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Graduate School: Applying, Living, Thesising

The Professional Student is a blog about everything grad school from the application process to my experiences living as a grad student, being a parent in grad school, and researching the role of chemistry in the evolution of our universe.

So you think you want to go to grad school

Olivia Wilkins

The decision to go to graduate school is perhaps one of the biggest decisions in a student's life. Choosing a graduate education is fraught with a number of challenges much greater than those encountered when applying to college at the end of high school. Some of the questions you'll have will remain the same at the core, but are often much more complicated.

Just like when applying to undergraduate institutions, you need to consider why you are applying in the first place. You also need to think about what characteristics in a school are most important for you. After undergraduate you are (hopefully) a much different and (hopefully) more mature person than you were coming out of high school, so the most important facets of your schools should change. Unlike college, where you can enter undeclared with no idea what you want to do with your life, you have to prove to graduate admissions committees you have at least some idea of what piques your interest.

When toying with the possibility of earning another degree, you should ask yourself the following questions.

Why do I want to go to graduate school?
For what type of degree am I looking?
Should I take a gap year before going back to school?
How important is location, location, location?
Can I even afford it?
Is it worth it?

Why do I want to go to graduate school?

The answer to this question might be obvious if you are interested in a career path that requires a graduate degree (e.g. tenured faculty positions, research positions, law). In these cases, you may not want to go to graduate school, but you definitely need to. (If you don't want to go to graduate school at all, perhaps you also need to rethink your career options.)

For those students who are still trying to find their passion or don't know why they want to go to grad school, finding the answer to the "why" may be what saves them from making the horrible mistake of applying to grad school for the wrong reasons (like not wanting to work right after college... grad school is destined to be a lot of work). Deciding (or for some people not) to take on an undergraduate degree is relatively easy—a desire to learn more, harboring a global outlook, moving away from home, being forced to by parents, increasing societal pressures to have a degree, job training, etc. On the other hand, going to graduate school means you've already learned something new, you either moved away from home or experienced a more independent lifestyle, you already (or shortly will) have a degree, or you've received the basic training needed to enter the workforce in your field.

For me, the decision to apply to graduate school was an easy one. First, I just love school; I love learning, I love working, I just want to be a student forever. Second, during my first year of undergrad, one of my professors said that, with my enthusiasm, I should be a professor. I thought she was crazy. I had no interest in teaching. But after being a writing assistant for Dickinson's Summer Institute for International Students less than half a year later, I had caught a bug. I wanted to work with students. Wanting to stick to resarch but also collaborate with undergraduates as a professor requires a PhD, something you can only get after working through grad school. Third, I love research. Between working at the NRAO, CfA, and Universität zu Köln, it is pretty clear to me that I thoroughly enjoy the process from asking a question to finding an answer and communicating it. What better place to hone your research skills and learn to use them more independently than grad school?

Of course, you have your own reasons, or are searching for them. What will graduate school add to your skillset that undergrad couldn't? Learning to be a reasearcher? How to apply law? How to teach effectively? How to run a business empire? Grad school isn't necessarily required for these things, so spend a lot of time figuring out the "why" if you haven't already.

For what type of degree am I looking?

In undergrad, there are a number of degrees or levels of education you can achieve (e.g. Bachelors, Associates), and graduate school is no different. Typically grad school refers to a program that ends in either a Master's degree or PhD, but you can also persue degrees in areas such as law, business, or medicine (in these fields, "grad school" is often replaced by "law school", "business school", or "medical school", respecitively). Obviously, not all degrees are the same. You can't perform open heart surgery with a Master's of Fine Arts (MFA) in lieu of a Doctorate of Medicine (MD), and you aren't a good candidate for a principal or super intendent position in secondary education with a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) in Astronomy rather than a Doctorate of Education (EdD). This is where you need to do your research. What jobs are you interested in, and what do they require? The decision of which degree to get can be most confusing for those choosing between a masters and a PhD, but regardless of the degree type, the decision should come down to making the best investment in your future and interests. Consider talking to faculty, the career center, or professionals in your field to get a better idea of what you actually need (and want).

Should I take a gap year before going back to school?

A gap year is often thought of a time for recent high school seniors to mature, volunteer, take a break, and explore their interests before stepping onto a college campus, and for many (especially in the U.S. where this is less common than in Europe) it can be a difficult decision to make. Gap years may also be beneficial for college graduates before they head off to graduate school, and the reasons for considering a gap year are very similar. Hopefully a college graduate is behaviorally mature enough to be on track with other graduate students in their class, but they may want to mature other things, such as their bank accounts or resumes via work experience. Still full of young energy and unsettled, recent college graduates may also want to seize the opportunity to volunteer or work to impose positive change in their communities through numerous programs (e.g. Teach for America, the Peace Corps, Americorps).

Although students considering graduate school should already have a good idea about what interests them, gap years could be crucial for deciding what to do in and where to go for grad school or even whether to go at all. One of my undergrad professors and mentors worked in industry for several years before going to graduate school. For her, this was an important step because she wasn't sure if she wanted to go to graduate school in the first place and it made her much more prepared for working in a laboratory setting.

I decided to take a gap year myself after realizing that, while I had found my passion in astrochemistry, I had no idea how I wanted that to translate to my graduate studies. I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD, but did I want a program that emphasized laboratory chemistry? Astronomical observations? Modeling and theory? A gap year as a Fulbright fellow allowed me to explore the laboratory astrophysics side of things whereas my previous astrochemistry experience was strictly observational. The experience showed me that I enjoy both of these aspects of astrochemistry, turning my attention to focusing on lab groups that incorporate multiple facets of research in the field. Had I not been accepted to the Fulbright program, I anticipated pursuing internships at institutions such as NASA or even a local paper company (to see whether strictly laboratory work was for me). Either way, I was determined to figure out better what types of work I liked (or didn't like) before applying and committing to a PhD program.

How important is location, location, location?

Unless you hate snow with a burning passion so hot it could probably defrost your entire campus (in which case, no problem), location probably isn't going to be that important for you. Sure, it might be great to explore a new part of the world, but factors such as faculty and research opportunities are much (much, much, much, much...) more important when it comes to graduate school. Obviously, you should aim for a school that makes you feel safe and happy, but limiting yourself to schools in Miami as your top criteria will probably leave you with very few choices, if any.

Of course, graduate school isn't always solely your choice. You very well could have a number of dependents tagging along with you, each with their own needs. Perhaps you have a parent, grandparent, or sibling for whom you are caring. You may have a spouse or child. Talking about graduate school with others who are directly effected by your decision—whether in regard to work, health, or just general happiness—is important, and the earlier the topic comes up, the less stress it may cause later on.

For instance, I got married in July 2015, just under two months after graduating from Dickinson College. My husband Alex knew for years leading up to the wedding that graduate school was a strong possibility for me, and I am thankful that he was willing to compromise. Now, deciding where to go to grad school is somewhat dictated by location, especially with a baby coming right after grad school decisions are due. We have a lot of questions, like where will Alex be most happy? Where do we feel safe raising a child? Where will Alex be able to run his coffee business? Where can we afford having a small child? Where will we be able to find a 2+ bedroom apartment or house for us to rent and still have money for groceries? While I would want a safe place to live with lots of trees regardless, I have to consider what is best for two other people. Keeping open communications about location is key, but the decisions that come along with a non-single party are much more complicated.

Can I even afford it?

Of course, one of the most restrictive factors when it comes to education is paying for it, and graduate school is no different. While there are student loans available for graduate students, they either aren't as plentiful or well-advertised as for undergraduates. Most graduate students fund their studies through grants and work experience, but how you finance graduate school depends heavily on what type of degree you are seeking, as well as your discipline.

If you are thinking about earning a two-year degree (e.g. MSc/MS), you will likely have to pay for your degree. Some programs will pay you a stipend if you are a teaching or research assistant, but quite often tuition and supplementary funds are up to you. This is because, as a Master's student, you are strictly just that—a student. Typically, Master's students' time is occupied by classes, and after your coursework is complete, you earn your degree. Hence the university doesn't earn a whole lot back from your time there.

On the other hand, earning a PhD, specifically in the life and physical sciences (humanities tend to earn less), consists of both a tuition scholarship and often a sizable stipend for the first years of study. This is because after your coursework is complete, you will be conducting research for your dissertation. The university sees you as an investment opportunity because, during your research, you will be publishing work that the university gets to tack its name onto. To justify stipends, first and second year students are often required to do some teaching (usually as a teaching assistant) in addition to their coursework. For advanced PhD students, the expectation is that stipends and tuition (at least in part) will be funded by outside sources, such as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. To make some extra cash, advanced students often secure extra teaching positions or fellowships within the university; some universities offer fellowships for graduate students to work in the writing center or take on teaching a class full-time.

Is it worth it?

Most likely, if you want to go to grad school, it is going to be worth it. However, if you aren't sure whether grad school is right for you, then you should consider the costs and benefits about the endeavor. For instance, even if you can afford grad school, you may be missing out on a chance to jump start your career if it doesn't require a graduate degree. Moreover, just as an undergraduate degree doesn't guarantee a job, neither does a graduate one. Graduate school is not something to be taken lightly, and it can even take an immense toll on your mental health.

On the flip side, graduate school can be (or so I've heard) an amazing and rewarding experience. You gain new skills and, especially in the sciences, you learn how to be an independent researcher. You get to practice your own style of tackling problems (unless you have an overbearing advisor) and often get to explore your interests more deeply. Although you have an advisor to answer to, you are in many ways your own boss—you get to develop your own methods, write your own papers, answer your own questions. You also get to collaborate with people who probably have similar [academic] interests.

Of course, graduate school is not for everyone, and not everyone who pursues a graduate degree earns it. But, if you've considered whether graduate school is worth it and you decide it is, you are definitely in for some kind of adventure.