Difficult Decisions: Pondering Grad School


Every fall and spring semester, students facing graduation wrestle with one major question that will impact their future careers and the course of their lives: “Is graduate school right for me?” And from there, the question that is maybe even more important lies: “Is it worth it?”

It’s a question met with anxiety, uncertainty and a lot of deliberation. It’s what Joshua Rothman called ‘the impossible decision’ in an essay he wrote for The New Yorker – the magazine for which he is also the archive editor. He compared advising students about enrolling in a graduate program to telling individuals whether or not they should have kids or enlist in the Army.

Research conducted at Saint Louis University showed a larger portion of graduates choosing the work force opposed to grad school. A survey sent to 2013-14 SLU graduates displayed that out of the 1,071 respondents, 505 were employed and 305 had opted to attend graduate school, while 131 said they were both employed and enrolled in a grad program.

This smaller sum of those enrolling in graduate programs may be a sign that graduating students are not interested in gambling with the uncertainty of going through the arduous task of earning an advanced degree – only to find themselves at a dead end with a sign that reads ‘unemployment,’ – or perhaps a more accurate term would be, ‘underemployment.’

Instead, these students join the work force. One graduate in particular, Kim Reitter, the Director of Career Services, listed work experience, making money and

gaining independence as reasons for getting a job upon graduating college.

“For a lot of students, it is about moving on to that next stage in life. You know, where they’re becoming independent, they’re working full time, they’re beginning to start that career that is going to bring them satisfaction,” said Reitter.

However, no matter the outcome, there is still uncertainty involved when deciding. Reitter said, “Well, some students come in as a senior knowing exactly what they want to do … Some students will also come in even as a senior, saying they’re not sure what they want to do.”

Lauren Schmidt, a SLU alumni with a degree in marketing and entrepreneurship, thought a lot about whether or not graduate school was right for her.

“I seriously considered going to grad school,” said Schmidt. “My parents weighed in, of course, and I received a lot of insight from teachers and recent graduates. Most of them all told me to enter the work force for experience.”

Schmidt, like many other recent graduates, is currently working in a temporary position, but hoping that it turns into a permanent job. She also says that graduate school is still not out of the question. “I for sure will go back to grad school, perhaps get my MBA in a different field to learn more about something I am not so familiar with, but I do not regret my decision at all.”

While Schmidt had the choice to not enroll in grad school right away, others may not have that option.

“Depending on the career that they want, they might need to go into grad school. For instance, if someone is a psychology major, what they really, really want to do is counseling, then they need to go to graduate school,” said Reitter.

These graduates often see advanced degrees as a means to an end. And if they had the choice, perhaps grad school would not be the answer.

“The reason that I am here is basically that it’s a requirement to take the [certified public accountant] test. It’s a necessary thing to do for getting a job,” said Andrew Bean, a SLU graduate student earning a master’s in accounting. Bean explained that in order to take the CPA, one has to have 150 credit hours of graduate school courses to be eligible to take the test – which is a big incentive for those who want a job in a top accounting firm. However, Bean stated that if he had the choice, he would not have gone down this road.

“I think the upper level accounting classes help in the field, but I think a lot of it is more on the job as opposed to the classroom. From what I’ve seen, you learn more than you do in a class. I would rather get started working early and start making money,” added Bean.

But, there is a different type of student enrolling in graduate school: one that is seeking a career in academia. These students arguably have a tougher decision to make regarding grad school; although their studies are a means to an end, the end is not as clear as it is to those who are obtaining a master’s in accounting.

In his article, Rothman, who at the time was still finishing his doctorate degree, was unsure of whether getting an advanced degree was worth it. Particularly, for those who are looking to pursue a career in the humanities, he writes: “The value of grad school hinges, to a large extent, on what comes next. The fact that what comes next is, increasingly, unclear…[that] might only mean that a greater proportion of the value of graduate school must be revealed with time.”

Despite the skepticism of success surrounding careers in academia, SLU senior Vishal Thakkar is confident about his decision to pursue a doctorate in either quantitative psychology or cognitive neuroscience.

“The experiences that I’ve had have lead me to say ‘hey, this is your calling,’” said Thakkar. “I love what I do, I love what I’m learning, and yeah, my classes are hard, but if you like it and you have that passion, then how hard it is doesn’t matter.”

While speaking about his experiences of deciding which path to follow, Thakkar spoke optimistically about other graduates, saying that no matter what the graduate decides, he/she will find a calling.

“College is this big pursuit of truth, you can find yourself, rediscover yourself and reinvent yourself,” Thakkar said. “Don’t be confined to what people tell you to do, it’s going to come.”

The question of whether or not to attend grad school is still met with a variety of answers depending on the individual’s specific career path. But, in regards to the worth of attending grad school, well, only time can tell.

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