Should I go to grad school?
March 21, 2018 5:39 PM   Subscribe

The big question of my life is: should I go to graduate school? please help.

Hi Metafilter.

I should have asked this question a long time ago. This is something that's been eating at me since I graduated from undergrad (8 years ago).

Should I go to grad school?

Some background:

I studied computer science as an undergrad. I couldn't stand it the entire time I was doing it, except the 'building stuff' (like web/software/databases) parts. I never got involved in research in CS because I didn't really grasp the theory or mathematics parts of it. Looking back, I extremely regret not taking a course in machine learning, or psychology, or doing lab work, or getting involved in a research-y area. Like, I regret this every day. I made some shitty course choices in undergrad and I feel like shit about it.

Let me add that this is all super emotional for me and I can't think about it without crying (yup, now). I'm working with a therapist on all this, who is also acting as a career counselor type person, but I keep getting stuck because I can't really make any moves until I decide on this. (I'm not getting a new therapist.)

Anyway, after undergrad I did various web development type jobs, building web-app type things and desiging websites. I got let go from my favorite job. I tried freelancing for a while and was terrible at the "dealing with customers" part of it.

Two years ago I got a job as a research assistant in a neuroscience lab. Somehow I got hired because they thought I had the programming background to do their kind of stuff (ha, ha). I was terrible at it but am just starting to get my footing.

It's really really cool and I like it a lot! Lots of interesting research is going on around me and I am surrounded by smart people who are interested in neat stuff. I get to go to smart-people talks all the time (even though most of them are wasted on me!). I'm taking an intro stats class for free through my work tuition benefit. I get to write scripts that help people out and do data processing tasks that are essential to research. My work doesn't involve managing people or calling anyone, just working with data. It's great.


This position is kind of designed for people who are planning to go to grad (or med) school. Most of the people on my level are just out of undergrad and have Goals. I'm turning 30 this year. I'm an old-ass research assistant.

I haven't had the opportunity to work on my own research project yet (the other RAs all have), but I want one. I'm taking steps to get one, but everyone I ask to help asks me what I'm interested in research-wise, and I don't have any way to answer that or get closer to an answer on that ...until I have a research project. Getting a project also assumes I would be capable of knowing the stuff (statistics, various complex imaging programs) - I don't. I also don't have a mentor of any kind, and there's nobody around who can serve as one. The head of the lab is so busy as to be nonexistent - I met with them for 15 minutes last week to ask for a project, the first time I've met with them since I've been there. Other higher-up people in the lab are super busy too.

I should also mention that my boyfriend of a very very long time is currently in grad school in an adjacent field. I'm super jealous of that. He's doing all the things I can't do: taking all the cool classes I want to take, understanding all the cool talks I want to be able to understand, can remember information he's learning, and is able to speak competently about his very interesting research. It's awesome. I'm unbelievably jealous.

My big life decision that I need to make is whether to go to grad school. I have some pros and cons but I'm sure I'm missing a lot:

- Want to do it
- Was typically good at classes and time management as an undergrad
- Will feel good about myself when I'm done, as opposed to feeling like this forever
- Will feel like I've accomplished something in my life, which I have not yet done
- May need it for jobs I want

- I like to have time for fun things. I have some hobbies now that I don't really want to give up for the next 5 years and I'm super worried about this.
- I'm really old and would not be done until I'm at least 35. Super worried about this too
- It seems like a long time to be out of the workforce, at my age...
- I kind of want to have kids before I'm 35 and the thought of kids + grad school combined terrifies me
- My long-term boyfriend has two years left in his program in our current city, and if I apply for next year in other cities we'd probably have to spend a year apart (this could be a whole other question)
- It's going to be very difficult for me to get a reference letter out of this job, since I don't interact with higher-level people regularly, so completing applications would be very difficult
- Not excited about the networking and dealing-with-people parts of it

I'm also not sure whether it's... necessary for the kinds of jobs I want.
Things I want to avoid include teaching, giving talks (I have to give occasional talks now and it suuuucks), organizing or managing people or their demands, and spending all my time writing grants. I definitely don't want to be a lab PI or professor, and I don't want to be a lab manager.
Things I do want to do are more along the lines of programming, using cool programs and techniques, coming up with things to test and testing them, figuring out problems, maybe getting my name on a couple papers. I don't really know enough to know exactly what I want to do here. I like the neuroimaging stuff I'm doing, and I love the fact that we have a TON of data that is just screaming for research to be done on it. I'm sort of interested in using the data we have for machine learning applications but a) it's way way over my head and b) it seems like there's kind of an oversaturation of that right now.

I guess I could stay in my current job as long as possible, and try and find more research assistant positions in the future. But then I'll just be an old ass research assistant and always be one-upped by people with PhD's, and spend the rest of my life wondering whether I could have done it.

Ideally I would get some sort of "staff scientist" or "staff programmer" position like my lab has, where I can do stuff with data and write papers and experiment with neat ideas, but from talking to people it sounds like those typically require PhD degrees. And even if I could snag one of those types of positions I'll still feel like crap for not having a PhD when everyone else around me does, and maybe not be qualified for cool jobs I want in the future.

I've also thought about whether a masters degree would be a good idea instead, as a kind of compromise, I guess. I absolutely do not want to pay for a degree in any way (except time of course), so that maybe tanks this idea right out of the gate (right?). I assume it would be pretty much impossible to find a program relevant to my interests that also pays or is paid for (My tuition benefit doesn't cover graduate-level classes).

In conclusion, I'm desperate. I think about this every single day and cry about it maybe every other, though it's been particularly bad lately, as I've been taking this class and talking to other people and trying to think about what goals I have.

Please, please, please help. Should I go to graduate school?
posted by ghostbikes to Education (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Teaching will make you stop hating teaching (though not, in my experience, giving talks. That still sucks).

Grad school is social and fun. There are parties. You will make friends.

If you're crying about it, then it seems like maybe you should do it. But instead of deciding to do it, just do this interim step: find out what your boyfriend got on the GRE and take it yourself to try to beat his score. You're not making the decision to go to school, you're just taking the test to beat your boyfriend's score. That's how I ended up in grad school. I was trying to beat my friend's verbal score.

Don't take out loans. Don't. Just keep on applying 'til some program offers you funding. It will involve teaching. Which is terrible until it isn't. Then it's fun.
posted by Don Pepino at 5:48 PM on March 21, 2018

I work in a large social science institute and our big data programming team has no PHDs. Some of them are taking masters level CS coursework since we have a good tuition benefit. That’s not to say you should do grad school, but there are jobs like this that aren’t looking for PHDs.
posted by advicepig at 5:49 PM on March 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Do you need to go to grad school to be happy? If not, do not go.
posted by bile and syntax at 6:02 PM on March 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

So, I'm basically you. Hi! My recommendation? You should absolutely do it. There are ways to craft the life you want without incurring nearly any of your listed cons above.

I figured out how to take this path by:

(A) Finding a university that had a generous graduate tuition benefit for employees that ALSO has graduate-level programs offered part-time that I am interested in. (This piece will take a lot of research, but I assure you, tuition remission benefits exist at most state flagships and many private universities as well. I recommend looking into very large research universities (especially state flagships), so that if you don't like the job or the program, you can easily switch to a different job or different program within the same university that fits you better. The larger the school, the more options you have for both employment and programs.

(B) I work full-time and am VERY SLOWLY progressing one course at a time through a masters program in information systems (ie building stuff and working with data). I will be done in 4-5 years. I will be nearing 35 when I finish and am already way older than most of my classmates. It doesn't matter at all, because I love what I'm studying and I want to be there with every fiber of my being. Arguably, I want to be there and get more out of my grad program than many of the 22-year-olds who jumped into graduate school right after undergrad out of fear of the real-world.

(C) I use the fact that I'm working at a university job that is related to my degree to network informally. I now know just about everybody in my local area that works in my chosen field of interest, and I didn't have to go to any scary "networking events". I just got to know people slowly, over time, while seeing them at similar lectures, working on similar projects, going to similar classes, etc.

Other comments:
-You are interested in technical things. For most technical jobs (unless you want to -lead- the research, a PhD is overkill. You will be highly competitive for technical jobs with a masters if you also pair it with relevant experience and networking.
-If you go super slow (one class a semester) you will still have time for fun things. I've found that 2/semester is too much for me. But, I have ADHD so YMMV.
-I am a similar age to you and made the decision that leaving the workforce was not a good decision for me, because I like having an income and am not willing to lower my standard of living. I also like that I am still saving towards retirement while going to school.
-Re. kids -- well, if you get a move on it now, you'll be done before 35. Don't hold up your life for theoretical future children. Also, if it happens, you'll figure out how to make it work. I've started thinking about this and I may decide to reduce hobbies and do 2 courses/semester in the final year to finish quicker.
-Re. long term boyfriend, one year is NOT a long time, and one year is certainly worth it if it increases your life satisfaction over the next 50 years. He will support you if it is truly what you want.
-Be creative about reference letters. Surely you have colleagues or people in other labs/offices that know how excited you get about data problems. What about the professor on the stats class you took? Find people who can write earnestly about what excites you.
posted by houseofleaves at 6:29 PM on March 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

P.S. look into data analytics, biostatistics, or information science masters programs. I don't recommend Comp Sci -- that is less applied and more theoretical, which sounds opposite to your interests.
posted by houseofleaves at 6:31 PM on March 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

One other thing -- I applied for and got the job at said university before applying to the graduate program of interest. In the interim, I signed up as a "non-degree student" for courses that would eventually count towards the degree I was interested in. I then transferred credit from those courses into the grad program once I got in. I specifically chose a job at a university that had programs I knew I was likely to be accepted into. You may have to work a semester or two before you are permitted to take advantage of the tuition benefit, and/or pay out of pocket for those first few courses (depends on the school!). If you work at a state school, the cost per course may be less than if you work at a private school.
posted by houseofleaves at 6:50 PM on March 21, 2018

Grad school will not improve your memory or make you smarter. There is also no guarantee you will get better mentorship in grad school than you do now. If you enter a PhD program, you will have to teach, and give talks, and do all those other things you don't want to do.

There are much cheaper and less stressful ways to have a sense of accomplishment / deal with feelings of inferiority in life than to get a PhD. You should get a PhD if you are sure that the kind of jobs you want require a PhD -- the emotional aspect of this is something that you should continue to work out in therapy. I suspect that PhD programs are rarely net beneficial to one's mental health and also that what you're upset about ultimately is not *really* about the PhD.
posted by phoenixy at 7:23 PM on March 21, 2018 [12 favorites]

There are places for nonteaching RAs too, and 30 isn't old-ass. It only seems that way cause everyone in academia is so very young. Most of my staff are older than you and they have most of their careers ahead of them.
posted by bonehead at 7:40 PM on March 21, 2018

I'm really old and would not be done until I'm at least 35. Super worried about this too

Made a major career change at roughly this age--into web development, hah--and let me tell you, it's not like I can promise anything, but a lot of people I know have had similar experiences, and you are going to feel less old at 35 than you feel now at 29. Staring down the barrel of 30 is a weird time. Once I got past that hurdle, it stopped seeming like nearly as much of a big deal. It's not like there won't be plenty of younger people around, but "really old" to change careers is 50, not 30-35. Changing careers at 30-35 is barely even "slightly odd" for our generation--lots of people picked wrong the first go. Whatever you decide, you aren't too old for it.
posted by Sequence at 7:59 PM on March 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Have you considered returning to the private sector? Or just looking for a new job in your current industry? You now have new and valuable experience working in a research lab. As someone whose first dev job was for a university research group, this looks very cool and prestigious to many hiring managers I've met!

>>> Things I do want to do are more along the lines of programming, using cool programs and techniques, coming up with things to test and testing them, figuring out problems, maybe getting my name on a couple papers.

You can do all of this (except probably get your name on papers) without getting a degree, it takes some networking and relationship building which can seem very difficult but gets easier with practice. Can you think of any mentors, managers or engineers you respected at your previous jobs? You could send them an email, ask for 30 minutes of their time, and ask them all the questions you have about grad school and your career goals and get their perspective - I did this recently and it was scary at first to reach out but tremendously helpful. Most people love being asked for advice.

I know people who work on machine learning and you don't need an advanced degree to do it; a lot of the work involves using existing libraries and selecting the correct tool for the job. If you want to write the libraries and the algorithms behind them an advanced degree is probably necessary, yes. Some advice that really resonated with me recently was to focus career changes on trying to work with leaders and engineers I respect, rather than a particular technology area or product or company.

You can also try to do a job transition while prepping for grad school applications; there's no reason why you couldn't pursue both and see which gets you closer to the kind of work you find fulfilling.
posted by ProtoStar at 8:32 PM on March 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I know people who work on machine learning and you don't need an advanced degree to do it; a lot of the work involves using existing libraries and selecting the correct tool for the job.

However, the "better" machine learning jobs tend to have a strong bias towards advanced degrees, even if they're in only tangentially-related subjects. ("Better" here means "more interesting" and "better paying".)
posted by hoyland at 4:25 AM on March 22, 2018

I might be projecting a bit, but your background and path sound a LOT like mine. First things first and tl;dr: it doesn’t sound like a PhD is right for you. Masters, maybe.

I was an engineering (but not CS) undergrad, minored psychology after having a class with an amazing computational neuroscience guy. Psychiatry programmer/analyst/RA for two years, never really settled in. Worked in a cognitive neuroscience lab for 6 years, where my PI tried to land the most CS savvy new graduates he could get his hands on; progressed from technical RA to kinda managing the whole lab. Lost that job because of serious process/power struggles with a guy brought in to run a new huge grant. At that point I had the option of taking a pay cut and going back to grad school, which I passed on for another similarly paying developer/RA position at the same university. Stayed there for two years until I met my current boss who left academia to found a company looking at mental health computationally on a population scale. Just finished the masters degree that I did slowly while working; not free— grad tuition reimbursement is taxed as compensation.

So my advice is to look for companies who are doing things that interest you, and pitch yourself as a combination of interest (that will motivate you to work on their field) and hard skills (that will make you useful to them). These will be harder to find since they’re often smaller companies.

Or look for another job in academia that is basically doing the same. They exist, even at higher salaries; I doubled mine over the course of 10 years, which is only out of the ordinary in academia. That’ll be especially useful for getting name on papers (which, after having a bunch of middle “oh, he helped” authorships, I find overrated). Being at a university will help with doing the masters that will help you leave academia well-armed for the above sorts of roles too.
posted by supercres at 7:20 AM on March 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is a very specific suggestion, but it sounds like you could swing a junior programmer/analyst position in some type of academic admin unit (like institutional research, for example) at a 2-year or primarily undergraduate institution. These institutions don't offer graduate degrees, but sometimes they have tuition benefit programs that'll at least partially pay for degrees at other institutions. My institution doesn't offer programs above the bachelor's level, for instance, so we have a program that pays for job-relevant graduate credentials offered at other universities. This helps get around the limitation of needing to be admissible to a graduate program offered by your employer, which narrows your options.

You'll be a more competitive applicant for these positions than at your state flagship (where your entry-level IR folks may have doctoral degrees) and these types of institutions seem to be more comfortable with comp sci/MIS types than large research universities where preferred candidates have degrees in a quantitative social science. The advantage of junior analyst gigs like this is that they can keep you employed in higher ed with only an undergraduate education without feeling like you've aged out of your job.
posted by blerghamot at 7:29 AM on March 22, 2018

You're not even close to being old. I started a Master's program (Library Science, part-time) in September. I'm 53 years old. I have two kids, a husband, and a full-time job--29 years this October. I put off doing this for years--I was too old, I was too scared, I had too much to do and not enough time--but I love it. It can be difficult for sure, and stressful, but I'm really happy that I did it. I'm learning all kinds of interesting things and discovering that I like things I never knew would be interesting to me, and I'm only in my second semester. I'm going to London for about 10 days to do a summer class in British Collections and Archives! How cool is that?

If you think you will learn things you're really interested in, then do it. I'm sorry I put it off for so long, but I'm really glad I'm doing it.
posted by ceejaytee at 8:33 AM on March 22, 2018

30 is not a problem, and kids+grad school is totally manageable. It's probably more manageable than most "regular" jobs. What's not clear is whether you're asking if you should do a masters or a PhD. I think the hard part of your question is figuring out how ambitious you want to be, because choosing to do graduate work is a lot more about what you're building to, rather than the 2, 5, or 5+ years you spend "in school".

It does not sound like you should do a PhD. Let me be realistic and offer a little bit of tough love here, a PhD isn't really related to taking classes or getting your name on a few papers. It is about immersing yourself in a field and driving forward research where you are the source of the main idea. Which at the very least means managing projects if not managing people. Often PhD programs do have a teaching or TA'ing requirement. And if a PI of a lab or research group realizes that they have a student who doesn't want to teach, and doesn't want to be a project lead, company lead or lab head after graduating, they are more likely to give better opportunities and resources to other students. That may be totally okay with you! But you need to evaluate how that might feel ahead of time. On the bright side, PhD's in the U.S. should be fully funded (and often have great benefits, which super helps with the kid thing), but if you decide to go more bio rather than more stats, there's a solid chance you will be asked to get involved with grants. Being in a doctoral program can also involve a lot of rejection and failure. There's a cliche about advising potential students - if you can be talked out of doing a PhD, you should not do a PhD.

A masters does sound like a better fit. It might not have the financial support (though some do!) and you should definitely check about benefits. On the plus side though, it's shorter (2 yrs, usually, perhaps more if part time) and DOES focus on classes, being part of others' projects, etc. And you're much less likely to need to teach. Generally it's a far better fit for getting skills in stats, engineering-ish fields, cs, etc. The primary down side related to your question is that a masters won't help you with the "always being one upped by PhD's" problem if you want to join a research lab afterwards.

Good luck! Honestly, the thing that stuck out to me the most is that you love your current job. Not so many people can say that, so please do find a path that allows you to continue to have that happiness!
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 9:38 AM on March 22, 2018

You should only go to grad school if you can do it loan free and if you can understand that advanced degrees and intelligence are not mutually exclusive.

I think working on your self confidence will benefit you much more than grad school. Wouldn't you feel just as accomplished if you self studied and made your own widget? Went to the library and read some academic research that interests you and let yourself go down the rabbit hole and learn terms and concepts you don't initially grasp? Maybe you can get some inspiration from silicon valley dropout culture, but you really don't need to go to grad school to be smart or interesting.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:45 AM on March 22, 2018

It seems obvious to me (and perhaps to you too?) that you should totally go. Your pros are you want to do it. All of your cons I am not taking that seriously. Old? At 30? That's crazy. With any luck, you'll be 35 anyway in a few years time, why not be 35 and doing what you say you want to do rather than "I wish I'd done this when I was 30?" Kids and grad school? I've done that. SO MUCH easier than my friends who had "regular jobs" because it's far more flexible than when you have a boss (though you have less money -- no small issue but do-able for many people.) Time apart from boyfriend sucks, but it sounds short term. Networking fears can be overcome (NO ONE likes networking but people do it anyway and you can too), and getting rec letters is tricky and painful but not a reason not to even try to apply!

I don't see money issues in your question, but that's the only thing that would give me pause so that's something to think about. But you aren't thinking of grad school in the humanities -- you sound like you will be highly employable.

I thought I was so old at 30 and I was SO SO SO YOUNG! No one will even blink at a 30 year old in grad school. If nothing else, it means you took the time to figure out what you want to do rather than burning yourself out when you were in your twenties and hadn't decided. Your personal statement will be awesome. This internet stranger says do it.
posted by caoimhe at 10:10 AM on March 22, 2018

Also, my husband does what I should've done and was too scared to do. I am so jealous of him when he talks about his work. Don't be me. I think probably only way to end this is to decide to go -- otherwise you will think about it forever.
posted by caoimhe at 10:14 AM on March 22, 2018

My gut feeling is: no, absolutely not. Getting into a ph.d program will not solve the imposter syndrome / inferiority complex you seem to be experiencing. It may actually make them much, much worse.

In the position you have now, other people there with similar credentials are working on original projects, and you’re having trouble getting that together. You don’t need a research project given to you to know what you’re interested in. You need to read the literature, see what problems and techniques your lab is capable of tackling, and come up with hypotheses. The fact that you’ve been there for 2 years and have no idea how to approach this makes me think you will struggle immensely in a PhD program. Being in a PhD program will not force a PI to hold your hand and help you.

Getting into a PhD program will not make you suddenly able to do machine learning and understand talks - taking an online or in person course, doing examples, and reading the literature will lead to that.

The things you don’t want to do- teaching, giving lectures, managing a scientific program and resesrchers - those are all the things you need a PhD for! The things you actually want to do - data analysis and writing papers - you don’t need a PhD if you can demonstrate a high degree of competency, and that you can do on your own.

You don’t have the temporal and geographic flexibility to enter a PhD program right now because of your relationship and desire to have children. And entering a PhD program may very well wreck your ability to indulge in hobbies.
posted by permiechickie at 2:41 PM on March 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

Others above have very well covered the discipline-specific considerations, so I'll just add -- grad school (especially PhD-level) is REALLY hard on your mental health. Of course that may not be true of everyone, but many, many people I know from grad school (including myself) found that to be the case. And that's even more so if you already have issues of feeling less qualified/inferior to others. Heck, I went into grad school with a TON of self-confidence in my academic abilities and left with major imposter syndrome that I'm only starting to get over. Basically, I would suggest working on the mental health stuff and getting to a much more solid place on those things before applying, and possibly considering that improving things in that area will make grad school feel less necessary.

A PhD program will also involve a lot of time spent on the stuff you don't want to be doing (teaching, giving talks, grant writing, etc.).
posted by rainbowbrite at 3:24 PM on March 22, 2018

I am 48 and working on my BFA and on Monday, I am meeting with the Graduate Program Director for the Humanities Master's to see if it's something I'd like to pursue. I'm also working full-time, so my schooling is part-time. I'm a Junior and will probably be so for at least another year.

All of this to say, pursue that Master's degree. Look at it this way, in five years you could have a Master's degree or you could regret that you don't have a Master's degree. The five years is going to pass regardless. And please don't act like turning 30 is some old ass milestone.
posted by poppunkcat at 6:41 PM on March 22, 2018

I think you should do it. Being in science is making you happy. That's a signal that you want to stay in science.

Having kids while in grad school is a challenge but so is having kids any other time. Plenty of students in our (math) Ph.D. program, both men and women, have infants.

Please know that there's no starting student who just, on their own, is like "here's my research program, give me some money and I'll get started." Telling a PI "I've enjoyed working on X, Y, and Z, what's something needs doing?" is (at least in my field) a 100% normal and appropriate way of getting started on a first project.

Don't take an unfunded position. Start a Ph.D., see if you like it. If you hate it, leave after a couple of years with a master's and you'll be much more qualified (both on paper and in reality) for the kind of work you're doing now.
posted by escabeche at 7:02 AM on March 23, 2018

My feeling is, you are not ready for grad school. You are in an awesome position right now to figure out your research interests, find mentors, and learn the skills that you need. However, you are not taking advantage of these opportunities. Ask yourself, why do all the other RAs have projects and you don't? Why haven't you talked to people and read the primary literature to define your research interests? Why haven't you asked professors to audit the cool classes that you want to take? Why haven't you taken Coursera/EdX/MIT OpenCourseWare classes to develop the skills you are missing? Why haven't you asked grad students or postdocs to mentor you (or, if you have, why did they turn you down)? Yes, people are busy, but they will work with you if they think it is worthwhile. You have been in your position for two years, and I can't think of any good reasons for not doing these things.

It seems like you are not mature enough for self-directed research. If you go to grad school, your advisor and senior people in the lab will be as busy as they are now. You will have to pull yourself together and do all the things you should have been doing these past two years if you really want to be a researcher.
posted by auctor at 11:30 AM on March 23, 2018

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