"Should I Go to Graduate School?"
A Professor’s Advice on Whether You Should Go To Grad School
Michael D. Breidenbach
Don’t go into debt to go to graduate school.
Be brutally honest about the opportunity costs. Earning a doctorate can take anywhere from four to eight years, or (for the sorry few) longer. The average salary of a recent college graduate is about $50,000; a rough estimate of graduate stipends is $20,000. Over seven years, you could have made almost a quarter of a million dollars more if you hadn’t gone to graduate school. Are you prepared to forego these potential earnings? Are you deluded in thinking that you can recover these potential earning losses with a Ph.D.?
Take very seriously the advice from your professors not to go to graduate school. Their stories about 500 job candidates for one open assistant professorship are true.
At the very least, don’t go to graduate school unless you can’t think of anything else that you would like to do.
Consider deferring your applications for a year in order to work in a professional field that is close to your proposed academic work. This will allow you to save some money, buttress your applications, network in your academic field, solidify your research purpose, and reevaluate your graduate school plans.
Terminal master’s degrees are for gradual students. To be sure, some disciplines offer only terminal master’s degrees (e.g., MFAs), but for most arts and sciences, the true terminal degree is a Ph.D. Don’t think that terminal master’s programs are a good way to test whether you want to pursue a Ph.D. If you end up wanting to go for a Ph.D., then you will have to apply all over again, wasting time and resources, and then go through even more master’s level work at a Ph.D. program. Instead, simply get into a Ph.D. program; if the Ph.D. doesn’t work out, you can hopefully leave with a master’s degree anyway.
When choosing where to apply, work backwards: first, which professors do you want to work with? Second, which departments are the best in your desired subfield? Third, which departments are the best generally? Ideally, these three questions will all point to the same universities.
Start your applications in the summer at least before your senior year and don’t submit them until they’re spotless. Ace the GRE, revise your best paper from an upper-level class in your chosen field, give a clear statement of your research purpose, and obtain letters of recommendation from senior professors who know you well.
When choosing where to attend, again work backwards: top programs generally hire only from other top programs; mid-tier programs generally hire from mostly top programs and also mid-tier programs; and lower-tier programs hire from top, mid-, and sometimes lower-tier programs. The better the program, the more job prospects you’ll have.
Consider the cultures of the university, city, state, and country. Would you want to spend most of your 20s there?
Talk with graduate students in the programs you are interested in. What does daily life look like? Is there adequate academic, financial, and social support?
After the excitement of a “yes” admissions letter has worn off, continue reading: Don’t go into debt to go to graduate school. If your offer does not come with a multi-year scholarship of full tuition and a living stipend enough to cover basic expenses, you are not ready to go to graduate school. If hundreds of graduate students in your field have received generous financial aid packages and you haven’t, admissions committees are telling you that you are not competitive.
Before you enroll, ask yourself: are you prepared to move (and move your future family) after graduate school to take several postdocs (jobs to find a job) across the county until you finally land a long-term professorship that pays about as much as some private high school teaching jobs? If you can honestly answer yes, you may be ready to enjoy the benefits of earning a Ph.D.