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Thinking of Grad School?

As I teach mostly upper division students nearing graduation, I am often asked about the whole grad school thing. It occurred to me that it might be beneficial to offer my perspectives here—both for the benefit of students and also to see if faculty in other fields have similar views or not. This will be coming of course from a science/engineering perspective, so feel free to chime in!

I typically start out by comparing my advice to that of parents giving their preteen the ‘puberty talk.’ It isn’t meant to be discouraging or scary, but informative. I start here because the first question to be answered is “Should I go to grad school?”

It is important that the Ph.D. should not be your goal in and of itself. You should view it as a means to an end, not the end itself. There are two issues here. First, passing your final defense tends to be rather anticlimactic, surprisingly. Your committee files out of the conference room door, shaking your hand with a hearty “Congratulations, Doctor!” This is cool. However, you still have to go home and fix dinner, go to bed, and get up to the rest of your life the next morning. If the letters after your name are the goal, then all of a sudden, you are faced with a need for a new goal or vision for your life, and some have found that depressing. However, if you have a vision, a purpose for the next steps, the anticlimactic feelings are still there, but the depressed feelings do not tend to accompany them.

Secondly, grad school has often been referred to as the “long dark night of the soul.” This is because a nearly universal truth is that you will run into a brick wall where you feel like you are making NO progress. This singularly thrilling period may continue for weeks, months or even years. Einstein quipped “if we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it ‘research.’” It is common to ask yourself, “What am I doing here?” If you don’t have a clear vision or purpose for why you are pursuing the degree, the question tends to shift emphasis, “What AM I doing here?”

As I said, I do not intend to be discouraging. These experiences are normal. Therefore, knowing this going in helps to recognize and deal with it when it happens. At the same time, if this is completely discouraging, it is a wise idea to examine the issue and see if grad school is the best option for you at this time. Sometimes, it is appropriate for a different chapter in your life. Grad school is a real commitment, and not to be done lightly or because you have nothing better to do.

The Ph.D. is a noble pursuit, and is good for those who have a vision that requires it or those who have a passion for continued in-depth learning and research. In spite of what I’ve shared, I remember that time fondly and as the time of my adult life with the greatest freedom of schedule and chance to explore things at whim.

Tomorrow, I’ll share how to find a graduate program, and after that, how to choose a research professor.


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