Avoid these 5 grad school mistakes

Many college students assume that to succeed professionally, they will need an advanced degree. But what they don't realize is that up to half of the roughly 500,000 students who start graduate school every year never finish.

Dropping out of grad school not only represents a wasted opportunity, but also can be expensive. Here are five mistakes to avoid if you are aiming for a graduate degree:

1. You expect to get a PhD quickly. Master's degrees will often take a couple of years, but PhD's will be a long slog. Science PhDs have the shortest path to a degree, with the average time being seven years. Students in the humanities typically take nine years to earn their degree.

Strangely enough, university search committees tend to offer full-time faculty positions to those who have stayed the longest in grad school. Talk to recent grads and those currently in specific programs to assess how long it typically takes grad students at individual schools to graduate and where they end up afterwards.

2. You don't have an end game. Investigate what kind of jobs the degree you are seeking leads to, recommends Kevin D. Haggerty and Aaron Doyle, who are professors at Canadian universities and the authors of an illuminating new book entitled, "57 Ways to Screw Up in Grad School." Doctorates tend to lead to a narrow range of highly specialized jobs in academia, while master's degrees are far less likely to be boxed in to particular career paths.

Haggerty and Doyle warn that would-be grad students should ignore the conventional wisdom that academic opportunities will expand soon because a large number of aging professors will retire. Grad students have heard this prediction for decades, yet a tenured position in academia remains exceedingly hard to come by.

3. You attend grad school for the wrong reasons. Too many individuals head off to grad school because they love being students and, well, they don't know what else to do.

But it pays to keep in mind that grad school will be a vastly different experience than the undergrad years. Grad students are largely on their own, with heavy workloads that include a great deal of esoteric reading and writing.

"The course material now becomes, to a considerable extent, technical 'insider' journals and by university presses," writes Andrew Roberts, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University, in his book "The Thinking Student's Guide to College."

As a grad student, you will largely be responsible for charting your own intellectual path, which can be jarring for students used to just showing up for class and studying for finals. You need to be a self-starter.

4. You don't focus on the money. Many master's degree programs are unfunded, but if a PhD program doesn't offer you funding, walk away, Doyle and Haggerty advise. Without financial support, it would be extremely difficult to complete a PhD unless you are a trust fund baby.

"A lack of funding signals that the department is not committed to you. From their perspective, admitting you unfunded can have the advantage of keeping their enrollment numbers up, but it is a low-risk gamble on a student they are probably unsure they want to admit in the first place."

5. You select the wrong advisor. It is essential to find the right professor to supervise you through the convoluted degree process. By contrast, Master's degree students may be in school for months or longer before finding a faculty mentor.

Haggerty and Doyle say that the most focused PhD students tend to enroll in a degree program to work with a specific professor. This is a wise approach because having the right supervisor is a key to graduate success. The best supervisors will also help you launch your career.