MentorDoctor: Academia or Finances


Dear MentorDoctor,

I am a third-year minority undergraduate majoring in biology. Because of my good grades, many of my professors have encouraged me to attend graduate school, but I prefer to get a job after graduation to help support my family. My mother currently works two jobs to take care of my three younger siblings still at home. Would delaying my entry into graduate school for a few years be detrimental to my future career as a scientist?

Sincerely,Weighing My Options

Luis Echegoyen: This is a difficult and unfortunate position to be in. Your family situation sounds extreme, and you must help your mother economically for a while. If there are no other potential sources of income for the family, then the decision is obvious.

Ideally, it would be academically much better for you to go directly into graduate school. But if you cannot, will this hurt your future career as a scientist? No, but you will need to be very tenacious to continue on the academic path after joining the work force for a while. Once you get a job and start making money, your life changes in more ways than one. Your needs grow proportionately and soon it will seem impossible to revert back to what necessarily would be a considerably lower graduate student stipend.

In my experience, this is the most common reason for never returning to graduate school. I have met many people in that situation, wanting to return but not willing to make the sacrifice. Others complain that after a few years they "fall out" of the academic mindset, and find it difficult to sit back in the classroom and take quizzes and exams once more. Nevertheless, some do return to graduate programs later in life, and are very successful. One of the few advantages of delaying entry into graduate school is the added maturity gained during the intervening working years.

My strong advice is try to stick to your plan of returning to school and keep your life simple enough to allow you to make that change with minimal conflict later on. In the meantime, make the best out of the situation and continue to study biology even if it is on your own. Good luck!

Isabella Finkelstein: It is not uncommon for students to delay entry to graduate school. Many students want to get more research experience. You only mention your grades. Have you had the opportunity to work in a research laboratory? If not, it is essential to get this experience so that you know that you enjoy research. You must get a job that would enhance your graduate application. I suggest you do the following:

  • Investigate the job opportunities available in your area. Will the pay be sufficient to really help out at home? Can you get a position that will provide research experience?

  • Investigate PREP (Post-baccalaureate Research Education Progress). These are NIH-funded programs at universities that provide an introduction to graduate school and research. A stipend is sometimes equal to entry-level jobs. Many of the Institutes at NIH also have post-baccalaureate programs.

  • Since you are a junior you should plan to participate in one of the many research intern programs at universities and government agencies including NIH. These programs provide a stipend and excellent research experience.

  • There are also excellent graduate opportunities in public health which do not always involve laboratory research.

  • You can also join, as a student, the professional organization appropriate to your interest, e.g., American Chemical Society. This would provide you opportunities to network with other students.

  • In summary you need to do some research to try to determine the career you want to pursue. Let me emphasize again that delaying your entry into graduate school will not be detrimental to your career as a scientist; however, it is important to be selective in what you do.

    James Stith: I encourage you to have a serious talk with your family as you consider your career goals, looking carefully at the long-term options as well as the short-term. Consider carefully your professors' suggestions that you go to graduate school. Get as much information as possible about the variety of graduate school options, the experiences you should have, and the courses you should take to effectively pursue those options. On average, the additional degree significantly increases your potential life-term earnings. The additional degree also increases the possibility that you will end up working in a job of your choosing rather than one you must do to survive.

    I urge you not to simply assume that just because your mother works two jobs to take care of your family that she wants you to delay or not attend graduate school. The hope of many parents is that their children have a better life than they. The culture of many minority parents is that they strongly believe that access to education is one sure way to break the poverty spiral and provide their children access to a better life. Hence, I strongly advise you to allow your mother to be a part of your decision process.

    If your financial situation forces you to go to work immediately, keep your options open to go to graduate school later. For many, the advantage of being more mature when one enters graduate school more that outweighs the possible disadvantage of having your subject skills erode as a result of being away from the subject for a few years.

    Additionally, many employers recognize that an educated worker adds value to the company, so they are willing to provide tuition and other assistance to their employees. In short, your most important decision is to decide whether or not you are going to graduate school. Once you make the commitment to do so, the issue of when is not nearly as important. Good luck.

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