Taking the Plunge

Choosing Grad School over Industry
Nov 2019
Cormac
O.
Mechanical Engineering

Applying to grad school can feel like climbing a mountain.  We’ve all heard the analogy, but I’ve found that there’s very little advice on what to do once you’re at the top. After all the effort of making applications and getting in, the decision on what to do next can make you feel like you’re looking out over a cliff. You face this decision when you’re already tired and weary from the initial climb and it prompts you with a final choice: are you willing to take the plunge?

That decision crept up on me when the first college acceptance rolled into my email. Originally, applying to grad school hadn’t even been on my radar. I spent most of my summers doing internships in industry rather than research, enjoying the chance to get out of the college bubble. During junior year, I was itching to start applying to jobs and was already hitting up career fairs to get the lay of the land like your typical nerdy over-achiever.

In senior year, I was offered a job with an oil and gas company. The pitch was hard to pass up: traveling around the world, good pay, and complimentary travel to visit family to boot. It promised me the opportunity to work with advanced technology, while seeing the world in the process. The chance to regularly see my family without needing to cross an ocean was a huge additional perk that I hadn’t even been expecting. Making up my mind, I accepted the offer.

In the meantime, my friends were knee-deep in their grad school apps. Calls were going out to professors, and it felt like half the people I knew were browsing through research papers and lab group websites every time I saw them. Even though I had my job offer in hand, they talked me into taking a peek at some groups. At the very least, I thought, it would be cool to read up on what research was going on.

When I first clicked my way onto a lab’s web page, I had no idea that I was about to stumble down a rabbit hole that would see me soak up information from fields as diverse as bioengineering, robotics and solid mechanics. It was the first time I’d really delved into the wide variety of cutting-edge research that was going on in colleges across the country, and I found myself hooked. I started to wonder: maybe going to graduate school wouldn’t be so bad. My friends continued to prod me, arguing that I had nothing to lose by trying. I wrote my essays, gathered my recommendations, and picked out the schools that most appealed to me. I didn’t seriously think about what I would do if I got in, let alone what I would do if I got offered funding. So when an acceptance letter from MIT — of all places — rolled into my inbox, all my carefully laid plans suddenly got turned upside down.

Stuck between my offers, I reached out to my Dad for some advice. His response was pretty succinct: call up my company recruiter, and tell them that I’d changed my mind.

Turns out he’d been thinking one step ahead of me, and had been asking some of his friends what choice they’d recommend. He didn’t know a lot about graduate school, and he knew even less about how it worked in America. So he asked around. Would I have a job if I did further studies, or would I be too specialized? Would I struggle to live a “normal” life with all the work, and would I rake up debts along the way? Or would I instead find incredible opportunities that I had never considered? He managed to get his answer from a Texan oil worker who laughed off the question. To quote, he said that if his own son turned down the chance to get out there and pursue a further degree, he’d “kick him in the ass”.

It took a few more calls, but a realization slowly began to dawn on me. All the hesitations and worries that were holding me back from graduate school didn’t really matter. What do two, five, even six years pursuing a PhD or a Masters really mean compared to decades out in the workforce? When I’m older and looking back on my life, will I regret not jumping straight out into a job, or will I fondly remember the unique experiences I’d gained as a graduate student? Even if, at the end of the day, my degree isn’t “financially worthwhile”, would that make it worthless? Thinking back to how excited I’d felt talking to professors and reading about research, I realized that just the opportunity to spend a few years of my life learning from incredible people and tackling exciting problems was worth putting a career on hold.

With a new sense of conviction, I accepted MIT’s offer and stumbled my way into Boston. I didn’t end up here with a careful plan, and honestly I’m still making things up as I go along. But I think that I’m finally learning that a misstep on life’s path is perhaps the best way to stumble upon the greatest opportunities. I’m excited to be here at MIT, and even though I’m not sure where I’ll end up at the end of this awesome journey, I'm glad that I decided to take the plunge.