Okay so, you are finishing up your undergraduate degree and looking to the next phase of your life and you ask yourself "Should I go to graduate school in STEM?" To help you decide this, here are three questions that you NEED to answer before you make this leap of faith into research.
1. How do you handle instability?
Scientific research is an innately creative endeavour, and as such can be as risky as starting a company or becoming an actor. If you are interested in going to graduate school or starting your first training as a scientific researcher, and you are highly risk averse,... beware. Science is not for the faint of heart.
There is no certainty that the research you do will have a big impact (or any whatsoever), which can make you feel disheartened and you might not even enjoy the day-to-day work. Let's call this outlook #1.
However, you might also find that you love your work, that your fascinated and hooked by the research, and that your day-to-day life is both flexible and intellectually stimulating. Let's call this outlook #2.
Now, here is the truth: As a scientists, you will cycle through both of these outlooks, sometimes on a yearly cycle, sometimes on a weekly cycle, sometimes on an hourly cycle. There will be days where you want to throw your hands up in the air and just give up. There will be days where you will feel on top of the world and inspired. And most of your days will consist of oscillating between these two points. If you are emotionally tough and would describe yourself as level-headed, this lifestyle may not impact your psyche. However, if you call your parents consistently when you are facing difficulties, or find yourself depressed if you get a bad grade or things don't instantly go your way, or if you are motivated at all by money... maybe consider a different path... like medicine perhaps?
2. Why do you want to go to graduate school?
Okay, time for some tough love. This question seems like it is a bit obvious, but many of the students that we have worked with at STEMing do not have a good answer to this question. What does a good answer look like?
"I am fascinated with the world around me and want to continue pursuing and discovering new knowledge."
"I think I would be happy working in the pharmaceutical industry/NASA and want take on leadership positions at these places that require a PhD."
"I love teaching and educating and I want to someday teach at the community college level."
What do all of these responses have in common? In short, these students know themselves. They know what they enjoy, they know the general direction they want to go in life, and/or they have done some research into how they could use their PhD before even entering a program. If you have an answer like the above, then feel free to skip to Question 2 below.
What does a bad answer look like (and yes there is most definitely a bad answer). The worst answers (and most common) are "it just seems like the next thing to do" or "I applied and I got in and I don't really know what I want to do next in my career and this seems like a good stepping stone." Oh dear. If this is you, STOP! You need to figure out what it is you want out of life. I know this is harsh, but shoot, someone has got to tell you. Graduate school in STEM is an awful place for people to go if they do not know what they want to do.
Why is this you ask? Excellent question! It's hard to describe really but I *think* it boils down to the following:
- Your PI will not help you figure out what you want to do with your life as they are not trained or incentivized to do so.
- You will spend 4-8 years of your life in a PhD, usually not receiving training in something that is broadly marketable, and thus could pigeonhole yourself into a dying industry and/or could completely dislike the type of research you do.
- You will not get paid well enough in graduate school to save for the next stage of your life in any meaningful way.
IN SUMMARY, if you do not know what you want in your life, you will not figure that out by going to graduate school.
3. What do you want your career to be?
There are many careers in STEM where you do not need a PhD. There are many careers in education where you do not need a PhD. There are many life paths that are extremely successful and rewarding and pay well that do not require a PhD. A great place to learn more about these is job boards, college career counselors (like us!), or through informational interviews.
If you can narrow down what kind of career you would like, that will help you immensely in deciding if a PhD is what you need or want. But in general, if you want to work in STEM and you know you want to have limitless upward mobility, then a PhD is probably going to be a necessity.
How can you know this when you have never had any job experience?
Well, think back to times where you worked in teams. Were you happy playing a supporting role? Did you hang back and not necessarily want to dictate how things were done? Or were you frustrated by how the team was progressing? Were you the captain? If you have taken leadership roles in the past then this is a good indication that you either prefer or are good at being in control and directing projects. A PhD might be a good stepping stone for you.
Additionally, it is important to know that many times in positions with upward mobility, having a PhD is not enough. You often need to have postdoctoral research experience as well, which can be another 1-5 years after you have earned your PhD. Is this something that you are interested in? Because between a PhD and a postdoc, you could be spending 5-13 years of your life being paid very little to work very hard (~60-70 hrs/week) and receive very little credit or support in the transition to the next stage of your career (as discussed in #2 above).
Now with all that said...
Earning a PhD gives you unique training in how to teach yourself anything. You will come out of a PhD being able to identify what you do and do not know, and plan strategies for how to learn what you need to in the shortest amout of time possible. This skill will serve you in any industry and opens up an incredible range of possibilities for you to find a rewarding career and, more importantly, a rewarding life.
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