Things I Wish I Had Known: Grad School (Part 1 – What is Grad School?)

If you get a Ph.D., you get to dress up as a wizard even when it's not Halloween! I find more and more that I know things that seem obvious now, but were less so when they could have been more useful to me.  I’ve come to realize that these things are probably likewise confusing to still-uninitiated. So, as a public service to people who are as confused as I was, (or an excuse to talk about myself for a while,) I’m inaugurating a series about various things I learned too late, or whose importance I didn’t realize soon enough. I call it, imaginatively, “Things I wish I had known”, and this particular entry will hopefully shed some light on the mystery that is graduate studies.

I want to lead with a caveat – I’m going to say “grad school” a lot here.  I will try to keep what I say as broadly applicable as possible, but you should know that I started in a Ph.D. program in Computer Science, and left after my Master’s.  My experience is almost definitely not applicable to professional degrees (Law, Medicine, MBAs).  It only kind of applies to people in Master’s-only programs.  People in the humanities or softer sciences should recognize at least a glimmer of their experience.

It is also worth mentioning that though I left early, I actually love grad school in that way that only the abused can love their abuser, and I fully intend to go back to school for my Ph.D.

What are you getting yourself into?

Before I got into grad school, I thought I knew what it was, but like many things, no matter how much you know intellectually, you can’t really understand grad school until you’ve experienced it. As such, a lot of the things I have to say will at best soften the surprise.

I’m going avoid burying the lead on this and say straight up: grad school is not a paying proposition. Depending on the field, a quick Master’s degree may put you ahead, but by and large getting your doctorate has a significantly high opportunity cost.  If you want to make more money, get a job out of college, and get 4-7 years worth of raises — you’re probably beating the average starting salary of a Ph.D. in your field (not to mention all the income you banked while they were in school). The only reason to get a Ph.D. is for love of that discipline. If you’re there to increase your value to employers, you’re doing it wrong.

Now that that’s out of the way… one of the most obvious yet subtle points to realize is that grad school is not undergrad.  Wait, that’s important, so I’ll bold it: grad school is not undergrad.  It’s not undergrad with more advanced classes, it’s not undergrad with more research, it’s not undergrad with more/less money. It’s not undergrad.  Period.  Fundamentally, undergraduate programs are about taking classes – they may encourage you to do research or independent study, they may even require a thesis, but every undergrad program I know of has as its atomic unit the “course”, and as its measure the “GPA”.  In grad school, you have classes; sometimes, you’re even required to take them and do the homework. However, the coin of the realm is research (and, well, money, but we’ll get to that later). In grad school I told a professor, “I had a conference submission, so I didn’t do my course project,” and their response was simply, “well, priorities are priorities — turn it in after the conference deadline.”  Yes, the classes are necessary, and they are more advanced than your undergrad classes, but the fundamental shift is away from learning the state of the art to creating the state of the art, whatever that means for your field: whether it’s creating a new theorem, a new tool, a new analysis, a new reading, or a new element, your job is no longer solely about enriching yourself, but also about enriching the world.

The change becomes further apparent in the social differences. In undergrad, my relationship to my professors, while (usually) mutually respectful, was typically one of mentor and pupil – there was a distinct disparity of power, knowledge, and authority. In grad school, this relationship was far more fluid — though my advisor had some sway over what I spent my time on and my teachers could affect my grades (which, BTW, nobody cares about), students were clearly much more equal in standing with professors, socially and intellectually. We went out drinking together, we attended the same dinner parties (sometimes), and we participated in the same game/movie/poker nights. Professors bounced ideas of me and asked me to help them solve problems as often as the other way around.  As grad students, we were as qualified as a professor to have an idea, and eventually, more qualified to speak on certain topics.  In grad school, if you’re not the academic or intellectual peer of your professors, something’s wrong.  This isn’t to say that you won’t have professors that dazzle and amaze with their brilliance, but in the main, students can up and respond intelligently. This also means that your peer group is by far and away more intellectual (not necessarily more intelligent) than it has ever been previously. The people around you care about what they’re doing, and they understand it better than anybody else in the world.

These differences are what make grad school simultaneously the worst and best time of your life. On the one hand, you are paid little if you’re paid at all, you’re constantly rushing from deadline to deadline, you’re staying up ridiculous hours meeting unreasonable demands, you’re dealing with the worst kinds of politics at every level, and you’re having your work, which you love as you would your child, ruthlessly picked apart by a faceless jury of your “peers”.  On the other hand, you’re setting your own hours, you’re working on stuff you choose and are passionate about, you’re surrounded by passionate, intelligent people, you’re able to spend time just learning whatever you want, and you’re still/once again in college, with all the perks that come with that.  If you believe you really love your field, grad school is the place for you, if only because it will test that love as much as anything possibly can.