25 Cents’ Worth: Graduate School — To go or not to go?

During my current two-year foray into the Master of Science in Applied Economics (BSMSECO) ladderized program here in DLSU, I have gained firsthand experience in the pleasures and pitfalls of pursuing graduate studies. While this does not make me a guru in the art of surviving graduate school, it does not stop hopeful and insatiably curious undergraduate students, most of which are fellow Economics majors, from approaching me and my fellow graduate peers for advice every now and then. They often ask the dreaded and complicated, yet promising question: Is it a good idea to go for graduate studies?

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Answering that question has never been easy. My knee-jerk response is something along the lines of, “What is your goal? Do you see yourself in the academic or research track someday, or do you prefer a corporate career?” Unsurprisingly, the responses I get often alternate between muttered “I don’t know”s and confused, befuddled stares.

While it is relatively easier to advise students who already have a clear goal in mind, some, if not the majority, of undergraduate students are as yet uncertain about their plans after college. This makes the grad school decision harder for both the asker and myself. On one hand, it is difficult to recommend getting a Master’s or a Ph.D. degree to someone who does not have a thirst for further knowledge. Graduate school is, after all, designed for curious and intellectually stimulated people, and is not meant to be entered into as a last resort. On the other hand, it is also difficult to disregard graduate school as a suitable option for someone who has not tried and tested it out first.

Likewise, for some graduate students, being consulted on these matters can be unsettling. The burden for them lies in the reevaluation of the path they have chosen, as they ask themselves a series of tough questions: Are you currently happy and fulfilled in graduate school? Can you see yourself becoming successful and financially stable with a Master’s or a Ph.D. degree in ten years’ time? Are the additional time, money, and effort spent on extra years of schooling well worth it?

At the end of the day, the issue of pursuing graduate studies is beset by several factors, other than interest and curiosity—financial stability and independence, years’ worth of extra time, the university offering the program, the list goes on and on. We can draw up a list of pros and cons, but ultimately, the decision to get into graduate school is a transformative decision. And as with any life-changing choice, “you won’t know whether something is a good decision until you try it,” as Joshua Rothman, renowned writer of The New Yorker, so aptly puts.


The big picture

If we look at the numbers alone, it seems that the broader statistical view paints a bleak picture of the graduate school experience. How many Science and Engineering Ph.D.-holders in the U.S. grow to become tenured members of the academe? Insufficiently few—a study reports that the number of Science and Engineering Ph.D.s awarded annually in the U.S. has risen by nearly 60 percent in the last two decades, but the number of those under the age of 35 holding academic tenure positions has risen by only 6.7 percent. How many graduate school students are unhappy and mentally unhealthy? Significantly many—a 2015 University of California–Berkeley study finds that 47 percent of its Ph.D. students and 37 percent of its Master’s students are reportedly depressed. While the employability of Masters in Business Administration (MBA) graduates remains promising, those who are on the fast track towards the academic profession may not be so fortunate, given the cutthroat atmosphere of academia.

Thus, rationally, it may be a terrible idea to pursue graduate studies, particularly when one’s heart is not in it—when you’re reluctant to spend years and years earning a Master’s or Ph.D. degree. When spending long and insufferable hours agonizing over readings and studying for comprehensive exams that can make or break your stay in the program is not your cup of tea, and when the degree of competitiveness over who gets the most number of citations or research papers published seems like a slow and torturous death for you, getting into graduate school might not be the most advisable option.

But the sheer number of years and the amount of blood, sweat, and tears involved in graduate studies make the decision difficult to digest. The salient feature of graduate school, which every applicant must consider, is its depth, not its breadth—the opportunities present allow the inquisitive mind to master and focus on the specifics of a particular discipline, to contribute and produce, rather than consume knowledge, and to open the mind and eyes to a whole other universe that lies beneath the words and numbers we see in textbooks. Eventually, it shapes one’s identity—one’s schedule, interests, and lifestyle. However, while pursuing graduate studies is definitely a life-changing commitment, it is also a transformative, enlightening, and most of all, rewarding experience.


The highs and lows

That is to say, I have had my fair share of late-night breakdowns and anxiety attacks during my Master’s year. I’ve experienced working on four papers simultaneously (all class requirements) while juggling my work as a teaching and research assistant. I had teetered on the brink when it came to my physical and mental health, and on most nights before heading to bed, I still wonder whether or not I have made the right choice.

But this is only the start. A year into my Masters program and I have learned extensively from the country’s finest Economics experts and professors. I have attended and presented in academic conferences that served to broaden my knowledge and widen my network. I have learned and am still learning from an excellent mentor, who has honed my research skills and helped me navigate the treacherous waters of graduate school. I have laughed and crammed and built dependable relationships with my fellow graduate school peers, and have been made more open-minded, aware, and critical of issues presented to me, both micro and macro in perspective.

Thus far, I have no regrets.

Shi Ailyn

By Shi Ailyn

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