As the academic year draws to a close, undergraduates everywhere are forced to ponder what life after college holds for them. The options can be overwhelming — a job, travel, public service, another degree. How do you decide what's right for you?
I can't tell you if graduate school is the right decision. However, I can share some of the worst reasons for going to grad school that I have ever heard.
If you have been contemplating applying to grad school for any of the following reasons, please, reconsider. The commitment that grad school requires, and the disruption to a normal life that it causes, are not to be taken lightly.
1. You had such a great time in college that you want to extend it for a couple more years. Yes, college can be the best years of your life. But the lifestyle of a graduate student is extremely different from that of an undergrad. You will spend hours in a laboratory or library, mostly by yourself.
It goes without saying that you will not have much of a social life at all, much less the bacchanalian weekends to which you were accustomed. And the responsibility to meet your deadlines and complete your requirements on the way to your degree is yours and yours alone. Graduate school can be a rewarding experience, but it is definitely not a way to relive your senior year.
2. You think it will translate into a better salary. It could. But are you in it just for the money? Dreaming of dollar bills for your entire stint in grad school will likely make for a pretty miserable time, given the long hours and low salary that you'll have to endure. People who succeed in and actually enjoy grad school (they do exist) are the ones who are invested in their work and genuinely interested in their chosen fields. And if you plan on staying in academia, it may be quite a while before you work your way up to a professor-style salary. If it really is all about the Benjamins for you, there are less painful and more efficient routes to wealth than graduate school.
3. The job market is bad, so you'll wait it out while getting a graduate degree. There's some flawed logic. What if you graduate only to find the market hasn't recovered, plus you're now also saddled with more debt? Will getting an advanced degree really help you find the type of job you're after?
My major problem with this rationale, though, is the way it depicts grad school as a place to while away the hours until something better comes along. Unless going to grad school was part of your long-term plan anyway, applying to school instead of entering a tough job market just doesn't make sense.
4. You don't know what to do with your life and are hoping to "find yourself" in graduate school. Graduate school is not the place to figure out what you want. It is not a place to bide your time until you start your "real life." It is a commitment and a responsibility that probably isn't worth it unless it's really what you want to do. There are easier and less laborious ways of deciding who you are and what you want out of life. Why make such a big commitment if you aren't sure about it?
Grad school is a lot of work. It can be monotonous and frustrating, and the rewards can seem few and far between. If your motives for going in the first place are weak, it can be a pretty dismal experience. I'm enjoying my time as a grad student, but I feel like I went into the experience with realistic expectations.
I don't want to scare anyone away from grad school — it can definitely be a worthwhile experience, a challenge and opportunity for growth, and a step forward for many careers. I do, however, want you to know what you're getting into when you send out those applications.
Mary Bates GS is a doctoral candidate in the psychology department. She can be reached at mary_bates at brown.edu.