May 21, 2009

To grad school or not to grad school

grad school: not all it's cracked up to be

Globe Campus: Should you go to grad school?

I know a lot of you new graduates are considering grad school as an alternative to getting a job, largely because the economy stinks right now and getting a job seems almost impossible. I get it. Grad school sounds like a fantastic alternative. You'll gain more education, which is usually appealing to employers, and you'll get to live on student loans or a stipend from the school for a few years, which solves your immediately cash flow problem. And, let's face it, 2-3 more years in college sounds like 2-3 more years of something you're already comfortable doing. What's not to like about the idea of going to grad school?

Christina Varga at Globe Campus has a great write-up about the choice to go back to grad school or not. In a lot of ways, she really nails the practical advice against going to grad school. Unless you're going into a program specifically related to your career, and that clearly will boost your preparedness for your career, your grad school experience probably isn't going to be as appealing to a future employer as you think. More importantly, there are other, likely better ways of getting experience/education that don't involve a graduate education.

From the standpoint of marketing yourself to employers and creating a personal brand, this is fantastic advice and a fantastic column. However, I think there are other areas to be discussed, other than potential career impact, that should be a pretty serious factor in whether or not you choose to go to grad school. As a person who did a master's degree right out of undergrad, I know I had a lot of misconceptions going in about what grad school would be like, how I would fit in with graduate school culture, and how I would perform, and those misconceptions absolutely influenced me in my decision to go to grad school. Some of the things you should be thinking about are: what grad school will actually be like, what is the emotional/health impact of grad school, and what is the financial impact of grad school (both in the short- and long-term.)

The first thing you need to know about grad school is this: getting a graduate degree is nothing like getting an undergraduate degree. The work load is heavier, the expectations are higher, and the intensity of graduate level work often makes what you did as an undergraduate look like the stuff of preschoolers. Even staying within the same program at the same school, I had a hard time adjusting to the new work load and to the higher calibre of work and participation that was expected of me.

Unless you really love what you are doing in grad school, it will be a struggle. I almost quit my program after the first semester because the professor I was supposed to work with left, and there was no one in my department working on anything similar to what I was working on. That meant I spent a lot of time in classes I wasn't interested in, writing papers on topics I didn't care about. The work was rigorous and very demanding, and if you don't enjoy doing it, grad school will suck the life out of you. I say this quite literally. By the end of my first term of grad school, I had dropped 30 lbs. (and I wasn't a big girl), and by the end of my second term, I developed a case of mono that I didn't fully recover from until I graduated a year-and-a-half later. Grad school is tough, mentally and physically. Do not underestimate it.

Beyond that, grad school is expensive. If you are considering grad school, I highly recommend you look for programs that offer stipends for grad students who work as associate instructors, TA's or research assistants, although it's worth noting that often even those do not pay very well. If you do not get some sort of stipend from the school, you are at the mercy of financial aid. While federal student loans will give you up to $20K/yr.-ish (if you attend summers, too), and I'm sure you can rack up some private loans if you go to a more expensive institution, you are still typically left living at about poverty level for the duration of your graduate program. And don't forget! You'll spend many years after graduating paying the government back for the "convenience" of living on top ramen during your grad school years. We're talking hundreds of dollars out of a paycheck that, even post-grad school, might not be that much, every single month for years on end. Oh, yeah. And good luck getting health insurance.

Unless you feel your career will give you the means to take care of the student loans, I would suggest you seriously reconsider going into any program that doesn't offer a hefty stipend, of some form, for its grad students. And be prepared, regardless, to spend a couple of years being very, very poor.

Not all of graduate school was bad, obviously. I have a greater sense of accomplishment about writing my thesis than I do about pretty much anything else I've ever done in my life. Who cares if no one except my thesis advisor and second reader ever read it? It is still an immense source of personal pride. It will likely never get me a job, but there is always something to be said about doing something for yourself, rather than to achieve an end. I can also thank grad school for my current perspective on the world, for a stronger sense of self, for a greater degree of confidence in my abilities, and of course, greater maturity. Grad school was my trial by fire, and I think I came out on the other end a better person because of it. It didn't make me more employable. It didn't ensure I got a better salary when I did join the workforce. But...I did something I truly loved, and from that perspective, grad school had (and still has) immense value to me.

It's something every person has to work out for themselves, but my advice for anyone considering grad school is this: if you really love something, if you are genuinely interested in building your knowledge and changing how you think about things, and you are willing to sacrifice your finances, your health, and your sanity to pursue that path...absolutely, 100% do it. The future be damned. However, if you're doing this because it seems like a good way to avoid struggling for a few months with unemployment, if you think grad school is going to be the path to higher pay when you do decide to enter the workforce, if you are doing this for any other reason than you are completely ecstatic about the program you are going into, you should really reconsider. And by reconsider, I mean don't consider grad school at all.

In the middle of my graduate program, I came across this article entitled, "So you want to go to grad school." There was a section in it that struck me as particularly poignant at the time, and even now, pretty much sums up my memory of graduate school:

Be wary of people who claim that grad school is a 'wonderful' experience, a means of acquiring the polish of culture--a kind of 'grand tour'--before entering the 'real' world. Professionalism obligates people to speak positively about their alma mater in public. Grad school is not all fun and personal enrichment for many people. It can involve poverty-level wages, uncertain employment conditions, contradictory demands by supervisors, irrelevant research projects, and disrespectful treatment by both the tenured faculty members and the undergraduates (both of whom behave, all too often, as management and customers.) Grad school is a confidence-killing daily assault of petty degradations. All of this is compounded by the fear that it is all for nothing; that you are a useful fool.

In short, grad school is not for the faint of heart. Think seriously on whether it's something you really want for yourself before you make the decision to go.


  1. Amen. I should have given more thought about starting my Master's degree. I hate what I graduated in, and I did exactly the same thing in my graduate work. Now, I'm going back to grad school to actually do something that i should have done in the first place. I would have saved a lot of money... and useful time.

    However, I do not think that education is ever wasted. This is coming from my father-in-law who just graduated with his second doctorate, adding on to his 5 other Master's degrees. Sheesh, man. Take a break already. Anyway, I see your point, and it's something I should have thought about 3 years ago.

  2. I have been in grad school for 6 years (jesus christ), love it to pieces, and still agree with every word. I cannot imagine putting up with the workload, politics, bullshit and pitiful graduate instructor pay (I'm ABD and living on $1200/mo) if I weren't passionate about my work. I am so I do - but anything else and I couldn't.

  3. Great articles! You definitely raise some good points. No, grad school is not a walk in the park. And it is not a must for everyone. In my case, however, it was what laid the foundation for an exciting career, much of which would not have been possible without those descriptors (M.A., Ph.D.) behind my name. In addition to the financial rewards, my ability to do what I loved was enhanced. Thank you for addressing this important educational and professional option.

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  5. I agree with you that getting a graduate degree can really be harder than getting an undergraduate degree. So, it would be good to know what you will be into. It would be a help with thesis writing to know the ups and down of studying for Masters and PhD degree.

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