Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

How to Decide Between Writing Undergrad or Grad School

People who want a formal education in writing have many options these days, from certificate programs to bachelor's degrees, to master's programs, and more. But how do you choose which program will benefit you most? 

It depends on a few factors, including your background, goals, abilities, and sometimes your finances.

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To help us sort through what seems like an endless amount of pros and cons, we spoke with producer, screenwriter, television writer, and novelist Stephanie K. Smith. A film industry veteran, you can find Stephanie's name in the credits on television shows such as Amazon Prime's "Carnival Row," the novel "Tangle In the Dark," the Emmy-nominated limited series "Genius," and as co-producer on the "John Wick" spinoff "The Continental." 

She earned her bachelor's degree from New York University and a master's in screenwriting from the University of Southern California. If she had to do it all over again? Yeah, there are some things she'd do differently. Take a page from her book!

But first ... some background on today's topic: 

What is an Undergraduate Student, and What is an Undergraduate Degree?

An undergraduate student is enrolled in a program to earn a Bachelor's Degree. We usually refer to undergraduate study as college students in the United States, and these students typically enter this higher-level of schooling immediately following high school. Undergrad degrees take at least four years to earn, though some programs require a fifth year or even sixth year of school. Students will focus on a specific major or field of study in an undergraduate program. Still, they will also be required to complete a wider breadth of coursework in general education in the first two years, such as math, English, history, and science. 

What is a Graduate Student, and What is a Graduate Degree?

Grad students have completed their undergraduate studies, but are still pursuing an advanced degree in a particular area of study, usually as a deeper dive into whatever major they pursued as an undergrad, but not always. Some graduate programs, especially for writing, only require that the applicant has previously earned a bachelor's degree from an accredited university. Graduate students are typically enrolled in a master's or doctoral program. Most graduate programs require at least two years of coursework to earn a master's degree. 

Key Differences Between the Undergraduate and Graduate School Experience

A graduate program is more rigorous than an undergraduate major, which is an understatement for some areas of study. You'll be required to take graduate-level courses that are more difficult and require more work than your bachelor's degree. Your professors may expect you to do research or write papers, and they will undoubtedly expect you to be an active participant in class, as classes are more interactive than in college. Classes are also smaller, and you'll be surrounded by people who are like-minded and eager, so you'll need to keep up. Keeping up your GPA is required for most graduate studies; as the saying goes, a C in college is an F in a grad program. You'll also spend much more time studying than you did as an undergraduate student, and professors will expect that you bring creative and fresh ideas and analysis to the class. Scholarships are rarer for graduate students, so be prepared to fork over cold, hard cash or secure a student loan. But you'll have an easier time paying that loan back than someone with only a bachelor's degree: the Social Security Administration reports that someone with a graduate degree ultimately earns more than $800,000 more over a lifetime than a standard college grad. 

How to Decide Between Writing Undergrad or Grad School

Before you make a life-changing decision about pursuing any writing degree, it's essential to ask yourself some key questions, as Stephanie so graciously answered for us below. 

Are You SURE You Want to Be a Professional Writer?

"The thing for me is that I knew I was a writer from the time I was seven years old, and it was the only thing I was ever going to do, and I was incredibly focused on it from that time," Stephanie explained.

She chose to focus on writing during her undergrad for this reason. But if you're not sure - and there's NOTHING wrong with that - you may want to explore a more generalized major where you're exposed to new career options and new ideas. If you asked me in high school what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said something generic (and I did ... I thought I wanted to be a journalist). But once I got to college, my horizons expanded. I had no idea you could be a person who writes movies!

Is Undergraduate School or Graduate School Better for Me?

"Your path depends on what sort of writer you are, right? Because there's one school of thought which is you go to [college], you get the assistant job, you work your way up the ladder; and there's another school of thought that you go and like, have a life," Stephanie said. "I think that writing education is incredibly valuable, but if I were to do it again, I probably wouldn't have done it as an undergrad. There was so much personal discovery that still had to be done at that age that I didn't have. I mean, I graduated from NYU when I was 20, so I wasn't a grownup, you know? And so, I had a lot to learn in life before that point.

I think graduate school is actually great because you're coming at it from a place where you know this is what you want, you're dedicated to making it happen, and you're astute and savvy enough – or at least hopefully – to pay attention to the things that you should do in order to forward your career once you're there."

Do I Need to Attend a University for Writing?

"I see a lot of people, I have to be frank, that didn't study writing at all that had other careers," Stephanie admits. "If your end game is to be working, if you're coming to it from a practical place and this is what you want to do, and that sort of thing, then maybe be something else and then your "in" becomes that they need people who are lawyers and they need people who are engineers to come in and write those things more accurately."

In conclusion, choosing whether to attend college, grad school, or any school focusing on writing is a deeply personal decision and requires some introspection. Don't just do it for your resume. Are you sure you want to be a writer? Do you need formal training? Are you craving connections most? Do you have the time and money to dedicate toward graduate school? Are you at all curious about other professions? Be honest with yourself, and your heart will guide you. 

Want a second opinion? Be sure to read screenwriter Kaylord Hill's interview on the topic of film school, whether to go, and how to pick one

"You know, it really sort of depends on where you're coming from," Stephanie concluded. "There's value in it all; there's no one path."

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