Q&A Part 1: Deciding to go to graduate school, Questions 1-3

As a continuation of our ‘Path to Graduate School’ topic, we asked our SOEST graduate students to answer 15 questions about the graduate school experience.  These questions are broken down into categories, and today we are posting the answers to questions 1 through 3 for our first category, “Deciding to go to grad school.”  Stay tuned for answers to our other categories, “I decided, Yes! How best to apply to grad school” and “I got in! How to survive grad school” in the coming weeks. 


Question 1 – When do I go to grad school and when do I decide?  Immediately after I receive my bachelor’s degree? Should I do an internship?

The answers were varied! For example, some applied right after their baccalaureate programs:

“Based on personal experience: I had decided that I would go to graduate school when I was very young (nerdy, I know). It was always my dream – so, when I was wrapping up my B.S. in Geology, I started applying for graduate programs. I started graduate school the fall after I graduated with my B.S.” – Kendra Lynn, 2nd year PhD in Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“I started thinking seriously about grad school my junior year of undergrad.  I was in my second year of an internship and found that I enjoyed research and wanted to advance my understanding of marine ecology beyond what I had learned in my coursework.  I applied for grad school my senior year and started grad school the following year.  At this point, I had already completed three internships and knew I wanted to study biological oceanography.  I decided to continue into grad school immediately after receiving my B.Sc. because I knew what field I wanted to pursue and it required I had more research experience and training.” – Allison Fong, 6th year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“I chose to go to graduate school immediately after receiving my bachelor’s degree, mostly because I felt like I had a lot of momentum going into it (that I didn’t want to lose by taking time off). In retrospect, I wish I had taken a bit of time to relax my brain, because now, in comparison to other students, I seem quicker to intolerance for failure and burnout when deadlines are numerous and on short time scales.” – Christine Waters, 3rd year PhD in Geology and Geophysics

“It depends on how long you want to live on your parent’s couch. The ideal time to apply would probably be the last fall semester of your undergrad to limit the amount of down time in between schooling. If you’re not doing anything related to your field of study after you graduate, the sooner you apply the better.” – Sarah Maher, 3rd year MS, Geology and Geophysics

Some, on the other hand, took some time off to work: 

“I took a couple of years off after my bachelors and worked. This allowed me to determine that the focus of my bachelor’s degree was not what I wanted to continue doing and I discovered my love for Oceanography.” – Michelle Jungbluth, 3rd year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“I worked for eight years before I went to grad school.” – Donn Viviani, 4th year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“I took a year off and worked as a technical assistant in developing a volcanic crises awareness course.  While it was a great experience and I enjoyed the time not worrying about classes and homework, it made me realize that I did not want to be somebody’s assistant.  I wanted to work on my own research instead.” – Samantha Weaver, 1st year PhD in Geology and Geophysics

“Go when you are ready, that is, when you have a good idea about what you want to study and when you find a couple professors/departments you would really like. I worked (paid work) for a year in a lab before going to grad school. During that year, I had lots of time to think about what area of geology/planetary science I really enjoyed and I got to research different schools and I spoke with many people about the various departments I was interested. I took a GRE course and I got to visit many of the schools I applied to. I did not have time for all of that during my senior year in undergrad.” – Myriam Telus

Some did internships:

“Grad school’s focus on research makes it different enough from undergrad that it’s useful to go in with an idea of what it will be like. If you did an undergraduate research project with a thesis, that could be enough, but a summer research internship or a job in research after graduation may also help. You can also go to grad school once you’re sure your career goal requires another degree. I worked for two years in science research after graduation. I really liked it and wanted to continue in that field, but it was clear the only way to move up was with another degree. That’s when I made my decision to go to grad school.” – Katie Smith, 5th year PhD in Physical Oceanography

“When I earned my bachelor’s I knew I wanted to continue on to higher education but I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go or what I wanted to study.  It wasn’t until after I invested my time in a summer internship that I realized what field I wanted to pursue.  I was able to begin my graduate studies a year and a half after completing my undergraduate studies.” – Sara Thomas, 3rd year MS in Biological Oceanography

In conclusion:

“You can go to graduate school anywhere from immediately after you graduate to MANY years after graduation. It really depends on opportunities and frame of mind.” – Anonymous

“Definitely after getting some life experience” – Anonymous

“Go when you are certain you need a further degree or when you know what your research interests are.” – Astrid Leitner, 1st year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“You should go to grad school … when you feel like you have a question you want to pursue about an organism, ecology of the location, how certain processes work, etc… Graduate school doesn’t discriminate against age (though the time commitment can be more difficult as you get older, with family and other obligations).  However, I recommend getting some experience in the field you are interested in before heading straight into grad school – it is a commitment and you want to be passionate, excited about the topic you are studying, and why! I worked for a year after undergraduate to start my M.S., and after my M.S. worked for 2 years before going back to school for my Ph.D.” – Shimi Rii, 4th Year PhD in Biological Oceanography


Question 2: How much does it cost to go to graduate school? How much money will I need to live on?

Since most professional schools cost a lot of money, and undoubtedly there are many who are still paying off student loans from undergrad, money is a big concern for many considering graduate school.  Good news! Graduate school education in basic research, especially in SOEST, is often more wallet-friendly than most people might think:

“ZIP! NADA! In the sciences you either are funded through a teaching assistant position or a research assistant position. They waive your tuition costs and pay you monthly (just enough to get by)” – Astrid Leitner, 1st year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“I have free tuition at school and my adviser pays me $1800 per month, which is confortable for one person” – Alma Carolina Castillo, 3rd year PhD in Physical Oceanography

“For me, graduate school doesn’t cost anything. I was supported by my department on a Teaching Assistantship (TA) for the first year of my degree, which included a tuition waiver and a bi-monthly stipend that covers my cost of living and expenses etc. For the rest of my degree, I am supported by an NSF Research Assistantship (RA) that will cover these expenses.” – Kendra Lynn, 2nd year PhD in Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“Often times in graduate school you will get a Research Assistantship, either as a Teaching Assistant or Graduate Assistant, which means that at UH you get your tuition waived and you get a stipend that basically equals half-time pay (starting = ~$18-20/year).  With a tuition waiver it’ll only cost you the basic fees to go to grad school (~$300/semester) plus books, study materials, etc. On top of that you will need money for rent, food, etc., and the stipend (barely) covers but is enough to get by.” – Shimi Rii, 4th Year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“My fellow G&G grad students and I are pretty much all either RAs or TAs, which means we get paid and also get a tuition waiver.  So the cost of school itself is limited to roughly $400 per semester of student fees, plus books and other supplies.  Class field trips off-island are common and may cost another few hundred dollars per year.  Most expenses, however, come from non-academic areas: rent, food, transportation.  I find that I have enough money to live comfortably without taking out loans, and I get about $1700 per month.  (I have a car and pay $750 a month for rent; food takes up at least a couple hundred dollars more, plus the same in utilities, bills, etc.)  It helps that I got summer overload salary, which basically doubles your pay over the summer; this is not uncommon and it definitely helps to fund trips to the mainland, car repairs, etc.” – Emily First, 3rd year PhD in Experimental Petrology

Prospective graduate students should take note, however, that the stipend you get per month depends on what stage you are at in your graduate career and what degree requirements you have completed. Research the school you are applying to and talk to the graduate students in the department to find out a more accurate value of what your stipend would be!

 There are, of course, other experiences:

 “I went to graduate school in England.  It is VERY expensive to be an international student.  One year cost me $45,000!  At the same time, it is the only debt that I have from education (I paid my way through undergrad and fortunately PhD’s in our field receive a stipend) and with all of the great experiences that I had, I have no regrets for going into debt for it.” – Samantha Weaver, 1st year PhD in Geology and Geophysics

“I applied to five graduate schools. Each application was approximately $75. Add to this the cost of the GRE (~$160), which I took twice… Also, since I moved from El Paso, Texas, to Honolulu, Hawaii, from a house that I was renting to a sublet condo, my move cost me approximately $4,000. As an Army veteran, I had many more items than I think the usual undergraduate student might have (full living room set, kitchenette, bedroom set, and household accessories – most of which I sold prior to moving, but I had to move the rest). There was a lag between my last paycheck in El Paso and my first paycheck in Honolulu, too, of almost three months! This was the toughest part. I had just shelled out a ton of money for the move, and now, I was not making money. That’s the part I think you have to prepare yourself for the most – how to pay rent, buy groceries, etc … for the few weeks or months your university takes to get you into the system. I ended up borrowing from EVERYBODY.” – Christine Waters, 3rd year PhD in Geology and Geophysics

Some good advice about how to wisely use your stipend:

“Whatever department you are interested in working in, check whether they cover your tuition and provide a stipend. The stipend depends on where you go to school. You have to check how much it cost to live in the city you are interested and compare it to the stipend they are offering you. Make sure it is enough to pay for an apartment, utilities (water, gas, electricity, phone) and food. In Hawaii, if you share an apartment, my guess is that you will need a stipend that is >$1500/month.” – Myriam Telus

“In Oceanography, at least here, we are paid enough for basic living costs (rent, food, etc) and we get a tuition waiver.  So if you are careful, you won’t leave graduate school with more debt than you came in with.  Our department has a bit of delay between when you first start and get your first paycheck, so be prepared for a couple of months of out-of-pocket expenses prior to your first stipend check.” – Michelle Jungbluth, 1st  year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“You have to be prepared to make an initial investment (rental deposits for housing, buying furniture, a bike or car to get around, miscellaneous expenses). Depending on your major you can actually be paid to go to school or at least get tuition waived, but most stipends will only cover the most basic costs of living (rent, food, and insurance) so you won’t be saving money. In Hawaii, about 50% of my paycheck goes to rent, so making wise choices about where you live initially can pay off in the long run.” – Sarah Maher, 3rd year MS, Geology and Geophysics


Question 3 – How long will it take me to complete my graduate degree?

The answers depended on whether the student was pursuing a M.S. or Ph.D.:

“7 years” – Alma Carolina Castillo, 3rd year PhD in Physical Oceanography

“My master’s degree will take 3 years.” – Sarah Maher, 3rd year MS, Geology and Geophysics

“4-5 years, since I am a Ph.D. student who did not complete a Master’s degree.” – Kendra Lynn, 2nd year PhD in Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“Depends on where you go and what degree you want.  In England, I did a one year Masters.  Here in the U.S., my PhD will take at least four years.” – Samantha Weaver, 1st year PhD in Geology and Geophysics

“Depends. A PhD will take 5-7 years depending on the field. A Master’s, 2-3 years.” – Saulo Soares, 6th year PhD in Physical Oceanography

“I’m not done yet, but the average for a Ph.D. seems to be 5 years. Master’s degrees seem to take 2-3 years. It depends on your progress with your research and writing.” – Myriam Telus

“I came to UH Manoa for a two-year master’s degree. Having obtained my own funding through the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, I will complete a five-year PhD (hopefully).” – Christine Waters, 3rd year PhD in Geology and Geophysics

Those are “average” number of years . . . obviously the time depends on you:

“How hard do you want to work?” – Anonymous

“It is what you make it.   If you are motivated to finish quickly, you will be more likely to get done earlier.  I got my Master’s degree done in 3 years, and hope to finish my PhD within 4.” – Michelle Jungbluth,  1st  year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“It depends on the program, the project you are working on, how hard you work, and sometimes on luck in lab.” – Donn Viviani, 4th year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“This is course-load and project dependent.  I was able to earn a Plan A (thesis-based) M.Sc. in 2.5 years, but the average in my program is 3.75 years.  The intent was that my Masters experience would prepare me for doctoral research and it did, but I shifted my focus and started to work in a different research group.  This shift added time because it was not a direct continuation of my Masters research.  The Ph.D. alone took 6 years.” – Allison Fong, 6th year PhD in Biological Oceanography

Thanks for reading the answers to questions 1-3 for our first category of questions, “Deciding to go to grad school”. We hope you found them useful, and please comment below, we’d love to hear from you. Stay tuned for questions 4-5 next week!