• facebook
  • White Twitter Icon
  • White LinkedIn Icon



Self-Assessment: Why am I in Graduate School?

Dong Yan

March 20, 2013

I am a science folk, and my world is dominated by charts, tables and graphs, and less so by philosophical word-play with cleverly refined wit. So do bare that in mind when reading the following :)

I think anyone who is / was / or wants to be in graduate school has faced a single question on multiple occasions, and that is, WHY? Why am I in graduate school? The beauty of this question is not only in its simplicity but more so in its ever changing answer(s). When we first embark on the journey of graduate school as budding young minds, bachelor’s degrees in-hand, our answer to this question would have been filled with hopes and aspirations. Maybe you were more humble or less naive, giving you a sense of reservation at the time, but let’s be honest, no journey ever seem direr at the starting-line. Then as the years pass and the thrill of accomplishment dwindles, the answer to this seemingly simple question becomes increasingly dark and ominous. From what I heard and experienced (up to now), it’s part of the process, and the suffering during this time is ubiquitous, so don’t feel lonely. This is a road well travelled, with many who finished and just as many skeletons left behind in the gutters. At this very moment, you can be looking at the finish line near the horizon, or staring down the barrel of a rifle. Either way, do take comfort in the fact that everyone who was on this journey has been where you are at some point :)

Now back to the question on hand, Why am I in graduate school? Whenever this dreaded question creeps into my mind, it is often accompanied by another question: Why not something else? These two questions are basically the same, and the answer largely depends on where I am in life. Here I am referring to all aspects of life, not just doing experiments, writings up experiments, and planning more experiments. Life should include family, friends, hobbies, and so on and so forth. Basically all things you are present for physically, mentally, and / or emotionally. And for every one of those moments, there is a certain demand on you. In my mind, this demand can be simplified and viewed as constant, proportional to time or age. When we were young, there might not have been a demand to cook for ourselves, but there was a demand for sharing toys (maybe); but as we get older, the sharing is no longer limited to just toys, and depending on your age, there might also be a demand to feed yourself. In the world of charts and graphs, this demand can basically be represented by a straight line with a constant slope, think Y=mX+b* if it helps. On the other hand, Graduate school, as a function of reward**, is anything BUT a linear relationship related to time (or age). This relationship can best be represented by a RRSP investment projection, or an exponential growth curve, with relatively little reward for an extended period of time, and the POSSIBILITY of a large payout once things are said and done. Keeping these two lines in mind, the answer to why I (myself) am in graduate school at any given moment, depends on if I can meet the demand of life with (or without) the rewards of graduate school. I have a, QUOTE tolerable gap UNQUOTE, in mind that I can bare at any given time. If say, life’s demand is too far away from the reward offered to me by graduate school, then maybe graduate school is not for me anymore. On the flip side of things, if graduate school is fulfilling my needs at a moment, and life’s demands don’t become overburdening to me, then by all means, keep on chipping away at the mountain of unknown and gathering pebbles of knowledge.


This view is of course overtly simplified. Though I do wonder how many of us will still choose to tough through the grind when we win some kind of huge lottery? I can also honestly say if feeding myself became a problem during graduate school, I will not think twice about dropping it and working at the local McDonalds or Tim Hortons. The situation will not ever be as extreme, but all I am saying is that graduate school is not a tunnel with only one exit. And the question of WHY, once in a while, can offer a nice refreshing perspective, to either remind you what the hardship is for, or a sobering view to finally convenience you to toss in the towel. Whatever reason you might think you NEED a graduate degree, the life style is just not for everyone. This does not make folks with graduate degrees better or worse than others, no matter how much we might like to think so, or try to act at times. The question of why going to graduate school is asked by everyone, and the answer given can often be repetitive and regurgitated over and over. Maybe the question should be rephrased and emphasized on why ARE YOU going to graduate school, since it is a decision that affects you the most, and you are the only one who will know yourself the best.

During those dark hours in the lab where you are alone and can only hear the white noise of equipments humming about, it might be as good of a time as any to assess priorities and ask yourself WHY AM I in graduate school? It is after all, a very simple question with a very important answer.

Just my two cents :)


*If the linearity of this “demand” line raises burning questions in your mind that deters you from reading any further, then you sir or madam are reading way too much into it, and clearly at this very moment, you should be in graduate school studying mathematics; Alternatively if linearity does come into question, yet you are still able to continue reading, I applaud you, but feel free to rip me apart in the comment section.

** Reward in this scenario does not pertain only to the monitory payouts of graduate school. Because if you don’t know by now, graduate school is not where you want to go for making money. The greatest reward in graduate school is the pursuit of knowledge in a relatively safe environment, away from the full-blown social interplay that often accompanies a job or career.