We're been recruiting like mad at my place of work, which means that I've been interviewing a lot of people recently. Many of them are just graduating college, and are trying to decide whether to join the Real World or to continue on to grad school. Many of the others are just finishing grad school, and trying to decide whether to join the Real World or pursue a professorship. I've actually been on both sides of both decisions. I did go to grad school, but only after working in the Real World (well, real-ish) for three years or so. And while I did serve as a Professor for a while (two years), I left it to return to the Real World. So I've seen both sides of the fence, for both grad school and professorships, and have some advice I'd like to share with people facing these decisions. I'll leave the professorship-question for the next post, and focus here on the decision whether or not to go back to grad school.

So, should you go back to grad school?


More accurately: if I can possibly talk you out of going back to grad school, then you shouldn't do it. Most people don't realize how much grad school costs:

  • The direct financial costs are the most obvious, of course, and you're probably already aware of them. But there's more than just tuition. If you have any savings at all, grad school will eat them. (This is especially true if you're thinking of going back to school after working a real job, and have gotten used to a nice cushy standard of living.) But also, the opportunity costs are enormous. In addition to everything else, every year of grad school costs you the money you would have made had you instead worked in the Real World. This adds up, and its effects can compound. Unless a graduate degree can raise your post-graduation salary to compensate, your salary may always lag behind what it would have been if you spent those two-to-seven years getting promoted instead of in school. Or put another way: if an advanced degree won't change your starting salary, a year of grad school costs you what you would have made in the last, most highly-paid year of your career.
  • Still unconvinced? Consider this: a graduate degree (particularly a PhD) closes doors. Once you get a PhD, you will no longer be considered for jobs which do not require a PhD. For better or worse, employers believe that PhDs will be unhappy with 'ordinary' jobs, would cost more than non-PhDs, and would actually perform worse than people without advanced degrees. So once you get an advanced degree (particularly a PhD) be aware that your job prospects have collapsed down to grad-degree-level jobs in your specific field.
  • Lastly, be aware that a graduate program (again, I'm talking mostly about PhD programs) can be a very frustrating experience. At its core, a PhD program is an apprenticeship: you become some professor's apprentice in the hopes that one day you'll become a professor, too. Therefore, everything in your life will come to revolve around your advisor's requirements of you. Want to move to be closer to someone you've come to love? Got a hot job prospect you want to pursue? Thinking you might want to research something new? Too bad! You don't get to do any of these things until your capricious, nit-picking advisor graciously allows that you've satisfied his/her arbitrary, ever-changing requirements. ...At least, that's how it will feel. Even with the best advisor, doing the most interesting research, even living in a place you love, graduate school is an extended period of subservience to another individual. And that gets old, quick.

So have I talked you out of it yet? I don't mean to say that grad school is the wrong decision for everyone. It isn't. I, myself, am very happy that I went back to school and got my PhD. And I would have done it even if I had known all of these things beforehad-- which is my point. Those who should go to grad school are those who will go to grad school no matter what I say. There is something so interesting to them (us, really) that we are willing to pay the prices above to be able to learn and think about these things all day every day. And unless you're one of those people-- if I can possibly talk you out of it-- you grad school is not the place for you.