Thursday, December 19, 2013

Why should you go to graduate school? One student's perspective

Last month AWE held a panel on why you might want to attend graduate school and what the graduate experience is like.  The purpose of this panel was to try to encourage more young women to consider attending a PhD program after graduation.  I understand that graduate school isn’t for everyone but I worry that many students who would excel in a PhD program don’t even consider it so I wanted to give some insight into what graduate school is like and how I got to where I am today.

I have wanted to go to graduate school for as long as I can remember, much in the same way lots of kids want to be a doctor or a teacher I wanted to get a PhD.  I thought going to graduate school was cool long before I understood what that meant or even what subject I was interested in studying.  That makes my path a little different and probably means I made a less informed decision then most when choosing to apply to grad school but I can honestly say that I have never regretted my choice.
I think the most important thing everyone needs to decide before applying to grad school is whether or not they like research.  This may seem like obvious advice but I have met unhappy grad students that started their program without much prior lab experience.  The majority of any PhD program is comprised of individual research which can be a highly rewarding and extremely frustrating type of work; therefore, understanding the highs and lows of discovery is crucial for a happy grad school experience.  I have heard many “senior” grad students comment that what they wish they had known going into graduate school is that your experiments will fail the vast majority of the time and that it is okay if they do.  That is also what makes research so exciting, every new discovery you make is novel, therefore you are adding to the current knowledge in your field of study.  Fortunately, when I started doing research as an undergrad I found that I really enjoyed it.  I learned that a negative result could often tell you more than a positive result and that small victories in research should be celebrated.  I really enjoyed reading papers which outlined the limits of our current knowledge and applying those principles in a new way.  I loved the idea that one day I could discover something that would push the boundaries of understanding and potentially help the human condition.  Scientific research seemed to be a great way for me to apply my knowledge and the problem solving skills I learned as an engineer to help people.
PhD programs in all engineering disciplines consist of a few required courses or areas of study that you take in your first few years of the program.  These classes are an extension of the education you received as an undergrad and several courses are often focused on your specific area of study.  For example, I now study cellular behaviors of macrophages which are a type of immune cell.  During my first few years at Penn I took advanced classes on cellular biology, cellular signaling models, and an entire class on immunology.  These classes are designed to make you a more effective researcher and are often different than undergrad classes because they tend to focus on paper reading and experimental design rather than typical lectures with abstract homework problems.  Most programs also have two exams, a qualifying exam which is meant to assess what you have learned during you first year or two of the program and a proposal where you set out your research plan for what will become your thesis.  The bulk of your time is spent on this individual research project which often changes and shifts based on your findings during your degree.  These projects are led by a faculty advisor who can be more or less involved depending on your advisor’s personal style.  This research will serve as your thesis which you defend at the end of your degree.  The hope is that you leave grad school with a greater understanding of your field as a whole and an expert level understanding in the area of your research project.
I don’t think graduate school is nearly as daunting as some people think it is and, therefore, would like to quickly clear some common misconceptions I have heard in the past that might be holding you back from applying.  Misconception #1: graduate school is not disproportionately harder or more work than your undergrad.  Your first few years of grad school, when you are taking classes, can be similar to undergrad experience.  There will always be a lot of new information to learn but no graduate school would accept you if they thought you were not ready or smart enough.  Classes and grades are also no longer they way in which people judge your overall success.  It is really in the best interest of both the school and your advisor for you to succeed.   
Misconception #2: graduate students are not huge nerds or lab-rats that have no social life and live in lab.  I had a lot of fun in undergrad and one of the great things about grad school is that you don’t actually have to leave college when you graduate with your undergrad degree.  I have met a lot of my best friends in graduate school and they are completely normal, socially adjusted people who I hang out with all the time.  We tend to do a lot more happy hours and a lot less staying out until 2am then I did as an undergrad but that just comes with age.  All the graduate departments at Penn also have active groups that organize social events, sports teams, and volunteer opportunities for graduate students.  Lots of labs also have their own events on a regular basis.  I know many graduate students who have gotten engaged and married in graduate school.  One of the great things about being in graduate school when I got married was that I was able to take an amazing 3 week honeymoon and then work really hard when I got back.   
Misconception #3: graduate students do not work hundreds of hours while going into debt, especially in engineering disciplines.  Once you finish classes graduate school becomes a lot like any other job; there are times when you have lots to do and times when you have a calmer schedule.  I would say most graduate students work 40-50 hours a week.  I have definitely pulled a 14 hour day before but I have also had days where I show up to work at 11am.  Your schedule is often defined by deadlines set out by you and your advisor.  Another awesome thing about grad school in engineering fields is that most programs pay you to get your degree!  Your stipend is usually comprised partly of a research assistantship and partly of a teaching assistantship but is always a livable wage based on what city you end up living in.
All the advice I have laid out could really be applied to anyone but I want to take this last paragraph to especially encourage young women to consider graduate school as a post-graduation option.  Engineering fields have made progress at the undergraduate level in equaling the playing field for men and women and while most departments still don’t have parity in the number of men and women graduating from their programs the percentages of women in all engineering disciplines are on the rise.  Unfortunately, at the graduate level, women are still in the minority of students attending PhD programs and the number of women that continue on to faculty positions is even lower.  I think it is extremely important for the future of women in engineering that we start seeing more female engineers attending graduate school and teaching our undergraduates.  I am not sure why women shy away from graduate school more than men but from my experience talking to current undergrads I suspect it comes from a lack of confidence in their abilities.  So to anyone toying with the idea of applying to graduate school I want to assure you that you are smart enough and capable enough to succeed at this level so do not limit yourself because of a fear of failure.

Questions for Laurel about graduate school?  Contact her at

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