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Ubind Now

Oct 06 2014
Is Graduate School For Me?

While my friends were getting ready to begin exciting new jobs in industry after graduating, I was preparing to begin my journey towards a Ph.D. in Human Centered Computing.  Although some of my friends and family where baffled by the idea of me choosing to go back to school, I was 100 percent sure that graduate school was the best option for me.  

Consider the following questions when deciding if graduate school is right for you:

  • Do you like reading?
  • Do you like writing?
  • Do you like talking in front of crowds?
  • Do you get bored doing the same thing everyday?
  • Do you like research?
  • Do you like being challenged?
  • Do you work well under stress?
  • Are you good at identifying problems and coming up with novel solutions?
  • Are you good at multitasking?

If you answered yes to most of these questions, you should definitely consider graduate school. If you answered no to all of these questions, you should probably stop reading this post.

The idea of going to graduate school is filled with many misconceptions. A few of the most common misconceptions include:

  • You are broke
    • Though this is mostly true, it’s not the case for all graduate students. Take for instance a friend of mine that will remain unnamed. After obtaining fellowships (private and public) as well as internships (silicon valley) they are able to bring in approximately $60 thousand per year. Sure, this is a rare case but it is definitely possible to work the system and get a sustainable amount of cash while going through graduate school. Note -- the type of program you are considering greatly affects this factor. Be sure to research how much funding is generally available for graduate students in your desired area.
  • You don’t have a life (Okay, this is partially true)
    • Often times, I find myself doing research at extreme hours. This is another reason why it is critically important to determine if you truly enjoy working in a research environment prior to going to graduate school. On the other hand, this factor greatly depends on the nature of the program and advisor you choose. It is possible to have some sort of a life while in graduate school but it requires impeccable time management. If you are horrible at managing your time but can adapt easy to various environments, don’t worry - you will find your niche eventually. For an example of an alternative outlook on graduate school check out www.labdaze.com.  
  • It’s expensive
    • In one of my first discussions with a faculty member, the first thing she told me is "never pay for graduate school." This point ties back to the misconception of being broke while in graduate school. While graduate school is costly, if you are an exceptionally good student there is plenty of money available to help you not pay a dime for your graduate education.
  • You have to be a genius
    • I am far from the smartest person on earth, but my work ethic allows me to perform well in my program. Granted, this may mean that you have to spend a few extra hours in the lab but over time, this will allow you to get better at being a graduate student. Like many things in life, being a great graduate student comes with time. I have heard many personal stories about students coming into graduate school and becoming completely lost or overwhelmed. Each of these stories end with the similar theme of having to slowly develop into the great researchers they all eventually became.

Upon graduating, I received multiple lucrative offers from industry. I was also pretty confident in my ability to go into industry and perform well. My decision to go graduate school was greatly influenced by the experiences I had during undergraduate research opportunities.  This allowed me to get a taste of the graduate school life style.

A few tips to help you prepare for life as a graduate student include:

  • Talk to current graduate students
    • There is no better way to get a broad outlook on graduate school than talking to current graduate students. If you are seriously considering the graduate school route, reach out to current graduate students working in the area you are considering. Ask them about their personal opinions of their program. Also, ask them why they chose graduate school. Be sure to ask them anything else you are curious about graduate school.  
  • Apply for (REU) Undergraduate research opportunity
    • I got my first taste of graduate school during undergraduate research opportunities. Applying for these could help you decide if graduate school for you. These also provide an opportunity to build your resume. Having research experience will give you an advantage over many applicants when applying for a graduate program. To get started, follow the link for information about REU opportunities http://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/ .
  • Find a potential graduate advisor
    • Finding the right graduate advisor is one of the most important things about graduate school. Your graduate advisor plays a huge role in assisting you with successfully completing your degree.  It’s never too early to start locating your potential graduate advisor. If you are considering graduate school, check out faculty at various schools that are working in the field you are considering.

Endless amounts of information can be found regarding why going into industry is a great choice.

Some additional benefits of graduate school include:

  • Make your own schedule
    • This point is mainly true for those who obtain a Ph.D. Here is another quote from my advisor: "When I’m done with my work for the day, I get to go home”. My research advisor during undergraduate also often left whenever she decided she was done. During my internship, my managers (many of whom had masters and/or Ph.D) also seemed to have substantial freedom with their schedules. 
  • Work on what you are passionate about
    • This factor is specific to the Ph.D. One of the most intriguing factors about getting a Ph.D is the ability to choose what you want to work on. If you like the idea of defining what you want to do everyday, consider obtaining a Ph.D. The Ph.D is definitely not for the faint of heart but comes with many life-long professional benefits.

Like everything else in life, graduate school has it highs and lows. Being a grad student, especially PhD comes with many sacrifices. The most prevalent sacrifices include:

  • Lack of instantaneous money
    • It is true: if you decide to choose graduate school, you may go sometime missing the big payouts your friends are making at their new jobs. Although it is possible to make a substantial amount of money through fellowships and internships while in graduate school, the possibility of bringing in less money during your studies is very real. Again, the best way to get insight on this topic is to talk to students in the area(s) you are considering.
  • Personal life
    • While others are starting off their lives with new careers and families, you will probably be in a lab with your head buried in research papers. I have heard and witnessed first-hand many graduate school horror stories. These stories range from minor break-ups to divorces. Again, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to talk to current and previous graduates students. I would even go to the extent of talking to graduate school dropouts to get an idea of what mistakes to avoid if you do decide to go to graduate school.

My graduate advisor once said, "If a Ph.D. was for everyone, everyone would have a Ph.D.". Frankly put, graduate school is not easy. Although I sometimes question my choice to go to graduate school (usually 3 a.m. in the research lab), the excitement and exposure I get to unique opportunities in industry and academia make up for it all.

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