I was asked to sit on a panel last week. The Undergraduate Research Division at my university hosted myself and several other phd’s, grad students, and post-doc’s to come and speak to any undergraduate who might be interested in heading to grad school. I was the last to introduce myself, give a brief bio, and then share my personal insights on what graduate school is.
I dropped the honesty bomb on these poor kids. I sat there for half an hour listening to everyone else on the panel talk about how they got to grad school, how they choose students for admission, and all of this other ideological crap about how great grad school is. No one talked about what happens after grad school. No one talked about how higher ed keeps changing and morphing. No one talked about the job forecast for people with advanced degrees. So I did.
I think grad school is great but the market is totally flooded, particularly for undergrads who are finishing and have no idea what they want to be when they grow up. It’s a mess. No one is getting a job that matches their degree and yet employers keep saying things like “go to grad school” and then can’t follow through on much after that. These tender undergrads have been programmed (yes, programmed) to believe that they NEED a higher degree to succeed and that taking a year off will be the death of them. When discussing a ‘gap year,’ I couldn’t bite my tongue:
“I think you’ll need to take some time off, go work, get some life experience, and most of all–grow up.”
I did preface that the comment was not meant to be offensive but the fact that my graduate program required at least three years of work experience was a constant advantage to me during grad school. Instead of panicking about not working, these young students should be worried about working for a while. Developing their character and identity has been pushed to the back-burner in favor of GRE’s and admissions applications. I couldn’t be more bummed about it. Some worried they’d lose momentum–I challenged back, “if you do, is it the end of the world? is it an indicator that grad school isn’t in the cards for you right now then?”
So, all this backstory for our undergraduates is for a reason and the reason is this: there is no one route or way to do grad school. You have to figure this out for yourself. The panel did do a good job of communicating that each student is different and should be treated as an individual human, not a GRE score.
- Don’t go if you don’t feel ready. If you’re burned out, unsure, have no idea about the world, don’t go to grad school immediately. Don’t treat it like the ‘last option’ if nothing better comes up. You’ll be miserable.
- Do go and work. Do something! If a 9-5 isn’t for you, as many of you millennials know, hit up an alternative program or negotiate your working hours with a potential employer.
- Be accountable. To yourself and those around you. If you think grad school is your ticket, then do it, but don’t treat it like undergrad. People are paying for you (hopefully) at this point and while having fun is fun, it’s not just about you and your parents’ banking account anymore.
- Professional school (med school, law school, vet school) is a whole other monster.
- Do go and do your homework on graduate programs. If you set your heart on “the one” and don’t get in, what’s your back up? What are the requirements to get in? Do you know someone you can talk with? How will your application (if submitted blind) stand out?
- The same for a job–we all know that “pie in the sky” firm or company that we’d love to work for, but what happens if the offer doesn’t come through? If you know you want to go to grad school, find a job–almost any job–that will relate to your field. If that doesn’t work, even the Smoothie King or Jamba Juice can offer life experience, help nurture other life skills, and will give you plenty of anecdotal evidence when you get ready to write those essays.
- Be realistic. It’s ok if you had a pretty good time during your undergrad (I did) and didn’t rock a 3.8 GPA. You will have to be willing to figure out how to separate yourself from the pack. Whether it’s work experience or life experience, be prepared to defend yourself. An excellent dept. head or faculty member may pick you up after talking with you at a conference so you never know.
- Always assume you’re being watched. I cannot say this enough. I know I’ve mentioned it before to my grad student posts, but always assume someone is watching. It’s amazing to me how you behave when you think no one is watching vs. when you think someone is.
- It’s ok to fail and not get in. Really. Trust me. If you look at the data on graduate degrees and ROI over the long haul, the figures aren’t that amazing anymore. Failure is part of growth. I can count some big failures pretty quickly and how they POSITIVELY influenced my life later on. They didn’t feel so great at the time, but we have to be willing to live and learn sometimes. I trusted my own instincts during my failures and knew it would be ok in the end. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to think big, but know yourself and be realistic at the same time. It can be a hard line to walk because it is super fine but you’re smart and talented, you’ll navigate this one just fine.
- What’s this advanced degree worth to you? Emotionally, physically, mentally, and yes, financially. Funding is drying up left and right and many master’s programs are not 100% funded. What are you willing to pay for this piece of paper? What about your loved ones? Some of you may be in committed relationships and have someone else to consider when making this decision. Grad school can be very lonely, it can be emotionally trying, and I have bad news–it’s not that great for your health. Hours of sitting, reading, and caffeine chugging catch up real quick. I packed on about 20 more lbs. and it was a real bitch to get off.
- What is the job market doing in your potential degree area? What’s it paying? What’s the forecast for jobs? What’s the trend over the last 10-20 years? How do the trends in salary look? How will this compare to any debt or lost time at work you may acquire and lose due to grad school?
Graduate school right out of undergrad is a deeply personal decision. Don’t feel like you “have to do it” because someone thinks you should. If you don’t feel ready: don’t do it. Simple as that. If you want to and the funding is there: go for it. Be willing to be HONEST with yourself first about what you want/ need and the folks on your team will support you too.
What advice would you give undergrads thinking of immediately jumping into grad school?