There is much cynicism around graduate school, exemplified in the Wall Street Journal’s dubbing of it as a Les Misérables experience. Even I have joked about the experience as being like indentured servitude. As the astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, notes in a talk, if getting a graduate degree was easy then everybody would be doing it. There are many benefits to doing graduate studies, whether it is a Master’s or a PhD. But before we mention the 10 best reasons to go to graduate school, there should be a word of warning on why someone should not go to graduate school. Firstly, these reasons are mostly aimed at those in STEM fields. If you are thinking about doing an advanced degree in the humanities, the best advice is: do not. For those of you in a STEM field, do not apply to graduate school if you: 1) Are attempting to delay entry into the job market, 2) Are attempting to please family members, 3) Do not like reading journal articles or writing, or most importantly, 4) Cannot take direction or do independent work.
For those of you still with us, here are the 10 best reasons to go to graduate school.
1. You have the opportunity to contribute to knowledge
There is a lot of independent study involved, whether it is completing experiments or reading journal articles to write a coherent thesis. Most importantly, you have the opportunity to do things no one else has done before. Of course, since most of your experiments will probably fail you need the reserves to get through that before reaching success.
Which brings us to:
2. You will experience exhilarating highs
There is nothing quite like the experience of an experiment working after so many failures. There is a deep joy in discovering something new and thinking about things no one else has.
There is, however, a downside:
3. You will also experience crushing lows
When everything seems like a failure, you need someone’s shoulder to cry on. You will also appreciate another facet of the human existence.
4. You have an opportunity to hone your ideas
There are many stories of supervisor horror stories. See here, here, here, and here. And some more here. Supervisors are a bit like parents: who you get is often a matter of luck. They are also like parents in that they are attempting to guide you through a thesis, which has differing degrees of success. Most supervisors are not terrible at their jobs, which mean that you will get the opportunity to sharpen your ideas to publishable quality.
5. You get to learn how to deal with failure
This is a critical life skill. You will soon learn that there are many failures and set-backs in life. But that is alright. We also need to appreciate the journey.
6. You get to learn how to take criticism
A good supervisor will be your best critic. They will take your half-formed ideas and get you to think about how to evolve it towards something better. Our education system teaches us that failure is bad and we should strive for perfection, so it is often discomforting to have someone shoot down your ideas (even if they are really terrible). In the end, it is all to the good of creating something better than you started out with.
7. You get to learn to be more optimistic
Usually, I’m the more cynical one and my supervisor is more optimistic about an experiment working. When it does work, you are reminded that you there is always room for optimism.
8. You get to broadcast your ideas to the world
If you do get an opportunity to produce a first author publication, then you will experience writing your ideas so that others can understand them. You also get an opportunity to really understand the state of a field.
9. You will appreciate holidays
10. You will sharpen your gallows humour
Yes, graduate school can often feel like prison. Or indentured servitude. Graduate students like nothing more than to joke about failed experiments, or the academic job market, or supervisors.