share some valuable insight. 

In addition to his role in the USC Provost Office of Campus Wellbeing and Education, French also serves as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at USC Rossier where he’s taught in the Master of Education in Educational Counseling and Master of Marriage and Family Therapy programs.

(Learn more about USC Rossier’s graduate programs.)

Here are some key points to consider if you’re trying to make up your mind about graduate school:

Determine Your Goals

Clarify what you intend to accomplish with a graduate degree. You should do this whether or not the world is undergoing a pandemic, but it’s especially relevant now when employment may feel tenuous, and you might be facing personal challenges. If you’re struggling to establish a clear intention with grad school, you may want to wait or reconsider. 

However, keep in mind that “For some, graduate school is a path forward,” says French. It can be a means to achieving the purpose and meaning that you want to create for yourself.  

Assess the Unique Benefits

Despite the country’s stalled economy and high unemployment, COVID-19 may present a unique opportunity. Rather than try to start or advance a career in an unstable job market, many people may “use the time to cultivate self,” says French. 

College enrollment increased during the last recession, an indication that now might be a good time to build your skillset, and prepare to enter the job market with an advanced degree. If there are fewer jobs available in your field, a master’s or doctorate can make you a more competitive candidate.  

Think Long-Term About Your Career

Health concerns regarding the Coronavirus should certainly inform your decision about grad school. However, if you’re considering postponing your application, think about the long-term effects on your career. In five years, will pausing your professional trajectory seem worth it in hindsight? 

Consider the Challenges

In addition to challenges such as cost and time commitment, COVID-19 has introduced new questions to consider about attending graduate school. Will your program that’s traditionally on-campus now be held online (and does that work for you)? If your school’s campus is open, does it have adequate safety measures? 

Additionally, if your finances are impacted by the Coronavirus through unemployment or health costs, your financial challenges may have become compounded. While there are scholarships, student loans, and other ways to pay for grad school, you should seriously assess your financial situation (as well as your projected salary after graduation, if possible).


Consider the Growing Need for Equitable Leadership 

“This pandemic has laid bare the inequities of our society across class, race, culture and privilege,” said French in a recent speech at a virtual USC Rossier Admitted Student event. “I have not seen a greater need for people who dedicate their careers and lives to helping others.”

A graduate degree in education positions you to make effective changes at a time when institutions can play a vital role in empowering under-represented individuals. While it’s not the only way to impact your community, a master’s or doctorate can place you in a position of leadership and influence.  

Prepare to become a leader in education. 

Estimate the Personal Benefits

While content knowledge is crucial, graduate school also provides an opportunity to develop self-awareness and empathy. The cohort model is designed to be inclusive of different perspectives, allowing you to learn from other students based on their diverse backgrounds and life experiences. 

Enhanced awareness of yourself in relation to others prepares you to be a more effective leader. It encourages curiosity about people’s perspectives and motivates you to communicate more effectively with your cohort in school, and your colleagues in the workplace.

In the era of COVID-19, empathy is crucial. It’s a means of understanding how the pandemic has impacted people differently, and can serve as a guide to making policy and administrative decisions. 

“There’s so much uncertainty out there,” says French. “The only thing we can be certain of is how we respond to others.”

Educational leaders should always employ empathy and kindness, but the need is perhaps more urgent now. Leaders should explore how the Coronavirus has affected current and prospective students and staff, and what they can do to better serve them.

Weigh the Value of a Close Cohort

Your cohort may offer professional support after graduation, as well as personal support throughout the program. 

Master’s and doctoral programs in education often ask you to navigate complex issues such as social injustices and oppressed identities. These topics not only present academic challenges, they require you to perform honest self-reflection as well. 

French describes the experience of a cohort as a “shared personal and emotional journey with people that you trust.” You undergo a unique experience together that, for many, leads to valuable self-growth.

The cohort experience may be even more valuable during a pandemic. As you experience increased isolation due to social distancing, a cohort model can provide a much-needed sense of connection, while establishing lifelong bonds.

Consider Your Chosen University’s Pandemic Response

There is no template for how universities should respond during a pandemic. However, if you’re considering making the investment in graduate school, review the ways in which the universities you are considering handle the crisis, and their plans for the near future.

Do they appear to be leading with compassion and support for their students and staff? If they’re moving your program online, do you feel confident that they can support virtual learning? If they plan to have on-ground classes, will social distancing be integrated into the campus experience? 

While there is no single correct response to COVID-19 for universities, determine if your school represents your values during this time, and seems prepared to tailor their program to the circumstances of a pandemic.

Final Thoughts

The question of ‘Should I go to grad school?’ requires careful consideration of your career and personal reflection. Make sure you weigh the potential benefits and challenges, as well as unique factors related to the Coronavirus when making your decision. 


USC Resources

Wondering how the University of Southern California is dealing with the COVID-19 crisis? Visit the university’s Coronavirus resource website for current updates, as well as information on medical and mental health services. 

If you want details on how USC Rossier is managing its programs, our admission staff is ready to answer your questions.

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