I want to talk today about opportunity costs. This phrase might sound familiar if you ever took an economics course.
Put plainly, the opportunity cost represents the potential benefits of action B you miss out on when you choose action A. This gets discussed at length in personal finance circles: those $100 shoes could have gone towards a debt repayment which is still accruing interest, meaning your $100 shoes may ultimately cost you $115.
I want to talk about the opportunity cost to your career. Going to graduate school is a choice (you are CHOOSING to go, right? You aren't going because you like school and it's 'something to do'?). Every choice has obvious or hidden opportunity costs.
Consider what you could get out of the year following graduation. If you deffer a PhD for a year, you could take on a job or short-term contract. You will almost assuredly make more money in this job than you would with a grad student stipend. Say you are able to save up $2,000 from this one year of working, you throw that money into the stock market, and you don't touch it for the next 5 years as you pursue a PhD. At the end of your PhD, if your money has grown at about 6%, you'd have $2,676.45. That's $2.6k you wouldn't have otherwise!
BUT, what was the opportunity cost of taking a year off of school? Perhaps your math skills would get rusty and you'd do worse on the GRE, missing out on a merit-based scholarship. Or you want to have children after finishing school, and those plans are now pushed back a year. Maybe you're already in a cutting-edge field, and taking a year off would ruin your chances at being competitive in that research space.
Let's say that in our scenario your PhD qualified you for a job making $50,000 more a year than the job you'd have without a PhD! $2.6k looks small in comparison now. IF going straight to graduate school was the momentum you needed to finish, or you work in a new field like gene editing where a single year off could leave you far behind your peers on the job market, then an economist may say you made the correct choice based on the known opportunity costs.
(An economist might also crunch the numbers on if you never went to grad school in the first place, choosing to work and build your savings, earning promotions, putting equity into a home, and so on. If you're purely money-driven, you've probably done these calculations already.)
We aren't machines, of course, and money isn't the only motivator. It's important to consider all aspects of your life when making the monuments decision to go to graduate school.
I'm not advocating for one choice over the other. I'm advocating for taking a good, long look at your life goals and take your best guess at what the opportunity costs are for your career choices.
Here's a list of considerations to get you started:
Approach Graduate School as a Career Change
You've been an undergraduate for 3 years. Before that, you were a student for 12 or so years. Sitting in a classroom, absorbing and regurgitating information, has been your full-time job for most of your life. Now you're thinking about graduate school. It has "school" in the name, but it is a radically different experience than what you've known for the better part of two decades!
Graduate students work on independent projects, manage teams of undergraduates, navigate university bureaucracy, assemble a committee of professors to advise their work, apply for grant money, teach classes, and so much more. If they take classes, they read many pages of dense literature weekly, and they're expected to speak during every class about their interpretation of that literature.
That's really different than what you're doing now, isn't it?
Because graduate school is a career decision, approach it as a job-seeker does. Gather information. Network. Weigh your wants and needs against potential sacrifices (for example, intellectual freedom and creativity at the expense of living near your family; sacrificing a steady salary now for the potential to earn more later).
You will need to learn about the informational interview. It's invaluable for job-seekers, and this technique can be used to bolster your graduate school application as well.
What is an Informational Interview?
This is a conversation you have with another person where you ask about their experiences. It's an opportunity to gain knowledge about a field, to get used to the lingo of the job, and to gain insight.
The golden rule of informational interviews is "Do not ask for a job". In our case, though, we're going to bend this rule. Presumably you're reaching out to this professor to learn about their research and graduate program because you want to apply. In addition to usual informational interview prep, you'll want to have a short pitch about your interests at the ready. You don't need a fully-formed research question for this discussion. But if you really, REALLY want to work on frogs, and this professor only studies mice, now is the time to assess that fit.
Benefits of the Academic Informational Interview
How to "Cold-Call" Professors
I have always defaulted to this email template, from The Professor is In. Note the differences in the two examples shown. The first one is instantly recognizable as an email from an undergraduate by the format alone. The second one explains why you are reaching out to a total stranger by explaining how you know of them and their work.
Do I always follow this script word-for-word? No! Once I had my Master's, I didn't feel the need to lead with my GPA. Sometimes I know of the professor through a mutual contact, or I read a popular news article about their research. I usually don't ask for a campus visit at this point - a phone call or Zoom/Skype meeting are appropriate. But the template is a solid foundation.
For more templates, and more advice about informational interviews, check out this post by Ramit Sethi. I read his blog extensively before applying to my current PhD program, and his career advice easily translates to getting a graduate school offer.
You might have picked up on this by now - networking isn't just for finding a 9-5 job. If you're going for a PhD position, that's a 4-7 year commitment, and your potential advisor is facing that too. Who do they want to train for half a decade? We all want to work with people we get along with and can talk to. Informational interviews not only help you get information. You're putting a face to a name. When your application is under review, they know who you are. You've already shown a potential supervisor that you're communicative, interested in their work, and a go-getter.
My name is Hannah. After nearly 7 years in graduate school, spanning 3 graduate programs, you begin to notice the tactics of the most successful students who go on to have fulfilling careers. In this blog I'd like to share what I've learned from observation, as well as from reading about personal finance, professional development, and non-academic career options.