Graduate school is not for everyone. This should be clear. It’s 1-3 years for a Master’s, and anywhere between 3-7 for a Ph.D. (based on your abilities and how bad you want it!) Many know immediately whether they do or do not want to attend. But for those who are on the fence for engineering, I offer guidance in the form of 10 reasons. My opinions may skew toward aerospace as that’s my background.
After four years (at least) of grinding away at some of the hardest problems you thought you could ever encounter, building a cascade of rocket science self-esteem, and emerging (by the skin of your teeth) with a diploma that will hold a special place…somewhere, eventually. Well, the four years spent between high school and college probably taught you many lessons, but don’t think for a minute you know it all. Graduate school raises the stakes. It will teach you valuable skills in time management, communication, engineering methods, etc., and you’ll be able to present these polished skills to your first serious employer.
2. Dictate your future
Having a master’s degree demonstrates to employers that you have added value because you took on additional responsibility and succeeded at that mission. Having a Ph.D. means you made a significant, unique contribution to human knowledge, and offers extremely rewarding career choices. Having only a bachelor’s degree isn’t that bad, but you’re part of a large group of similarly educated, bright, energetic, new-car-smell engineers who have to make a significant effort to stand out from one another. Unless you’re a networking phenom or you have your own blog…get comfortable dealing with resume stacks, phone interviews, and the brutal competition to earn your entry-level position. For those who already got a job with a bachelor’s, did you get your first choice out the gate?
3. Set an example
I have several younger siblings and a very large extended family. There are a lot of graduate students from all over the world, from smaller villages to huge cities, and we all remember where we came from. Friends and family back at home remember what we were like as children and they spread our inspirational stories. It is not only our duty as aerospace engineers to achieve the desired objective, performance, and safety of our operations, but to set an example for the next generation of engineers, so that they may be encouraged to follow us.
4. Broaden your perspective
Many universities encourage a global perspective. Your graduate work considers the work done by others around the world. The people you meet will come from all over, and many of them may work directly with you. A global (diverse) perspective is encouraged because the ability to see a problem from several different angles enhances your problem solving ability. Greater perspective can enhance your creative thinking and flexibility toward solving a problem. Aside from broadening your problem solving ability, graduate school will also give you additional time to meet people from other cultures and hopefully encourage your own personal development in understanding others.
5. Become a technical authority
Your value is not simply increased by the piece of paper representing your graduate degree, but by the technical knowledge and the advanced problem solving skills you now possess. When you have that knowledge, you are able to speak with authority on topics to guide decisions that will have significant effect on design and production (or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work). If you obtain your Ph.D., your opinion will have much greater weight in your field, and you may be looked at when challenging questions arise within your area of study. Of course, you better know what you’re talking about!
6. Stand shoulder to shoulder with giants
Not only are the students and faculty in graduate school the smartest I’ve ever met, they are also making significant contributions to the subjects I care about most. It is a rare opportunity to interact with today’s most brilliant minds outside of the leading companies who can afford to hire them. You will not merely be observing your intelligent peers. You will be on the front lines, exchanging ideas and converging on problem solutions.
7. Improve your presentation ability
Without good presentation, the audience will not care about your work. During your master’s degree education you may be required to either defend your work as part of your master’s thesis. If you stick around for your Ph.D., you will be offered the opportunity at numerous conferences or poster presentations to explain what you’re doing. Even if you have confidence in your presenting ability, it will be a different challenge to meet the expectations of your audience in technical ability. You will also have great diversity in your audiences. You will be able to use the skills and knowledge gained in these presentations later in your professional or academic career. Here’s a helpful article on how to give a good talk, by Mike Dahlin.
8. Justifiable investment
This Georgetown study notes that 41% of aerospace engineers (surveyed among the labor force) have a graduate degree. Aside from this glaring statistic, you hardly need a napkin calculation of cost-benefit analysis to understand that graduate school is a justifiable investment. In many cases, the graduate school or a fellowship may pay for your education. You are additionally provided a very modest (but existent) stipend so that you can be a productive worker and not have to worry (much) about the bills. Often, you are getting paid to learn (which is also paid for). Take advantage of this very unique opportunity.
We’re not looking near term, but long-term. When I started out as an engineering student in college, I had money as my lowest priority. Hell, I was proud of that, and couldn’t understand why people would get involved in engineering based on the $ sign alone. But I’ve come to understand that life isn’t cheap, and when it comes time to support a family, I definitely need to be a provider. Those with aerospace graduate degrees get an average earnings boost of 28%.
You have the freedom to succeed and you have the freedom to fail. While this is always true, it is especially true in graduate school. There is so much flexibility in graduate school that you can choose to grind for days on multiple projects, churning out more results and ideas than you would have ever thought possible, or you can choose to let the hours go by without accomplishment. Depending on your specific field, you may have the ability to set your hours, work location, topic of interest, etc. The bottom line, however, is that you have the freedom to control the flow of your life, and you have the responsibility to ensure that the needs of your school, department, and advisor are met. Here are some productivity tips from Dr. Matt Might, a favorite blogger of mine.