The (astro)physics world was abuzz recently with the news of LIGO’s first detection of gravitational waves. As a prospective graduate student 20 years ago, I very clearly remember standing in the office of a professor while he explained to me what LIGO was supposed to do. In my hubris at the time, I thought the whole thing sounded insane – detecting what ridiculously tiny motion? Which may or may not even exist? That, plus the fact that the grad students who I met in his department seemed very unhappy, meant that I ended up going in a different direction. My career to date has had some highlights, but LIGO being in the news did make me wonder what might have been. Would I have been able to stick it out, working in a field where there were no results for 20 years? Would I have been happier working as part of a gigantic collaborative team?
It is graduate school admissions season, so I have looked at quite a few applications. Most of them are from people who are currently undergraduate students. I sometimes wonder if some of these folks are doing what a colleague once described as “hitting the snooze button on the alarm clock of life”— applying to graduate progams because they have always been in school and are not sure what else to do. In my humble opinion, this is not a good reason to go to graduate school. While there are certainly structural problems in science graduate education that need improving, and this needs to be done, I think science graduate programs will likely continue to require some kind of personal compromise: lost income, reduced mobility, or at the very least, years of one’s life.
For some people, the compromises may not be worth it. For them, graduate education should be a “road not taken”. Or perhaps for others, grad school should be a road not taken yet. In many cases there is little to be lost by taking some time away between undergraduate and graduate degrees. It’s true that some technical skills might get a bit rusty if not used for a while, and the logistics of applying to grad school can be more straightforward for a student still at his or her undergrad institution. A big gain, however, is in the time available to reflect and to think about goals. What did you enjoy about your undergraduate studies? What are you hoping to get out of graduate school? The two experiences are very different, and it’s important to understand that before making a commitment for two or four or six years. Some time spent working after student-ing is also a good way to make a smoother transition from undergrad to grad school. The latter is much more like a job, so getting into that mindset can help.
“But I have this opportunity to do research in a great group! On a topic I’m really interested in! In a city where I really want to live!” If you’re really excited about the prospect, then go for it— you clearly know what you want to do and that’s fantastic. It’s good to remember, though, that there will likely be another graduate position available a year or two from now: while it might be a different road, that doesn’t mean it would necessarily be a worse one. Those of us fortunate enough to be able to choose what to do with our careers will always have “what might have been”s. I think the key is to learn to see them not as losses, but as gains that shape who we become, and to remember to be thankful for the privilege of choice. It’s OK not to take the expected road!