How I Decided to Attend Graduate School
by Sarah Gillig Sunu -- March 22nd, 2013

It’s Admitted Student weekend at the Nic School!  I didn’t get to come to Admitted Student weekend last year—it was too expensive—so I had to make my choice without actually visiting (though I had the advantage of taking classes at the Duke Marine Lab over two summers, so I had something to go on).   So, for those of you who also are stuck elsewhere for Admitted Student weekend, I thought it might be helpful for me to lay out over a couple of posts the thought-process I used to decide whether I should go to grad school, why I chose Duke, and a couple of things it would have been good to know before I came here.

How I Decided to Attend Graduate School

Just found this in my “old pictures from college” folder–wow, little college desk lamps made for some dramatic lighting!

I’d always assumed in the back of my mind that I would go back to school after undergrad, but it took me three years after graduation to figure out what I was going back for. The definition of what I wanted to do eluded me for a long time, and it’s still evolving (I always think of this from the Onion when I try to create my ideal job title). After having a really broad variety of work experiences and reading a lot of job descriptions, I decided that I needed to go back to graduate school in order to get the jobs I wanted later.  Most of the job descriptions required (or strongly preferred) some kind of graduate degree, and many of them emphasized skills and experience that I needed to go to graduate school to get.


Spring flowers on Capitol Hill from when I was in living DC in 2010, close to my boarding house (Thompson Markward Hall, good place for a young woman to live short-term).

It felt like I knew a lot of people who decided to go to graduate school straight out of college because of the economy, but I’m not sure how happy most of them were with that decision.  For me, I think I might have landed in a program that wasn’t as in line with my interests (since it took me three years to figure out how to approach those interests), and I certainly wouldn’t have the benefit of ‘real-world’ experience to bring to my studies, which has helped me to both be motivated and to hone in on what I really want to get out of this experience.  I know it’s scary out there, but if you’re flexible and perseverent  (and open to roommates, frugal living, part-time work, and food stamps) you’ll make it, and I’m really glad I worked first.  My time in D.C. and in AmeriCorps really helped to shape what I want to do with my career.


Dressed up for a Halloween swing dance in Boston, 2012. Funny things on noses is turning into a blog theme for me.

While I was working I agonized over whether I should be applying for a masters, a professional masters, or a PhD (literally, it took me over a year to settle on one and get comfortable with the notion). Ultimately, I settled on the professional degree because I don’t want to be a professor (PhD) and my career goals are in line with a professional masters (environmental manager\communicator) rather than a traditional masters (research).


Bottom line, it was pretty clear that for me to get where I want to be (communicating about the environment!), I would need a master’s degree of some kind, and for what I want to do, a professional master’s degree made the most sense. One GRE and a lot of essays later, I had to figure out which school I wanted to actually go to.


 Why I Chose the Nicholas School


Fall colors in front of the LSRC A-wing, where most of our classes take place.

I was lucky enough to get into several good schools. I chose Duke for reasons both practical and personal.

Practical reasons:

  • Lower cost of living than the other schools I was considering (all the others were in states on CNBC’s ‘Most Expensive States to Live In 2012’ list—and I don’t have a lot of money!)
  • Proximity to family (Steve’s parents live in Charlotte, my parents are only 8 hours by car)
  • Developing a network of colleagues on the East Coast (which is where Steve and I ultimately hope to wind up—preferably in New England, near Boston) 

Personal reasons:

  • Regard for the Nicholas School from people I trust (including previous professors, supervisors, and colleagues)
  • Positive interactions with people in the Nicholas School community (in particular Cindy Van Dover, who was kind enough to have a long chat with me on Skype when I was trying to make my final decision)
  • Appealing curriculum (lots of courses I was drooling over, and a number of courses teaching skills that I wanted to develop for professional reasons)
  • Getting to spend a year at the Marine Lab (loved the summers I spent there–check out live webcam here)

    One of many beautiful views from the Marine Lab on Pivers Island–love it!

See the next post for Things It Would Have Been Nice To Know Before I Signed Things (note—they are actually all things that would have made me MORE eager to sign things, which is good!).




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