Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Should I Go to Grad School and Get a Ph.D.?

One of my favorite things to do is to formally and publicly address newly minted Ph.D.s with their title. “Congratulations Dr. Smith!” I’ve done it in person, on LinkedIn, and Twitter. Getting a Ph.D. is hard. It requires time, luck, and personal sacrifice. It makes me happy to acknowledge that person and their accomplishment.

I get to work with many extraordinary college students through my company's internship program. When I talk to them, some are deciding between going to graduate school or getting a job after graduation, but aren’t sure what to do. This post is my advice to those students.
David holding a small girl, both looking at the camera. David is wearing academic robes with blue academic hood around neck and going down back. David is holding a very small girl (toddler) who is wearing a purple dress.

Graduation day many years ago, holding my daughter after receiving my Ph.D., with my mother to the left. 

Options After Undergraduate Graduation

When a top student finishes an undergraduate degree in computer science, engineering, or related fields, they have their pick of job opportunities as well as the option of going to grad school to work towards a Ph.D. on a paid assistantship or fellowship. They can either start growing their career and getting paid now, or they can keep studying, which will open up alternatives such as becoming a professor. Having a Ph.D. is a requirement for some jobs and may speed up access to others. However, there are very few technology jobs with a strict requirement for a Ph.D. and you can continue to learn and grow while in industry.

I went to grad school and got my Ph.D. because I never wanted to be barred from an interesting job for lack of the Ph.D. credential. As we shall see below, I would discourage a student from pursuing a PhD for this reason.


Two Students

I have standard advice for students considering grad school, but it needs to be tailored to each individual. The main adjustment accounts for the background of the student. Let me present two fictional students to demonstrate the range of adjustment. I’ll call them Adam and Sheila.

Adam is crushing it at an elite university. He grew up in a well-to-do school district and took AP computer science in high school. He has spent each of his college summers at prestigious programs and internships. Adam has an uncle who is a doctor and a cousin who recently finished a Ph.D. His family is used to turning out degrees.

Sheila is similarly crushing it in college, but she got here by a very different road. Sheila was raised by a single mother and has three younger siblings. She went to a underfunded school district and took a lot of responsibility for her younger siblings. Sheila got a part-time job while in high school to help pay the bills, and continues to work through college.

Although opportunities weren’t handed to her as readily as they were to Adam, she discovered she loved technical work, and will be the first college graduate in her family. However, Sheila’s resume isn’t as impressive to recruiters as Adam's because she didn’t have the time to hunt for the opportunities or to take advantage of them. She also did not have the connections to tell her where to start looking for those opportunities.

Should They Go? 

For Adam, deciding to go to grad school is an encouraged option. His family will be thrilled to have another degree and can easily support him through any challenges. For Sheila, grad school is unknown and not an encouraged option. She could help her family and herself today by getting a job and she doesn’t know anyone who has gone to grad school. When talking to each of them, I would focus on the less explored side of the issue. That is likely to be why not to go for Adam, and why to go for Sheila.

Advice for Adam

I would ask Adam, “Why do you want to go to grad school?” Adam may feel that it’s expected of him, he may want the Ph.D. credential, or he may generally want to put off starting his professional career with all of its implications and responsibilities. If those are Adam’s reasons, I would push him to re-evaluate his plans. Alternatively, Adam might say, “I love digging into the unknown. I am fascinated by area X, and would love to spend the next several years trying to solve a problem in X”. If this is Adam’s answer, I would encourage him to go to grad school.

In either case, I would explain to Adam that grad school is hard work. It takes a long time. A person should only go to grad school and pursue a Ph.D. if they want to work on a problem and do academic research for several years independent of getting a Ph.D. as a result. The students who do so have positive experiences and graduate on time, while students who go to grad school to get a degree end up suffering and taking longer to graduate if they do graduate.

Advice for Sheila

My advice for Sheila is the same as it is for Adam, but it may sound different. I would ask Sheila why she wants to go to grad school. Sheila may give any of the same answers as Adam, and I would give the same explanations to Sheila that I would give to Adam. However, considering the obstacles she’s had in her path, I would want to understand if Sheila has something personal and strong pulling her toward grad school. I would want to know what that is, acknowledge it, and honor it. I would tailor my advice to that force.

The challenges in Sheila’s path also mean there are fewer people like Sheila in academia. This is a loss for all of us, as bringing together people from different backgrounds and experiences leads to higher creativity and innovation for everyone. Therefore, I hope that Sheila will choose to go to grad school and ultimately succeed there. I would encourage her a bit more because of this. However, I would still do my best to give unvarnished advice and set Sheila up for future success

Advice if Going to Grad School

If Sheila were to go to grad school, she would face more challenges than Adam, mostly from an assortment of institutional biases. They are real and will make her path harder. I want to make sure that Sheila sets herself up for success, and gets all the support she can get (I want Adam to get support also). Therefore, I have some additional advice for Sheila.

I would strongly encourage Sheila to build a strong support system for herself, composed of three parts: peers, mentors, and school. She should seek out peers with whom she identifies who will be going through the same things as her. Similarly, she should seek out mentors with whom she identifies; people who have gone through grad school and can give her great advice. This may include mulitple mentors who match different aspects of her background (as opposed to one person who matches everything). These mentors will be able to give her support and advice from having gone through similar experiences. There is good science on the value of mentors and role models with whom you identify. Sheila may also benefit from other mentors with whom she might not identify, but she should prioritize getting mentors with whom she identifies.

Finally, I would encourage Sheila to apply to schools and programs that would support her, with strong track records of graduating people with similar backgrounds to hers. Within those options, pay attention to potential advisors and their track records as well. Grad school is hard—don’t add extra challenges by going to a school that doesn’t help, or pretends that institutional biases don’t exist.

Good Luck

If you are considering going to grad school, I hope you will consider my advice. If you decide to go directly into industry, congratulations, and good luck getting started with your career! If you do want to spend the next several years doing research for research's sake, good luck, and Godspeed in grad school. Whoever you are, set yourself up for success by building a strong support system including mentors and peers.

And, after you have defended your dissertation, let me know so that I can congratulate you, doctor!

Special thank yous to Heather Beasley Doyle and Danielle James for their feedback on this post, including making sure that the fictional Sheila was a believable person and not a caricature. Heather is a gifted writer and you should read some of her writing here, here, or here. Danielle is also a gifted writer who is making positive changes in the world. You should read her essay in We Rise To Resist.

No comments:

Post a Comment