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Should you go to grad school? Yes, if...

Posted by Devin Cole  February 1, 2012 09:09 AM

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Harrison.Soren_.BW_.jpgI went to graduate school because a college professor told me I needed to. Of course, there was more to my decision than that, but his advice played an important role in my choice to move across the country from sunny San Diego to wintry Wisconsin.

At the time, I wanted to get into nuclear fusion research and this leader in the field said that in order to have a career in nuclear fusion it was best to have a PhD. He was absolutely right, too. Almost 100% of the jobs in nuclear fusion are academic research positions that are looking for PhDs, and the field is sufficiently complicated that it just takes a big chunk of time to pick up on the variety of disciplines involved.

So, the BEST thing for me to do was go to grad school. I still believe that, too, even though a large part of my life is dedicated to building a solar deployment company that draws absolutely nothing on the subject area knowledge that I gained while getting my master's and PhD. (And yes, I am also still working in nuclear fusion, too.)

Now, should you go to grad school? Should you invest the next 2-5+ years in more school? That's an entirely different question. My answer to you would be:

Yes. If...

Yes. If...you absolutely love the subject area or field that you will be studying, definitely go to graduate school and soak up everything you can in your courses and research. I loved nuclear fusion, and that kept me motivated every day through classes, reserarch, exams, and ultimately my dissertation.

Yes. If...you want to meet and work with talented people who are going to challenge you and make you better, strive to get into the school that best suits your goals. It might be a small local university that has specific ties to companies you want to join, or it might be the number one rated college by the *choose-your-favorite-website* grad school review. Either way, you will be surrounding yourself with motivated, smart, hard working people.

Yes. If...you think you could use a good lesson in financial discipline, then graduate school is the place for you. I was lucky and was paid as a research assistant through all of grad school, which is pretty common in science and engineering. While the value of a research assistantship is high (tuition covered, health benefits provided, etc.), cash flow is tight. So, be ready to make some tough choices.

You may be looking at grad school for engineering, art, or business. Whatever the field may be, go because you want to and are excited by thought of it. Go because you know its worth giving up whatever else you might do for a few years.

Don't go just to boost your resume.

Don't go because you think you'll make more money.

And don't go because you don't know what else to do.

Yes, it helps your resume; I leverage my degrees all the time. Yes, it is possible to make more money; it has definitely helped me. And yes, it can help you clarify your personal or professional plans; I learned an enormous amount about what I did and didn't want to do with my life.

But none of these motivations will be sufficient to sustain you through the challenge of grad school successfully. Go to grad school because you see the intrinsic value in increasing your knowledge in a subject area that you are passionate about. And when you finish, apply all the lessons you learn to building a career dedicated to something you love.

Dr. Soren Harrison is a scientist and entrepreneur with a strong background in engineering and physics, and a passion for energy and the environment. He is a Visiting Scientist at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center, and the Founder/CEO of SolSolution.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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