Why you should (or shouldn't) go to grad school
January 7, 2021
First, a disclaimer: little of what I do and say should be taken as gospel, and if there is one piece of advice to keep in mind, it's to be wary of anyone trying to push advice on you, including this here blog entry.
With that being said, throughout my grad career and as a TA, I have been asked a few times by starry-eyed undergrads about the what, why and how of graduate school, probably because my canonic age of thirty (an Ancient, as far as they are concerned), my beard game and my fondness for knitted sweaters lends me an air of sagacity that makes them think I would Know Things. I don't.
Nevertheless, after sharing my thoughts with them, I have been told that sharing them to a wider audience could help other people, so here I am, rambling about graduate school to all youngsters. So, why go to graduate school? There are a thousand reasons, which is why it's more interesting to discuss why not to go.
University is, in some ways, adult life with training wheels. Don't get me wrong, in many ways it is harder than life "out there": you pay money instead of earning it; you are simultaneously trying to figure out who you are as a person and learning about Taylor expansions; and for some of you, you are potentially shedding off two decades' worth of emotional and psychological toxic sludge for being born in the wrong place or from the wrong parents. College is tough, and more than ever this year. Nonetheless, it is also a space outside of space. A space where a food court is available if you don't feel like cooking. A space where one's professional worth is tied to a straightforward, easy to navigate grading system. A space where you can make the executive decision to nurse a hangover instead of going to lecture with little to no consequences. A space where a tremendous amount of resources are given to you (well, you pay for it) to allow you to succeed. In short, university is where you're given a lot of the liberties of adulthood but relatively few of the responsibilities.
In comparison, the world of the workplace can seem daunting, because it is. In general, you're given fewer chances to mess up, fewer opportunities to try new things, and most of the time, you're expected to be awake and wearing some sort of blazer before 9am, because we made the terminal mistake of letting early risers run the show. The rest of life, relationships, family, health, personal growth (whatever these terms may mean to you), all of these accelerate at neck-breaking pace, and have to fit in a schedule that is now set by your main job. As I said, no training wheels.
And so, if you think that this whole college situation suits you quite well, and you'd rather prolong that by going to grad school rather than go work for The Man... Don't do it.
Now of course you will think I'm being unkind, that undergrads are not fragile ducklings who need coddling, and that's not what I'm trying to say. I'm saying that you need to sit down, have a cup of tea, and think hard about what is appealing to you about graduate school. If your main motivation is along the lines of "I don't really know what job to get", "I don't think I'll find a job", "I'm good academically", I strongly encourage you to reconsider.
Because these reasons are mostly reflections of the same central thought: I'm comfortable doing what I'm doing now, and I'm apprehensive of change. And that is, by far, the worst reason to do anything, in all areas of life. What's more, grad school is like a job in many ways. Sure, there are classes and exams but they are, for the most part, a formality. (A formality that may cause insomnia, and I have Many Thoughts about this too, but I'll set that aside for now.)
Grad school revolves around one main thing, especially in engineering: your research. And your research will not come with a straightforward grade, or a clear deadline, or for that matter, a clear beginning or end. It is a constant work in progress, which does not fit in the undergrad's study paradigm. While there are areas you can and will cram at the last minute, most of research is accomplished through regular, conscientious work and no one will tell you to do it. In order to smoothly succeed in grad school, you need to think like an employee.
But beyond the nature of grad school itself, the most important point I want to convey is that a stint in grad school should be an investment, not a delaying tactic. If you think of applying to grad school, it should be part of a larger plan. Maybe you truly want to become a professor; maybe you have the numbers in hand, showing that five years of PhD will net you a net positive in your career compared to five years of job experience; maybe your hunger for knowledge is endless and you've been kicked out of the public library for munching on books in the fluid dynamics section. But if you go to grad school because "why not", or it sounds kind of nice, or you're not really passionate about any job right now, I encourage you to do anything else instead, up to and including travelling or getting weirdly into baking. Not because I think you'll fail grad school: I know you're a clever cookie (after all, you're reading my stuff); but because your success will come at the cost of your ambition and your drive, because nothing crushes the soul quite like five years of work you're not that interested in.
And I mean, look around. There are enough reasons to feel unhappy without adding one to the pile. Of course, there is also the chance that you get incredibly inspired about your work at grad school and that it fills you with purpose - but it's not a gamble I would encourage. As an undergrad from Grainger, and assuming you enjoy what you study, you have many paths to success ahead of you - regardless of what success looks like to you. It is worth taking the time to map out which paths to take. They may very well include graduate school (as it does for me), and they will certainly twist and turn in unexpected ways, but none of them should simply stop at grad school with no clear next step after it. So I guess what I’m saying is, all that’s left to do is for you to figure out your life, which I’m sure will be a quick and easy process. Good luck!