Ten Questions Before Grad School

24 May 2013

I recently ran across a printed copy of this handout I wrote 1994 while I was a graduate student at the University of Ottawa.

It was the final year of my Ph.D and I was acting as a peer counselor for other graduate students. It seemed to me that some incoming students were really ill prepared for the graduate student experience.

So I based the questions on problems I had heard from other students while in this role.
Aside from correcting a few typos, this is exactly what I wrote.

Ten Questions to Ask Yourself Before Committing Yourself to a Graduate Degree

by Christopher Hogue, Student Representative, Grad. Studies Committee,
Dept. of Biochemistry, U. of Ottawa, 1994.

1)    I would like to do academic research, industrial research, or post-secondary level teaching as my primary career choice.  I am prepared to relocate to follow my career throughout my life.

2)    I have had exposure to a research or laboratory environment and I appreciate what it means to spend 2-6 years doing research.

3)    I have a prospective research supervisor who can be described as trustworthy, intelligent, optimistic and thoughtful.  I have examined his or her relevant research publications.

4)    I have a good grasp of my proposed thesis research project and I am aware of roughly how many research publications it has the potential of generating in the time allotted.  I have familiarized myself with the current relevant research in the field.

5)    I have sought external information about my prospective research supervisor, including the opinion of his or her former graduate students, colleagues at the university, and other respected scientists in the same field of research. These opinions are, in general, favorable, and I have a more complete understanding of my prospective supervisor than from what we may have discussed one-on-one.

6)    I understand the costs of providing for my basic necessities and I know that my source of revenue is sufficient to provide this level of funding.

7)    My source of revenue (e.g. supervisor / grant / teaching income / part time job) is guaranteed for the expected duration of my graduate studies.

8)    I am prepared to spend a large amount of personal time working on the research necessary for a thesis, without additional financial compensation.

9)    My current long-term partner or love interest is also aware of what it means for me to undertake a graduate degree and is willing to provide the support and sacrifice parallel to my own.

10)    I am prepared to sacrifice an amount of extra time (up to two years) in case of a contingency in order to complete my thesis and degree. Such contingencies include failed research objectives, family responsibilities, child rearing, relocation of graduate supervisor, or unexpected loss of financial support.

Each of these questions requires an opinion, and several of the questions require you to undertake an exercise - usually in information gathering.

If you said YES to all of these questions, by all means begin in earnest!

If you said NO to any one or more of the above questions, you should, at this stage, reconsider your decision or take the steps necessary to change your answer - gather the required information or adjust your opinion.

If, in the end, you answer NO to 3 or more of the above questions, you are ill-suited for the graduate student experience, you will whine throughout your term, and you should consider getting a job in the work-force. This may mean a change in career direction away from your undergraduate experience and expectations - but in the end it will probably be more suitable.