Why I Don’t Plan to Go to Graduate School

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.

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Jessica Roberts is a rising fourth year at the University of Virginia studying biochemistry. While not learning about protein functions, she is heavily involved in Housing and Residence Life where she serves as a Senior Resident in a first year residence hall.

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.

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5 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Plan to Go to Graduate School

  1. Excellent article! You describe the thoughts and feelings I had last year (my senior year). Everyone was expecting me to go on to graduate school, but I never applied. I realized it was a huge commitment and knew I wasn’t ready for it. And it’s hard saying that you’re not going to your friends, family, and department who are all expecting you to go on and do “amazing thing.” But when your stuck in school for five more years and a postdoc for several more, when are you going to have the opportunity to do the things you really want to. Like you said, it’s all about opportunity cost. And thank you for writing this. Certainly makes me feel better about my decision.

  2. Well said! I hope more than a few undergrads read this. I went through this same decision process many years ago when I graduated with my BS – Chemistry. I actually did go to work in a lab environment for a number of years (in the pharma industry). It was a great experience, and taught me that while I do and always will enjoy chemistry, I didn’t quite have what I felt was the requisite passion to commit that large a chunk of my life to grad school. In the course of that job, I found that I had a real talent and love for some of the technology associated with chemistry research. I have now worked for several companies that supply software to chemists and biologists, and love it. And I still get to use my chemistry background! So to you and all the other undergrads out there: Go find what you love, whether its in grad school or elsewhere. BTW, my ungrad advisor asked me for *years* after I graduated when I was going to grad school.

  3. While grad school is not for everyone it isn’t quite so bad either. The students we have placed in grad schools lately are getting stipends in the 25-30K range. I generally recommend it to students who are passionate about science since it doesn’t lead to other goals necessarily (not a big money occupation, think comfortable, but not rich, etc.) There is a lot of flux in future careers and a PhD can do a lot of other things, too.

  4. Pingback: Higher Learning: Gettin' Your Degree On - That's Normal

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