It’s that time of the year again. The fall semester is starting up again, with students back on campus, classes back in session, and pumpkin spice starting to creep up everywhere. For me, I can sense the impending start of the semester much sooner than these telltale signs. My email starts to wake up from its summer hibernation around early August. Some of these emails include rising seniors who have been playing around with the idea of grad school. For these students, some have already decided they are going to grad school and want me to write a letter of recommendation. Some are just wrapping up an REU, internship, or other summer endeavor and want to schedule a meeting to talk more about research. And lastly, some of these students are concerned about graduating and closing the college chapter of their life, finding a job, and starting their 9-5. Ultimately, these students want to know the answer to a big question: “should I go to grad school?”
Obviously this is no light question that can be decided with a pros/cons list or a talk with the parentals. Deciding whether or not to go to grad school involves weighing a lot of trade-offs, planning for your future two to five (plus) years down the road, and following your gut feelings. While no one can make this big decision for you, in this post I will shed some light on what trade-offs you should be weighing and what short and long term plans you should be planning. But first, let me tell you my “should I go to grad school” story so you know where my advice is grounded.
Why did I go to Grad School?
In Washington State we have a wonderful program called running start. In running start, you can enroll in college classes and receive college credit while you are a junior or senior in high school. I only did running start my senior year of high school, but it was enough of a head start that I graduated from my undergrad degree at age 20. I did everything I was supposed to do in my three post-high school college years to set me up for nice full-time software engineering job when I graduated. I chose a major with a strong job market (yay computer science!), I worked on-campus jobs for my professors to build rapport, I was involved in clubs to build my leadership experience, and I did a software engineering internship the summer between my junior and senior year. But after returning from internship and starting my senior year, I knew I wasn’t “ready” to start my 9 to 5. I knew I could be successful as a software engineer, but I just wasn’t ready to start my software engineering career.
Ultimately, this realization wasn’t specific software engineering and it doesn’t have to be about your specific discipline or career either. I just wasn’t ready to leave school. I wasn’t burned out, I wasn’t planning a homework burning party, and I wasn’t finished with formal learning yet. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you know I’m a “lifelong learner” and part of why I chose “professor” as my career path was so I could stay in school forever! 🤓 At the time, my 20-year-old self didn’t know that I’d eventually become a professor and I didn’t quite have “lifelong learner” in my vocabulary yet. So yes, hindsight is 20-20, but that isn’t the point. The point is you know how you feel right now. Are you….
- Burned out of school?
- Ready to make some money?
- In need of a change of pace?
If you answered yes to at least two of those questions, I’d say you know how you feel and more school isn’t probably the best option for you and your health right now. Go to work for a few years, grad school will still be there for you when you’re ready.
If you answered no to one or two of those questions, you’re probably in the right state of mind to seriously consider grad school as a post-undergrad option.
Grad School Options: Master’s vs PhD
A Master’s degree is typically a two-year degree offered in two flavors, thesis or non-thesis, while a PhD is offered in one flavor, dissertation. In all three cases (Master’s thesis, Master’s non-thesis, PhD) you have about two years of graduate-level coursework you need to take. For the non-thesis Master’s option, you typically take a comprehensive exam over your coursework at the end. On the other hand, a Master’s thesis is like a mini PhD dissertation where you write up a substantial project as a paper/essay. A PhD dissertation is more of a composition of several substantial projects written up as a book. You will have an advisor and committee of other professors who guide and evaluate your work on your thesis or dissertation.
Really quickly, here is a breakdown of the notable differences between a Master’s and PhD:
- Time: a Master’s degree is typically two years and a PhD is much more variable, lasting between four and seven years (or more!!)
- Research: a PhD has a considerably higher research expectation. This is why it takes so long to get a PhD. After your coursework, it can take an unpredictable amount of time to do research, publish papers, and write a dissertation. For a Master’s, you either take an exam for a non-thesis option or write a thesis for a thesis option. This thesis is smaller (if I had to make a comparison, probably around a quarter of the size of a dissertation) and doesn’t have to include published original research.
- Publishing: Depending on your discipline, it may be required to publish your work in peer-reviewed venues in order to get a PhD. This is not usually a requirement for a Master’s degree. Because peer-review can take a long time, you may have papers sitting in peer review for 6+ months. If your paper gets rejected, you have to revise/improve it and submit it elsewhere, which could be another 6+ months. Depending on your field, this can be emotionally difficult to deal with.
- Career opportunities: A PhD opens up many more doors than a Master’s degree does. If you plan to stay in academia or enter industry research, unfortunately, a Master’s degree will not hold its own against a PhD. There are too many PhDs and too few tenure track or industry lab positions to make a Master’s degree only candidate competitive. It can be a tough market even with a PhD and can be almost impossible without one. If your plan is not to be an academic or enter industry research, then you probably shouldn’t pursue a PhD anyways (see my section below on planning).
- Predictability: A Master’s degree, especially a non-thesis option or an MBA, is fairly straightforward to earn: do XYZ and get your degree. On the other hand, a PhD is highly unpredictable in terms of time and success. The range of years it takes to get a PhD should speak for itself. You may have an advisor or committee member who is a stickler for certain things and that holds you up. You may have a paper that gets rejected multiple times or is stuck in peer review. You may have to take personal leave and lose momentum on your work. Unfortunately, many things can go wrong and set you back.
Trade-offs to Consider
Your Mental Health
The numbers are in and they don’t look so good for your mental health and grad school.
Remember the differences between a Master’s and a PhD that I mentioned earlier? All of those reasons, and especially unpredictability, make grad school tough. I consider myself a pretty together person and I had some rough patches in grad school. I had paper rejections that made my heart sink. I postponed looking at reviewer comments of my work for days because I knew it would take a toll on my mood. I was going to quit my second year of grad school because I couldn’t see myself finishing with my advisor (as an aside, you can switch advisors, and I did and it made all the difference). I tell students considering grad school that you need a big, bright beacon of light at the end of the grad school tunnel. You need a clear career/personal reason that keeps you motivated and going. If you can’t clearly define this beacon of light, grad school is not the best option for you right now.
I didn’t have this beacon of light until my third year. Recall I started grad school because I wasn’t ready to start my 9 to 5. The start of my second year was my darkest time in grad school. I had just finished a wonderful internship at Intel and I had a letter of intent for a full-time software engineering position in my hand. I wasn’t seeing eye-to-eye with my then-current advisor and I was burning out. I didn’t have any tangible career goals that required a PhD. It wasn’t until the summer between my second and third year that I taught my first college class and found my “finish my PhD beacon of light.” I knew then that I eventually wanted to be a professor and I needed a PhD to do that right. I’d found my motivation that would get me through the dark times.
You need a similar light at the end of the tunnel. It doesn’t have to match mine, but it does need to be strong and it needs to be motivating. If you don’t have this, I recommend “trying” grad school with a Master’s program instead of the PhD, or better yet I recommend entering the workforce and see if you find this motivation later in life. Most PhD graduates are in their early to mid-thirties when they finish their PhD. Most MBA programs want at least 5+ years of work experience before you start their program. It’s okay to work a few years before starting grad school.
Postponing a Fulltime Income
When you decide to go to graduate school, you are delaying your life financially. While you can work while a grad student as a TA (teaching assistant) or RA (research assistant or research fellow), you are not going to make enough money to save for a house down payment, easily start a family, or prepare for retirement. It just isn’t going to be enough. These wages are typically (but not always) just enough to live comfortably in the region the university resides in. If you get a Master’s, this kind of living might only last two years or so. If you get a PhD, this kind of living might last four to seven years (or more). This can be tough if you are A) competitive with your peers, who will be making a lot more money and have additional employer benefits than you or B) have personal goals like starting a family or buying a house in the near future.
That all being said, you’re likely currently a college student, so you are used to living frugally and without a full-time income. You know the saying, make more, spend more. If you go to work for a few years and then try to transition back to being a student, the income differential would be substantial compared to what it would be if you went straight to grad school.
By the way, most assistantships come with medical insurance, so you won’t necessarily have to budget for that.
X Years of Work Experience != X Years of Grad School
I often hear students say they want to get a Master’s degree so they can move into management quicker or climb the corporate ladder faster. I’m not going to claim to be an expert in corporate promotions, but I will attempt to debunk this myth. First off, you don’t need a PhD to climb the corporate ladder. You need a PhD to be an academic or work in a competitive research lab. If you’re considering getting a PhD to get promoted faster or move into management, you probably won’t finish the PhD (see my section on mental health) and you should probably just get a Master’s degree. Let’s consider a Master’s degree. In the two years or more it takes to get a Master’s degree, you could have had two annual reviews at your job. You could have been promoted twice and you could have had two years of growing your corporate network. You could have made a lateral change to a better job at a different company and negotiated to have that new company pay for you to go back to school and earn your Master’s in the evenings. Your resume would have more work experience, which is often valued more by industry than two years with no work experience in grad school.
You really should check how your industry values Master’s degrees. One way to find this out is to go to a couple of your dream companys’ websites, look at job postings you’d like to apply to in the near future, and check the minimum and preferred qualifications. If a Master’s degree is not listed under the minimum qualifications, you don’t need to go to grad school to get that job. If a Master’s degree or equivalent work experience is listed under minimum OR preferred qualifications, you don’t need to go to grad school to get that job either.
Consider spending those two years in the industry and really focusing on sharpening your skills and learning in-demand technologies. In the words of Cal Newport, be so good they can’t ignore you! (a great read is his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love)
Short and Long Term Planning
You know the classic question, where do you want to be in five years? Well, this question may seem cliche, but it is often asked for good reasons. DO YOU KNOW where you want to be in five years? You need to have personal and career goals in both the short and long term. If you don’t know what your goals are, you’ll drift around and waste your twenties. Watch Meg Jay’s TED talk on “Why 30 is not the New 20” or read her book “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter–And How to Make the Most of Them Now.”
If you don’t know where to start in figuring out where you want to be in 2 to 5 years, that’s okay. The key is though to get started. I recommend conducting “life design interviews” (from the book “Designing your Life: How to Live a Well-lived, Joyful Life”). For a life design interview, schedule a coffee or lunch meeting with someone who is working in a career or living a lifestyle you might see yourself in. Be sure to buy the person coffee/lunch and ask them questions about how they got where they are, what they enjoy, what they would do differently, etc. The point of the life design interview is not to ask for a job or a mentor!! The point is to gather enough information to help you envision yourself in that position. If you’re wondering if grad school is a fit for you, reach out to folks who have earned the degree you are considering. No one knows the career you are considering better than someone (or better yet, a group of people) living out that career. Find these people and talk with them. This research is good practice for grad school, should you decide to go!!
After conducting several life design interviews, you should have a clear idea of whether or not the career you want in 2-5 years requires a graduate degree or not. If it doesn’t require a graduate degree, don’t get one, it is as simple as that. Here is a concrete example: if you want to open your own business, a graduate degree is not a barrier to entrepreneurship entry for you and you shouldn’t go to grad school. For this type of career goal, you should be motivated enough to learn what you need to know on your own and motivated enough to take action and try your business.
If one of your short term or long term goals involves a high priority personal goal, such as starting a family or buying a house, I advise you to consider if grad school will put you on the fast track or the slow track to achieving this goal. This should be one of your life design interview questions you ask of your interviewees. For me, my career goals were my personal goals. I didn’t plan on starting a family anytime soon and I didn’t want to buy a house before my career stabilized. What is important here is not the decisions I made, but the awareness of my short and long term goals that guided the decision-making process. You need to know these goals before making big decisions.
So, Should you go to Grad School?
I said it before and I’ll say it again. Deciding to go to grad school is a tough decision you have to make. If there is one point from this article I really want to hit home it’s this: you need at least one clearly defined, motivating career reason to go to grad school. If you have this, then yes, you should go to grad school.
You don’t need grad school to be a lifelong learner. Grad school is only 2-7 years of a 70+ year life post-undergrad that will be filled with learning. You’ll learn on the job, you’ll learn in your relationships, and you’ll always keep learning if you’re intentional about it. I’ve recommended some great books in this article. Read them and keep learning, and have fun in the process,