Why I won’t go to graduate school

By Eli Gottlieb


So April has arrived, and that means that along with it comes one of the moments of truth in a science major’s life (if he’s fortunate): the choice between graduate school, industry, and unemployment. Now luckily, I don’t have to face the last possibility, unlike far too many people I know. This means that the time has come to choose at last between going into graduate school to do research and getting an industrial job.

Last December I managed to apply to seven graduate schools by staying up late at night doing paperwork: Portland State University, Northeastern University, the University of California at San Diego, the Technion (the Israel Institute of Technology), Brown University, Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland at College Park. They all have good departments in computer science, and a bunch of them have really good labs in my particular sub-field (programming languages). They all do fairly cool work, as a matter of fact.

By now I’ve gotten a fair number of responses to those applications. I’ve been rejected from some departments, invited to others, and Technion has never gotten back to me properly – I should poke them.

I’ve also sent in dozens of job applications to industry and done at least a dozen interviews. I’ve been in offices from the ultra-bare and boring interview rooms at the University of Massachusetts Career Services center to the luxury of Google Cambridge to the sprawled and spread out buildings of Amazon.com. Most of the applications I sent in got turned down, and most of the interviews eventually turned me down too. I ended up getting two actual job offers.

So, by now I kind of feel that I can compare the two possibilities. Industry means having a boss and going in on a set schedule. It means that the boss tells you what to work on, and then you do it. Graduate school means self-starting and doing the research that I want to do. Grad school means Doing Science and contributing to humanity-at-large’s efforts to push back the darkness of ignorance and tame the wild lands of new knowledge. Of course, grad school also means working any seventy hours a week you want and waking up late in the morning because you’re always going to sleep too late at night.

To really compare the two, I’d like to quantify them. Graduate school offers: $14,000 a year and $18,000 a year. For the industrial offers: $87,000 a year and $81,000 a year. Both of these include health insurance, although the industrial ones definitely have better plans. The industrial ones pay 12 months a year, and the graduate schools pay for two semesters a year. They say that in graduate school you can get internships and summer jobs to supplement your income, but it still doesn’t actually come to all that much. The offers I’ve received for graduate school have GPA requirements attached and last for only two to three years each before I would have to seek other funding. In industry, they just keep paying and paying as long as I’m doing good enough work, and if they’re really pleased they might actually give me a raise.

I know that in American society it’s taboo to talk about money, but I feel like I have to say this: graduate school is a thankless, monastic occupation that pays poverty wages and takes three to seven years of your life. Going to graduate school means begging and scraping for funding from year to year to avoid going into debt to pay “tuition and fees” for working a job. The poverty line for a single individual of working age in the United States is $11,161. Working a minimum-wage ($7/hour) job for 40 hours per week for 50 weeks per year would earn $14,000 already. So I admit, graduate school would pay more than stocking shelves at Walmart, but not actually that much more. It also requires more hours per week than Walmart as well.

One might object that an industrial salary is a salary, and will often come with more than forty hours per week of work, particularly in my field. That’s true, but one doesn’t usually contract with an employer for a period of three to seven years at a time. If an employer over-works me, I can leave and go be unemployed, but I can put the experience on my resume. If grad school over-works me and I try to leave, all that means is that I dropped out.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Philip Greenspun notes that “the average trajectory for a successful scientist is the following: 1. Age 18-22: paying high tuition fees at an undergraduate college. 2. Age 22-30: graduate school, possibly with a bit of work, living on a stipend of $1800 per month. 3. Age 30-35: working as a post-doc for $30,000 to $35,000 per year. Age 36-43: professor at a good, but not great, university for $65,000 per year. Age 44: with (if lucky) young children at home, fired by the university (“denied tenure” is the more polite term for the folks that universities discard), begins searching for a job in a market where employers primarily wish to hire folks in their early 30s.”

So given all this, I really have to ask: why shouldn’t I take an industrial job, or at least seek one? Graduate school does better than Walmart and unemployment, but why should Walmart wages in heavy research hours on an academic career path or unemployment be my only options?

Eli Gottlieb is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]