3 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Getting My STEM Ph.D.

Anyone working on a graduate degree will tell you that the only universal truth of all graduate programs, regardless of discipline, is that they are a rollercoaster ride of insanity from start to finish. And from personal experience, I can confirm that graduate school is one of those 1940s wooden roller coasters that, depending on personal experience, will either have you racing to get back in line, or requesting a neck brace for your whiplash.

I was warned by a professor during my graduate orientation that, with the intensity of work we were expected to accomplish, our academic progress, emotions, and financial standing could oscillate dramatically in as little as a few hours. Generally speaking, he was right: the number of days that have started with major accomplishments and ended with me contemplating dropping out to farm alpacas is roughly equal to the number of days where the opposite has occurred. After a few years, I’ve grown accustomed to the pace of work and developed strategies for dealing with wild, almost daily fluctuations in success — strategies that are derived from the camaraderie of my peers and the support of my incredible academic mentors. That being said, there are a few pieces of academic and financial(ish) advice that, had they been delivered before I started my Ph.D. in biology, would have eased the made the transition from undergrad to graduate school, and from adolescence into young adulthood, much easier.

1. Some graduate degrees are more affordable than others

I grew up in a household of educators; my father is a high school teacher, and my mother is a former high school teacher turned professor of pedagogy. Both of them are passionate about their fields and raised me to appreciate my education, but also to enjoy the challenges of learning. The early and exploratory years of my childhood were tempered, however, by the knowledge that our family’s opportunities were limited by my parent’s student debt — the result of multiple graduate degrees. These components of my upbringing shaped me into a young adult with complex and inextricable attitudes about personal finance and education. My perceptions have expanded as opportunities have arisen, and now, in the second year of my Ph.D., I have a very positive opinion of graduate education.

I often hear, and have sympathized with, the more negative outlook: graduate degrees can be extraordinarily expensive, and depending on your field of study, the financial costs of attending graduate school may outweigh the intellectual benefits. One of the most compelling arguments against attending graduate school is that it’s an easy way to rack up debt without getting you any closer to the job that you’re passionate about.

While this is certainly the case in many fields of study, particularly in the humanities, graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields frequently waive tuition for their students. In addition to tuition waivers, most STEM degree programs will guarantee a stipend for their students, either in the form of a teaching assistantship (teaching undergraduates introductory material) or a research assistantship (helping a professor complete their own research). In my program, I make close to $23,000 a year and live in an area with a relatively low cost of living — as a consequence, I am not accruing any debt, and I have enough money leftover this year to scrape together a small emergency fund. I also have peers who use their graduate STEM degrees as an opportunity to continue their education while simultaneously paying down lingering debt from undergrad. So, while my biology Ph.D. is not quite free, when you compare it to say, a graduate degree in art history, the costs are almost negligible.

But what if your undergraduate degree was in art history? Are you automatically precluded from entering this exclusive club of free graduate diplomas? Of course not, but you may have to critically evaluate how your interests intersect with STEM disciplines. The beauty of the modern graduate degree is that it is by nature interdisciplinary: in the course of my degree, I have met programmers who became biologists, biologists who became meteorologists, sociologists who study climate change, and even a chemistry master’s student with a B.A. in art history studying innovative art restoration techniques. Nothing is off the table with the right mentors and ideas at your disposal.

2. Know which degree best suits your academic and financial needs

When I first began my graduate school search process, I was intent on entering a master’s program. I was still in my senior year of undergrad, and despite three years of college-level research under my belt, I was planning on changing subdisciplines to an area where my prior skill set would be almost useless. I ended up switching to a Ph.D. on some bad advice — that Ph.D. programs in STEM guarantee tuition waivers, while master’s programs do not. I call bullshit. This is absolutely untrue; in fact, the university where I am now getting my Ph.D. offers tuition-free master’s degrees. This one piece of advice propelled me to a degree that I was intellectually prepared for but lacked the skills to execute. So, here’s a handy breakdown of what you should consider asking yourself about each degree (not exclusive to STEM, but particularly relevant):

Choose a master’s if:

  • You can afford to pay tuition, or are willing to invest extra time in seeking out tuition-free master’s programs;
  • You know you want to continue to do research, but aren’t sure about the specifics yet;
  • If you are making a major transition in discipline and need to develop a new applied or analytical skill set;
  • If you would like to have authored more peer-reviewed, published work by the time you have finished your doctorate;
  • Or, if a Ph.D. would over-qualify you for the highest-level position in your career path of choice.

Choose a doctorate if:

  • You cannot afford to pay tuition for a master’s degree and have found an advisor who is explicitly aware that you may lack some skill and is willing to mentor you to address those deficits;
  • You have a firm grasp of disciplinary knowledge and applied skills, and need to develop analytical skills;
  • You have minimal other time commitments (personal or otherwise) — getting a Ph.D. in STEM in particular is much more difficult with other obligations vying for your attention, not because the material is more challenging, but because there is a (very dangerous) mentality in STEM academia that your research should always be your first priority.

3. Hidden costs and benefits vary from program to program

My approach to the graduate program search process was centered entirely around academics because I didn’t know any better at the time, and I had the naïve idea that finding the perfect mentor would naturally translate into finding the perfect program. False! While I do believe I have the best mentor that anyone in my position could possibly have hoped for (he is very accommodating of my lack of master’s level field skills and disciplinary knowledge), the program I joined falls short in a few critical ways. Here are some optimistically-termed “points of negotiation” (deal-breakers, really) and hidden benefits to ask about when searching for an idea program:

  • Health insurance: what plans are available to graduate students, and how much do they cost? (Many are, thankfully, free.) What kind of mental health resources are available to students?
  • Hierarchical stipends: do incoming Ph.D. students with master’s degrees get paid more than those without? Will Ph.D. students see a pay increase after they pass their qualifying exams?
  • Cost of living: Does your stipend exceed the local cost of living? Does it only exceed the local cost of living if you have roommates?
  • Student fees: Do student fees cost more than a full month’s salary?
  • Stipend duration: Do you get paid 10 months of the year or 12? If only 10, are there guaranteed opportunities for all graduate students to work (and be paid for that work) in areas related to their degrees?
  • Internal funding: How many internal sources of funding are available to students (e.g. travel grants for conferences, money to pay for extra-institutional coursework), and how accessible are they?

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And finally, always, always, always ask the graduate students currently enrolled in the program about their experiences. At the end of the day, the university is trying to sell you something, your department and advisor are trying to convince you to attend, but current graduate students have nothing to lose or gain by giving you anything other than their honest opinion.

Elizabeth is a stressed-out graduate student studying avian flocking behavior. She splits her time equally between chasing birds through the rainforest and chasing her cat down the sidewalk. She has no idea what she’s doing, most of the time.

Image via Unsplash

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