Though the school year has just started, many undergraduates in the final year of their bachelor programs are starting to give serious consideration to what comes next. A popular option is graduate school. I feel that this option is highly appealing because of the widespread perception that “if some education is good, then more must be better.” After all, our generation has been inculcated with the belief that education (regardless of what field it is in) is the silver bullet for getting a good job. This is only partly accurate. While it is true that for many prestigious careers, a graduate degree is either a requirement or a strong asset, it is also true that many people think this way, and, as a result, there are enormous gluts of labour supply in these job markets – for instance, just ask someone looking for a tenure-track professorship. In addition, a graduate degree is perceived as a means of delaying one’s entry into the “real world” – with the added bonus that it gives the impression that one’s undergraduate degree is being put to good use, which, in today’s job market, is increasingly difficult to do.
As a seasoned grad school veteran (entering what is hopefully the final year of my mechanical engineering PhD here at McMaster – my MSc was in math, also obtained here at Mac), I humbly offer some advice for those considering grad school – though please bear in mind that my perspective is necessarily skewed by my science/engineering background.
The most important piece of advice is this: “Because I don’t know what else to do with my life” is not a good reason to attend grad school. If you are not completely sure grad school is for you, you may want to consider getting some real world experience; spend some time working, or get another set of more professionally oriented skills. Though if you do choose to take some time away from an academic environment, be cautioned that if the skills you applied in academia are not regularly practiced, then your proficiency can rapidly fade. After my BSc (in math), I spent two years working, volunteering and traveling – in retrospect, this was too much of a gap. As a result I spent much time simply catching up when I started my MSc.
In most cases, one is guaranteed money from teaching/research assistantships, which amount to a modest wage – though of course the amount of funding varies widely between programs and schools. Also when applying to grad schools, be sure to do your homework regarding potential sources of external funding.
The skills which determine success in undergrad are not necessarily the same skills which determine success in grad school. In your undergrad, you were spoon-fed material in lectures, which you rehearsed and regurgitated on tests. If you were good at this, you likely received much positive reinforcement, fueling your desire to continue doing something you’re good at. However in grad programs you often aren’t simply asked to answer questions – you have to figure out what the unanswered questions are, and whether you have the tools to answer them. This, I assure you, is much more difficult. You will need to work with considerably more independence, and from my experience, it took a long time to adjust to not having someone tell me exactly what to do. I have found that a useful strategy for independently working is to regularly write research reports – simply articulating things has a surprising ability to clarify what the questions are, and whether one is taking the appropriate steps to answer them.
Your grad school discipline does not necessarily have to be the exact same as your undergrad discipline. As mentioned, I’m currently a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, whereas my BSc and MSc were in math – the important thing is that you have (or can develop) the appropriate skills to do the job. Do your homework regarding your potential supervisors. I think the most important quality you can look for is whether your supervisors will actually have time for you – for me, regular meetings are absolutely essential for keeping the project on track. Also, research seldom goes according to plan, hence the expectations of supervisors and supervisees may not be made explicit, and as a result can be hugely mismatched – for example, supervisors might have a tacit expectation that the research results also be made into publications. Also, students might have unrealistically high expectations of what they will produce – the result of much grad student research is so arcane that few other people will care. So when discussing a project with potential supervisors, be clear about what the expectations are. Be sure to get advice from current grad students working under your prospective supervisor – they can often be counted upon for an objective opinion, since they likely do not have an incentive to misinform you.
Despite the best-laid plans, there is the chance that once you get to grad school, the experience is worse than expected. There will be a strong temptation to embrace an idle and fashionable ennui about grad school – largely due to the presence of other grad students who casually express cynical dissatisfaction with their career choice (or, should I say, lack of career choice) while at the same time sipping their lattes and doing absolutely nothing about it. As is true with many things in life, you gotta know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. If you truly feel that your grad program will not yield a good return on investment, take some initiative and do something about it – change projects, change supervisors, change programs, or quit and seek opportunity elsewhere.