This was my attempt at winning $100 at essay writing. I got $70 (gotta pay your taxes!), or 10 days sustenance.
The one word answer to this question (as Shakespeare himself would have said) is – NO! And a two word answer would be It depends. A lot of people go to graduate school for a lot of different reasons. I am not sure what particular type of insanity drives you towards it, but lets put out a few reasons you shouldn’t go to grad school, shall we? As a current graduate student I am speaking to you the reader from the ‘other side’. Before you young’uns finishing your undergraduate, take the plunge you should know a few facts of life about grad school.
You will be poorer than the unemployed. No seriously! You don’t get paid enough because you are a student (and we all know students don’t have to eat or pay rent), and you don’t get the long vacations you used to, because you are an employee (RA). In short you get the worst of both worlds. But hey, with the economy as it is, you might as well get a graduate degree, enhance you skill set, and reap the rewards later. Not quite! The economic benefits are not that great. Factor in the amount of work you put in, and the years you spend, adjust for inflation and you are pretty much dead. Finally, it doesn’t help when your college buddy who had joined an investment bank turns up in his BMW, with his (2nd) wife, and invites you to his 4 bedroom house for a party he is throwing for his dog’s birthday. Trust me on this last one!
The Significant Other
Do you have a significant other right now? Then hold on to them tightly. And don’t let them escape (they will try to at some point in your PhD). Not only they will provide you with moral support, but often humanitarian support too. If you are single, then you are likely to stay that way for a very long time, so get used to it. If you think I’m exaggerating, recall the TA from your last course (now you are nodding in agreement right). It turns out being poor, often overworked, and a certified nerd doesn’t quite make you a babe magnet. And, ladies if you are indignant that this doesn’t apply to you. All I have to say is “I entered grad school as a single”, so go figure.
Now you may say – Hey, but I am poor now as well, and think about the cool machines I will work with! Actually..
The (nerdy) coolness
If your laboratory sessions during your junior/senior years have taught you anything, then you should know that these big machines cost money, real money. So you won’t be allowed to get close to any lab until you have undergone extensive training, which will sap all your enthusiasm (and the will to live). Even if you get past the training, the lab equipments don’t just work because people have learnt to operate them correctly. Oh no, you first have to pull out all your hair in frustration, curse the machine (and the gods of your choice for abandoning you), and finally sacrifice a lamb on a new moon night to the great Imhotep. The sequence is important, don’t risk doing it backwards!
Lets be honest, your chances of winning a Nobel prize, curing cancer or AIDS, or (most disappointingly) invent awesome star trek machines, are minuscule. Now I’m not prejudging anyone, maybe you will go on to become a world famous scientist/engineer/CEO, and some of you will for sure. But statistically the chances are skewed towards you ending up like lots of your peers in a 9 to 5 job, and a mortgage. Moreover, you don’t have to get a PhD to be any of those world famous people. Just look at the school dropouts like Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates.
If you are not running out of the room shrieking in terror at this this point, then welcome to grad school.
You might be wondering that I’m out of my mind (and you’ll be partially right!). Do I expect people to be encouraged to join grad school by telling them ‘horror’ stories like above. Well no, but the fact is that if you agree not to evaluate everything in your life monetarily (thats the investment bankers’ job anyway), there are quite a few benefits of grad school. And, I just want you to be realistic about the whole experience. So for those of you who are still interested, here are a few things I think are the most important benefits of grad school.
A new confidence
An old saying in India goes, ‘the iron has to melt before it can become strong’. The thing is that till this point in your education, you always had the books, the teachers or the smart kid who knew the answer. This will be (possibly) the first time you will be forced to find the answer almost completely on you own. And, of course there is a lot of frustration on the way, and your solution/discovery/understanding may not be all that important in the large scheme of things. But this struggle will give you a kind of confidence that no other training can. This will be apparent when you are faced with a new challenge in your job/business in the future.
With pace at which technology is moving these days, it is very likely that your particular area of expertise might be obsolete within a few years of your graduation. (Think your grandparents and smartphones!) But don’t panic! It wouldn’t be that big a problem if you are a PhD. Employers know that you took up a new problem you knew nothing about, and solved it on your own during your PhD. They can trust you to do the same again, even if your current qualifications don’t match perfectly with the profiles. Same is true for you when you want to start a business in a new area. Its only your critical thinking you develop in grad school, and the bedrock of confidence in tackling unknown problems that will help you take the plunge.
Look at you snickering; thinking “we nerds are not supposed to know how to communicate! Remember the whole ‘remaining single’ problem?”. The fact is that a significant part of your research is communicating and making people understand your work. It might not sound important, but the ability to articulate complex and abstract concepts convincingly is a critical skill you learn during grad school. This is not limited to technical aspects as well. Even in business situations an ability to extract information from jargon, convey ideas concisely and clearly is critically important.
There is another, rather vague factor to consider; but for me it is one of the most important.
The Aha! factor
It has happened to most of us at least once when during a lecture, a lab session, a project, you see with clarity the elegant scientific principle, the neat engineering technique, the insightful philosophical argument. This is the moment which alcoholics call ‘a moment of clarity’. As mammals we are forever the slave to our ‘selfish gene’. This ‘kick’ from the beauty of an idea is what I believe one of few things that distinguishes us from our primate relatives. This is one of the great joys that you are most likely to experience in grad school than anywhere else. Yes there will be silly presentations to make, irritating machines to operate, codes to compile, and the papers to grade; But every now and then, you will understand one spec of reality very clearly, solve one ever so small problem elegantly, and explain seemingly complex aspects clearly. This to me is the defining ‘human’ experience.
Add to all these things, the low responsibility, the laid back campus lifestyle (no long commutes, traffic jams or early morning meetings) and you already have a winner. So you see, your time in grad school need not be about saving the world, or curing cancer; and it may not be about achieving monetary success either. But I guarantee you that it will be a great one if you agree to treat it as an experience, more than an opportunity. As The Buddha observed a long while ago ‘Its all about the journey’. Welcome Aboard!