Graduate programs shouldn’t be our only vision of academic success

While many may feel pressured into undertaking postgraduate studies, pursuing a life outside of academia isn’t failing or giving up

At this time of final year, one of the best ways to strike fear into the hearts of myself and my Hamilton peers is with one question: “So, how are the masters applications going?” Upon hearing this, many students feel like curling up with the stress of it all. There are so many deadlines, and they’re all so soon, and the responses to our applications, whether they are to the Irish Research Council (IRC), or to programs in the UK or US or anywhere else in the world, will have a tangible effect on our futures. Is it all worth it? The personal statements, the Graduate Record Examinations (GREs), the research into potential supervisors, the bureaucracy puts many off even applying. Once we get there, is a postgraduate degree even worth it? Depending on the degree, that’s anywhere between one and seven years of stress, sleepless nights, and failed experiments in exchange for a few extra letters behind your name. It is hard to know if those letters really make up for the money and years spent studying.

This is a decision that plagues every student at some point. Some of my friends already know that they won’t be going down that path. They instead plan on working in industry or tech, where they can put their hard-earned skills to use without requiring a PhD, and some  plan on going into some tangential field, like finance or science communication. Instead of facing looming application deadlines, they are barely in the beginning stages of job searches. They have far more time than those of us applying to graduate programs – our applications are due in January at the latest, while most of them will be fine if they only start their job search then. For many people, though, not continuing in their field of study can be seen as selling out, or even as a sign of failure. It’s true that the prospect of leaving one’s own field for another, or for an unrelated job, can be daunting. It can feel like giving up.

“It feels like everyone in the world has an advanced degree because nearly everyone in our world does, which then makes us feel like failures when we don’t pursue that.”

But why is that? Many of us did not come to college with the intention of getting a PhD. In fact, I can pinpoint the moment when I decided that I wanted one, and it wasn’t until after I started college. For those of you not in Physics, there is a professor named Dr Eric Finch, and every year, he gives a lecture to all first year Physics students called “Physics by Powers of Ten”. It’s one of the first days of class, so we’re still taking in everything. He turns the lights out and takes us on a journey from the largest known distance in the universe to the smallest, one power of 10 at a time. I remember being so captivated by it all that I walked out of that lecture with two things on my mind: 1. I want to do this for the rest of my life and 2. I want to make someone else feel as happy as I do right now. It was at that moment that I decided, with neither pomp or circumstance, that I wanted to get a PhD.

Over the years, it has become more of an expectation that we continue our studies after our undergrad degree. But as receiving a PhD becomes more common, it also brings the unfortunate side effect of a little voice saying “if you can’t do it, that means you’re stupid”. This is demonstrably false. Some of my brightest peers have decided over the last three years that what they actually love doing is science communication, or engineering, or coding. That is not them failing. That is them finding something they love and choosing to pursue it. So why do so many of us see this as a form of failure? And, more importantly, how do we move away from this way of thinking?

For four years, we have all been sheltered within this world of academia. The most successful people we see on a day-to-day basis are academics. It feels like everyone in the world has an advanced degree because nearly everyone in our world does, which then makes us feel like failures when we don’t pursue that. It almost feels like a necessary baseline rather than an extra qualification for people who want to continue studying. Once we venture outside of college though, people with advanced degrees are the minority. You don’t need a PhD to be successful and happy.

“The trouble is that college isn’t Neverland.”

Many students continue their education because they fear entering the “real world” of non-academia. If you don’t stay in college, you have to go out into the world, get a job, talk to people, and do all kinds of other scary things. We feel unprepared for this and most of us try to delay it as much as possible. If we’re technically still in college, we can stave off growing up for a little bit longer, ignore adult responsibilities, and keep pretending that rice cakes and vending machine coffee counts as a balanced diet. The trouble is that college isn’t Neverland. We all have to grow up, and pay taxes, and network, and eat a balanced diet at some point in our life, even if we spend the rest of it in academia. It takes a lot of work to get through a masters or PhD, as anyone who has done it will tell you. It’s not just an easy way to continue in college for a few more years – the work for those extra letters behind your name is a serious commitment.

This is not to say that no one should continue their studies at third level. If it’s something that you want to do and you’re interested in your subject of choice, then it is worth considering. But it shouldn’t be because you feel like you should. Not getting a Masters degree doesn’t mean you’re stupid, and it’s not the necessity it’s made out to be. A PhD is a very serious decision. No one, especially not your friends, will think less of you if you go straight into the workforce.