Pursuing graduate studies has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. With my Master’s and now my PhD, I get to answer very interesting scientific questions firsthand. Every day there is an opportunity to learn or discover something new. Every day I also get to pick the brains of experts in my field, and I get to work with equally inquisitive individuals. The nature of my work constantly gives me a sense of personal development and progress that I would probably otherwise wouldn’t have experienced if I had decided to do something else.
All of these sound very appealing, and now, you may be asking yourself: “Should I also pursue graduate studies?” How can you know if graduate school will suit you well? Well, having gone through a long discernment process before entering grad school myself, I can provide four basic tips to help you decide whether you should pursue graduate studies or not.
Deciding whether to go to grad school or not is never easy
Tip #1: Evaluate why and whether you need a postgraduate degree.
Graduate school will require a huge investment of your time and energy. The workload can be tough, and the days sometimes rough. Experiments won’t work all the time, and sometimes you will have to spend long hours in the lab just troubleshooting what went wrong. There could also be a mental and emotional toll to being a grad student that could arise from various sources—the independent nature of the work, the feeling of homesickness especially when studying abroad, the pressure of being in academia, etc. Moreover, there can be an opportunity cost to pursuing graduate studies: the 3-5 years you will spend on your PhD, for example, could probably be spent pursuing a higher paying job, climbing up the corporate ladder, or doing whatever you think is worth your time.
Nonetheless, graduate studies can still be a very fulfilling and worthwhile endeavor, as long as you have a clear goal and the intrinsic motivation to do it. One simple question you can ask yourself is this: “Why do I want to pursue graduate studies?” If you are curious about the world and would like to know more about it by applying the scientific method, then by all means apply to graduate school. If you love learning new things, making discoveries, and pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, then apply to graduate school. If you enjoy networking and collaborating with equally brilliant minds, then most probably graduate school will be a satisfying experience.
On a more practical note, ask yourself also whether the career you’re ultimately aiming for requires you to have a postgraduate degree. Here are examples of STEM career tracks where having a postgraduate degree will have a real advantage:
If you are aiming to work in any of these fields, then pursuing grad studies is a smart decision. With a Master's or a PhD, you’ll be valued highly and you’ll most certainly be a more competitive job candidate. You’ll also have an easier shot at a higher salary, and you’ll simply be in a position to get more career opportunities down the line.
The bottom line is this: If your reason is clear enough that you can articulate it and if it is meaningful or practical enough that it motivates you to go through extra years of study, then go for it!
Tip #2: Check if your skills, preferences, and values align well with pursuing graduate studies.
Apart from having a clear “why”, I would also advise you to do an honest self-assessment of your personal qualities and capabilities. It’s hard to enjoy or survive in graduate school when there’s a mismatch between the demands of the program and your qualifications or preferences as a student. For you to thrive in this space, it would be best if you can ensure that your skills and values fit the requirements and the culture of the program you’re applying to.
To start, you can first ask yourself: “What knowledge or skills do I have? What am I really good at?” If you have the foundational knowledge from your university studies and/or research experience in your field of interest, then I would say you are in a pretty good starting point already. To further augment your qualifications or address possible deficiencies, you can try attending STEM workshops or online courses, do research internships or lab rotations, or gain experience in STEM-related jobs. You can also work on your “soft skills”, which are the intangible and commonly overlooked competencies that also allow students to excel in grad school. These may include the following: working effectively in a team, communicating science to the public, networking with other people, and managing the minute details of a project (think of your college orgs!). If you possess any of these competencies or are willing to actively work on developing these, then you will be in a good position to apply to a graduate program.
"Soft" skills like effective scientific communication can be an asset in your application
Apart from having the right skills, check your personal values as well. Ask yourself: “What do I enjoy doing? What kind of work do I find meaningful and important?” Graduate studies will involve a lot of reading and writing, teaching and learning, planning and doing. It will require you to dive deep into a topic, master a really complicated method, or invent a new way of doing things. Depending on the program focus, you’ll have the opportunity to generate novel scientific knowledge, develop new diagnostic or therapeutic options for patients, create the next big app or technology, or inform public opinion and policies. It’ll definitely be an easier and a more fulfilling journey if these things are enjoyable and important to you in the first place.
Tip #3: Identify programs that fit your goals and interests.
When I was discerning about going to grad school, a mentor told me: “Know what you're getting into. Don’t do it blindly.” I’ll give the same advice to you. Before making the decision to apply, ask yourself: “What programs are out there? Do these programs actually fit my career goals and life plans?” If you still haven’t, do a quick Google search and see if you can find a program of study that appeals to you. When doing so, consider not just the name of the program or the name of the institution, but also these things:
Eligibility – Am I eligible for this program? Can I fulfill all the application requirements?
Academic focus – What kind of research topics are being pursued in this program? What kind of techniques or methods will I learn?
Program fit – What kind of students does the program typically recruit? Does the curriculum fit my goals and interests?
Timeline – How long is the program? Does it fit my personal timeline?
Costs – Are there scholarship opportunities available? If not, am I willing and capable of self-financing? How much are the application costs?
Environment and Culture – What is the academic environment like? How is the work-life balance? Does the program provide mental health support to students? Is it welcoming to and supportive of underrepresented minorities or international students?
Opportunities – What are the typical career trajectories of program alumni?
Try to dissect and evaluate all these little details before deciding which program(s) to apply to. If you can, systematically rank your choices based on these criteria. Lastly, remember that no program is perfect, so know your non-negotiables and know which of these points are worth prioritizing.
After learning how to coax neural stem cells to turn into neurons during my Master's, I decided I wanted to focus on applying for PhD programs that offer research topics at the intersection of neuroscience and molecular and cellular biology
Tip #4 Ask advice from mentors who can help you.
I wouldn’t be in graduate school if it were not for my mentors. My mentors helped me discern about going to grad school, and after I decided to do so, they selflessly offered their time and energy to help me with my applications. When you can, try to find a personal mentor who can help you with your journey towards grad school. Mentors can be trusted professors or employers, institute alumni, or even colleagues and labmates. You can also find a mentor here in GradMAP! By signing up as a mentee, you’ll have the chance to get matched to an experienced mentor who can personally assist you in your decision-making or application process. You’ll get constructive feedback on your application materials, and obtain useful advice on how to jumpstart your own career as a budding Pinoy scientist.
So there! I hope with these pieces of advice, you’re now more informed about how to approach the decision of applying to graduate school. Again, graduate studies is a huge commitment, so think about it carefully before applying. If you need any help or advice, feel free to reach out to us or to our network of mentors!
Antoni Andreu Martija is a PhD student in Biosciences at the German Cancer Research Center and Heidelberg University. He is currently using spatial proteomics methods to investigate molecular mechanisms underlying glioblastoma. When not in the lab, he spends time playing music or doing volunteer work through GradMAP.