Should I Go to Grad School?

25 Mar 2018

After failing to get a job as a literature major, I started my second undergrad in engineering with the attitude of “I just want to learn some cool stuff and then get a job.”

As it turned out, I’m way better at math and physics than I ever was at writing essays. I also discovered that I’m one of those weirdos who likes mathematical proofs and physics thought experiments. This is how grad school got on my radar. At the end of first year, which is when students at my school declare a major, I picked the mathiest one in the faculty and started orienting myself toward grad school.

This is where my oscillations begin. Since starting engineering school, I’ve probably changed my mind on the industry-vs-grad-school debate 4 or 5 times.

This post is to record those oscillations and gather in one place some of the food-for-thought resources I’ve spent a lot of time pouring over.

Why Go to Grad School

Why, when I’m studying things that are valued in industry, would I possibly consider devoting 6 years of my life to a degree that, I’ve heard many times, “doesn’t pay for itself”?

At the risk of sounding woefully unoriginal: I kind of like the idea of being able to make a lasting impact in some way, push the frontiers of human knowledge, bring into being things that were previously impossible.

It would also be pretty cool to have a theorem, equation, or constant named after me.

“Advance humanity’s collective knowledge and achieve the impossible” is a bit of a mouthful, so from this point forward I’m going to call this “the Holy Grail” or “HG.”

Why Not Go to Grad School; or, Pascal’s Wager: Grad School Edition

There is no question that finding the Holy Grail would be great. But the problem with the Holy Grail is that it’s not that easy to find. Most people who go into grad school probably have similar motivations, yet how many of them end up with theorems attached to their names?

Here’s my first attempt at an analysis.

There are two choices: go to grad school (GS) or don’t go to grad school (~GS). There are also two possible outcomes: find the Holy Grail (HG), or don’t find the Holy Grail (~HG).

If I finish my Bachelor’s and end up ~HG, then maybe I’ll feel like I’m falling short of some nebulous goal. But this feeling would no doubt be much worse if I had first spent 6 years in grad school.

If I go to grad school and it turns out as planned, I’ll probably be pretty happy. But what if I go directly into industry and still end up finding the Holy Grail? My guess is that it would feel a little like hitting the jackpot.

My Pascal’s wager looks like this:

  HG ~HG total
GS +1 happiness -2 happiness -1 happiness
~GS +2 happiness -1 happiness +1 happiness

I’m not sure how much I trust this extremely simplified analysis, but it seems ~GS wins.

Other People’s Wisdom

“If you have no interest in remaining in academia afterward, then you should not get a PhD.”

I’ve heard this one quite a few times and have come to the conclusion that it is probably not true. Perhaps this advice makes sense for people in the humanities, but I don’t think it is relevant for people in technical fields. There is room in industry for people who can build new technologies.

Also, considering how rare academic positions have become, maybe it’s actually better to be more interested in industry.

“You should not go into industry first because you will find it very difficult to come back later.”

I don’t think I buy this one either. There are currently two PhD students in the NSS lab who worked full time before starting their PhDs.

It’s also worth asking why people find it difficult to come back, if they do. Is it because they end up pretty happy with their choice, after all? If so, that’s a great outcome!

“You should definitely get a Master’s degree because it will protect you from lay-offs.”

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

“There are two types of people in the world: those who will be happy either way, and those who will be unhappy either way.”

I have only heard this once, but it has really stuck with me. The speaker’s stance was that actively seeking out interesting work and taking joy in seeking out new challenges is, in the end, much more important than which path you choose.

Regardless of which one I end up choosing, I think this is valuable advice.

Further Reading

A collections of articles aimed at undergrads considering grad school. Mostly CS focus because… that’s probably what I’d go for. These are all written by people who are in grad school or went to grad school, so there’s some pretty heavy pro-grad school bias.

Phil Agre, Advice for Undergraduates Considering Grad School
Ronald T. Azuma, So Long and Thanks for the PhD
Mike Gleischer, Grad School FAQ
Andrew Peterson, Should I Attend Grad School in Computer Science?
Theo Vassilakis, Why You Should Work before Grad School

Also Worth Noting

Grad students are, apparently, six times more likely to be depressed than the general population.

This is worth keeping in mind, since mental health is really important.

Final Result

TBD. Currently leaning toward no-grad-school.