Navigating the Path to Graduate School

This week we welcome Dr. Shannon Dobranski, Director of Pre-Graduate and Pre-Professional Advising at Georgia Tech, to the blog. Welcome, Shannon!

Listen to “Episode 20: Navigating the Path to Grad School – Dr. Shannon Dobranski” on Spreaker.

“I want to go to medical school. Have I taken all the steps I need to?”

“What should I be doing right now to get into a competitive graduate program?”

“Will I fall behind if I study abroad?”

The most common questions I hear from college students is some version of “Am I on track?” One of my tasks as a Pre-Graduate and Pre-Professional Advisor is to reassure the students and alumni who seek my guidance that there really is no track.

Because the path to college is often forged collectively with friends and classmates pursuing similar outcomes at the same time, students assume the next step in their journey is also predictable. They might feel uneasy when they see a roommate or friend from home seemingly making faster progress or taking an unanticipated route to graduate or professional school.

But the truth is the journey to professions that require post-graduate education is not a march; it’s a voyage that requires time spent in exploration and self-discovery.

For some, that journey begins in high school and in the selection of an undergraduate university. High school seniors who anticipate graduate or professional school to pursue a career in healthcare, industry, or scholarship can ask questions of their professional mentors and, more importantly, of themselves to determine their possible way forward.

Health Professional School

You may be attracted to a career in medicine or another health field for many reasons. Perhaps you had a good experience (or a bad one!) with a physician when you were young, or maybe you observed a loved one who struggled with illness or injury. Medicine may be a family calling or a way to give back to your community. Perhaps you’ve dreamed of becoming a physician for so long that you’ve forgotten exactly what attracted you to the field. Now is a good time to get in touch with that motive and to practice putting those impulses to words.

Start a journal in which you capture your health-related activities, such as shadowing, volunteerism, research, or other extra-curricular service or leadership. In addition to keeping a record of these engagements, you should periodically reflect on how they are shaping you into a prospective health professional. Think about the following questions:

  • Why do I want to be a healthcare professional?
  • What steps have I taken already to prepare myself for that purpose?
  • What challenges have I encountered?
  • How have my ideas about my career changed?

Of course, not everything you do will be related directly to health, but that doesn’t mean that the things you are currently doing won’t inform the sort of healthcare professional you will become. Writing down your observations about your current activities and capturing your changing perspectives will show that you have chosen your career intentionally.

You also owe it to yourself to explore the career you have in mind by consulting experts. Talking to current health professionals or to pre-health advisors is a great way to learn more about a field and to test whether it might be a good fit. If you have family members or family friends in health careers, you can start with them and ask if they would introduce you to their colleagues for other perspectives.

If you don’t have the advantage of personal acquaintances in the profession, there are websites that can tell you about the career and how to prepare for it, such as the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions and ExploreHealthCareers.org. Your college or university will likely have advising resources to help you as well, either in dedicated pre-health advisors or in more general career advising or academic advising offices. I also highly encourage you to ask about pre-health advising resources during your college information sessions and tours.

Graduate School

If you are considering a career in teaching or research, or if you want to fast-track your career in some specific professions, you might discover that specialized post-graduate training is in your future. College professors, research scientists, and highly specialized personnel in government and industry all benefit from advanced coursework, usually culminating in a master’s degree or a PhD.

To determine if graduate school is right for you, I again recommend practicing reflection. Get started with these important questions:

  • What subjects am I genuinely curious about?
  • Do I have unanswered questions when I’ve completed a course?
  • Do I enjoy seeking new or additional information to solve problems?
  • Am I able to clearly explain my discoveries to other people?

While your reflection responses will reveal your own inclinations, you should also check with people in your anticipated career to see how much university training is expected for starting positions and advancement. For many fields, graduate school is not necessary, and you could advance more quickly by starting work rather than pursuing a master’s degree. Professors, current professionals, or pre-graduate or career advisors are good resources for this information.

As you consider your college options, ask what opportunities they have for faculty mentoring. A strong undergraduate research program will allow you to explore your commitment to research and provide experiences that will make you a strong applicant when you eventually apply to graduate school.

Next Steps

Whether you are considering a career in health or one that requires graduate school, you will benefit from a regular practice of self-reflection and from the habit of consulting a network of informed mentors or advisors. Here are some other actions you can take, now and as you enter college, to prepare for your career:

Participate in student organizations, research, or service projects. You may have an opportunity to do this in high school, but it is particularly important once you start college. These organizations and opportunities will advance you on your journey toward a specific career. Others won’t directly relate to your chosen field but will develop competencies or perspectives that will be valuable to you now and in the future. Be sure to reflect on these experiences in your journal!

Be curious. The most satisfying careers allow you to engage in a field that energizes you, so be open-minded early in your college career in case you discover that a different major or a minor would be rewarding. (Be sure to ask the colleges you are applying to about their major changing policies.) Be proactive during your college search and in your first year on campus and talk to an exploratory advisor to discover opportunities that fit your interests, and speak with career advisors about how your field of study might translate to a career.

Read actively. Explore your interests by staying current in your field. In some disciplines, the most recent developments will be captured in news publications and other popular discourse. In many fields, you will want to begin exploring scholarly journals and conference proceedings to discover the latest innovations. As a high school student, notice where some of these professionals attended college. This may help you broaden your list of schools to consider. And please don’t be discouraged if these materials are challenging at first; you will soon speak the language of your field.

Cultivate faculty relationships and maintain existing relationships. Professors may seem intimidating in the classroom, but they enjoy talking about their field of study and their research. Visit them during office hours, and try to set a goal for meeting other members of your campus support team. Check in with academic and career advisors each semester if possible.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. Taking the time to do so is a great indication that you are well on your way to an exciting college and professional future.

Dr. Shannon Dobranski has been an educator at Georgia Tech since 1996. She is currently the Director of Pre-Graduate and Pre-Professional Advising, overseeing a team committed to students and alumni seeking careers in education or health, or pursuing graduate admission or prestigious fellowships. She believes that advising is relationship and that effective advising is critical for student success in higher education.