Should I Go to Graduate School?
Making the decision to go graduate school or not seems monumental. For many, it's a decision to dedicate several years and, depending on the circumstances, thousands of dollars to the pursuit of a degree that may or may not pay off or lead you down a path you truly enjoy.
Technically, all education beyond a Bachelor's degree is considered graduate education. This includes medical (MD), law (JD), and business (MBA) school, but for most of us, "graduate school" means pursuing a Master's or PhD degree in an academic (versus professional) discipline.
If you're someone who is 200 percent sure that academia is their "calling," then the decision to go to graduate school is easy. If you're someone who barely scraped by in undergrad, then it's easy too. (The answer is "no"...in case you're wondering.) But, like most people, you probably fall somewhere in between: Good grades, an appreciation of learning, a sense that you'd like to stick with this "student lifestyle" for a bit longer, and a vague idea that maybe you'd prefer an academic career to a "real world" one.
In that case, you need two things: a reality check of what grad school is really like and some soul searching of what kind of environment you thrive in and what your interests are.
First, the reality check. I arrived at grad school in the fall of 2006 with little idea of what to expect. I figured, I enjoyed my college experience, I didn't much care for that whole career thing when I took a year off after graduation, and I didn't really mind the stuff that student life was made of (namely, lots of reading and writing). So to grad school I went, and boy was I unprepared for what awaited me!
Reality Check #1: Grad school is not college 2.0.
I'm not going to preach about the work load, because you've probably heard all about that. You know, a book a week, or 100+ pages in dense academic articles. For each class. That's a given. I'm going to talk about the stress. Because grad school is not a walk in the park. It's not parties and sleeping in and cramming your reading in 20 minutes before class. In other words, it's not college 2.0.
Something that few people realize is that, when you're a grad student, you're viewed as a colleague, more than a student. You're a bona-fide thinker in your chosen discipline, and with that status comes the expectation to contribute. You'll hear that word a lot in grad school, and you'll inevitably feel like every comment you make and every paper you write needs to be a valuable addition to the conversations happening in your field. That's a lot of pressure! Which brings me to my second point...
Reality Check #2: You will feel stupid, pretty much all the time, for at least your first year.
If you've never heard of the imposter syndrome, look it up, because it runs rampant in grad school. In a nutshell, it's the feeling that you're not qualified and at any minute someone will find out that you have no idea what you're doing. I've likened the first year of grad school to hanging on to the back of a speeding train, because it just feels like everyone knows more than you and you're desperately trying to catch up. People will use words that you've never heard of and reference theories and scholars with the conviction that everyone really should know what or who they are.
This means that, in addition to the staggering work load each course will heap on you, you'll have lots of reading to do on your own to figure out what the heck everyone else already seems to have figured out.
Bottom line is, you won't measure up. You can't measure up, which is why stressing out over your inedquacies during this time is a fruitless exercise in frustration. But if you can deal with this kind of a learning curve, go forth and study!
Reality Check #3: You will be poor.
For those of you that are lucky enough to get a scholarship (many graduate programs these days offer full rides, plus stipends in exchange for your teaching assistance), you'll be living large to the tune of about $1,500 per month. Exact amounts vary based on schools and areas of study, but grad students are paid just about enough to scrape by.
Many of you will, in fact, be in debt as the scholarship gods did not smile on you and, instead, the student loan demons have you in their grasp. Generally, I would not advise anyone to go into debt over a graduate degree in the Humanities or Social Sciences. These are difficult to convert into high-paying careers (that includes a career in academia), so your loans may be a tough burden to bear down the road. Degrees in the sciences are a bit more lucrative, as there is lots of industry money thrown around for research and development.
Either way, don't underestimate the power of poverty to make you seriously question your choice to go to graduate school. For example, when your consultant roommate -- even though she works crazy hours and has to wear suits -- makes 4 times what you do, the "real world" starts looking pretty good.
So, what can an aspiring grad student do to make a good decision? As the Greeks say, "know thyself!" Or, you know, read some career books and take a year off. That's what I did.
Knowing Thyself Tip #1: Take a year off.
I made the decision to pursue my PhD the year after graduating college. I wanted to take some time to try out a conventional career and decide whether further education was really what I wanted. I got a swanky job at a swanky marketing firm and...hated it almost immediately. It took me about 4 weeks of business casual, inane meetings, and coffee-fetching to figure out that this work thing was not for me.
But in the spirit of good decision making, I looked around for a better job and gave it another try. This time, I got a gig that I thought I would love at a small travel agency. The first few months were great -- I was learning a lot and my co-workers were friendly. But a little while later, things started to sour. My independent working style clashed with my boss's expectations. My habit of deeply researching a topic didn't fit the fast-paced reality of the business world. Basically, I realized that the things that made me a good student made me a bad employee. I could either change or stick with what I liked and felt comfortable with. So the grad school decision was made.
The moral of the story is that I'm a big advocate of making decisions where the alternatives are relatively known. I knew the academic world pretty well, but I had to figure out what working in the real world involved and how much I needed to change to succeed there. In making that decision, I also read a lot of career books that helped me clarify what my interests, skills, and working style were. Which, concidentally, is...
Knowing Thyself Tip #2: What's your career personality?
There are 3 books that helped me tremedously on my way to figuring out that (and why) I should to go grad school.
- Do What You Are, by Paul Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger
- I Could Do Anything If Only I Knew What It Was, by Barbara Sher
- I Don't Know What I Want But I Know It's Not This, by Julie Jansen
If you only read one, read the first one. If you read two, read the first two. And so on. At the end of the day, deciding whether you'd be happy in grad school requires knowing your working style and what kind of environment you thrive in.
So good luck to all of you with your grad school decision making -- I hope you'll find happiness wherever you end up!
Grad School Resources
- Princeton Review: About Graduate School
Lots of info about making the grad school decision, how to apply, how to find scholarships, etc.
- Brazen Careerist vs. Grad School
One of Penelope Trunk's (a.k.a. Brazen Careerist) many rants against grad school. This one is called "Don't Try to Dodge the Recession with Grad School." She makes some good arguments, so take a look and decide for yourself.
- The Chronicle of Higher Education
The official publication of all things higher ed. They have a lot of grad school related content, as well as an active message board where you can connect with past/present/future academics.