Been there, done that.

After six years of grad school, there are a few things I've picked up from personal experience and a whole lot of time talking with other female grad students (AKA procrastinating). I've always wished there had been some kind of handbook about how to handle the whole world of graduate school, so I figured I'd start a friendly place to discuss what it's like to be female in grad school, and maybe pass on some wisdom too!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

So You Want to go to Grad School

The fresh crop of new students entered campus a few weeks ago and I had an undeniable urge to run up to them, screaming like a banshee "You seriously want to do this???" I have heard from other sources, particularly grad students toward the end of their graduate careers, that they have the same feeling of wishing they could save the bright-eyed, full of possibility, little newbies all the frustration and heartache that awaits them while they attempt to complete their degrees. Because, let's be honest here, grad school is kind of like walking into a meat grinder that specializes in your brain. Okay, okay, maybe it's not that bad. I mean, I've seriously enjoyed most of grad school. But there are parts that have introduced levels of stress that should only be experienced by astronauts trying to blow up a meteor before it plows into the earth.

That being said, during my time here, there have been a few things I've thought about that I wish someone would have told me about before I started down this path-o-fun. The answers to these things will vary from person to person, and of course they are in no way deal-breakers in terms of completing a degree, but they are certainly food for thought, especially if you are of the female persuasion. So, here are some questions to ask yourself when you are looking to finish up your undergraduate degree and are looking at the possibility of starting the grad school application process:
  • Do you have one of these? (It's a stuffed uterus, for those who don't know. Who, honestly, made this thing? It's rather disturbing, I think. And kinda gross...) Do you plan on using it? Because if you want kids--and that's a great thing if you do--you are going to have to think loooong and hard about grad school. I'm not saying you can't have children while in school (I've seen it done--it can work) but it will add a lot of work and stress. This will be the focus of a much longer blog post in the future, but having a family will be affected greatly by obtaining a higher degree, especially a MD or PhD. You've got long years of work ahead of you, and then a stressful career. Just think about it.
  • Money? Can you afford grad school? It isn't cheap, and thankfully the sciences are pretty good about funding their students, but you certainly won't be rich (unless you already are when you start school, in which case, well, you suck. Kidding!) and there are only so many years you can eat mac-an-cheese and ramen before you get scurvy. If you can handle years of being poor and scrounging food from random university events you "happen" to crash, you'll be fine, but if you're not used to dealing with being poor, ya might want to think some more.
  • What kind of job do you want down the line? There are so many fields these days that a bachelors degree is not worth a whole lot. But there are plenty of others that allow for a fulfilling and happy life without a higher degree, or a shorter one like a Masters. It's something you should have a very clear picture of before you start.
  • Quality of Life. This is the BIG one here--something I've heard from so many people, and all the items above talk about aspects of it. What kind of life do you want to have? Do you long for prestige and power, work best under stress, and won't let anything stand in the way of your dreams? Or do you like these things, but also want to be happy in your life? Enjoy your life, instead of spending it working 24/7? Not all higher degrees will set up a life of stress, but knowing what you're looking for before you start is something to seriously think about, and may dictate which school you apply for, what jobs you hope to get down the line, what your family life will be like. It's your life. Make sure you're living it so that down the line you're not going to be wondering what the heck you're doing.
I've seen a lot of students enter grad school and quickly realize this is not something that they want. They drop out and go on the live meaningful and healthy lives. You know what? They aren't failures. They are just people who know what they want. I wanted my PhD, so I've stuck with my program and keep plugging along (wishing that light at the end of the tunnel were a little closer). But before you start school, make sure you know where you stand, what you want, and aren't doing this for 1) someone else, or 2) the wrong reasons. It's a big investment to make for the wrong reasons.

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