My friend once said to me:
Graduate school is like a Get Out of Jail Free card. You can use it when you run out of career options, but most people play their card too early.
At the time I heard this, I agreed. After all, who wouldn’t want to escape the 9-to-5 by finding refuge in the Ivory Tower? (This same friend, by the way, later enrolled in a M.Arch program.)
Many years later, I find that perspective to be impractical. Graduate school shouldn’t be a last resort, but a meaningful and intentional enterprise. After all, like any major decision, it has the power to shape the trajectory of your personal and professional life. It’s no joke!
Based on my experiences and those of others, there are two steps critical to the pursuit of a graduate degree: identifying passions and gathering information.
Bad reasons to go to graduate school:
- It seems like the next logical step. It most certainly doesn’t have to be, no matter what people tell you. In this day and age, there are new and exciting ways to build a life for yourself.
- You want to impress the people around you. You cannot seek validation externally, especially in graduate school. The compliments of others alone cannot sustain you for 5+ years of your life.
- You want to increase your earnings potential. You will be spending a significant amount of time out of the job market… watching peers achieve milestones that your graduate student lifestyle does not allow.
A good reason to go to graduate school? You’re truly passionate about your research question. Another important factor? You understand the costs, benefits, risks and rewards of academia. There is plenty of literature out there describing the difficulties (and sometimes near-impossibility) of landing a prized tenure-track position. Information is your friend.
Personally, my own path to graduate school was not always clear. When I reached a crossroads professionally, I grappled with important questions. What did I value? What were my lifelong interests and passions? What was my end game? Would graduate school help me achieve those goals? There are many exercises to help you achieve career-related clarity, including the wonderful flower diagram from Richard Bolles’ bestselling What Color Is Your Parachute? (see worksheet here).
A critical precursor to becoming a researcher should be — surprise! — researching. It’s imperative that prospective students truly understand what life will be like post-graduate school. There are several means to this end.
The more hands-on experience you can get, the better. I’ve found that many labs and researchers are open to taking on volunteers, given that you can demonstrate passion and professionalism.
It’s important to have working knowledge of the research process. Be aware that there are many stages, including (but not limited to): writing grants to secure funding; developing project protocols; obtaining human subjects rights and other regulatory approvals (particularly within the social sciences); running the project itself; cleaning, entering, and analyzing data; preparing manuscripts, posters, and other forms of dissemination; and, of course, the countless stacks of paperwork in between.
It is always helpful to conduct research in the field you want to work in. This demonstrates that you are familiar with, and interested in, relevant themes and topics. In some cases, however, it’s not possible to obtain that sort of directly-related experience. For example, Berkeley didn’t have any industrial-organizational psychologists on faculty. I did, however, gain work extensively in peripherally related fields (social and clinical psychology), which turned out in my favor.
I believe that prospective graduate students should be given a recommended (required?) reading list. Below I’ve included some incredibly insightful pieces, written by leading academics.
- Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning an M.A. or a Ph.D. (Robert L. Peters): Recommended by many professors as totally essential reading. If nothing else, I urge you to read this!
- A PhD Is Not Enough!: A Guide to Survival in Science, available as a PDF online here (Peter J. Feibelman): Useful, practical advice from a seasoned academic, including information about what comes after grad school.
Piled Higher and Deeper (PHD) Comics (Jorge Cham): So spot-on, it hurts. Entertaining, incisive, and wildly popular depictions of the grad school struggle.
- The PhD Grind and the N=1 Guide to Grad School: Relatable perspectives from two separate PhDs.
- Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School (Adam Ruben): Laugh to keep yourself from crying. As they say, behind every joke is a kernel of truth.
- Should I Go to Grad School?: 41 Answers to an Impossible Question (Jessica Loudis): Thought-provoking anecdotes from impressive figures, though oriented towards MFA/humanities
100 Reasons Not to Go to Grad School: A pessimistic blog, yes, but let’s not sugarcoat the darker aspects of grad school
Finally, I have found it immensely helpful to conduct informational interviews with professionals. These are essentially informal conversations where you are exploring someone else’s career. In most cases, simply politely asking someone for a moment of their time can open the door to a very useful informational interview. There are many resources on getting the most out of these conversations, including a guide at Berkeley and sample questions at Quintessential Careers. It goes without saying that everyone’s journey is highly individual/anecdotal, though that doesn’t mean they’re not realistic or enlightening.
In arranging my informational interviews, I made sure to cover both breadth and depth: breadth, by talking to people in many different fields (including unrelated ones that I thought might be interesting); and depth, by discussing trajectories with people at various stages in their career (e.g., students, early career, senior faculty, etc.). In doing so, I discovered new and interesting professions — including my current one! — and was able to envision next steps in my career.
Informational interviews can also begin the strange social phenomenon of “networking.” Generally, I have found people are always eager to pay it forward and share advice on their career. If you cultivate these relationships, you can continue to have great mentorship and resources down the line.
See other posts in this “Applying to Grad School” series!