When is the best time to start graduate school?

Pros and cons of fresh-out-of-undergraduate and post-young professional paths
April 2021
Jessica
W.
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

I’ve technically had two “first days” of graduate school.

The first one was in September 2012. Fresh out of undergraduate, I arrived that fall semester at MIT - completely burned out. After graduate school applications and a grueling final senior semester, I was running on fumes. I joined a lab that semester in a field that was brand new to me. The group provided me with funding, and I hoped a passion would develop over time. Ultimately, the area was just not a good fit, and I ended up leaving MIT.

The second first day was in September 2020. After working full-time for several years, I was hitting some limitations in my career. I needed graduate experience to work on the more open-end, challenging problems that interested me. During this time, I also found a research area that I really enjoyed. So at 30 years old, I headed back to MIT to complete my master’s degree.

Being able to compare both experiences side-by-side has revealed some serious pluses and minuses of starting graduate school at different times in life. 

(1) Money might not buy happiness, but it is a fantastic problem solver. (+1 Post-young professional path)

While MIT’s stipends are on the high end, the Boston area is an extremely expensive place to live. I remember going to a street fair in Harvard Square and finding a quirky watch I loved. But, when I looked at the price tag, I realized this $20 watch would be my entire month of savings. In graduate school, I was constantly stressed about how tight my budget was and terrified about going into debt. There was just never enough to put away for a rainy day fund, much less splurge on accessories.

While working full-time, I saved up enough money to supplement my stipend this time around. This financial cushion has been a great stress reliever and allowed me to just focus on my school work. On this second-take, I also brought a car with me, which has simplified many activities (groceries) and allowed me to explore more of MA (the cape!).

(2) Uprooting your entire life isn’t simple

+1 Fresh Out of Undergrad Path

When I arrived at MIT in 2012, I was able to fit my entire life into three suitcases. But in 2020, a three-man moving crew spent a full day packing up my two bedroom, two bath apartment. Leaving DC meant saying goodbye to all my friends, my coffee shop where I was a regular, and that list of doctors that took years to accumulate.

One way to make that transition smoother is finding a full-time job close to where you plan on going to graduate school. Some companies even cover the cost of attending graduate school in the area (something to keep in mind while job hunting).

(3) Flexibility with your semester start date

+1 Post-young professional

One of the hardest things to hear from a professor is “I’m not taking students this year.” For me, this meant going with plan B and working in an unfamiliar research area. My main piece of advice is to not compromise on your research area just to attend a certain school. Working full-time can provide some timeline flexibility for joining a lab or working with a particular professor. 

Graduate research is very different from taking undergraduate classes. Typically, your advisor and lab have a substantial impact on your experience. A mismatch in either can make for a challenging research career. Funding issues make switching between labs difficult*, and sometimes, the only option is to leave the university and start over somewhere else. The connections that you make at a full-time job help ensure that you have a backup plan in case graduate school doesn’t work out.

(4) Everyone in the class is how old?”

+1 Fresh Out of Undergrad

On average, I was about eight years older than everyone in my graduate class this semester. It was hard not to do the math and realize that I graduated high school when the other students were in elementary school. I still haven’t mastered the correct use of the slang phrases my pset buddies would use, no matter how hard I’ve tried. Another fresh out of undergraduate advantage is having the pre-req courses fresh in your mind. I hadn’t taken Signals and Systems in … 10 years. Oof.

(5) How does this work in the real world?

(+1 Post-young professional path)

Full-time work showed me how textbook topics actually get used in practice. One time, I was chatting with a coworker about an algorithm we were implementing. I quickly realized that we’d need to figure out numerical values for terms I’d always just left as Greek letters. My industry experience was a great blend of designing software and working with actual hardware (which … turns out I love!) and debugging a lot of practical issues along the way. And I was able to take those skills and put an application-focused spin on my master’s work.

The Final Tally:

Post Young-Professional Path: 3 Fresh Out of Undergrad Path: 2

If I could do it over again, I would have worked for 2-3 years and started graduate school at 25 (not 30). That’s just enough time to put money in the bank, gain some real-world experience, figure out the exact research area you like, and enjoy the 9-5 life with nights and weekends.

While your pros and cons might stack up differently, I hope this article helps. And that you only have one incredible first day of graduate school.

*MIT Note: The organization RISE has secured university-wide transitional funding for students who need to switch out of a research group. RISE Transitional Funding