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Intro to Graduate Schools

Intro to Graduate Schools
Jacqueline DeMarco
Jacqueline DeMarcoUpdated October 17, 2022
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Editor’s note: Lantern by SoFi seeks to provide content that is objective, independent and accurate. Writers are separate from our business operation and do not receive direct compensation from advertisers or partners. Read more about our Editorial Guidelines and How We Make Money.
We start school at kindergarten and most of us stop once we obtain a high school or undergraduate college diploma. Some, however, choose to keep learning by attending grad school—whether they do so as soon as they graduate with their bachelor’s degree or after working for a few years. What is grad school? Essentially, grad school (also known as graduate school) offers more advanced programs of study that really focus on one particular profession or discipline.Keep reading to learn more about what grad school is and how these types of educational opportunities work. 

What Is Grad School?

Graduate school is a type of advanced program students can choose to pursue after obtaining a bachelor’s degree that focuses more specifically on one profession or academic discipline—unlike a bachelor’s degree program that includes general education classes. When a graduate school program is considered academic, it focuses on not just learning a subject but on completing original research in the student’s chosen discipline. In professional programs, students learn the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in a certain position such as working as a doctor (who must attend medical school) or lawyer (who needs to complete a law degree at law school). 

How Does Grad School Work?

The way that grad school works depends on the program you choose to pursue. There are a lot of different master’s programs: Master of Science, Master of Arts, Master of Business Administration, Master of Social Work, Master of Library Science, Master of Public Health. The list goes on.There are three main types of graduate school programs.
  • Master’s. Some master’s programs lead to doctoral programs and others are the highest type of degree required for a profession. It usually takes two years to complete a master’s degree if the student attends full-time. 
  • Specialist. A specialist degree is often earned alongside or in addition to a master’s degree (but can be earned on its own) and helps get students ready for professional certification or licensing requirements. For example, a teacher may need to receive a credential in order to work in their profession. 
  • Doctoral. A doctoral degree is the highest type of degree someone can earn and typically requires doing independent research and writing and defending a dissertation. It can take five to seven years to complete a doctoral program—or longer in some cases.
Recommended: Is a Master of Public Administration (MPA) Worth It?

Pros and Cons of Going to Grad School

If someone is thinking about attending grad school, they may want to keep the following pros and cons in mind. 
Pros of Going to Grad SchoolCons of Going to Grad School
More time spent studying their desired area of focusCan be expensive and increase student loan debt
Can make the student a more competitive job applicantCan take many years to complete
Can increase earning potentialThere’s no guarantee grad school leads to career progression
Gain access to expert instructors and educational resourcesStudents lose years of work experience and income

5 Essentials When Applying to Graduate Schools

While each school has its own application process and acceptance requirements, generally these are the essential steps students take when applying to graduate school. 

1. Choosing a Program

First things first—you must narrow down the list of the grad schools you want to apply to after doing your own research. You’ll want to take a school’s graduate program offerings, the cost of attendance and living in that area, and research opportunities into account when determining which programs seem like a good fit. 

2. Letters of Recommendation

Most universities require letters of recommendation in order to apply for their program. You may want to ask for letters of recommendation from former professors, bosses, or other contacts who can vouch for your qualifications at least four to six weeks before the application deadline. This can help ensure the letter writer has ample time to write the letter and that no application deadlines are missed. 

3. Application Process

Again—the application process can vary from school to school, but you can generally expect to upload transcripts with your application, write a statement of purpose, and take entrance exams (if required). Applications also usually require paying a fee to submit them. Which is another reason it’s helpful to narrow down which schools to apply to. 


The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is free to fill out and helps students learn more about the federal student loans and gift aid they can qualify for. It’s a good idea to fill this application out each year to see what financial assistance the student can qualify for. 

5. Student Loans

If you didn’t qualify for enough federal student loans to cover your graduate school costs, you can apply for private student loans. It’s worth noting that private lenders usually charge higher interest rates and fees and offer fewer benefits than federal student loans (such as income-driven repayment plans). Some people recommend exhausting all federal student loan options before applying for private loans. Research private loans vs. federal loans

How Expensive Is Grad School?

The cost of attending graduate school can vary greatly depending on the school and program type. For example, many doctoral programs are funded and students don’t have to pay any tuition or fees and may even receive a living stipend while in school. Even though master’s programs take less time, they can cost much more to pursue. It can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 to obtain a master’s degree. 

Types of Grad Schools

There are two main types of grad school programs—professional and academic. Let’s take a closer look at how these types of grad schools differ. 


Professional graduate school degrees help students get ready to pursue a certain career or field of work such as working as a pharmacist, nurse, or teacher. The cost varies widely and the length of professional programs can vary depending on the field of study and usually last between one and five years. The focus of professional grad school programs is real-world applications. Oftentimes completing internships or professional projects in their field of study is required to graduate. Some professional degrees are required by law in order to hold certain jobs, such as working as a lawyer. 


An academic graduate school program is more research-oriented and can apply to a wide variety of subjects in lieu of professional roles, such as math, English, or history. Students in academic graduate school programs usually have to complete original research alongside coursework and they may have to write and defend a thesis that showcases their research. Recommended: Can You Study Abroad for Grad School?

Strategies to Pay Back Undergrad Student Loans

If someone has undergrad student loans to pay off and wants to tackle that before they start grad school or while enrolled in grad school, here are some strategies for paying off that debt.  

Student Loan Forgiveness

Some federal student loans can qualify for student loan forgiveness programs that relieve the borrower of the responsibility to pay back their student loans. Borrowers can research which forgiveness programs they may be eligible for. 

Student Loan Repayment Programs

Federal student loan borrowers can enroll in repayment programs once it’s time for them to start making payments and they can choose between a variety of different plans that may suit their financial needs better. Some of these plans only last 10 years and others last as long as 25 years. 

Student Loan Refinancing

If you have multiple student loans, you can investigate a student loan refinance that would streamline those loans into a single loan with a private lender. If you can qualify for lower interest rates than when you originally took out your loans, you can potentially save money on interest. It’s worth noting that refinancing federal student loans into a private one causes you to lose access to federal protections such as income-driven repayment plans or loan forgiveness for public service employees. It’s important to consider both the pros and cons of refinancing a student loan before doing so.

The Takeaway

Graduate school offers a much deeper education surrounding a specific discipline or field of work, whereas undergraduate school balances a more general education with a specialty of choice. If you decide you want to refinance your undergraduate or graduate school loans, you can learn more about potential interest rates you may qualify for by refinancing student loans with Lantern. All you  have to do is enter in your desired loan amount, zip code, and credit score, and you can learn more about potential lenders.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is graduate school the same as a master’s program?
Is grad school the same as a bachelor’s degree?
Is grad school harder than undergrad?
Photo credit: iStock/SDI Productions

About the Author

Jacqueline DeMarco

Jacqueline DeMarco

Jacqueline DeMarco is a personal finance writer and editor based in Southern California. While she spends the bulk of her time writing about complex financial issues, she also tackles a variety of subjects ranging from food to fashion to travel. Her work can be found across dozens of publications such as Credit Karma, LendingTree, Northwestern Mutual, The Everygirl, and Apartment Therapy.
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