I often talk to students who are thinking about grad school. The advice I generally give is a dressed-up version of “Just do whatever the hell will make you happy.” But if we all had solid ideas about what would make us happy then, well, we’d probably be a lot more happy. Here’s a list of things that I actually accomplished in grad school. Most of these things did make me happy or at least were satisfying. Of course, I cannot know the extent to which these things would make other people happy, and I also cannot know whether I would have been happier with the things that I’d have accomplished if I hadn’t gone to grad school. Since I got a PhD 13 years ago and started the program 18.5 years ago (crap!) I have at least a modest amount of perspective at this point.
First, some work-related things.
- I became pretty good at doing and evaluating research.
- I started to become good at writing. When I arrived at grad school I was not a good writer. When I left, I was not good either, but at least I was on the way. Since 2001, every time I write something, I have been thankful that it’s not a PhD thesis.
- I wrote a few pretty decent papers. None of them set the world afire, but none of them has been a source of embarrassment either.
- I did some internships in industry and, along the way, learned a bit about how the real world works, if such a thing can be said to exist.
But really, the things in grad school that weren’t about work were better:
- I read a lot of books, often several per week. I’m afraid that I’m going to have to get the kids out of the house and also retire if I want to reach that level again.
- I found someone to spend the rest of my life with. This was the purest luck.
- I made a number of friends who I am still close to, though we don’t talk nearly often enough. I doubt that I’ll ever have another group of friends as good as these.
- I became quite good at disc golf.
- I did a decent amount of programming for fun.
- I avoided going into debt. In fact, the TA and RA stipends that I received in grad school felt like a lot of money compared to the ~$7000/year that I lived on as an undergrad.
There are a bunch of things that are important that I did not accomplish in grad school:
- I failed to learn even rudimentary time management.
- I did not develop good eating, drinking, sleeping, or exercise habits. When I graduated I was under the impression that my body could tolerate almost any sort of abuse.
- I didn’t learn to choose good research topics, this took several more years.
- I didn’t figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
I put this out there on the off chance that it might be useful for people who are thinking about grad school.