Applying to Graduate School after Working in a Startup

So, you are thinking about graduate school? But why would you leave the fast paced world of a start up?

I’m going to put this out there knowing full well that my experience is not everybody’s. There are definitely better and worse ways to go about doing this.  I spent almost 2 years preparing to go to graduate school while working and have talked to numerous other people, so this is just what I’ve picked up. I’m sure some of this you already know or could figure out, but when I was starting all this out I felt a little lost at sea, so hope it helps!

The three phases of transition from a start-up to graduate school:

The Thought

  1. Be sure. Talk people in the profession. Cold call, email, go to related events (does this sound familiar? Yeah, it’s just like developing a business. Learn the market landscape!). Get on the phone. Call up people you know and ask them to put you in touch with people in the profession.
  2. Be honest with yourself. Do you really need the extra degree to accomplish what you want or is it just that you’ve had a stressful couple of months and need a vacation? Perhaps you are unsatisfied with your position. Write down a list of skills that you have (hard and soft) and compare it with what skills you want. Find ways to make opportunities. I wanted to get better at coding, so I volunteered to make a very simple database for my company to track relevant technologies*. If no one at your company really has the skills then maybe it’s time to look for a new opportunity or start/find a side project
  3. If you think there is a possibility that you are going to want to go to graduate school in the future, do yourself a favor and keep in contact with some professors and such who have seen your work from college/ grad school. If you haven’t done it or don’t have strong connections in that respect THAT’S OKAY.
    1. Hacking it on letters of recommendations:
      1. Consider finding a professor that is within close proximity to you and doing a side project. This is also a great way to show grad schools that you are willing to go the extra micle and have a strong desire to be in that field.
      2. Set up some time to go talk with an old professor in person. Please don’t start by asking as recommendation, but ask for advice on graduate school. Open with what you enjoyed about your experiences with them and use that as a platform to highlight your interest, your work, and what you have done since you’ve left their class.
  4. Your boss can also be a resource! You’ve done good work(or tried at least); they’ve probably seen you a lot more than most professors ever did. If the graduate program has requirements on who can write you recommendations, call them up and talk to the Dean of Director of admissions. It may be that they asked for an LOR from an academic because the program requires a lot of writing and they want to make sure you have the chops! But perhaps you write white papers for your company all the time and it will be fine if your boss is a substitute.
  5. Community leaders can also be great. Do you organize happy hours for the community? Or maybe you volunteer somewhere. It’s likely that these people want you to succeed and will be more than happy to write you a letter exalting your ability to teach small children about the wonders of photoshop or whatever it is that you are doing.
  6. Dominate whatever test is required. Yeah. you should always want to do well, but if you know your letters of recommendations may not be as strong use your test scores to make up for that(and the reverse is also true!).

The Ask

Alright, now you’ve done your research and you’ve realized that you simply must go back to graduate school to study the reproductive cycles of unicorns or supply chain management. Whatever it is, now you have to execute!

  1. Set a schedule and be strict. Set a timeline and don’t diverge for anything less than a REAL EMERGENCY. There are plenty of examples out there for every type of graduate program. Try not to get too caught up in planning it. You don’t need to download 5 different apps and set it all up. Just keep it simple. More complexity does not mean more success. I once talked to someone who had 4 different scheduling apps. It was an insane time sink for his day to update each of them when he had to deviate from a plan. My recommendation is to either make a schedule that is goal based (“I want to understand the main development stages of human embryonic development so I will review it Mon-Wed from 9-11PM”) or time based (“I will write my application essays from 9-11PM every night Mon-Wed”).
  2. Get support. You may or may not have told your boss. This can be great if they are supportive and maybe willing to allow you to have Friday afternoons off to study or something, but there are plenty of reasons why you may not want to mention anything to your company. I understand, but working all day and studying all night puts you on the fast train to Crazyville, population you. It will and often is very isolating. Finding a study partner, group or even just having a friend that you can occasionally geek out about some content you learned or share your frustration that your scores have plateaued will be a lifeline to the rest of the world while you go through this.
  3. Find ways to enjoy yourself. I used to work out on Friday evenings and then sit in the steam room. I just felt so much more relaxed and motivated after to get back to it! Take a break every now and then! Find ways to put the subject material into terms you enjoy (I enjoyed personifying all the molecules in a pathway and telling the story to myself).


  1. Leverage your experiences. Basically every position in a startup will require you to interact with people. I ran the technical support call in line for a software company and you better believe that during my medical school interviews I said that I had experience dealing with people in stressful situations and learned how to break things down for people in a way that a layman could understand. Now, that may seem stupid because maybe you want to get you PhD in mathematics and won’t have to interact with patients, but most graduate programs have a teaching component (either voluntary or required) and emphasizing your developed soft skills can definitely give you a leg up over the competition.**

If graduate school is what you want then go for it! You will get discouraged and sometimes you are going to want to bail, but YOU MUST BELIEVE IN YOURSELF! After all, if you don’t, who else will?

*I also knew there was someone at my company who could answer questions if I ever got stuck [mentor!!!]. I learned a lot about coding and the process of coding. It turns out you need buy in from a lot of people and everyone has different visions for what they want out of the product. I give kudos to all people who code for a living and I’m sorry if I’ve ever made your life more terrible by demanding all the buttons on a website be bright blue and have confetti animations when you click on them…

**(BUT WAIT, I’M SPECIAL AND IN MY STARTUP I NEVER DEALT WITH CONFLICT OR ANYTHING)  Wow, I’m impressed you’ve managed to find the Switzerland of startups. I’m going to call bullshit. Just think back to the last time you fought (or didn’t) fight for your position. It’s (1) always good to reflect on these situations and decide how you are going to improve yourself (2) most graduate programs like hearing about these events.

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