Sunday, November 18, 2012

Should YOU Go to Grad School? A Guide

So, it's that time of year again, when thousands of college seniors emerge briefly from their beer-bong haze long enough to ask themselves, "What the hell am I going to do next year?" At times like this, for many of you, your thoughts may turn to graduate school, and to the question of whether or not you should go there. Some of you are imagining grad school as an opportunity to continue doing whatever you've been doing for the past four years. Some of you are imagining a path to riches paved with scholarly articles on the mating habits of the Brazilian Wandering Spider. Some of you are all, "I don't know, I guess it's a thing to do."

If you clicked on this post, then you're probably feeling torn about whether or not grad school is right for you. I'm going to say that the answer is probably yes. But that's because I loved grad school. Also, according to my wife, I have poor Theory-of-Mind skills, so I have a hard time picturing that you would not, also, love grad school. But it is just possible that you might not.

So perhaps a more detailed analysis is in order.

Well, here is a comprehensive guide to whether or not YOU should go to graduate school:

[Note: if you're already in grad school, check out this guide to making grad school AWESOME]

The Lost In Transcription Guide to Whether or Not YOU Should Go to Graduate School

Consideration 1: Lifetime Earnings

Okay, the first thing you might want to consider is your lifetime earnings potential. On the one hand, earning an advanced degree is correlated with higher salaries. On the other hand, you'll spend the next several years earning only a small salary, or even going into debt, depending on your field (and lifestyle). Furthermore, if you get started on a money-earning career now, you'll have that many more years of seniority. How do these things balance out?

Well, if you're eagerly looking to this paragraph for detailed economic analysis of the effect of having a PhD on your lifetime earnings, then the answer to whether or not you should go to grad school is an easy one: You should not go to grad school.

If your primary consideration looking forward is monetary, this is not the right path for you. Yes, most PhDs are able to earn a very comfortable living, certainly substantially higher than most jobs. However, most of these PhD careers require long hours and a willingness to move thousands of miles for a job. If you have the intelligence and work ethic and commitment to make a go of a PhD-type career, but your primary consideration is monetary, then there are other, better paths for you. Go work for a consulting firm, or start working your way up the financial analyst ladder. If you want more school, go to a professional school (e.g., Business, Law, or Medical). These will also lead to careers with long hours, but your earnings upside is much greater, as is the degree to which you will be able to tailor your career to other considerations, like living close to / far from your in-laws. Or, if you're really set on grad school, at least consider engineering, where you can go off and make a bundle of money working for a defense contractor.

If lifetime earnings potential is at the top of your list of considerations, do not, under any circumstances, enter a graduate program where the best-case-scenario outcome has you teaching Medieval German History to a bunch of bored premeds fulfilling a distribution requirement.

Consideration 2: Your Deathbed

Previously, writing about work-life balance, I quoted someone (whose name I could not remember) who said something like this:
You know, I don't think anyone has ever been lying on their deathbed and said, 'Boy, I wish I had published just one more paper.'
While I think that this statement is a reasonable prediction for most people on their deathbeds, it is not entirely universal. I remember one time at a dinner I was seated next to Daniel Aaron (an Emeritus Professor of English at Harvard). At one point he said that he was beginning to reread Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (a.k.a., In Search of Lost Time) in the original French, because he wanted to make sure that he read the whole thing one more time before he died. (He would have been about 92 at the time. He is still alive, at 100, so I assume he accomplished it. He probably also got to rewatch all twenty seasons of Law & Order on DVD.)

Does this story resonate with you? Imagine that you have just learned there is an asteroid heading towards earth, and you have thirty-six hours to live. Would you rush to grab your Greek edition of The Republic? Would you see if you could crack that one really hard problem from this week's problem set?

If you answered yes to the you-appropriate analog of these questions, then you have your answer: You should go to grad school.

Take out loans if you have to. Sell plasma. Live the life of the mind. Die a happy pauper. Stop reading this. Go.

But what about the rest of us?

Okay, most people won't fit into either of the two easy cases above. For the remainder here, I'm going to assume that you're smart and a little bit dorky, or, you know, "academically oriented." You can picture becoming a professor, or working at a national laboratory, but you can also picture not becoming either of these things. I'm going to assume that you enjoy classes and reading and research projects and such. If these assumptions are wrong, well then no, you should not go to grad school. But you're probably not even reading this.

Okay, moving on.

Basically, my short answer is sure, why not. Particularly if you can go to grad school for free, with some sort of stipend, then yes, give grad school a shot, but keep your options open. Be ready to bail, and remember that you don't have to go right away.

Let's unpack this.

Consideration 3: Can You Go for Free?

I know we already said that you should not go to grad school if money was your primary consideration. But even if it is not primary, for most people it is at least a consideration. This is a place where there is huge variation among fields and among universities. If you're in the sciences, there tend to be a lot of opportunities to go to grad school in such a way that your tuition is paid for, and you will, in fact, receive some sort of a stipend. If you get a fellowship from the NSF or NIH, this might be on the order of $30,000 a year. If not, you might be looking at more like $15,000 a year.

Now, that's not a ton of money, but $15,000 is about what you would be making if were working a full-time job at minimum wage. And, with a little ingenuity, you can stretch those dollars pretty far. At many universities, there will be opportunities for subsidized on-campus housing if you're willing to hold undergrads' hair while they vomit. If not, you can probably find some other grad students to share housing with. Also, you will quickly learn which seminar series provide free food.

Depending on where you are, you may have to do some teaching, grading, etc. as part of your stipend package. If you're in the social sciences or humanities, this is more likely, and the teaching load might be heavy.

Here's the thing, though. Taking classes, teaching undergrads, and grading papers is going to be a more varied and interesting job than most things you could be doing for minimum wage. Let's say that you wind up teaching (or grading for) a couple of classes each semester, all while taking classes of your own and trying to do your own research. Does working at Starbucks sound better or worse than that to you? This will give you your answer as to whether or not to go to grad school. The fact is, the job you're facing down as a grad student is a lot like the job you're looking at having for the next forty years. If that's not appealing, get out now.

But what about something where you have to pay out of pocket. Honestly, I would be skeptical. I mean, if you come from money, fine. Otherwise, the only way this makes sense is if you already learned that you should attend grad school after reading consideration 2, above. In which case, I already told you to quit reading. Get out of here!

Consideration 4: Take a Process-Oriented View

A lot of people, when they think about grad school, focus on the long-term goal: the faculty job, or the pharmaceutical-company job, or the government-agency job, or whatever. In general, goal-oriented behavior is a good thing, and your capacity to pursue long-term goals is probably one of the reasons why you're in a position to consider grad school in the first place.

But remember what Aerosmith said: "Life's a journey, not a destination." Someone else probably said that, too, but whatever.

Let's say you're in your early twenties. Using ballpark numbers, you might spend the next five years in grad school, and maybe another three, or five, or eight as a postdoc, depending on your field. Let's say you retire between sixty-five and seventy.

That's forty-five years of working, ten of which will be training for your career. That's not the majority, but it's a huge fraction, and you should make an effort to be happy, not just working towards something that you think will make you happy.

Here's the good news. Grad school can actually be a lot of fun. You're surrounded by smart people. It's like college, but without the jocks and the frat boys and all the other assholes who used to call you Poindexter. You'll make lifelong friends among your grad school cohort. You'll hang out together and watch reality television and play poker and volleyball and drink beer.

This, of course, depends in part on your choice of field, school, and advisor. That's a topic for a different post, however. The point is that grad school, when well chosen, can be a great time. Even if you wind up with a shitty advisor, the students will often bond together over the shared trauma. But what if grad school sounds appealing, except that you hate having a great time? Well, if you're not confident in your ability to choose an advisor who will make you completely miserable, consider Chemistry.

Consideration 5: You Don't Have to Stay

You're reading this because you're not sure if you would like grad school. Here's the thing. Going to grad school is a good way to find out if you'll like grad school. Grad school is quite a bit different from undergrad, but it is, in some ways, not that different from what you would be doing after finishing grad school. It also gives you opportunities to see close up what postdocs and professors do (or close-ish, anyway).

So, one thing you can do is start grad school. If it's not working out for you, leave. Many PhD programs have some sort of a terminal masters degree. In some cases, you actually earn the masters in the normal course of pursuing the PhD. In others, the masters is awarded if you pass your exams, but drop out before doing your dissertation. Either way, that means that after a couple of years, if you decide this isn't for you, you won't leave empty handed. The people in your field and in your lab will tell you that the masters degree is a sign of failure, and within the academic community of that field, it is. But here's the thing, if you're leaving that academic field, who cares! People outside in the rest of the world will recognize your masters degree for what it is, an indication that you went out and gained a whole lot of knowledge about something.

Alternatively, you can leave your grad program and join another one. I started off in a PhD program in Biochemistry. After two years, I changed fields, schools, and cities, because after that time I had a much better sense of what I wanted to get out of school.

So if you think you might like grad school, give it a go, but keep the escape hatch in mind. This sounds easy now, but may not seem so easy later. There is a lot of myopia in grad-school culture, and a lot of echo-chamber nonsense. People tend to get tunnel vision, and buy into the idea that there is one true, golden path for success. If you start to stray off of that path (like by thinking about leaving with a masters), everyone will try to discourage you: your advisor, senior grad students and postdocs. They might even stage an intervention.

Just remind yourself that Stockholm is not only the place where they give out the Nobel prizes, it is also the name of a syndrome.

Consideration 6: You Don't Have to Go Right Now

Consideration 5 was really sort of an argument for jumping into grad school if you are leaning that way. But what about if you're leaning the other way? Here's the other thing to keep in mind: grad school will still be there next year. Probably even the year after that. Have you always wanted to spend a summer working on a fishing boat? Go for it. Did you want to backpack across Asia? That sounds exhausting to me, but, hey, why not!

You meet a remarkable number of twenty-two year olds who feel an enormous pressure to get their careers started. I just want to shake them and say, "What the hell? You're twenty two!" Let's say you take five years off before starting grad school, and then follow the standard career path. Most of it will be exactly the same, except that, instead of being a Full Professor somewhere for twenty years before retiring, you'll be a Full Professor there for fifteen years before retiring. No one cares, even you.

Recall again, that if you really are that desperate to publish five more papers in your life, you should already have stopped reading and started applying.

There are also ways to sort of hedge your bets. Like, apply to work as a lab technician in a lab in some country you've always wanted to visit. I did this before grad school. The country was the United States, which is sort of lame, but I'm sure you could do better. If you're in the humanities, apply to be whatever the equivalent of a lab technician is in your particular field. Unless the equivalent is "prostitute." Don't do that.


So, now that you've read through the entire Lost In Transcription Guide to Whether or Not YOU Should Go to Graduate School, you know whether or not to go. Still not sure? Perhaps you didn't read carefully enough. If you've read this guide three times, and are still not sure, send fifty dollars, and I will refund half your money.

For those of you who have decided on grad school, check back here for the Lost In Transcription guide to choosing a graduate school program and advisor. (UPDATE: It's HERE!)

For those of you who have decided against it, check back here for instructions on how I like my coffee.


  1. Looking forward to the next post on how to choose a grad school! Thanks for the helpful (and funny) post.

  2. Good post! It doesn't exactly apply to grad school in france, but gives a fair insight enough.
    Loved this : "Just remind yourself that Stockholm is not only the place where they give out the Nobel prizes, it is also the name of a syndrome."

    1. That's a good point. I should probably have emphasized that this is really geared towards graduate school in the US.

  3. Nice, Jon!

    The following quote is a very good point, having witnessed several frantic interventions of this type:

    "There is a lot of myopia in grad-school culture, and a lot of echo-chamber nonsense. People tend to get tunnel vision, and buy into the idea that there is one true, golden path for success. If you start to stray off of that path (like by thinking about leaving with a masters), everyone will try to discourage you: your advisor, senior grad students and postdocs. They might even stage an intervention."

    To a lesser degree this notion could also apply to all the unfortunate kids from Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Livermore that decide to dance, write, paint, design, or generally pursue something other than Ph.D. science. Perhaps consideration 7 could be framed around the question, "Both my parents, all my neighbors, and the majority of my high school teachers have Ph.D.s. What does this mean about my ambition to become a furniture upholsterer?"

    1. That's a good one. There's probably a good article in that, or maybe even a whole sociology dissertation.

  4. You've nailed the monetary issues and the intellectual motivations. Another consideration, perhaps, is vanity. In most of the areas I've lived, Ph.D. holders are according a great deal of respect, even more so University Faculty. Perhaps the appeal to vanity is a motivation? I've seen it push a few undergraduates into Ph.D. programs, with mixed results.

    1. Interesting question. Definitely true in the places I've lived and the circles I've run in as well. I don't know how broad that respect is, but it would certainly be a motivation for anyone coming from those environments.

  5. TOTALLY AGREE!!!! (about the LA kids who go into anything but science.)
    Very funny!

  6. One by one, even my more underachieving peers are going off to grad school. It kinda makes me panic (much the same way one might when one's friends are all getting married or growing mustaches or something). This handy reference is reassuring me that I am doing just fine as I am.

    1. Excellent. We strive to provide peace of mind.

  7. Having switched mid-career from biochemistry to bioinformatics, I'd like to give one more reason for getting a Ph.D. - avoiding the paper ceiling. I see this particularly in my colleagues who entered bioinformatics from the computer science side where a Ph.D. is rare. They do very well in their career and reach a point where it makes sense for them to lead a group, but in an academic environment, that is often impossible without a Ph.D. At that point, they have mortgages and children and going back to grad school is not a realistic option. Note that this is not primarily a financial issue, software engineers are typically well paid, it is a career advancement and satisfaction issue. If I were dictator of the universe, I would change the academic culture to remove this paper ceiling, but I am not and it looks to me like it will be with us for a good while. Also note that a Ph.D. in almost anything, specifically including computer science, will do even in a Medical school. The academic infrastructure simply needs a plausible reason to give you a faculty appointment.

    1. I think you're absolutely right. In an ideal world, once you proved yourself as a researcher, you would be eligible for senior academic positions. However, in this world, the PhD (or equivalent) has effectively become an absolute prerequisite for certain positions. So yes, if you have aspirations towards a senior position in an academic setting, grad school is a must.