Several former students have contacted me seeking letters of recommendation as they consider applying to graduate school, so I have been thinking about what I would say to them when we discuss their future plans.
If you ask most grad students or folks on the academic job market whether you should go to graduate school, many will likely tell you, “no.” Some people will tell you no in frighteningly strong terms. If you ignore their pleas and proceed with your application, they may beg you to reconsider your decision.
I may have ignored many of these messages, but I can’t really go back on what has already happened now. Recognizing that the answer to the “should I go to graduate school” question is complicated, I offer this imaginary conversation between you and me if you asked me whether you should go at all.
Here is part one.
[Fade in on the interior of a coffee shop. You and I are seated, sipping on hot java and catching up.]
You: Should I go to graduate school?
Me: Let me ask a few questions first. WHY are you thinking about graduate school? I ask because people go to grad school for lots of reasons. Often, their chosen field of work requires a credential higher than a bachelor’s or an associate’s degree. Sometimes, grad school offers students new training or skill-building that they either never had or that has changed since they originally earned their degree. If you need the degree for advancement in your field, consider asking your current employer to split the bill with you.
You: (looking silent and pensive). Okay. But what if I don’t need the degree for career advancement?
Me: Okay, so as you consider WHY you are considering graduate school, you should simultaneously consider another similar (and perhaps more important) question: what do you want to do AFTER graduate school?
You: Wow. I hadn’t really thought about that.
Me: Lots of prospective and current graduate students view graduate training as a pit stop en route to a new career or as respite from a brutal labor market. Folks who have no orientation towards what they think they’ll do after graduate school tend to treat their graduate training as separate from their real professional life. I have written before that graduate training IS your professional life. Your responsibility to seek out professional networks, cross-train, and work in your field is not the territory you traverse after you finish. You should be considering this territory WHILE you are in school.
You: Okay. (Big pause) What else should I be thinking about?
Me: Have you thought about your personal life at all?
You: What do you mean?
Me: Will you have to move to attend graduate school? Are you dating someone? Do you live on your own? Are you thinking about living close to family or far away? How financially secure are you? Will you have to support other people? Can you move away from where you are currently living?
You: Whoa, that’s a lot of questions.
Me: Well, yeah. It is. Your personal life matters and it’s important to consider the kinds of sacrifices you are willing (and unwilling) to make. Everyone has a different set of life priorities and graduate school, especially a PhD program, is a long process. And your answer to some of these questions might be different two years into your grad program.
You: What do you mean it could differ in two years?
Me: Life does not stop while you’re in grad school. Before you commit yourself to a short or lengthy graduate program, have a long talk with yourself (and your partner or family) about what this kind of commitment means. Graduate school and the work associated with it drives a wedge between you and many other pursuits (and people) in your life. You will need emotional support from loved ones and you will need to find ways to take care of your (physical and mental) health. Maintaining friendships and partnerships, parenting, tending to family members, traveling, leisure, personal time–these are things that get back-burnered while you’re in grad school. The decision to go to graduate school is kind of like the decision to take a new job.
You: Is it REALLY like starting a new job?
Me: It is actually like starting several new jobs at the same time. You’ll be balancing new roles as a student and maybe as a teaching or research assistant, so you have to negotiate being your own boss and working for someone else. If you’re returning to school after a long hiatus or already work for yourself, giving up some of this autonomy is hard. Maybe you’ll be balancing your current job AND going to school at the same time. It could mean that your attention is divided constantly and you may feel like you’re not successful at anything you’re doing.
You: <inaudible sigh>
Me: Graduate school offers all kinds of opportunities but not without other sacrifices. Before deciding to apply, think about the kinds of sacrifices you may have to make and the future career you envision. Don’t go to graduate school to figure out your life. Go when you’ve figured something out about your life.
In our next installment, I’ll be thinking out loud about the realities of graduate training and professional life. If you think I missed the mark or hope I’ll address something specific, please leave me a comment.