Monday, May 16, 2011

Should You Go To Grad School?: A Quiz

I am the first person* in my very large extended family on my father's side to earn a graduate degree in something academic (as opposed to something useful like medicine, engineering, or business), but interestingly I have a number of cousins who are finishing their Bachelor's degrees in more academic fields and are seriously looking into graduate school, so at a recent family gathering I was asked a number of times about the merits of graduate school.  Of course I am not an expert on grad school in general, but I like to think that I've kept my ears open these past 4 years and I have served on several campus-wide committees that have allowed me to interact with a number of grads from other fields.  When asked I usually try to give my opinion along with some ideas about where to get more information.  Basically, I think I can boil what little wisdom exists in my rants to a 3 part quiz, which I thought I would share here (along with a humorous-because-it's-too-close-to-the-truth cartoon to the right).

*Interestingly my great-grandfather earned a Master's degree and was ABD on his doctorate in rural sociology in the 1930's.  But other than that I'm the first.

Part 1:  Have You Done Your Homework?
  1. Name the professional society whose meetings you would attend to present your research. (2 points)
  2. What is the average starting salary for people with and without your target degree to within $10k? (2 points)
  3. What is the mid-career salary for people with and without your degree to within$10k? (1 point)
  4. Have you talked to someone who has your desired graduate degree?  (face to face = 3 points, email = 2 points, heard someone speak about it to a group = 1 point)
  5. Can you name the standardize test you need to take to get in? (1 point)
  6. Do you know how long it takes to get your desired degree? (1 point)
  7. Do you know how students in your desired program are supported financially?  (1 point)
Subtract your total from 7 and divide by 3 rounding to the nearest whole number.  This is your number of strikes from Part 1. Negative strikes count.

Part 2:  Will You Survive?
  1. What is your undergraduate university ranked by US News?  (Top 10 = 5 points, Top 50 = 3 points, Top 100 = 1 point)
  2. Did you graduate with honors? (summa cum laude = 3 points, magna cum laude = 2 points, cum laude = 1 point)
  3. What was your total undergraduate GPA? ( 3.75 or higher = 3 points, 3.50 to 3.75 = 2 points, 3.25 to 3.50 = 1 point)
  4. Honestly compare yourself with the best student in your major. That person is... (Clearly you = 4 points, Maybe you = 3 points, A little better than you = 2 points, In the same league as you = 1 point)
Subtract your total from 10 and divide by 4 rounding to the nearest whole number.  This is your number of strikes from Part 2.  Again negative strikes count.

Part 3:  Is It Worth It?
  1. Calculate the difference in average lifetime salary between the average person with your Bachelor's degree and the average person with your desired graduate degree (including tuition and lost salary while in grad school).  Are you comfortable with that number? (2 points)
  2. Honestly asses what schools you can get into and then ask your spouse or significant other if they would like to live in those places for the average time it takes to get your desired degree. If single, ask a friend of the opposite sex this question.  (smiling yes = 4 points, yes = 3 points, sigh followed by yes = 2 points, "if that's where we need to go" = 1 point)
  3. Honestly asses what schools you can get into and then ask yourself if you would like to live in those places for the average time it takes to get your desired degree. (smiling yes = 4 points, yes = 3 points, sigh followed by yes = 2 points, "if that's where we need to go" = 1 point)
  4. Would you be happy living for the average time it takes to get your desired degree with whatever kind of financial support you are likely to get.  Remember this may include some serious student loans.  (3 points)
  5. What percentage of people currently holding your dream job hold your desired degree?  (75% or more = 5 points, 50% to 75% = 3 points, 25% to 50% = 1 point)
Subtract your total from 13 and divide by 5 rounding to the nearest whole number.  This is your number of strikes from Part 3.  Negative strikes still count.

Obviously 3 strikes (or more) and you're out.  Go get a job and be happy.

If you have 0 or less then what are you waiting for?  Get to grad school ASAP.

If you have 1 I would recommend grad school, but you should probably dip your toes in the job market as well.

If you have 2 strikes I would recommend against grad school immediately.  Go get a job and see how things feel again in a year or so.  I can say from personal experience that my program, for one, doesn't see a year or two away from school as a negative on an application and in many cases it can be a positive.  You might as well be earning a decent salary while you figure things out.

Comments?  Suggestions?  Name-calling?  Please let me know what you think.


  1.  Hmmm... I guess I should go to grad school...oh wait, I've already been there for 3 years.

    One important idea (which you get at with a few of the questions) is whether or not a large paycheck is important, or at least more important than what you will be doing. My mother would always ask me if I ever considered studying something other than physics, like business (implying "Have you ever considered getting a degree that will get you some serious money?"). My response was always, "I know I could make money, but I would hate it. I would rather do something that I like doing." (not the money part but the job part that got me the money. I knew plenty of business majors and saw what they had to study and it just didn't do it for me.)

    So I think one question that people would have to consider is, what is more important, getting a large paycheck so that you can do something you love, or having a modest paycheck so that you can work doing something you love.

  2.  Short story,

    A couple of weeks ago I was talking to my advisor and he asked my about my professional aspirations. After giving my brief standard "Go into academia, do research in [blank]. etc.", he said, "Just making sure that you aren't planning on ending up like [grad student of people he collaborates with] and going into finance and banking after getting your PhD in physics."

    Translation--"I don't want to spend all this time, effort, and research money on you, to train you to be a good researcher if you are just going to go and do something completely unrelated after you graduate. If I'm going to spend this much of my life helping you get your PhD then I don't want you going off to become some @!#$% banker."

    Fortunately we both have similar plans for my future which means things will probably work out.

  3.  Very interesting Nick. I think in some way I'm the exception to some of the rules you've laid out. Although my degree is in aerospace engineering, I still consider it academic primarily because of my theory focused research university.

    I think I should list my exceptions since it might perhaps give hope to those who don't "pass" your quiz. I understand you're laying out general rules of thumb, so this is just to give hope to those might be outside a standard deviation:
    1. I didn't have a stellar GPA particularly as an undergrad (I think I had a 3.58-ish). My MS GPA (at BYU (same as undergrad)) was much better (like 3.98)
    2. I didn't have a stellar GRE score (low to mid 700's for the math portion)
    3. I really like research. If you like research, then get a graduate degree because I assure you, there is a low probability you'll end up getting to do research without a PhD. Personally, I think your like/dislike of research should be the number one indicator of whether or not you want to pursue a grad degree.
    4. I did not get into CMU (applied twice), Northwestern, MIT, GA Tech, or UC San Diego.
    5. I DID get into the University of Michigan after spending two years at a national laboratory. U of M's Aero dept. is ranked #3, and they are top 5 in just about every engineering discipline, and top 10 in just about everything else. In my particular field (control theory) it's almost impossible to find a better place to be.
    6. Not only did I get into U of M, I was recruited fairly heavily, even by the top professors in the dept. I think this was a combination of my two years at LLNL coupled with the rather famous research lab I was in at BYU. I had a solid letter of recommendation from a prof at BYU who is very well respected.
    7. Despite the fact that I think I have lower intelligence than most PhD students here, I have managed to not only be successful, but to publish more, and more quickly than most students here who have been here the same amount of time. Intelligence does NOT always translate to success, and hard work can often surpass intelligence in the academic race.
    8. I'm on track to finish faster than any other students my advisor has.

  4. Very interesting post.  Personally, I would agree with the the previous comments.  I think doing what you love is a lot more important than the paycheck.  There are also many benefits that come with life in academia, like very flexible hours and the job security that comes when you can get tenure.  You really can't find those in almost any other field. 

    Also, at least in my experience, I don't thing undergraduate school ranking or undergraduate GPA makes an ounce of difference in whether or not you will survive in graduate school.  UIUC is a top-10 (I think top-5) school for Physics, but looking at the classes I've TAed and taken here, they have been almost exactly the same as the corresponding classes at BYU.  There are a number of things that are clearly better academically, but I really don't think getting your BS in physics from UIUC will necessarily prepare you for graduate school any better than a BS in physics from BYU (or any other decent undergraduate institution). 

    Similarly, I don't think undergraduate GPA makes any difference beyond a rough gauge of how hard you are willing to work.  (For many of us, GPA is an absolutely terrible gauge of how hard we work.  As an undergrad, and even to an extent as a graduate student, I could get A's in physics classes in my sleep.  I didn't really have to work for my grades.  I knew people who worked 10 times harder than I did, but got worse grades.  However, I know some of those people now and they publish far more than I do.)  Undergraduate education is all about classes.  In general, if you pass the right classes, you get the degree.  Graduate school is all about research.  From the professors I've talked to, once you get doing research NO ONE cares about the classes you've taken or how you did in them.  EVERYTHING is about how well you can do research -- how hard you work. 

    Finally, I would say, life in graduate school, at least in physics, is not that bad.  I don't make much money, but I make enough to support a family, my wife doesn't need to earn a paycheck, and we don't really have any debt.  Beyond that, I was recently reminded that I am one of the most stably employed people in my family.  (My brother is a computer programmer, and as I understand it, his contract is essentially "either party can terminate the relationship at any time for any or no reason" -- i.e. essentially no job security.  My brother-in-law is a lawyer who was doing spectacularly well at a law firm in Idaho, but because the firm had a little less income when the economy went south, he was laid off.  Since I have passed my quals, I am almost impossible to get rid of completely, at least until I start coming up on the maximum time limit for a PhD.  About the only member of my family who probably has better job security is my other brother-in-law, and that's because he's in the navy.)  Also, I enjoy my work.  I have a great, supportive research group.  My adviser listens to my opinions and gives me all the independence I need.  We have an amazing research support system in the department.  I can do teaching and research and outreach and many other things that I just wouldn't have a chance to do in about any other area of work. 

    If you do go to graduate school, don't adopt the prison mentality:  "Only __ more years until I get out of here."  Just enjoy the ride. 

  5.  To follow up on what jmb275 said about GPA, a GPA that may be considered medium (3.5-3.75) by some schools would be considered to be "impressive" by others. While my own GPA from BYU is nothing to brag about, I did get feedback from a grant proposal and in their feedback they mentioned my "strong undergrad GPA" compared to the other applicants. So either everyone else who applied  just had really bad grades, or at least in my particular area the GPA that I got is just fine.

  6.  Very interesting list Nick.  I enjoyed reading it very much.  And though we talk about GPA and GRE scores and class placement I think at the end of the day, for the vast majority of people, what research group you are a part of matters more then all the grades and test scores combined.

    I think someone who graduates summa cum laude with 95-percentile GRE score who goes to a lame research group is screwed and someone like me who didn't graduate cum laude anything and had a ho-hum GRE score will end up a rockstar in the right research group.

    I don't want to go into detail but I think being Asantha's student will have been 1000 times more helpful then if I had graduated at the top of my class with a amazing GRE score.  

  7.  Nick, although I should concede, the more elite universities have the more elite research groups and therefore getting good enough grades and GRE scores to be in such institutions increases the odds of landing in a great research group.

  8. I've mentioned this before, but my research group at BYU was one of the primary reasons I've had any success at all. I've ridden that train many times and continue to take advantage of that.

  9.  Agreed. In fact, as Bill has said, I don't find classes here much different than my classes at BYU. What is RADICALLY different however, is the amount of research done here, and the importance placed on it. That seems to be what separates the top tier schools from the rest - the quantity and quality of research.

    The other big difference is the faculty. The faculty here in control theory is legendary - literally. I've been taught here by some of the world's best experts in my field.

  10. It sounds like your time at LLNL was key to your success in grad school, so perhaps when I say "go get a job", that should include finding a way to work in your desired field of research.  I know several people that might not have passed my little quiz right off the bat out of undergrad, but spent a couple years working for a lab or a university research institute and then were more prepared and did well in grad school.  I also know a couple people that went and worked as a researcher for a couple years and decided that grad school wasn't what they really wanted to be doing.

  11. I don't mean to say there is a perfect correlation between things like GPA, undergrad class placement, and where you get your BS, but I do think there is a real positive correlation.  If you are not one of the top students in your undergrad program by some measure, then it will be tough to get into a good program, secure funding, and do well in graduate classes - all of which are part of your graduate experience.

  12. I absolutely agree with your comments about grad school life - if you go in thinking you'll just survive it for X years, you probably won't survive and you definitely will not thrive.

  13. One other comment - I wanted to try to make this little quiz more general than simply for PhD programs in the physical sciences.  Many Master's programs don't emphasize research to the same extent PhD programs do and many PhD programs in the humanities or social sciences to research that is much more like classwork than it is in physics.

  14.  Nick,

       Well, it is a good list and was fun to read.  It takes a lot more intelligence and creativity to write such a list than critique it. :)

  15. Thanks - mostly I hoped it would create discussion, which it has.  I am also very interested in the critiques as I am certainly not an expert on this kind of thing.

  16. Honestly, I think if you are aiming at a general PhD audience, your list is really great.  The trouble is experiences vary so much from person to person, from school to school, and from discipline to discipline, that you almost need a separate list for each major.  Nonetheless, it was a great list and like Joe said, "It takes a lot more intelligence and creativity to write such a list than critique it."  All in all, great post! 


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