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Should you go to graduate school?

Should you go to graduate school? It’s a question a lot of undergraduates and recent graduates wrestle with. And for good reason. I wrestled with it as an undergraduate. I also kept wrestling with it during graduate school. I would have continued to wrestle with it after I got my PhD if time travel had been an option. But if I had to give the simplest answer for why I stayed the course, it’s because I never came up with a better idea. I never heard an option that ultimately seemed more appealing to me. So, I stuck with it and I’m glad I did. Really glad it turns out. Certainly not everyone who’s been to graduate school feels that way, but most do, and that’s true regardless of what directions their careers may have taken.

Which brings up an important point. “Should you go to graduate school?” is not the same question as “Should I try to become my advisor?” There are many different career paths PhDs can pursue, and being a research-professor is decidedly one of the less-frequent outcomes. Many students enter programs with stated preferences for industry, public policy, publishing, or outreach and education. Still, to be successful as a PhD student requires most or all of the same basic qualities no matter what your ultimate career goal may be. So maybe don’t concern yourself so much with exactly what you’ll be doing in 20 years, which is impossible to predict, versus what you want to do for the next 5 or 6 years.

Which brings up another point. None of us can be fully certain if we’re making the correct decision. It’s just a best guess. In fact, I’d argue that we often can’t know if we made the right decisions long after we’ve made them! So, we all take periodic leaps of faith, knowing that we can alter our direction later if necessary. Still, we’d like to get it right, and one of the keys in this case is spending enough time working in a research lab prior to making any decisions about graduate school. In fact, you probably won’t get into a PhD program if you don’t have a good amount of research experience to begin with. Often this is done in an academic setting as an undergraduate, although it might come from working as a technician in industry, as a post-baccalaureate at a national laboratory, or by first getting an MS degree.

Below are questions that could be helpful to ask yourself when deciding about graduate school. I’m probably missing some, but to me these are the most critical.

  1. Do I love thinking about science? A lot of what makes science fulfilling is the freedom to think critically, creatively, and independently. It’s an opportunity not found in every career and many of us consider this to be a true privilege. How important is that to you? How important is it to be in a career that doesn’t just allow for life-long learning but requires it? I ask because I’ve known students who seemed intellectually incurious or lackadaisical. And it’s not that they weren’t intelligent. It’s that they didn’t seem to enjoy the intellectual engagement that science requires. It’s like they wanted to do the minimum amount of thinking, as though thinking were a precious resource that they were loath to expend. So, be honest with yourself. If you don’t seriously love thinking about science, if life-long learning isn’t a key to your personal fulfillment, then look for alternatives.
  2. Do I love actually doing science? My grammar tool doesn’t like my use of “actually” here, but I’m leaving it for emphasis. Yes, graduate school is about thinking, but it’s also highly focused on the doing part! So, it’s important that you enjoy the actual work involved. Admittedly, some of the labor can be tedious. (Minipreps come to mind.) Still, you need to have a reasonable tolerance and patience for the more mundane aspects of our craft and find satisfaction in the daily routines. But know that we are all different with respect to what we enjoy doing. I didn’t know that I loved looking through microscopes and picking worms until I started looking through microscopes and picking worms. For this reason, it’s important to try out different types of projects and approaches early in your career, such as through laboratory rotations. Figure out the kinds of science that you actually like doing, because you’re probably going to be doing a lot of it!
  3. Do I enjoy trying to solve problems? A PhD is essentially a degree in advanced problem solving. And it doesn’t matter what the discipline is. As scientists we constantly encounter problems, big and small. This could involve troubleshooting a new protocol or getting inconsistent results from an established assay. And this can be frustrating, to say the least. This is probably where “grit” comes in. I had an old-school colleague who looked for trainees that would “bust through a brick wall” to get something to work and lamented those that couldn’t “fight their way out of a wet paper bag”. Admittedly, I’m not sure I’ve ever broken through a brick wall, which sounds kind of painful, and I’ve probably remained trapped inside a few damp paper bags for longer than was entirely respectable. But I’m pretty stubborn and tenacious. And like many scientists, I enjoy digging in and beating a problem into submission. I’ve done this using finesse, brute force, and sometimes luck. But it always feels good. Solving problems is a lot of what we do as scientists, so you’d better be cool with that.
  4. Do I feel an affinity with other scientists? By going to college and being associated with at least one research group—an absolute requirement if you’re even thinking about graduate school—you’re going to be exposed to numerous professors, students, postdocs, and others who make up the community of academic researchers. And you can tell a lot about what it will be like to be a scientist-in-training by the vibe you get from the people already there. Even as an undergraduate, the natural connection I felt to colleagues in my research group and department transcended things like age, background, and ethnicity. I noticed that scientists shared many values, ones that were important to me. Moreover, they were mostly fun, engaging individuals around whom I could be myself. Admittedly, I’ve never tried hanging out with investment bankers, but I suspect that the same connection wouldn’t be there. For me, the single best thing about science is the people I get to interact with. So, if you reflect on the scientists you’ve known and think, “These are my people!”, that’s a pretty good indicator.
  5. Am I good at science? This is admittedly a difficult and uncomfortable question, but it’s one you must ask yourself. To be successful, you’ll ultimately need to get good at both the thinking AND the carrying out the experiments parts. So how do you know? Well, with experience it should hopefully start to become clear—clear to you, but maybe also to others who know you well, care about you, and will give you their honest take on your abilities. And it’s not about what grade you got in such-and-such a class or on such-and-such a test. There are people with 4.0s and perfect GREs who would be totally ineffective as scientists. And no one is perfect. We all have strengths and weaknesses as scientists, particularly early on in our careers. So long as we are willing to address our weaknesses and have sufficient balancing strengths, we’ll probably be OK. So, test the waters as thoroughly as possible and then be honest with yourself. You want to do more than survive graduate school; you want to thrive and feel good about yourself.
  6. Do I have any better ideas? If you can answer “Yes” to the above questions but are still on the fence, then you need to ask yourself, “What are the viable alternatives?” For example, maybe you also like the idea of pursuing a career in medicine. Fantastic! The world needs great health care providers who can think scientifically. And it’s a much more straightforward path that provides career stability, geographic flexibility, and financial security. Or maybe you just realize that you have life priorities that won’t be compatible with graduate school. Fair enough. And if you change your mind in a few years, graduate school will still be there. But if you draw a blank on what you’d rather do…well, see #7.
  7. What do I have to lose? So “Yes” to 1–5 and “No” to 6? OK, so what’s the worst that can happen? Maybe you start graduate school with the best of intentions but find out that it’s not for you. Good that you’ve figured that out! Rest assured; you will find something that’s a better fit. Or perhaps you may realize part way through that you don’t want to be a bench scientist after completing your PhD. Welcome to a very large club! With your PhD you’re likely to have excellent career options no matter what you end up doing. And don’t forget the journey. Doing a PhD can function as a mechanism to expose yourself to new experiences, ideas, and people that might lead you in an exciting, unexpected direction. Again, you can’t be 100% sure of the outcome going in because none of us can be. So, give yourself a break! Make your best guess, try hard, and see what happens. I’m rooting for you.