Parents FAQ: Introduction »

Parents FAQ: Graduate School

My child is thinking about going to law school. What’s the best pre-law major?

There is no one “best” pre-law major. Law schools look for well-rounded students, with a comprehensive education and different areas of study, from the sciences to the humanities, serve law school applicants well. Mostly, admissions officials at law schools are interested in individuals with strong, diversified academic records, who show evidence of having challenged themselves with upper level courses, independent studies, or honors theses. Students are most likely to engage in these demanding academic activities if they are pursuing a major that is inherently interesting to them rather than a major that they committed to because it is “practical.”

What are the special considerations for students planning to go to graduate or professional school?

Many students apply to graduate or professional schools during the summer before, and the first semester of, their senior year. Students should check with a Career Services pre-graduate or professional school advisor before going abroad during this stage of their undergraduate careers to be sure that they are on track with the application process as well as get other questions answered. Students will often need to get letters or reference and appropriate graduate or professional school admissions tests will need to be taken.

How do I help my child best prepare for a subsequent degree?

Your student has several tasks while at Penn. She should take advantage of the superb liberal arts education available at this institution in order to becoming a broadly educated person with a sophisticated understanding of our complex, global society. She will also develop her intellectual abilities and her communication, analytical and quantitative skills during her four years as an undergraduate at Penn. In addition to developing general knowledge, another significant goal during these years is to choose a major, or more focused area of study, and thus to explore a field, or fields of study, that she finds compelling and rewarding. By so doing, she will learn about her own intellectual proclivities and talents, and ultimately develop confidence in her ability to succeed. This confidence, in turn, is a key component of success in ANY TYPE of graduate program. Parents who are supportive of their college students’ undergraduate intellectual explorations are assisting their children prepare for further academic achievement down the road, no matter the area. Parents may ask themselves if any particular major best prepares a student for graduate school. The answer to this question depends upon the type of degree pursued. For law, business and medical school, no one major provides an edge over another. Faculty in these professional degree programs like students to have a solid liberal arts education or good general knowledge. Of course, medical schools do require students to take a series of required courses before admittance. Ph.D. programs in particular fields of the Arts and Sciences usually require applicants to have extensive preparation in the area of study, (along with recommendations and mentoring from faculty in that field.) Other ways to encourage your student to prepare for subsequent graduate study are to remind your student to cultivate relationships with faculty, and also to encourage her to visit Career Services to find out about pre-requisite courses and practical or volunteer experiences necessary or useful for application for graduate study in particular fields, and to get assistance with applications.

What does “graduate school” mean? That is, what is the range of graduate and professional school options available to Penn graduates?

The term “graduate school” encompasses courses in fields of study as different as a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, a Master of Public Health, an M.B.A., a J.D., or an M.D., and many more besides. The thing to keep in mind about graduate study is that it is more technical and specific than undergraduate schooling, and it sometimes combines both academic and practical training. Professional masters degrees, like the MBA or the Master of Public Health, Public Administration, Public Affairs, or Social Work, are practical degrees that prepare their students for specific career paths. Their curricula are frequently multi-disciplinary and can include practicums. Many of these professional masters programs prefer applicants who have work experience.

Aren’t graduate school training and credentials always good to have, even if you are not sure that you want to be in a particular field?

Graduate school training is a very useful credential if one has a reasonable idea why one wants a particular degree. Some POOR reasons to go to graduate school include: not wanting to work in an entry level job or to deal with a challenging job market; belief that one must keep up the academic momentum of the undergraduate years or one will never get back to study; belief that a graduate degree automatically translates into higher pay or allows one to circumvent the apprenticeship period of most career pathways; belief that one must set out on a vocational course because of time pressure even if one is uncertain about its suitability. Some GOOD reasons to go to graduate school include: using the training and credential as a stepping stone to achieve well thought out career goals; or taking advantage of the opportunity for education in a field that is of strong interest and obvious vocational fit.

Is graduate or professional school necessary for being competitive in the job market?

This depends upon the field. If one is working in software development, for instance, an undergraduate degree may be sufficient. Some business leaders, for example, are presently questioning whether an MBA, at least early on in one’s career, is an appropriate vehicle with which to develop one’s “soft skills,” such as leadership, teamwork, communication and the ability to think creatively. There may be a growing preference for individuals who have forged their skills in the crucible of real life experience. Other fields absolutely require graduate training; e.g. medicine and other areas of health care, law, library science, or academic careers. Once again, good background research will enable your college student to determine his most appropriate educational pathway. In addition to conversations with faculty, career and graduate school counselors and friends and alumni in the intended field, along with internships and entry level experience, your student can find a wealth of information on our website, including alumni surveys, first destination surveys, and even medical school admissions statistics for Penn students.

Is it a negative to take time off before going to graduate or professional school?

Again, given the broad range of types of graduate programs, and their varied requirements for admittance, there is no one particular answer to this question. Many of the professional degrees mentioned above prefer applicants with two to three years of experience in a relevant area of work. Certain career paths require a profound level of personal commitment, e.g., medicine or a Ph.D. in a field of the arts and sciences, and it is best if an applicant has had enough related experiences to make an informed judgement about what the practice of medicine or a career as a professor entails. Indeed, in recent years, we have seen an increase in the number of students opting to take time off before graduate or professional school. On the other hand, certain fields, like a Ph.D. in Mathematics or Economics, require applicants to have quantitative skills in top form, and it may be best to apply to Ph.D. programs in these areas right after graduation. Again, gathering information about the field is the best way to prepare oneself for a particular graduate degree.

Are there any particular majors that are better than others for specific graduate programs?

Law, business and medical schools do NOT favor any particular major. Graduate programs in other areas may require a good general foundation in a discipline. Your student should talk to faculty and pre-graduate advisors or other individuals in the field.

How can I support my child in his or her quest to find a good vocational and graduate school fit?

Give your child some breathing room to explore different disciplines with the understanding that one never knows at the outset where such explorations could lead. Encourage him to take advantage of internships or research opportunities in a field of interest, and to talk with people who work in those areas. Have confidence that your son will ultimately sort out the confusion of vocational choices because he is capable, intelligent and resourceful.

What does it mean that my daughter wants a Ph.D. in an academic subject? Will she ever be able to find a job?

If your daughter is considering pursuing a Ph.D. in an academic subject, she is committing herself to a program of intense study and research. To get through the rigors of a doctoral program, she must have a passion for what she does and rigorous intellectual self-discipline. There is, however, great reward in completing major research projects and contributing new insights to a discipline. As to the question of finding a job, there are opportunities for Ph.D.s both within and without academia. Academic jobs do often require individuals to relocate to another part of the country, however, graduates from doctoral programs work in universities in a range of capacities, in research organizations, higher education administration, think tanks, government, and the private sector. You can find very useful information on our website about job market pathways and opportunities for Penn’s graduate students and post doctoral fellows.

What can Career Services provide your student in his efforts to prepare for graduate school?

Career Services has three full-time advisors who serve undergraduates and alumni considering or applying to graduate or professional school. Our advisors help students in some of the following areas: determining the fit between graduate programs, career plans, and vocational interests; educating applicants about the nuts and bolts, and timing, of the application process; pinpointing optimal application strategies; and financing professional or graduate school. Our advisors also read applicants’ personal statements and provide critiques. Finally, we also encourage our students to meet with faculty for current, cogent advice about the most appropriate programs in their disciplines.