As an undergraduate student, the first question I’m usually asked is, “What is your major?” When I say that my major is chemistry, the question that almost invariably follows is, “So are you planning on going to medical school or graduate school?” Graduate school, for many, is the appropriate next step after undergrad. There are real benefits for those who attend, such as potentially higher salaries and a lower unemployment rate (6.2% vs. 3.6%, according to 2012 ACS statistics); however, after extensive research, I’ve come to the conclusion that graduate school is not for everyone. For someone like me, who is interested in a non-traditional chemistry career, the potential educational and employment benefits do not outweigh the opportunity cost.
It may seem surprising to many undergraduate chemists, but there are A LOT of things you can do with a chemistry degree other than work in a lab. For example, you could become a dietitian, science writer, patent agent, public health inspector, or a teacher, just to name a few. Many of these positions require or prefer people with an education in science. Although some of these occupations favor those with an advanced degree, many of these non-traditional chemistry jobs do not require it. Not pursuing a graduate degree right now allows me to remain flexible in choosing my future career.
While the jobs market a big factor in why I’m not headed to graduate school, I am also concerned about the high opportunity cost of continuing my education. Since a Ph.D. in chemistry takes, on average, 5.1 years to complete, going to graduate school would delay major life milestones that I am looking forward to achieving—like buying a house, starting a family, and getting out into the business world. And that does not include postdoctoral studies, which can take up to an additional 5 years to complete.
For instance, it would be very difficult to save for major purchases, like a house or a car, on a graduate school stipend. It’s pretty much common knowledge that you don’t get paid much while going to grad school. As famously quipped by Jorge Cham, “a job at McDonalds pays only $15 less a year than the average graduate student stipend.” While that isn’t entirely accurate, the truth is that the average chemistry graduate student receives a TA stipend of about $18,000–$19,000 per year. Although as undergraduates we’re told that overall earning potential of those with graduate degrees tend to be higher, I don’t want to live in scholarly poverty for the next several years; I can only eat ramen noodles for so long.
In addition, grad school would most likely postpone my ability to start a family. As a modern woman, I wholeheartedly believe that you can be anything ranging from career woman to a stay-at-home mom, but working the midnight shift in a lab and writing papers would definitely take a toll on my ability to contribute to raising children. For this reason, many people choose to wait until after degrees are conferred to start having kids. Unfortunately, though, the narrow window of time that I would be able to start a family after grad school is just a little too narrow for my taste.
Finally, I can’t wait to get out into the working world! I want to be able to gain experience now, build up my résumé, and finally become a “real” adult. Personally, I realized that I loved working in an office through my internship last summer at the American Chemical Society. I discovered the type of job that suits me, and I want to start working and gaining experience in places that will help to advance my career as soon as possible.
Graduate school is a considerable investment that shouldn’t be taken lightly—and it shouldn’t be the default choice of chemistry majors. My internship last year helped me to realize that there were a multitude of non-traditional chemistry jobs out there. I wish someone had told me earlier that I had more options as a chemistry major than getting a graduate or professional degree. I would have spent more time as an undergraduate gaining experience instead of stressing out over a grad school-worthy GPA. I would have had more time to gain contacts, explore the options, and prepare for entering the working world next year.
If you have any questions or comments, please comment below. And if you are interested in gaining working experience and discovering your passions, check out the ACS’s Get Experience website for internship opportunities.