Many years ago as a graduate student at the College of William & Mary, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, my former officemate (Noelle Relles) and I came up with a novel idea: take all the disparate information out there about strategies for getting into graduate school in the natural sciences and coalesce them into a single concise yet comprehensive text. Essentially develop a How-To book about graduate school. But we wanted the book to be more than just instructional anecdotes. We were scientist, and thought it would be useful to add a level of empiricism to the book. We wanted to write a How-To book where the conclusion were driven by results from a national survey of graduate admissions offices in the USA. At the time, writing a book based on a national survey of graduate programs seemed like quite a long-shot as we were both a number of years removed from getting our PhDs, and the most pressing issues in our lives at that time were graduating and finding free food and alcohol.
Over dinner one cold winter night my last year as an undergraduate, my advisor casually mentioned that unless I was offered a stipend, it wasn’t really an acceptance into graduate school. This was specific to my case to a certain degree – looking for a PhD program in the environmental sciences – but his words stayed with me. When it came time to choose schools, the 5 years of funding Duke offered me made a large part of my decision as to which graduate school I attended.
In a world where PhD students begin bright-eyed and bushy-tailed but often graduate unemployed, I’ve come to reflect upon this advice a bit more. I’ve had 5 years of support, essentially as an employee, and am now on my own to find my path in the world. But I didn’t saddle debt for my graduate education and could choose to parlay many of the skills learned (writing, teaching, project management) to any other career, should I choose. Compare this to other students, who saddle enormous debt for a master’s or doctorate expecting that this guarantees them a job able to pay off that debt. Thank goodness I listened over ziti that night. Read More