Q&A Part 1: Deciding to go to grad school, Questions 4-5

Thanks for continuing to read about the “Path to Graduate School.” Here are answers to questions 4 and 5 for our first category, “Deciding to go to grad school.” Next week, we will post answers to “I decided, Yes! How best to apply to grad school.”


Question 4: What if I want to go to grad school, but am not sure which field to choose?

There were a variety of great advice that resulted from this question! An overwhelming group of students advised to get some experience before deciding:

“Try getting an internship or volunteering in a field you think might interest you. Take classes in potential fields if you can. Grad school is not like undergrad where you can usually sample different classes for two years before picking a major. There may be limited opportunity to switch fields early in your grad school career, but it’s rare and you should really go in knowing what you want.” – Katie Smith, 5th year PhD in Physical Oceanography

“Shoot for a Master’s, because it will let you gain experience but not at great cost of time and energy. Only pursue a Ph.D. if you’re sure of what you want to study. Alternatively, gain a few year’s work experience or complete an internship or something to help you decide.” – Kendra Lynn, 2nd year PhD in Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“Get experience! Volunteer or try to get an internship in a lab that does research that interests you.  Summer is often a good time to get experience in the field or lab, because grad students are most actively doing research during the summer.  Browse through lab websites in departmental webpages and don’t be shy about emailing a professor, post-doc, or grad student to ask if they need help.” – Shimi Rii, 4th Year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“Choose the field that has researchers you would enjoy working with. Talk to many researchers and graduate students in the fields you are interested in, and get their advice about what decision you should make. Going to conferences in the fields you are interested in may help you make your decision. If you are still not sure which field to choose, get an internship in one of them. Another option is to get a Master’s degree, this should take 2-3 years.” – Myriam Telus

“This is where it is important to gain experience in what you think you want to do prior to diving into a graduate program. You may save time in the long run.” – Michelle Jungbluth,1st year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“I think it’s easier to find an appropriate program and gauge your interest in specific research projects when you know what field you want to study.  Internships or part-time positions in different research fields may help you decide what really interests you and in what type of graduate program you can pursue that line of inquiry.  I found that short (1/2 year) investments on different projects allowed me to narrow my focus and determine what field to select for graduate school.” – Allison Fong, 6th year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“Sit in on some classes, look for internship on labs, ideally before you graduate from college. – Saulo Soares, 6th year PhD in Physical Oceanography

“Take different classes in undergrad to find out and take time off after undergrad to learn a little bit more about yourself.” – Samantha Weaver, 1st year PhD in Geology and Geophysics

“I would recommend taking some time off to pursue an internship or fellowship in one of your fields of interest. This will allow you to become better acquainted with the job. Some students decide after an internship that the job is really not for them. This could be said, in my case, for the first four years of my military career in telecommunications. Don’t allow your experience to take four years like mine did. Go for something that is just a summer or one year long. ;)” – Christine Waters, 3rd year PhD in Geology and Geophysics

“Talk to the professors of the classes you enjoyed. Read lots of papers – go to the online databases and type in stuff you are interested in and read what’s going on in those fields. Do you want to do something like that? If so, you may have found a good place to start. Now go find professors that are working on that kind of research. Talk to them, volunteer for them. – Astrid Leitner, 1st year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“Invest your time in a summer internship or temporary/part-time positions in prospective labs or institutions.  This, way you can explore options and ‘try-out’ different paths you might pursue in graduate school.” – Sara Thomas, 3rd year MS in Biological Oceanography

Another overwhelming group advised against grad school if you are not sure what field to go into (check out this article about not using grad school as a way to postpone making life decisions, “The Involuntary PhD“):  

“Don’t use grad school to put off figuring out your life.  Figure it out by traveling, living,  working,  socializing  with people who are doing interesting things.  An inspired applicant trumps an unsure one.” – Anonymous

“Then you shouldn’t go to grad school until you know.  Grad school isn’t an extension of undergrad.  You should only go if you really know what you want and why you want to do it.” – Donn Viviani, 4th year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“Don’t go. Find something you’re passionate about first, and then apply. Otherwise you will just end up wasting years of your life and burning up savings when you could be working an industry job and saving for your future.” – Sarah Maher, 3rd year MS, Geology and Geophysics

“Then you should not go to graduate school in research science. Maybe try an MBA or a law degree instead.” – Anonymous

“You should know which field you want to be in before you commit to something like grad school.” – Joy Leilei Shih, 5th year PhD in Marine Geology and Geochemistry


Question 5 – How much money will I make after I get out of grad school?

Your pay range seem to depend highly on whether you decide to stay in academia or go into the private sector:

“Depending on which sector I enter after my degree, I can expect to make between $50,000-$100,000 (academia vs. industry).” – Kendra Lynn, 2nd year PhD in Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“This is a hot topic – it depends of course on what you do out of grad school.  Typically, with a M.S. in sciences, a job as a technician at the University or a government job might pay starting at $45K.  In a biotech corporation, this pay could be as high as $60K starting.  With a Ph.D., the pays will range from $70K-90K, starting salary. It also depends on your negotiation skills.” – Shimi Rii, 4th Year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“No idea. An industry job (drilling, oil) can make a six-figure salary, but anything else will be a lot less. It depends on what you want to do.” – Sarah Maher, 3rd year MS, Geology and Geophysics

“Dependent on your credentials, your career goals, and your discipline.  There’s no general answer.” – Allison Fong, 6th year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“Between $70K-$100K” – Joy Leilei Shih, 5th year PhD in Marine Geology and Geochemistry

This concludes our first category of questions, “Deciding to go to grad school”! Thanks for reading and we look forward to your comments!  Stay tuned for Part 2: “I decided! How best to apply to grad school” next week.

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