Should I go to grad school?

I have spent the majority of my life as a student. Not too many 33 year olds can say that.  If you include college, people who haven’t spent time in graduate school will now be reaching the break even point on the school/no school ratio, unlike us fools who went to graduate school.

As a result, I get asked “should I go back to school” A LOT. It’s almost always from friends who have been out in the workforce and are thinking of coming back to get a graduate degree. Luckily, since I’ve had to answer this question so many times, I have a well formatted/throughly thought out response.

My short answer is usually, “no”. But here’s why. There are only two reasons you should pursue a graduate degree:

  1. You wake up every morning thinking about the thing you want to study. You are frighteningly passionate about mantis shrimp! You can’t imagine not wanting to know more about the diet of grizzly bears! You wonder about the processes that change organisms over time and can’t help but wonder what parameters affect these processes! In your SPARE TIME you pursue these questions, whether out in nature or on wikipedia. If this is true, then go to graduate school. It’s a number of years (sometimes too many) where you get to study what you want, and answer the questions you find interesting. You will be stimulated by people who are also frighteningly passionate about studying similar questions, and they understand your desires to learn more. If you’re really lucky, you get to teach undergraduates and inspire young and impressionable minds to be as passionate about what you’re passionate about. Go for it – grad school is made for people like you.
  2. You are facing a serious glass ceiling at your current job and getting that graduate degree will allow you to earn SUBSTANTIALLY  more. The first category of people aren’t motivated by money (because despite what you’ve heard, there’s no money in academia, we’re all broke), but if you are, don’t be embarrassed.  Earning a good income and having money is nice, and if getting that masters degree immediately allows you to have greater earning potential, go for it. Get that degree, check those boxes, and get that raise, you deserve it!

If one of these two reasons is not true for you, then you should probably not go to graduate school. There are moments when graduate school is awesome, but there are also long periods when it takes everything out of you. This is true for every graduate student I have ever met. We all look back fondly on those wonderful moments where we bonded or stayed up late studying/working together (some of my favorite memories). But the truth is that you get paid very little or not at all, to do a job that requires all of your time. You’ll always feel like you’re behind, imposter syndrome is a real thing, and it is HARD to get through a graduate degree. But if one of the two bullet points above are true, then you might have enough passion and perseverance to get through. And you might even look back at it fondly.

However, if one of those two doesn’t apply, then I urge you to consider if you’re wasting your time and money.  It is important to be realistic – graduate school years are marked by low pay, and high cost (tuition and living expenses).  Student debt is a national problem, but manifested in your own life, it is a significant mortgage on your future and the choices you will be able to make.  If the reasons below apply to your consideration of graduate study, then you might want to think about a different career trajectory:

  1. You remember college fondly, wouldn’t it be fun to do that more? -Grad school isn’t college. It’s not all football games and frat parties. If you thought you had good time management skills in undergrad, you ain’t seen nothing yet. It is a 60-80 hour a week job, it is meant to grind you down and rebuild you into something better, it is a slog through massive amounts of thankless work. It is not keg stands and afternoon naps.
  2. You don’t know what to do next with your life. – That sucks and I’m sorry. The economy is hard,  and getting a meaningful, professionally satisfying job is difficult. Entry jobs are rarely glamorous or exciting, and “paying your dues” looks (and is) a long and painful process.  None of this will change if you go to grad school. Unlike undergraduate schooling, you have to start grad school having some idea of what you want to do, otherwise you’re just going to leave with more debt, and still not have that job described above. Sorry.

I have had this conversation with dozens of people, and I don’t want to discourage people who are passionate from pursuing their passion. Go for it! The work is hard, but it is sometimes rewarding. The people around you all understand the difficulty of what you are going through, because they are going through it too. Like any group that suffers together, this will make you infinitely closer and build stronger bonds. The friends I have from graduate school are “lifetime” friends, and I still talk to most of them every week. But you need to be sure that you’re going for the right reasons.

What do you think? What were your reasons for going? Do you have regrets?

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My PhD cohort: Roxanna Hickey, Genevive Metzger, Hannah Marx, Tim McGinn, Matt Singer and Tyler Heather. I honestly wouldn’t have made it through without their support.

 

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