Note: This blog post is based on the author’s experience and opinions and do not reflect the opinions of That’s Life [Science] or other affiliated groups. Additionally, these experiences are likely most relevant to those interested in STEM graduate programs.
I didn’t know what a PhD was until my second year of college, when I asked my supervisor what I need to get a job like his. Graduate school was a foreign concept to me, but once I learned I needed a PhD to work for a government research agency, my mind was set on it. Then I started meeting graduate students and heard over and over again about how much work it was, how stressed they were, and that I should “never go to graduate school”. That was, of course, disheartening. But I knew I wanted to be a research scientist and to do so, I needed to go to graduate school. After two rounds of applying, I was accepted into a wonderful graduate program (my current home at UMass Amherst!).
Through that process and seeing other people apply to graduate school, there are several practical things that people should keep in mind when they consider attending graduate school.
Does the job you want to do require a graduate degree?
What may surprise you is that getting a graduate degree can overqualify you for certain jobs. In biology for example, if you are happy to get a laboratory technician job or a similar entry-level position, you will be qualified enough with a bachelor’s degree. A masters may help you get a higher starting salary for a technician position, but the median salary tend to be similar between the two degrees, at least in industry.
I heard if you apply to a position you are overqualified for as a PhD, the employers may be skeptical you will stay long, expecting you will be likely to move on to another, more appropriate job position. Aside from that, PhDs have to be paid a higher salary and if an employer can’t afford it, they will go with someone with a lower degree, who might stick around longer. This means you should look at the requirements of job listings you could potentially be interested in. If they consistently require a certain level of graduate work, then that supports that you should go to graduate school.
If you aren’t sure what job or career you want yet, I caution against going to graduate school right away. While there are aspects of graduate school that are exploratory, it is really meant for specialization in a field. If you don’t know what field that is, the chances increase that you might get pigeonholed into something you don’t really like. You can still explore by talking to people in potential fields you are interested in or by trying different job/volunteer opportunities. Another potential route is to go to a master’s program to dip your feet into the world of graduate school and see if the field or lifestyle is to your liking. Either route, there are many ways to figure out what career you want to pursue in life!
Do you love your area of study, such that you can pursue it for 3-6, or more years?
Graduate school is no joke. It’s a lot of work for little pay, while under large loads of stress. There are high expectations to develop, execute, and publish original research; along the way there will be successes, but also many rejections and failures. Graduate school is the ultimate delayed gratification, and perseverance is the key to finishing! If you aren’t passionate or at least interested in your research area, it will get old very quickly. Aside from the research topic itself, do you enjoy the process of research? By this I mean posing questions, designing/executing experiments, analyzing data, communicating results and more? If you know you like (or hopefully love) these things, it will give you that many more reasons to pursue the degree and keep your spirit up when graduate life gets hard.
Can you afford to live at a living wage while you're in school?
At least in STEM, graduate students usually receive stipends for conducting research or teaching, minimizing out of pocket costs. Graduate stipends are variable between graduate schools, from below cost of living wage to well-paid with benefits. However, it is unlikely you will make as much as an entry level biology technician. Ideally, the annual graduate salary will cover at least your living expenses, but depending on where your school is located and your lifestyle, that may not be the case. If you do not have a financial buffer, you may be living paycheck-to-paycheck, which is just another stress to add onto graduate life. This is a huge barrier to prospective students from lower income backgrounds and something that needs to be fixed, but is unfortunately the current reality.
Anecdotally, I have seen that my peers who work for several years between undergrad and graduate school tend to be less dependent on an individual paycheck, as they have more of a financial buffer. Additionally, working in the field or industry gives you more experience, a much-needed mental break, and sometimes even an appreciation for academia. As a student, you will be able to defer loan payments, but it’s important to consider those or other payments you may need to make during graduate school. It’s a good idea to ask the graduate programs you’re interested in what student stipends and benefits are, as well as the average cost of living in the area. This may impact the timing of when you apply to graduate school, rather than whether you actually go.
Figure 1. You may think I’m just a grumpy graduate student, but I’m earnestly trying to help!
While much of this advice may read as a deterrent, the goal is to help you make the right choice for you, or better prepare you for graduate school. Even though graduate school is difficult, it has been an incredible period of learning and growth in my life. Through the people I’ve met, the science I’ve learned, or the skills I’ve gained, I am a better researcher and person for it. It was the right choice for me (at least so far!). If your next step is indeed graduate school, I wish you all the best and hope this advice will help ease your experience!
If you have any questions or advice to add, chime in below with Disqus, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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