I am often contacted by prospective graduate students. At last count, it’s been ~50. They’re in the various stages of applying. This ranges from the pre-contemplative “Yeah maybe…” to the keen “I’m in, what now?”. I’ve started to see some trends and common questions people ask. (I also get tired of repeating myself.) These mini-essays are my advice to the prospective graduate student.
Students wonder - is graduate school for me? Which is a great question. No one should blindly jump into grad school without asking that. But before we do, let’s do two quick exercises.
First, articulate your values. This creates a clear mapping of what you consider important and what you’re willing to compromise on. It gives you a sense of your ‘true north’. Take a moment to do this:
In order of most important to least, with no ties, rank the following:
a) family, b) career, c) money, d) social, e) personal time, f) personal health, g) personal relationships, h) fun and recreation, and i) any other important area of life (diversity, technical expertise, prestige, etc).
Continue once you’re done. And remember - no ties.
Surprisingly, this isn’t a BuzzFeed quiz. I won’t give you an interpretation of what your list means. It’s not perfect. I will tell you to keep that list in mind as you make decisions surrounding grad school. Someone whose career is top ranked (me) will go about things very differently than if money is top ranked (in which case, don’t go to grad school, go make money). A successful career for me means being able to ask the unknown questions, have the freedom and ability to answer them, resulting in concrete positive change for patients within their lifetime.
Someone may not be willing to move if they’ve ranked family high versus someone may want to live in another country if diversity ranked high. People are different. So are you. Know why.
The second exercise is less wordy but equally as important:
Describe your motivation for grad school in one sentence. Say it.
This also varies drastically from person to person. The motivation can be as simple as “I like learning” or as easy as “I want to be the next Rohit”. Some people have a clearly defined ambitious motivation, and know what they want to get out of grad school. Some people don’t. For the most part, that’s okay.
What’s not going to benefit you is doing an advanced degree as a stop-gap solution. People often do this because they didn’t get into a certain program (med school is a frequent victim), spend a year in limbo in grad school, and then drop out once they get into that desired program or decide to do something else. That’s an awful reason to do grad school. It sucks for everyone. We could’ve brainstormed >20 fun things you could have done instead. Let’s avoid that.
Anyways. Got your list? Said your motivation? Read on.
To grad school or not to grad school?
Let’s start with the cons. Don’t get spooked.
Grad school sucks. After finishing an undergraduate degree, you’re willingly going into an additional two to seven years of training. This is at a reduced income compared to what you could be making. You’re often exploring concepts that are incremental in nature. The work you do may be appreciated by only a few people. In fact, it may be understood only by a few. You’re subjecting yourself to long working hours and significant uncertainty. You’ll struggle seeing your friends not in grad school being successful at their jobs, making high salaries, having real vacations, advancing in their life stages; inadvertently while comparing yourself to others and as a result feeling isolated, lonely, lost, or depressed. While they may improve your chances, the resulting credentials do not 100% guarantee you job security or happiness. Seriously, grad school sucks.
So why do it? In fact, why do thousands do it? Why the hell do I do it?! It can’t be all bad. And it isn’t.
Below are some aspects to consider in deciding to grad school or not to grad school. I’m not selling you on grad school or academia. I’m presenting aspects that were convincing enough for me to do it and continue to do so. I assume you’re considering a STEM field. Your mileage may vary with these.
As you read each point, consider how it fits with your values and motivation. Modify as necessary.
- Academic Freedom. While I have pursued thesis-based degrees, requiring intense focus on a problem, grad school does let me have freedom. A key motivator for my undertaking a PhD was the environment. I knew the school, the program, and the supervisors. I knew they would permit me an almost unprecedented amount of academic freedom to explore questions I wanted to explore. I would be, and am, an adventurer. Instead of climbing up real mountains, I get to spelunk down wells of knowledge. As a result, I’m settling on research questions that I would happily spend a few years of my life working towards answering. There are requirements and constraints I need to work within - like this pesky thesis thing - but the overarching goals are ones I get to choose.
- Competitiveness. Completing a graduate degree makes you competitive for new opportunities. It’s a demonstration of your ability to undertake and complete a major project. It demonstrates expertise in a given area. Suddenly, you’re more marketable. There are certain jobs, typically those higher up on the ladder, that require graduate degrees. These might be the fun jobs where you get to make bigger, more influential decisions or get to go off script and explore new avenues for the company. Even if you don’t choose those jobs, you’ve maintained access to them. You’ve gained negotiating power that is permanent.
- Control (Work). It’s yours. It’s all yours. You’re the driving force behind whether or not it gets done. In grad school, you’re both an individual contributor and project manager. You get to produce work that is wholly yours. In fact, you’re in a nerd’s playground. You access equipment you likely couldn’t have otherwise. You can create, test, and generate new solutions. There may be unique opportunities to translate your work out of the lab. Perhaps a startup or licensing agreement is in your future.
- Control (Life). You also have control over your own life. You can choose to start at 7am or at noon like I often do. You can choose to ski on a Wednesday or spend a weekend in the lab. I get to choose which seminars I want to go to. I set the frequency of my meetings with my supervisor. I determine when I need more help. The autonomy is appealing. N.B. It does significantly vary on the school-program-supervisor triad.
- Connectedness. I am fortunate enough to have a) a large social circle of friends and b) am relatively well balanced in my life. Because of that, I don’t see research as being isolating. I can also find a group of people to communicate my struggles to and have them actually understand. Research is niche by nature. Not everyone will understand your struggles, despite their well intentions. Do you need to be able to explain the technical nuances to feel connected? Are you able to explain it to them? Are there people you can rant?
- Curiosity. I am curious. Research lets me be exactly that. There is uncertainty and my job is to remove that. There is no how-to guide. I get to stare at big problems, dive into them as far as I want, and ask weird “what if” questions. Diving deep into a problem provides a certain level of intellectual satisfaction I don’t get anywhere else - not even med school. Curiosity allows me to be creative. In my update emails to my bosses, I have a section called ‘new ideas’ this week where I pitch every wacky idea of mine. They’ll seriously explore these ideas with me.
- Relationships. There are three types of people you’ll meet. Peers, peers above you, and peers below you. All of them are outstanding. By definition, these peers are above average individuals who are ambitious enough to do grad school. Some of my best friendships came from immediate peers in this period. They’ve gone on to hold senior spots in industry, continued in academia, started new companies, and more. They’re the nerds of nerds. The peers above you act as mentors, and you learn to act as potential mentors to those below you. They’re all a support network who actually know what you’re going through, highs and lows. The grad school environment has a high concentration of these folks.
- Status. Not everyone has a graduate degree. If you’re arrogant like me, you probably finished your undergraduate degree and saw the huge distribution of people receiving the same degree as you; and you probably wanted to differentiate yourself. Grad school is one way to do that. Not everyone that wants one can get one. There is some elevation of status associated with it. Culturally speaking, having an advanced degree is received with some level of admiration. Soon, you become that expert when people quote “experts say…”.
- Timing. Ask three questions. 1) Will you have the same drive and energy to return later? I am the sort of person who gets lazy once life gets too cushy. I know for myself that I need to keep going, because if I stopped? I’d never come back to school. 2) Will it be economical? I am missing out on >$100,000 salaries. Being young, making a six-figure salary, with minimal responsibilities sounds great. Do I care about money? Nope! I also understand grad school may open up opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t exist for me. I’m willing to make that trade-off. 3) Am I too old? No. Never. It might be harder, you might feel you’re ‘too old’. Plus look, you’re taking advice from a guy who’ll have 20 years of postsecondary education before he even gets a real job in 2030.
- Hope. Grad school is built on hope. People hope it improves future prospects, creates new opportunities, and it opens doors. People hope they can live out their dream of being a mad scientist. Grad school is also about creating hope. It reflects people’s hope for a better world. We hope the knowledge created can be part of the building blocks for positive change.
- I am biased. I am actively doing a PhD. I am surrounded by people doing graduate degrees. Of course I’m going to have rosy-eyed views on all of this! It’s called Stockholm Syndrome.
- I have no major responsibilities in my life. Seriously. I have no kids, no pets, no long-term partner. I am free as a bird right now.
- I have not been in a long-term relationship for the majority of my graduate studies. If you do have a partner, decision making gets complicated as you’re facing the “two-body” problem.
- Academia has numerous issues. To name a few: sexism, racism, homophobia, systemic biases, mental health illnesses, lack of representation, abusive supervisor-trainee relationships, and toxic environments. These are not exclusive to academia but academia is not free of these issues. The ivory tower has a lot of mud on it.
- Access to graduate school is fraught with error. Reasons include perceived indicators of success, accessibility to resources, personal financial situations, and more.
Thank you to Alexandra Bohm, Beth Castle, Candice Ip, Jorden Hetherinton, Ricky Hu, and Shayda Swann for reading early drafts of this and providing their insight.
Views are entirely my own.