Was it worth it to do grad school? I get asked that question often, and even though I would answer with yes, I don’t think that grad school is the best choice for everyone.
For me, doing research was what I wanted to do when I finished undergrad. I did a Master’s and wanted to do more research, dive deeper. I then did a PhD and was on track for an academic career. However, after a couple of years of postdoc work, I realized that was no longer my ambition, and I left academia for a freelance medical writing career. That career relies on the knowledge and skills I gained during grad school, and so yes, for me it was worth it.
Should you go to grad school?
Whether grad school is worth it for you is a question only you can answer.
There are many science careers out there, and academic research is just one of them. If that heavily attracts you, by all means, go for it! If you have doubts, it might be worth checking out some other options and see if those are a better match for you.
Many go to grad school because they don’t know what else to do, which is not the best argument for it. If you don’t know what you want to do, try to figure it out first. It sure isn’t easy, but it is better than going through grad school and then still being confused and unsure about your career. There are definite costs to doing grad school, so you have to make sure it serves a purpose for you.
Below are some factors to consider in your decision making:
Money – the costs and benefits of doing grad school
We often think that the more we study and the more titles we obtain, the better the jobs we’ll be able to get and the more money we will make. However, that is not exactly true in the current job climate. The massive amount of money you invest in your education doesn’t necessarily always pay off.
Graduate school trains you for a career in academia. Sadly, the number of graduates heavily outbalances the number of academic positions. So it might be very difficult, if not impossible, for you to have an academic career, no matter how successful you are in your research.
For other careers, a Master’s or PhD title might get you into (leadership) positions that pay better than those without this requirement. However, this is not always true, so have a good look at job ads for types of jobs you’d be interested in. Also, talk to people with jobs you are interested in to see if grad school would help in such a career path.
Doing grad school will take you a couple of years. Years in which you make much less money than when you’d go straight into the workforce. You could consider that as missed income, and it will delay your entry into the workforce and building up of salary as your career progresses.
Another important factor to consider is where you do grad school. In some European countries you might be considered as an employee, get paid a salary, which also included benefits, etc. The situation can be quite different in North America, as most students do not get paid or receive very minimal stipends, and benefits are often very minimal or absent. In those situations, student loans might be necessary.
Finally, many universities are based in expensive cities, another important factor to take into your calculations as the cost of living can vary significantly.
Training for the next phase in your career – skills and intellectual benefits
As a grad student, you are in training to become a scientific expert. You will learn how to design and execute experiments, how to analyze data, how to write research papers and grants, how to manage projects, and how to teach. Along the way, you will learn many transferable skills and become very resilient.
Those skills are in high demand and come in handy for many jobs, but it doesn’t always place you above someone with more industry experience when you apply for a job in industry. Industry has a unique way of thinking, and you may not be well prepared for that after academia. There is currently much discussion about providing better training for a variety of careers for grad students. This is essential, but in most cases not offered by universities and advisors and supervisors often only know academia, limiting their career guidance.
There is, of course, also value in being able to study what you love. Grad school offers you that. Dive deep into a topic and fully immerse yourself in it for a couple of years.
Grad school requires a lot from any student – mental health
While grad school can be a great time, it can also be really tough. It will require a lot from you. Lots of time investment, lots of resilience, and you may often feel overwhelmed or like an imposter. This is totally okay and normal.
As a grad student, you might think you are the only one dealing with issues or having it rough, while in reality, everyone is struggling. It is important we talk about it and that you have a support system to guide you through it. Do not forget that other things in life are also important.
Some lab cultures suggest you have to devote all your waking hours to the research and can never have a day off, including weekends. This is wrong and unproductive. Everyone needs a break every once in a while and doing some other activities, relax, talk to friends, or spend time with family, will help you look at your research with fresh eyes when you get back to it. Working long days or weekends often is counterproductive, as your body and brain need time to recover from the intense work you do.
Therefore, the place where you do grad school, the support you have, and the research group you work in are major factors influencing your mental health during grad school. Keep that in mind in your choice as well.
How to make the choice?
Take the above factors into account and think about what is important to you. Don’t think of what is important to others and what they tell you you should prioritize, but really listen to yourself and what matters to you. Think about your ideal career path. Is it in academia, or is it elsewhere? What sort of positions would interest you? What do you need for those positions?
This could help, but if you are anything like me, this might be very challenging. I never really knew what I wanted to do in my career, or where I would be 5 or 10 years from now. That is more than okay too. You are at a stage in life where you are exploring. If grad school provides you that exploration, that might just be enough reason for you. But do realize there are also downsides to it.
What if I make the wrong decision?
Making choices is hard, and sometimes you end up somewhere you realize later is not the right path for you. We often think we need to stick with our choices, but we really don’t have to. If you made the choice to go to grad school and it is not working out for you, or you realize research really isn’t what makes you happy, first talk to others and see if there are things that can be changed to make it better for you. If not, it is always an option to stop grad school and go do something different.
Don’t focus too much on the invested time and energy you already put in. What matters is taking the right path for you. Try to look at it from a distance, what you want to achieve, what you’d like to do next, and talk to others in similar positions or positions you’d like to end up in. They might give you a perspective that helps you guide the decision to stop or to finish.
If you decide to go to grad school; enjoy it! It is a great time to learn, dive really deep into this one topic, and develop as a person and as a scientist. And if you choose to walk another path that is great too, there is much to learn and develop in any career path.
Our Career section is here for you to find more information about different STEM careers and read about the career path of women in various careers.