To Grad School or Not to Grad School: Weighing the Pros and Cons

By Manuel Carmona Pichardo. At a crossroads with your decision? Let's dissect and discuss the five most talked-about “pros” of grad school.

Lego Shakespeare ponders the grad school experience.

To grad or not to grad, that is the question that, at some point during undergrad, many of us have faced. It's a rather simple question, yet is difficult to answer for most people. A common way to find an answer to this question is to make a pros and cons list where the advantages and disadvantages of going to grad school are set, and after pondering which has more value or is more important, a choice is made. However, taking different pros and cons without any context or without the proper research can influence a young and indecisive student (like I was) to make a choice they might regret in the future. Therefore, the goal of this blog is to dive directly into the most popular pros regarding going to grad school. It gives my honest opinion and some facts that might help give you a better understanding and a more accurate evaluation of the pros during your decision-making.

Here’s a list of what I think are the most popular pros, and my evaluation of each:

  1. Higher Earning Potential

Let’s start by stating the facts. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average college graduate starting yearly salary is around $55,260 USD and $69,368 for a person with a bachelor’s degree. In contrast, master's and Ph.D. degree graduates earn $81,848 and $99,268 ($101,718 for STEM), respectively. 

It is a fact that graduate education offers the possibility of having higher salaries, however, it is also related to the field of study, as shown by the STEM salary rate. It will also depend on the job opportunities of each field and the personal abilities and ambitions of everyone. Nevertheless, it is pretty safe to say that no matter the field, a graduate degree should open the possibility to higher salaries and therefore, a big pro to take into consideration when making your decision.   

  1. Depth of Knowledge

This means that graduate school will allow you to achieve a focused and in-depth exploration of your field of study. You will learn from experts who can share the wisdom they’ve gained through experience.

Let's explore this a bit further, however. You’ll certainly learn a lot during classes and receive a much deeper understanding of the field, at a much higher level. However, it is impossible to know everything about every single area of your field, and that’s when the focus part kicks in. You’ll focus on a specific area of your field and then specialize even more in a niche of that subfield, and, as we say in my lab, you’ll become an expert in the tiny field you work in. Personally, I think that’s great. I thought that having a Ph.D. degree implied dominating the field totally and knowing everything. In reality, most of this knowledge comes from experience and years and years of working in the field (confirmed by several professors).

The important abilities you’ll obtain from graduate studies are not just that you’ll have a deeper understanding of the field, especially your subfield, but also the ability to investigate and analyze data from the literature, working and collaborating with different people with different ideas and backgrounds as well as having the knowledge needed to make informed decisions and analyze complex problems.

  1. Doing original research

This is one is a bit tricky since it's dependent on your situation. In most cases and, especially at the beginning, research groups follow an already established research line of the group's specialty. Normally, you follow the work of an older graduate student to learn the basics of the field and the techniques you’ll require so that eventually you’ll be independent enough to do your own project, which can be completely different than the previous one but generally in the same field and same research line of the group. Therefore, how original the project is depends on the research group and the advisor. Depending on the advisor, you should be able to propose your own ideas and come up with original projects. However, there are cases where the PI doesn’t allow it (that’s why choosing a great PI is super important) or other factors such as funding or lack of resources make it impossible to follow those projects.

  1. Career Change

This is 99% true. The 1% lies in the fact that it’s really complicated to jump completely from, let’s say, astrophysics or aeronautics to history or philosophy. However, there are a lot of students that have a bachelor's in geology and enter the chemistry Ph.D. program or go from chemistry to biology and are successful. So overall, it’s a great opportunity if you are looking for a change or even going deeper in a related field (for example, biology to biochemistry).

  1. Networking Opportunities

That is completely true but not exclusive to grad school to be fair. In graduate school, you’ll build relationships with professors who are experts in your field and have collaborators, sponsors, and connections. This may allow you to have internships or participate in partnerships with other research groups, universities, or even major corporations. This can result in a great learning experience and possible job opportunities. Also, your colleagues will eventually graduate and become professors, work in industry, or start a company; that connection can be relevant in the future. Grad school is a great opportunity to meet people, especially in your field.

…and a bonus:

  1. Personal Accomplishment

To me, it looks cool to have a Ph.D. written after your name and it’s even cooler when people call you doctor. Okay, all jokes aside, completing grad school and obtaining a degree is hard work; you earn that degree, and you should be proud of it. A master’s degree or higher will give you a sense of accomplishment and pride that should last a lifetime.  

I hope this insight on what I found to be the most popular pros in online websites regarding grad school can help you make a more informed decision. Of course, there will be another blog in this series so stay tuned, and thank you for reading.

Further Reading:

What to expect when moving to Houston

Transitioning to grad life, pt. 1

Transitioning to grad life, pt. 2