As a graduate student I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked “what is it that you do exactly?” The answer to this question varies widely based on which degree you are pursuing (PhD, Masters, EdD, MBA, etc.), the field you are getting your advanced degree in, and where you attend graduate school. There are, however, a few facts that I would love to share about my experiences over the last 5 years as a PhD student in Biomedical Engineering at a large university in California. These are the things I wish I knew before I had started graduate school and I hope to make these truths common knowledge to help you empathize with graduate students and/ or help you decide if you would like to pursue an advanced degree.
Graduate School is a “Real Job”
First and foremost, getting your PhD is a “real job”. I work year-round, five to seven days a week, 8 to 14 hours per day. That’s right, we do not get summers off as graduate students! In fact, the summer is my most productive time of year to conduct experiments.
As a PhD candidate in a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) field I am also paid to do research. I receive a stipend, a set salary for my position, on a monthly basis. This sounds like a pretty sweet gig, but when I calculated how much I am paid per hour it comes out to less than $6.00 after taxes, because I work so many hours. My life tends to revolve around my experiments and research goals. Being a grad student is not a sustainable career for the rest of my life, or even for more than 9 years, but it was the best option for me to help me achieve the skills and education I needed for my next job.
I do not wish to sound ungrateful. Many graduate students in non-STEM fields, such as social sciences and humanities, do not receive a guaranteed stipend and students pursuing a professional degree such as a Master of Business Association (MBA) or a Doctor of Medicine (MD) can accrue thousands of dollars in debt to pay for their degree. Being paid to do research while getting an advanced degree in the field I want to pursue for my career is a fortunate, challenging, and competitive situation I find myself in.
How to Earn Money in Graduate School
While many STEM PhD students are supported by a stipend, there are other ways to be paid. A graduate student can be on fellowship, meaning their paycheck comes from winning an award. Fellowships can be internal (through your specific university), external (federal agencies), or from a private donor. Another way to earn money while in graduate school is to serve as a teaching assistant (TA) at your university. TAs run discussion sections, proctor exams, grade papers, and act as a tutor for undergraduate students. At UC Davis, both Masters and PhD students can be paid TAs. There are also tuition reimbursement or tuition assistance programs through your employer. During my PhD I have had a guaranteed stipend, a TAship, and an internal, external, and private donor fellowship.
While getting your PhD, especially in a STEM field, taking out a loan should be your absolute last resort. In my opinion, you should consider other options after undergrad, such as working for a time and reapplying to different programs, before taking out loans in order to attend graduate school. If you are applying to professional degree programs that you are largely paying for, such as medical, law, or business school, consider how much debt you are able to take on and a reasonable strategy for paying back the loans after graduation.
Is Graduate School Right For You?
Only you can decide if graduate school is right for you. If you have a specific goal you personally feel strongly about and if achieving it requires an advanced degree, grad school may be the right choice. But if your major motivating factor for deciding to go to grad school is external – you “should” go because you feel it is expected of you, you are booksmart, you are undecided about your career path – grad school is not for you, at least not right away. If you let other peoples’ expectations define your post-bachelor’s education choices, you will feel unfulfilled as a grad student. Successful grad students are not necessarily the smartest, but they are critical thinkers dedicated to their work. It takes incredible perseverance to dedicate so many hours of each day for several years to classes and exams and eventually experimentation and research. Grad school might reveal what you do not want in a career, but it can be even harder to find exactly what you do want to do once you start a program.
Transferring to another graduate group can feel a bit like starting over because of the difficulty of switching between programs or universities. It is possible though. I switched to a different program in order to come to UC Davis and it is a much better fit for me. Try different things! Your first job is not your forever job. So much can be gained from trying something and then having the courage to admit it is not for you, even graduate school. It is completely fine to start grad school and then decide to do something else instead, as long as that decision is coming from you and you have a plan or an idea for what you could pursue next.
Do Not Let Other People’s Expectations Hold You Back
Do not let the rate-limiting step for even applying to grad school be that “someone like you” does not go to grad school. Are you sure? Graduate school is an incredibly varied community that only improves with new ideas and a diverse population. If you are the first in your family to go to college, consider grad school next. There are even children’s books to help young kids feel more comfortable with wanting to pursue an advanced degree “when they grow up”, even if they are a first-generation student.
You, or your parents, do not have to be rich in order for you to go to graduate school. I am definitely not rich, but graduate school has given me the means to support myself, in a humble manner, while furthering my education.
Graduate student rights have come a long way in the 21st century. Some universities offer childcare at a reduced rate and paid maternity leave to students. The University of California (UC) system is one of those institutions.
You Do Not Have to Put Your Personal Life on Hold for Graduate School
I got married while I was in graduate school. A lab mate had a baby while completing her PhD. A good friend of mine found out she had a serious chronic illness while in grad school and her student health insurance helps with her treatments while she works on her degree. Life happens. Grad school is not a barrier that prevents these types of personal events from occurring. They co-exist. Grad school, like with any other job, is about finding that work-life balance. It is particularly difficult to find that balance in grad school though. Most PhD students, including myself, struggle for years until they find a balance that works for them.
Graduate school for a research-based degree is a real job option for most people after an undergraduate degree. Explore the possibility for yourself by dispelling some common preconceived notions or to just better understand that very tired looking grad student at the coffee shop frantically trying to finish their dissertation on the free Wi-Fi.
Jackie Woods is a Science Communication Intern and a PhD candidate in the Biomedical Engineering department. For more content from the UC Davis science communication group "Science Says", follow us on twitter @SciSays.