To Grad or Not to Grad: My Personal Story

By: Manuel Carmona Pichardo

Student walking under an archway.

To grad or not to grad is the question many of us, when we were undergraduates, had to face. On the one hand, you are continuing your education and obtaining a degree that opens the door to many possibilities. On the flip side, you are committing to going to school for another 4-6 years, taking classes, and living off of a “humble” stipend income compared to the salary of professional workers. Taking these considerations out of context or without the proper research can influence a young and indecisive student (like I was) to make a choice they might regret. Therefore, this blog aims to tell my personal story of how I decided to attend graduate school, hoping that it inspires or answers some questions a student might have regarding their graduate school choice.

Let’s start at the beginning. I’ve always been a curious child, particularly with doing experiments and observing what happens. These experiments went from mixing shampoos, conditioners, or anything I could find in the shower to mixing cleaning products that were “hidden” precisely so I wouldn’t do it. It drove my parents crazy! After being grounded several times and growing older, I limited my experiments to different chemistry and science kits I received at Christmas and as birthday gifts. Doing research has always been a part of who I am and has guided my decisions thus far.

Unsurprisingly, I chose chemistry as my major during my undergraduate studies in Mexico. However, in my mind, this decision wasn’t as straightforward as it might seem from the outside. Different factors, such as job opportunities and possible salary, weighed in my head during that time. Another consideration was one's “social status,” or how people perceive you or your degree. Let me elaborate! What do you imagine when you learn that someone is a chemist? Does Breaking Bad come to mind? We are programmed by society, pop culture, and social media to pinpoint stereotypes and success rates for every profession. Such thoughts affected my decision. Ultimately, my choice came down to what I liked, what I could do, and where I could be most successful following graduation. At this point, you might be thinking about what these stories have to do with grad school, but I want you to understand my thought process and why I made certain choices.

By my last semester of undergrad, I asked myself, “Should I go to grad school or start working on my career?” No one prepares you for the reality that you’re about to become a professional and must make significant career and life decisions. According to society's standards, I was a qualified and responsible adult capable of taking this next step. In reality, I had no clue what to do and didn’t feel ready to make such a big decision. 

I thus made what is considered one of the capital sins when selecting a graduate school. I decided to get my Master's. I wasn't passionate about it but was trying to escape my responsibilities. I wanted to continue being a student, thinking I would have everything figured out after two years. I made a wise choice, however, during this situation. I studied abroad because I believed it would look good on my CV and give me more opportunities in the future. Luckily, I was accepted into Cologne University in Germany and awarded the CONACyT-DAAD scholarship (the Mexican and German equivalents to NSF). In 2016 I was on a plane to Germany!

My first six months in Germany were rough. I was the only international student in my class. Furthermore, I needed more than my basic knowledge of German to have decent conversations with others despite the program being in English. The small but noticeable age gap between me and my cohort made it hard to make friends or participate in social events. Additionally, I lived alone for the first time in a country where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t know where to eat, buy stuff, etc. All of this was reflected in my grades and overall health. I checked for flights back home more than once during that time! 

Surprisingly, I finished my first semester without failing any classes and started working in a lab. From then on, everything went more smoothly. I connected with other international and domestic students, improved my German skills, and, most importantly, became more independent and mature. In 2019, I graduated with my Master's degree. After all the doom and gloom, I succeeded. Overall, what was a motivated decision on paper was the source of the biggest lessons in my life and a motivating factor for my future.

I now knew what I wanted to do: pursue research. From Germany, I went to Finland and worked on a research project at Aalto University for five months and then another project at Rice University for four months until the 2019 pandemic started. During the pandemic, I returned to Mexico and worked directly with a water analysis lab at the Scientific Park of my undergraduate institution (UAEH). 

While working in Mexico, the question popped up again “Ph.D. or not to Ph.D.” Here we go again! This was because everyone I was working with had a Ph.D. Also, I realized there was a limit on how high in the hierarchy I could go in this company with just a Master’s degree. In addition, after several conversations with my coworkers and professors, it was clear that if doing research was my goal (either in academia or industry), I needed to get a Ph.D. Therefore, I contacted the people for whom I worked and met at Rice University and asked for their opinion and advice. They made it clear they wanted me back, but now as a student!

Once the applications for Rice's graduate school opened, I applied. This time I knew what I wanted. I made this choice knowing the responsibilities, and most importantly, I was doing it because I was sure that’s what I wanted to do. Thankfully, I got accepted, and at this time, when I’m writing this blog, I’m about to start my third year. So far, it has been quite the ride! I hope learning from my mistakes and successes mentioned in this long story can help you make the right decision for you. The moral of my story is to choose what you’re passionate about, and it will always be the right decision. Even if, at some point, it doesn’t feel like the right decision, your time will come, and everything else that happens will always be a good bar story for your friends.