Should I Consider Graduate School?

Graduate school can have a big impact on your career, but it isn't for everyone. Be clear about your expectations and what you hope to accomplish when pursuing an advanced degree.

Certificate with question mark

Our industry increasingly relies on complex technology. And top management positions at many industry companies are now often held by technical professionals with advanced degrees. So whether or not to attend graduate school is an important matter for young professionals—either just emerging with their first degree or having spent a few years in industry—to consider.

In some countries, such as the Netherlands, “graduate school” refers solely to PhD studies. In the US, by far most students start their careers with a BS degree. There, “graduate school” includes MS as well as PhD studies. Whatever graduate school means in your country, though, there are several good reasons to attend:

Preparation for a career focusing on technology. Graduate studies give you increased grounding in the fundamentals of your discipline and usually (in a thesis or dissertation) experience in conducting open-ended research. This prepares you for a career in technology development and research. In most large companies, these jobs are held almost exclusively by people with graduate degrees—especially PhD degrees. Although there are a few who have made careers in R&D with only a BS degree, for the most part, if you want to have a career in R&D, you should get a graduate degree.

This is not simply a matter of “getting a piece of paper.” In preparing to write this essay, I listed basic analytical tools I learned in graduate school. In 15 minutes I came up with about 20 fundamental concepts, paradigms, and tools I could name right off, many of which pop up again and again in my career, sometimes in surprising places. For instance, the multiple steady states of a chemical-plant reactor can serve as a model for an enhanced-oil-recovery process with complex dynamics.

Coursework-only Masters degrees are available at some universities. These degrees allow you to study technology in depth beyond the BS degree but do not require open-ended research. In general, they require you to pay your way, though, whereas research positions in graduate school often come with free tuition and a (Spartan) living allowance.

Immersion in intellectual pursuits. Engineers may roll their eyes at this, but it is often students’ primary motivation for entering graduate school in most other departments (in liberal arts and humanities) at major universities. There is a difference between undergraduate and graduate education. Undergraduate education often is satisfied with teaching the students methods; graduate education should open students’ minds to the fundamental questions and approaches behind the methods. Graduate school offers chances to ask the questions you didn’t have time to ask in college, and to fully understand the assumptions and limitations of those equations you memorized just before each exam. Graduate school can be the most intellectually challenging and rewarding time of your life.

It is a good idea to attend graduate school at a different institution from that of your first degree(s). Mixing with a new faculty and student body will likely give a wider perspective.

Essential accreditation for a university teaching job. Most large universities require a PhD for a permanent teaching position, in part because these positions also require you to develop a strong research program. Some universities have teaching posts that do not involve research, and some truly great educators do hold such positions. However, most often these posts are not the most prestigious and do not offer the security of tenure.

Re-establishment for your career. A graduate degree is a great means of changing industries. If for some reason you want to return to a career that was interrupted, a graduate degree can provide an additional—and current—credential, source of up-to-date recommendations, and (at most universities) job-placement service to aid in re-entering at possibly a higher level than you left. Many students use graduate degrees obtained in a foreign country as a way to enter the job market outside their home countries (although immigration laws in the new home country often make that difficult).

In some companies, an engineering graduate degree is not the key to rapid advancement up the management ladder. Those who primarily aim for upper management may do better with an MBA. This is not the case in all companies, however, especially those that excel at technology. If you are already working, check the resumes of those at the top; if you are interviewing, ask how many of the company’s top managers hold advanced technical degrees.

If the answer is yes, then when is the best time to attend: directly after your BS or after some time in industry?

There are advantages to spending a few years in industry first: greater maturity, more background in the practical application of the subjects being covered, greater self-confidence, more focus on the specific goals of your education. Some professors say their best graduate students are those who have spent a few years in industry first. Greater maturity and self-confidence can be real assets when research or studies become discouraging, as they usually do at some point in graduate school.

There are, however, at least two strong reasons to go directly to your final destination, whether an MS or a PhD:

First, and most important, your financial obligations usually increase with age. You may marry, and perhaps start a family, or simply become accustomed to a standard of living above that typical of students. Most graduate schools in the West provide free tuition and some sort of living allowance for qualified graduate students doing research, but the living allowance is nothing like what you would have become accustomed to in industry. When one is young, living on a shoestring budget is acceptable, even romantic. Later in life it can be more of a strain. If you delay graduate school, you risk that it won’t be feasible later.

Second, usually your math skills decrease with time out of college, and graduate school will force you back to that calculus textbook you haven’t looked at for years. Good students can overcome this, but it is a challenge.

A third issue to consider is that graduate school can be a humbling experience: A thesis or dissertation is an apprenticeship. Greater maturity may help you keep this in perspective, or it may make it harder to accept.

My personal advice is that if you know when you complete your first degree that you want a graduate degree, take the opportunity then. But if you decide later on to consider graduate school, look carefully at the economic implications and priorities for your family (if you have one), and take the plunge only if you can manage it.

For me, graduate school was the most intellectually stimulating period of my life up to that time—perhaps of my whole life. It was discouraging, struggling with challenging courses and doing research that at times seemed to go nowhere. It was also rewarding as small successes came, and it was great to get to know fellow students, many of whom continue to be good friends. My wife compiled a collage of photos from graduate school that is now on my office wall, and at any excuse I pull it down and tell visitors about the people and incidents portrayed there. As Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Though he did not write this about graduate school, it is an apt description. But know that if you truly love learning, there are likely to be far more “best of times.”

William R. Rossen is professor of reservoir engineering at Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands. He holds BS and PhD degrees in chemical engineering from MIT and the University of Minnesota, respectively. His research interests include foams for well simulation and enhanced oil recovery (EOR), sweep efficiency in gas EOR, and modeling complex displacement and flow processes in porous media. In 2002, he received the SPE Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award. He is a Distinguished Member of SPE.