Another snowflake considers grad school
February 3, 2015 8:49 PM   Subscribe

Is "Well, it seems like an interesting way to spend a couple years" a good enough reason to go for a Masters degree (with funding)?

I'm graduating this spring with an ME degree (woo!). Until a few months ago, I never really thought about grad school, since I didn't find the subject matter particularly interesting -- I went into this whole thing with very much a "work to live" mindset, and so I was more interested in doing things like industry internships that were geared towards me finding a job after graduating. Well, none of my initial leads have panned out, and it's just about time to move into the "hustling for a job" phase (sigh). But then..

Last term I took a course in a tangentially related field (acoustics), which has always a pet interest of mine. I clicked pretty well with the prof -- I asked a couple interesting questions in class, and eventually ended up working on a small side project of his for a couple months, which wrapped up last week. Since then, he's let me know about opportunities to keep working with his research group, which were 1) a summer RA-ship and 2) an opening for an MS student starting in the fall, either/both of which he said he would be happy to bring me on for. The MS would be funded through TA/RA-ships; the deadline for the major scholarships/grants has already passed.

For someone like me whose future is in an uncertain place at the moment, the idea of a sure thing (in a field I like, no less!) is looking awfully attractive. Career-wise, the MS would definitely be a step up if I decide to continue in acoustics (eg with consulting), but it is a bit of a niche thing in my neck of the woods, at least. I can't quite shake the feeling that if I go for it I'd be taking the path of least resistance, but is that necessarily a bad thing? I know that you, the reader, can't make this decision for me, but what sort of considerations should I take into account before I make a decision about this? I'm meeting with my prof again tomorrow to further discuss this all: are there more questions I should be asking him?
posted by btfreek to Education (11 answers total)
If it includes a stipend, I don't see a downside. Ask him if he has connections in industry; that's what will land you a job.
posted by supercres at 8:57 PM on February 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

If I were in your shoes I would doodle out some ten-year plans. What would the next decade look like if you did this? And what would it look like if you didn't? It's fine to spend a few years studying acoustics, but if you're just trying to avoid the discomfort of job hunting it might be more trouble in the long run than it is worth.
posted by feets at 9:25 PM on February 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

That's probably the best reason to do a master's.
posted by one_bean at 9:28 PM on February 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

This is pretty much exactly what happened to me. I was planning on taking a break from school and got offered funding and a research topic I was really interested in. I'm finishing it now (thesis-writing stage), and while I now really need a break from academia, I don't regret it.

Some of the good things that came out of my master's weren't necessarily related to the program. It was in a different country, so I had to get out of my comfort zone and I leveled-up dramatically in my paperwork/moving/general adulthood skills as a result. I feel like even though I'm not in the 'real world,' I have had to grow-up a lot, and even though it seemed like the path of least resistance, it wasn't that easy. I'm not sure if you'd get the same experience since it sounds like you're staying in the same school. Think about where you want to be in 5/10/20 years.

If you're getting funded, then it's pretty much not a bad idea. (Do some calculations and make sure you aren't going to have to take out student loans, because they're very rarely worth it for a master's.) I was offered RA/TAships, but because I missed out on the major scholarship deadlines, I was almost in a bad place financially. I ended up getting a big scholarship my second year, but it was much more difficult to get than I'd been led to believe.

If you can try it out with the summer RAship, that could be a really good idea. It'll give you a better idea of the work.

Find out what the qualifications for graduation are. Is it classwork or thesis- based? Is it something you can see yourself wanting to do? It's harder to force yourself to finish if you don't have really clear reasons for why you're there. If you want to work in the field after and this will help, that's a good reason. Ask your professor about job placement rates for his previous students. That's something all my professors know about and will tell you.

Ultimately, it's only two years, and if you decide it's not for you, you can stop. It's really important to remember that, in the middle of grad school. You can also always go back to grad school later.
posted by raeka at 10:01 PM on February 3, 2015

Yes. Similar to you, I went with the path of least resistance and stuck around to get an MS in computer science. I wasn't really a big fan of undergrad or my major, but it has paid dividends over the last 9 years. It was the laziest productive thing I could do at the time and I left school without any student loans at all (yay cheap state schools). Don't fall for their PhD con though. A masters in a technical field is best of both worlds when you hit the job market.
posted by gaelenh at 10:08 PM on February 3, 2015

There are worse things, but someday, you'll likely have to hustle to find a job, and its easier to get practice when you are young.

At best, in two years if you get the masters, you'll have explored something you are interested in and you'll find a nice, comfortable, acoustics related job ready for you. At worst, you'll be exactly where you are today, needing to hustle to find a job, except it will be two years from now.

On the other hand, if you don't go for the masters now, in two years, you'll surely have at least a year of work experience under your belt, and you likely won't need to find a job, because you'll have one.

I personally think that going to grad school because you want to postpone entering the work force for another two to six years is usually a bad idea, and that working for a couple years and then going back to grad school, for any reason, is generally a good idea. I kind of wish I'd done it myself.
posted by Good Brain at 12:47 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Your professor apparently believes in your research potential more than you do. Accept the fact that your professor knows more than you do. You should be honored to be asked and you should go for it.
posted by mareli at 5:22 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I want to encourage you to go for it only if you are passionate about acoustics and/or will be fully funded. It sounds like a great opportunity, but the debt burden without full funding, and another two years not in the workforce, might offset any gains in salary, especially if it's not something you are fascinated by. But don't take my word for it. Do some research first and consider your own interest level in the subject.

I think you should research starting salaries in jobs you could get right now; starting salaries in jobs you could get in 2017-18 with an MS according to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections; and whether specialization is going to put you in a field with fewer openings than if you were more of a generalist. OTOH, is it going to put you on cutting edge of engineering, making you more in demand?

Then, with those numbers, you can sit down with a financial advisor who can run some numbers on income and debt to give you an idea of whether it would be worth it financially. You can decide at that point if your interest level is high enough to make an investment like grad school worth it.

Here's the BLS link.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 6:12 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Have you seen your advisor interact with current grad students, and are you happy with what you saw? Is it okay in your field to get a graduate degree from your undergraduate institution (aka academic incest)? Ask your advisor / some contacts from internships / other professors or look at some CVs if you aren't sure. If the financials are good (talk to current grad students re: fees, etc.) and you're excited about the research, those are the other things to figure out.
posted by momus_window at 6:13 AM on February 4, 2015

I think academic incest is generally not a problem if you're planning to leave academia after the Master's anyway, which it sounds like is likely for you. Personally, I don't think it's a bad idea at all if the degree is guaranteed fully funded and your PI is an okay sort to work with. The advice to find out in advance what your potential PI is like with his current grad students is really important; definitely do that before accepting. And get the offer to fully fund you for a minimum of 2-3 years or the completion of your Master's degree in writing before you accept. But otherwise, sounds like an awesome opportunity for the time being!

Look at it like this: getting the [fully funded] master's is like getting a job, albeit a pretty badly paid one that carries the potential to develop useful skills later on down the line. At the very worst, you could use it as a year or two's breather to give you time to continue looking for jobs in other aspects of your field. *shrugs* That's how I'm currently looking at my PhD, which touches pretty heavily on acoustics. You're not locked in, either; you can always drop out and grab a new job if you hate the Master's and/or something really awesome comes along.
posted by sciatrix at 6:53 AM on February 4, 2015

Masters degrees are nice and short, boost your credentials, and expose students to certain forms of "experience." PhDs, on the other hand, are long and arduous (not that you're asking). Do the Masters but do not be seduced by a PhD.
posted by rumbles at 8:11 AM on February 4, 2015

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