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Women In Academia

Women in Academia: Should I Go to Grad School?

Summer is basically the best time of year for so many reasons, not the least of which is the influx of highly-motivated, not just highly-motivated but dedicate-the-summer-to-research-and-learning-motivated undergraduate and high school students. Campus is full of moderately lost-looking young adults with name badges. I love it, but inevitably someone asks about whether or not they should go to grad school, and things get real.

One side note before I continue: I know dealing with graduate school admissions is basically the teeniest tip of the women in academia iceberg, but I find that these are the issues that have been coming up with people all around me over the past month. If you have something you’d really love to see covered here, drop me a line or comment.

All right, back to business. Should you go to grad school? That’s a very good question and only you really know the answer, or maybe you and someone who is very familiar with your academic history, career interests, and personality. But there are a few bits of advice that could guide your decision.

First, if you aren’t completely sure, or if you think you need a little more time, take it. I know a lot of people warn others from taking time off between undergrad and grad school because they say time off makes it harder to go back. But, here’s the thing – if you have a plan, if you spend your time off working towards your graduate school goals, either through some sort of research or through studying for the GRE or something, then you’re much more likely to follow through and come back to school. And honestly, graduate school is pretty intense. It is better to go in fresh and with your head on as right as you can get it than to charge into it out of fear.

Second, think about how you view the process of going through graduate school. Is it a means to an end, and what is that end? Is it part of your career development? Is it a way to develop a wide range of skills that can be applied to a variety of fields? Basically, it’s good to know why you’re in it. At times, graduate school will seem like an interminable hell from which there is no escape (I am employing some hyperbole here – it’s up to you to decide how much). Those are the times that it’s useful to think about exactly why you are doing this. Graduate school is self-guided, so step up, figure out your purpose, and guide yourself.

Third, only you can decide if it is worth it, but think about all aspects of graduate school, including debt, financial aid, funding, health services, fees, course work, how it affects your personal life, everything.  I know there’s a lot of stuff about the beauty of academia, the life of the mind and all that jazz, but the decision to go to graduate school must be a practical one. That doesn’t mean not pursuing something you love, but rather pursuing it in such a manner that allows you to have balance in your life.

And ultimately, your choice now doesn’t have to be permanent. School will be there later, and school is something you can leave as your interests or plans change. It’s OK. So while this is a big decision, don’t let it overwhelm you. You’ll be OK.

How about you? Do you have any advice?

8 replies on “Women in Academia: Should I Go to Grad School?”

I think in my program it seemed as though people who had waited, even just a couple of years, between UG and grad school were a little less miserable than the people who went right through. It seemed like (generalizing here) the people who had done other things had a better sense of why they went back to school besides just, I’ve always been good at this. I think bad grades were psychologically more traumatic for people who had never left school, maybe, too. But it’s hard to say. For me, I took two years off, but I stayed in education/academic work and I took two quarters of classes in a different MA program before beginning my “real” MA (where I stayed for the PhD I’m working on now), so my “break” was sort of fake-y. I think time off is totally reasonable and sometimes sanity saving. If you’re afraid you wouldn’t do it if you don’t do it right away, you should think about why you’re afraid of that and what the consequences really are–it’s completely fine to not get a graduate degree, if it’s not what you need to fulfill your dreams and if the course of study itself isn’t really compelling to you.

This is very timely as I am about to move to go back to grad school after taking two years off. I agree with all those points.

I was only going to take one year, but found I wasn’t ready to go just yet. I had used that year not only to work, but to study for and take my GRE and fill out applications. Since I wasn’t ready, I deferred my acceptances so I would be able to make the choice a little further down the road. At that point, I was still scared. I took the second year to finish a certificate in the field I want to enter, and now I feel everything is in place. I am done being at my current job, I am ready for school again. Yes, I am terrified, but this was the right route for me and I am glad I listened to all of my instincts and always chose the path that was best for me. I hope I continue to do that back in school and I know if/when I am overwhelmed and whether or not I will find it productive for my future plans.

Oh – and pick the least expensive school or find someone who will pay you. I found that is hard with an MA, only one school was going to pay my way and that was a 7 year program. In the end I decided that my perfectly respectable alma mater was the best choice with the best program, over the outrageously expensive and less interesting program at the Ivy League.

I waited a year between undergrad and masters, and it was a great decision: I travelled, I worked temp jobs, I just lived for a while. Part of the reason I went back was because my university had offered me a discount on postgrad fees, and I was also thinking about research as a career. The MA cured me of that:) If I was to go back at any stage, it would probably be to do an MA in a field closer to what I work in now, and I doubt I’d do it full-time.

I agree with the waiting, too.  I did my Masters right out of undergrad, then after an 8 year gap returned for the PhD.  (Almost done…  stupid thesis corrections!)  In my discipline, a gap is pretty rare between undergrad and grad school, and most people go straight to the PhD.  However, for me, it was great to have that time in between; it gave me a much better idea of what I wanted out of the PhD.  Though, at times, it was also tough being 10 years older than all my classmates. :-)

Perhaps it’s my field, but we have all been urged to wait a few years and go into the workforce before pursuing a Ph.D. I went straight from UG to my masters and I felt it kept me motivated because I had resigned myself to the fact that I was going back to school straight away after graduation (and I got to wait out the economy to an extent). However, I am on the opposite end from you, where I was 10 years younger than everyone in my masters courses. I plan on not getting a Ph.D., but I think waiting a few years might change that later on and be better focused than if I did it now with no real field experience.

Thank you for sharing your gap between your Masters and Ph.D.  I’ve done my Undergrad and a Post-Grad Diploma, but desperately want to get back to studying.  Due to my visa situation, I would have to either move back to Canada or get Permanent Residency to be able to afford it (international fees are the worst).  So, it is inspiring to hear about people going back, that there really isn’t a time limit on it.

I’m an advocate for waiting, especially if you’re not 100% sure on what you want to do. I have some friends that went straight for grad school, because they had a plan they were sure of. Some are now doing a second graduate program, some are happy with their decision.
I rushed into undergrad right out of high school instead of doing a gap year, and I regretted that. So after my undergrad was finished, I worked for four years before going back to grad school. Now I’m in a program that I love, working towards an industry that I didn’t even know existed when I was in undergrad. It’s a huge pile of money, so those practical aspects really need to be taken into account.

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