Graduated Learning: Life after College

I got my degree, I got a job…now what?

Seriously Considering Grad School March 21, 2011

I’m very wishy-washy when it comes to making most of my decisions.  And I get even more anxious the bigger the decisions get.

Which is why I’m feeling incredibly anxious about the idea of going to grad school.  But I know it’s important.

Every once in a while, I start thinking about going back to school.  It’s usually around the time I go to an interesting lecture, symposium, or other educational event.  Sometimes it’s when I talk to my sister, who is pursuing her Ph.D. right now.  And I’m usually reminded about grad school whenever people at work discuss the opportunities through their advanced studies programs.

This time around, I was talking with a coworker about my goals at our company.  We recently both had our yearly performance reviews, and with that, we were required to list our goals for the following year.  So he asked me what my goals were.  My near term (within the year) goals were basically to get better at technical writing and presentation and to get even more involved on higher level work within the project I am working on.  But long-term?  I want to be like the people I work with now who are basically genius problem solvers.  I want to be a subject matter expert. I know some of their skills and knowledge merely comes from experience.  They’ve been working a lot longer than I have.  But I also know that if I really want to keep advancing up the engineering ladder, I’ll need some advanced education.

The plus side of all of this is that my company is really supportive of this sort of ambition.  They’ll reimburse me for classes I want to take.  And if I decide to go back to school full-time, they’ll pay for my tuition, and still pay me half my salary while I’m gone.  It’s a pretty sweet deal.  Granted, you’re committed to the company for a few years afterward, but I don’t mind that.  I’d want to stay at a job that I enjoy!

So, what’s next?  Between my craving to learn more, my desire to advance in my career, and the sweet deal my company offers, this decision is a no-brainer, right?

Just thinking about this plan makes me really anxious.  I have to figure out what schools to apply to, what degree I’m going for (Masters vs. PhD), and what subsection of my major I want to study.  Materials Science and Engineering is a pretty vast field.  I took a lot of classes in polymers and environmental materials selection during undergrad.  And my internships were mostly in metallurgy.  And now I’m working mostly in ceramics.  So, I could go in any of those directions.  Do I pursue what I loved in undergrad, or get more schooling on my main focus at my job (since, well, they’re paying for it, and I’d want to do what would be good for my career)?

I also realize that I would like to go to grad school sooner rather than later.  It gets tougher to go back to school the longer you’re away.  I’m getting pretty used to this post-college lifestyle.  Then again, I could try going to school part time…which would take FOREVER.

I’m still very unsure of what I am going to do.  But I keep seeing signs in my life that I need to get serious about my grad school ambitions.  I can’t put this off forever.

To those of you who have gone to or are currently going to graduate school, how did you make all these important decisions?  I feel so overwhelmed!

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9 Responses to “Seriously Considering Grad School”

  1. Eric Says:

    I’ll be entering a Ph.D program for school/educational psychology in the fall. I chose to go straight for a doctorate because I knew it was a goal of mine, and would continue to be even if I just pursued a Masters this time around. I felt it would make the most sense to go straight for the highest degree I’d like to achieve. You are in an outstanding position with your company paying tuition AND salary. Even if you need to commit a few years following, it may balance out with the increased earning potential of an advanced degree. If I were you, I wouldn’t be hesitating about whether I’ll BE in grad school in the future, I’d just be wondering when.

    Do it while you’re young! You’re fresh out of the student life; fresh enough to jump back in. I say go for it! =D

  2. When I was looking at grad schools, I leafed through a course list for systems engineering, which is the degree program I was thinking of applying to. I noticed that there was a certain subset of the classes that I just really wanted to take – they sounded so cool! With a little more research I discovered that all the courses I’d wanted to take were core classes in another degree, and in fact, ALL the courses offered in that program seemed pretty awesome. I loved just about every minute of grad school!

    I went part time, and while it can be hard to balance with work and can seem to take forever, I graduated with lots of extra savings, and I had those extra 2 years of work experience to count toward my salary.

  3. I decided to do my MSc right after I finished my undergrad. For me, I knew that getting another degree would give me an edge over other geography majors as well as allow me to earn more money in the future. Also, I knew what I wanted to study and I picked schools and then after speaking to potential advisers and from there I was able to pick the right program and adviser. It was the right decision for me and has paid off in spades. Like Eric said, you are so lucky to be in a position where the company will pay for school – it’s definitely a great opportunity. If I could convince my company to pay I would go back to school in a second.

  4. SP Says:

    I knew exactly the types of classes I wanted to study, as they really were just a continuation of my senior level electives. So that was easy. MS vs PhD was also easy, as I had already determined I wanted to go part time. I finished in about 2 years, so forever wasn’t all that long. Given the deals your company offers, it may be worth it to go full time. Certainly less stressful!

    In my specific job, a master’s is highly valued if you are wanting to be a subject matter expert. In my opinion, a PhD is more of a… very important milestone and line on the resume. But it won’t usually translate into direct knowledge. Since they are so specialized, the real skill you get from a PhD is learning how to do your own independent research and such – which can be valuable. The specific topic you focus a PhD on is unlikely to be a long term career path. (You’d have to talk to your coworkers for opinions on that in your field – but my older coworkers generally agreed. Work experience will round out the rest.) My husband is completing his PhD, and this is important for him, since he wants to do research.

  5. I think its important to take time to decide what field you want to study in grad school — which it sounds like you already know. Beyond that, what subsection of your major you want to focus on will probably emerge naturally once you’re taking classes – just go in w/ an open mind. As a note: a Ph.D takes a LOT of commitment.

  6. Julia Says:

    Since I majored in art history in undergrad, I took it for granted that I needed to go to grad school if I wanted a job in the field. (As opposed to working for Starbuck’s.) For me, the question was whether I wanted to get an MA or a PhD. I went for a master’s because I had so many different interests, I knew I couldn’t focus on just one for the average 8 years it takes to get a PhD in a humanities field. And when I had the option of writing one master’s thesis or two qualifying papers, I chose two papers, so that I could write about both modern and contemporary art. In the long run, it was worth pursuing my interests because the exact subject I focused on didn’t determine my career path. But it’s different in every field, and comparing art history to engineering is like apples and oranges, so…YMMV.

  7. Annelise Says:

    In my opinion, you do a master’s if you want to be a consumer of a topic and a PhD if you want to be a producer. So if you want to understand more about something or learn how to use certain tools, do a master’s. If you want to make new innovative things do the PhD.

    You have to be super committed to do a PhD. Everything you read on PhD comics is totally accurate! You really need supportive classmates, as cohorts tend to be small. Definitely look into how students interact with each other. Also ask about the qualifying exam process, about teaching requirements, how advisors are chosen. Consider applying for the NSF, which is generally prestigious and wouldn’t tie you to your employer as much.

    You can take classes here or there, but I’d say most of what I have learned has been through seminars and thesis work.

    Good luck!

  8. Sam Baker Says:

    I first went to school for an M.S. and a year after graduating I went back for a Ph.D. I would highly recommend that approach, especially if you plan to return back to work at your company (It is indeed a really nice deal, if they will continue to pay you half your salary while you are gone! The tuition can always be made up using scholarships/fellowships/assistantship – but not the salary!). Anyway, in my personal opinion, if you plan to get into academics or pure research, then a Ph.D. is invaluable. Otherwise an MS is sufficient. I work shoulder to shoulder with folks who don’t have a Ph.D and on any given problem, I don’t necessarily have a better edge than them. Once you spend a few years in a particular field, experience will more than make up for the degree.

  9. SS4BC Says:

    Since you’re still wishy washy, I would avoid the PhD. You have to be 100% to put yourself through five years of essentially slave labor. I loved and hated it at the same time.

    That said, most PhD programs have a masters option after two years. So if you love it you can carry on and get the PhD, but if you hate it you can walk away with your masters.


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