On Going to Graduate School – Some Reflections and pointers!

Over the past couple of years,  I have talked to a number of acquaintances who have asked me to share my thoughts on going to graduate school, the possibly better reasons for doing a Masters and/or a PhD. Though there are a number of resources available on the web regarding the topic of  graduate school addressing a range of issues, the topic is far from being exhaustively discussed considering the changing times and individual perspectives. This essay summarizes some of the key reasons based on my reflections, experiences, discussions and observations thus far and the acute reader is advised to draw his/her own conclusions based on their context and proclivity.

Why go to grad school?

The reasons for going to graduate school range from the abstract to the mundane (in a Maslowian sense) and  the key ones in my opinion are organized as follows:

1. The ethical/moral/spiritual angle – where one wants to make a contribution to the world at large and thinks beyond one’s own self-interest. Further, one also realizes, what they know now (in/about their topic(s) of interest) is  not enough in their own barometer to make a worthwhile impact. Usually, this happens for more introspective individuals. Many people start with other reasons listed below, which potentially morphs into this one and sustains their interest.
2. The above motivation can be further refined in a self-centric manner, as “I” enjoy doing something and I want to know more about the topic of interest or I do not like what I am doing now, but am interested in doing something else and want to try it.
3. The “knowing” more objective can be driven by a) the economic angle – knowing more of something gets you a better employment opportunity, b) knowing more for the sake of garnering knowledge, and c) knowing more so that one can improve the current level of knowledge or understanding in a field in general or be able to contribute expertise voluntarily to the masses at large.
4. The “differentiation” angle – I need to be different from others in my field – graduate school for a masters is a quick upgrade. Undergraduate education is more like going to a food court in a shopping mall with a number of restaurants with a range of cuisines ( the majors and minors), and after a meal (the degree), you just don’t know what you had, or if you did, it either left a bad taste or you are hungry for the “real” stuff. You just did not know enough to pick the right food to eat or if you picked the right food, there is just not enough time to relish it (Remember it is fast food!).  All you get to do is sample a large variety.
5. The improve “situation”, “opportunities” or “resource” angle – Facilities for what I think I want to do are not enough where I am, I need to look for better places with more than adequate structure, potential for guidance, and access to tangible/intangible resources. Given my background, I started with this objective in the early 90’s but with the technological changes of the past decade on a worldwide basis, this may not be applicable  in as acute a manner as it was then. The world seems to have changed within a decade!

There may be other reasons, but most may be  variants or combinations of the above. For some folks, the undergraduate experience may not be fulfilling/enriching enough in a professional sense. After graduation, most look for the next step without a clear guidance as to the next goal to strive for.  For some, the undergraduate experience is not bad, but then the lure of the so-called “real world”, life,s other draws, family needs, and the need for “freedom” (as perceived) is a motivating factor. For some others, they want to know more, but also want to see how the “real world” is before they want to come back to graduate school..and for some (fortunate or unfortunate), graduate school is the only viable option!  But one key trend seems to be that as the knowledge needed to function effectively in this world increases in complexity, it may be necessary for all of us to go to graduate school in life unless we have a five or six year undergraduate program!  Yes, having a decent undergraduate education is not a pointer to success. But then how many of us will be lucky enough like the Bill Gates (of Microsoft) (or Zuck or Thiel’s fellows)  for things to line up every step of the way! where the world conspires to make every move you make a winning one.

When to go to graduate school?

Whatever the scenario that plays out in your undergraduate days, the key issue is:  when is it a good option to go to graduate school, early in life, mid-life or later?  In some fields, it may be better to get to school early, such as in mathematics and computer science where your mind needs to be nimble and you atleast get a chance to take on the hard problems with innocence of youth (without getting frustrated or carrying the cynicisms accumulated as you grow up!). In some fields, especially engineering and the sciences, a short work experience after an undergraduate degree, followed by graduate school for a masters/Phd degree is a viable option. The knowledge level required to perform effectively in the traditional engineering, natural and social science fields (let us leave software engineering aside for the moment and the discussion on an MBA is further below) is quite high and a master’s degree provides the focused learning experience and fine-tunes the undergraduate training in context. I have also seen folks who go to graduate school later in life after going through a fulfilling professional career, do a PhD (in their chosen field) and take up academia as a  service to society. There are also folks who have switched careers – engineers becoming doctors, lawyers becoming social scientists etc. The only risk to going to graduate school later in life is that you should have enough drive and self-motivation and enough family support to fulfill your objective. Furthermore, you should be mature enough to cope with the dynamics of graduate school life wherein the conventional age-group based stratification in industry or in society may not apply and one has to adjust a different social order and way of doing things.

MS or PhD? Some thoughts

Once one decides to go to graduate school, the next issue is should one do a Masters or a PhD. It is important to realize a) what program one applies for,  b) what one gets admitted to,  c) whether one is capable of  meeting the requirements for the same, and d) what one ends up with at the end of the whole experience, are all different things! Unlike an undergraduate degree, the choices are open-ended and the Universites are throwing up a smorgasbord of master’s degrees – the number of combinations are growing. There are practice masters, course-work only masters, evening, executive and long-distance masters to name a few! Furthermore credit requirements vary, programs may be combo MS/PhDs, highly multi-disciplinary and the like. Some may be fads (good opportunity to get some tuition revenue), some may be driven by some focused funding efforts (private or public support), some may come about because of concentration of expertise in that University etc. Given this, as an individual, there are a few pointers to keep in mind:
1. It does not matter what you apply for. You can always “upgrade” or “downgrade” as you wish (or in response to things that life thrusts upon you). However, different schools put premiums on different kinds of choices but your rationale must be clearly communicated to the admissions committees, your advisors and colleagues. Everyone is aware that things are always subject to change.
2. Funding is usually covered for PhD students, considering that one has to prepare for qualifiers (atleast in the US) along with course work. Masters students may be supported by advisors if they work on a thesis or well-funded project.  On a Masters program without funding, it actually is difficult to perform a job (other than teaching or research assistantship) and focus on your learning objectives. Jobs tend to be a distraction at large especially for students who come from overseas to US universities and struggle with everything as they attempt to navigate the educational system (along with everyday life). For local students, it usually is relatively easier considering the familiarity with system and lack of other extra pressures – from educational visas restricting employment opportunities to the lack of a social support system.
3. Graduate school is a place where you are going to be “influenced” by your peers and find your mettle. It is a place where you need to grow. Every school and its community is different and one has to make the best guess possible as to where one wants to go. If you have a chance to visit a school and meet the faculty etc., take it up!
4. As you go through a MS program, you may be influenced/inspired to take up a PhD. Remember it does not have to be the same school, unless you like the people you are working with! Alternatively, while doing a PhD, you may lose interest, change interests, have top employment opportunites, realize that this is not your field or you are not just good at it etc. Anything may happen and all of this okay!
5. As in the industrial world, academia also has its full range of people and personalities – good, bad and everything in between. Further, unlike a tangible objective in the real world (such as making money), the individual objectives in academia are more abstract and hence folks are that much more complicated and well, harder to please!
6. In graduate school, you are on your own. You need to be able to “manage” yourself in all aspects of life. Many folks have families providing them stability, others have good social networks, many individuals are strong-minded and quite self-sufficient. The point is to identify where you lie on the spectrum and take appropriate steps to be well-balanced.
7. The MS/PhD decision is a key one- however the Masters degree of 18 months on average is quite a short-period. The half-life of the knowledge acquired varies by the individual, school, the first job opportunity, economic climate etc. For those who feel they need a longer time (as their objective of Get job X may not be well-defined) and feel under-prepared, it may be good to do a PhD if their interest is strong enough
8. PhDs can be short or long in terms of time, topic and problem you are working on and luck. It all plays a part. Further, there are people who spend a full period of 9-10 years on a PhD and never finish it for a whole range of reasons -bad advisors, bad topics, lack of sustained focus etc. There are also folks who even became professors till they were denied tenure because it was finally realized that they never defended their thesis! All kinds of things – normal and strange – have transpired – so one should not overly put pressure on oneself but enjoy the process.
9. MS degrees with a thesis option is a preferable alternative in my opinion (a middle ground of sorts). The open-ended nature of a thesis though disconcerting gives one the framework within which to learn the following skills:
1) how to learn new topics on your own – doing the background work and envisioning the future
2) how to identify/assess new problems and how to frame the problem
3) how to develop solutions in a methodical manner
4) how to consider all possible factors that may affect a problem or its solution
5) how to evaluate solutions in terms of economic and technical factors
6) Finally, how to communicate complex topics orally and in written form (based on your field of choice)

Why/Why not MBA ?

The MBA is a sort of “mature”  variant of the undergraduate food court. Unlike the undergraduate food court with many cuisines, there is only one cuisine. Further, the individual dishes in the cuisine and the order in which you consume them are usually also pre-defined. One only needs to join the line. Unlike “majors” and “minors” etc, the cuisine of interest is the “economic organization” and the focus of the MBA program is to give you an understanding of the basic structures in an organization and  the key processes in an organization – marketing, sales, finance, operations, strategy, product/project/program management – so that one can effectively join and function in a “managerial” role in an organization. Most modern organizations – both for-profit and non-profit – have a similar structure at different levels of detail and function in a nearly standard way across all industrial and non-industrial sectors (even academia). They all use similar tools, similar techniques, similar incentives, etc .to primarily utilize human capital to fulfill various private and public needs.

With this perspective,  people who have specialized in different areas or just worked in industry after their career, opt for an MBA. Usually a short program – 12 – 24 months, the individual at the end of it can successfully find employment in any industrial sector. His/her past professional pedigree is no  hindrance and they can operate based on their innate skills which have been polished during their MBA. Furthermore, considering that managing people is a difficult task, jobs requiring an MBA are well-incentivized in organizations. Given all this, an MBA is a bit different from conventional graduate school – Has anyone heard of an MBA with a thesis option ?.  It is more like an advanced prep. school with a well-defined deliverable for both students and companies who “employ” these students. Usually MBA students are not supported officially by the programs and pay hefty tuition fees in contrast to a masters degree in the traditional academic departments. However, obtaining an MBA degree is a good step if one has to closely work with people in organizations, or one is a consultant or one is running their own company. Atleast it gets you acquainted with how modern organizations – small and large –  work on a day-to-day basis. A new trend seems to be to get a MS/Phd degree and then an MBA so that one can navigate one’s way in this complex world! However, it is important to note that there are many types of MBA programs and what matters at the end is the business/social network that you develop and a “branding” effect that can sustain you in your career. It is also important to note, that there are a large number of successful folks who run complex organizations without an MBA so it is a personal choice. However, in my humble opinion, an MBA degree is not a “specialization”, but a commoditization exercise (from an academic perspective), wherein  the end-product is an important building block for modern organizations. I have seen many brilliant folks do MBAs and enjoy very fruitful careers across the spectrum and even some folks who did an MBA, followed by PhDs in economics and the like.

Concluding Remarks

Given one decides to go through graduate school and successfully emerges with a degree (MS or PhD), it is important to keep in mind the following:

1. Just because one went through graduate school, one is not guaranteed to land employment. Furthermore, because you have a graduate degree do not assume you are going to get paid more (does not apply usually for an MBA).
2. The time invested in graduate school pays off in the long run -as you utilize the skills learnt in solving more complex and economically beneficial problems.
3. Modern industry is more receptive to people with graduate degrees as the complexity of knowledge grows. However, the metrics of success/failure will not change. So adapting your expectations appropriately is extremely important to be successful.
4. Because one does a PhD/graduate school, there are some costs that one has to bear -namely, you may not have that much money initially – but have to be patient to catchup. Secondly, the kinds of folks you meet in the real world and the complexities of human interactions are far more complex than in graduate school. Especially, during a PhD, one is “insulated” for a long period and it is a struggle to fit into the real world. Something to keep in mind.

All-in-all, graduate school is a great option to give yourself the time to grow and mature as person. It provides one an opportunity to develop a sense of self-discipline, the ability to learn on your own and really fulfill your potential in your chosen field. As with any choice, there are trade-offs including self-sacrifice – economic and personal. Furthermore, just because one goes to school, it does not shield you from the vagaries of the human condition in general, but may be if your are diligent enough in your endeavour, it may provide that minimal spark of inspiration to cope with whatever life brings to your door!

Writing this brief note on graduate school has led me to think through a range of additional topics which I will cover  in  ensuing essays including   a) Choosing a “good” thesis problem, b)  the mechanics of successfully doing a  Ph.D.,  and c) Life after graduate school in academia and industry

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