I was a couple of years into my graduate program in physics when I first heard the question that would eventually become a central part of my professional philosophy. My wife and I were sharing a Love Boat of sushi with two friends, Monica and Bill (not their real names) (probably). As usual, I was bitching about the stresses of grad school. Then Dick, an eye surgeon who had recently sold a multimillion-dollar pre-LASIK practice because he was burned out, asked me, "If you don't enjoy it, why are you doing it?"
Despite its deceptive simplicity, this might be the toughest question you will ever have to answer. And no one else can answer it for you.
But before we get into that, let's get one thing straight: Nobody needs a doctorate. Nobody. Most undergraduates (and I personally suspect the figure may be as high as 99%) enter graduate school for one reason: Inertia. The story is so common that it is almost a cliche. Student X excelled in science classes and found research interesting. A friendly faculty member noticed X's abilities and suggested that X apply to graduate school. X was accepted and, thrilled at the honor, went. Several years later, X realized that academic research jobs were scarce and started looking for something else to do. ...
The advice that X received was almost certainly given in good faith, but it had an unstated additional motivation--feed the research machine. What X probably didn't realize is that graduate schools need X more than X needs them. After all, graduate students are the inexpensive labor force that does most of the scientific research at most universities.
Don't be X. You owe it to yourself to make sure you are committed to a life of research before you even start the grad school application process. If your deepest heart's desire is to be the principal investigator for a research team at a university, national lab, or private research company, then by all means, go get a doctorate. You're gonna need it. But is that really your truest desire? Are you sure? Absolutely, positively certain?
You might argue that it is impossible to be absolutely, positively certain about anything at this point, and I would probably agree with you. But you should at least be able to make an educated guess.
If you can't do that, then you need to get yourself some outside-the-classroom education. College professors, bless their hearts, tend to be largely ignorant of the work world beyond academia and often view the "outside world" with fear and loathing, so it can be difficult to get objective or accurate career information from them. Unfortunately, though, most of the jobs are on the "outside," which means there's a good chance you'll end up working there. ...
So here is a piece of unsolicited advice. You may not take it now, but virtually every graduate student I have ever met (including me) is sorry they didn't. So here goes. Either TAKE A YEAR OFF AND WORK, preferably in a field closely related to the one you are thinking of pursuing as a grad student, or GO SEE A CAREER COUNSELOR. Doing both is even better, particularly if you start with the career counselor.
People in Your Neighborhood--The Career Counselor
A career counselor is exactly that: someone who offers counsel as you try to decide where your career is headed. The first thing a good counselor will do is to get to know you. To do this, they may ask you to take a standardized test or two, interview you about your interests, or ask you to write about some significant events in your life. As the picture comes into focus, you and the counselor will identify some likely career directions for a person with your skills, personality, and interests. A good counselor can save you years of confusion and heartache.
Finding a career counselor is easy, if you know where to look. For general questions, you might consider making a post to Next Wave's Ask Kathie forum, on which our resident career counselor in training, Kathie Sindt, does her best to answer your questions. For more specific advice, virtually every university and college has a career center, and every career center either employs or knows where to find at least one career counselor. For prospective graduate students, these are your best bet. University-based counselors are relatively inexpensive (or free), and they will likely have a wealth of experience working with people just like you. If your school doesn't provide career counseling, check the Yellow Pages for private career counselors. But beware, not all career counselors are helpful, and some even prey on vulnerable job seekers. Before you choose a counselor, and absolutely before you PAY one, please read the chapter on finding a career counselor in What Color Is Your Parachute, by Richard Nelson Bolles. This invaluable book is available at most libraries and all career centers.
And if you should happen to discover that you want to try something outside the standard research path, go for it. Millions of people lead happy and productive lives without ever coming within sniffing distance of a Ph.D. You can, too. If you want proof, just scan through any of Next Wave's career transition features. There you will find dozens of former scientists plying a wide variety of different trades that utilize everything they learned in graduate school. Everything, that is, except the narrow slice of knowledge they added to the world by finishing a Ph.D. Virtually all of them, with a few notable exceptions, could do their job with a B.S. or an M.S. And if they had skipped the Ph.D., they would now have several more years of valuable on-the-job experience.
Alright, enough lecturing. If you've read this far I can only assume that you visited a career counselor, took your year off, and are now absolutely, positively sure you want to go to graduate school. (I believe you; millions wouldn't. ...) Now you have to choose a school and somehow get yourself in. Next month, Survive and Thrive will tell you how.
P.S. Many readers of Survive and Thrive are already grad students. You might think this advice comes too late to help you. Have no fear! It is never too late to change your mind. Stay tuned for Survive and Thrive's column on "Midcourse Corrections," coming to computer screens this spring.