Ask an Engineer: To Grad School or Not to Grad School?

Feb 3, 2011

This month’s question is actually a combination of two different emails that I received about the same time. Figured it would make a good question to pose to the panel! The gist of the question is below:

I’m graduating from University soon. My parents think I should go to graduate school, but there isn't a topic that I'm very interested in studying further. Being in University right now, I have lots of friends and profs who can advise me on why I might want to go to graduate school, but what are some reasons that I might want to go into industry right after graduating?

Jim - Cement Industry, Pennsylvania, USA

So your basic education is done and everyone around you says you should get more education? Maybe you think it’s time to get on with life but you haven’t fallen upon a sense of purpose, a mission, an obsession? 

Most career advice experts will tell you that you start by defining your goal, and then proceed to make a plan with checkpoints and milestones spread out into the distant future. Blah, blah, blah.  The rest will tell you to choose a mentor or at least a role model to emulate.  If you could define a career goal or identify a suitable role model, you wouldn’t be asking this question would you?

So what you do next is you go on a journey.  Take on something unfamiliar, challenging, a little bit frightening.  Leave your friends and your family behind for a year or so. One great way to do this is to sign up with a company who will train you and send you to some remote place.  And they’ll pay you.  Companies are always looking for young engineers to take on challenges in “less desirable” locations.  An alternate path could be to choose a graduate program that takes you to a location or a field of study that is outside your comfort zone.

In any case, hit the road! I’ll bet your future plans will sort themselves out along the way.

Dan - Diesel Engine Manufacturing - Illinois, USA

Based on what I'm seeing in my industry, hiring is going way up right now. There are so many entry-level jobs going around that if there is an industry you are interested in, you can find someone hiring! A lot of companies offer rotation assignments which can span a lot of their departments and this is a good way to find where you best fit in.

In addition, many companies offer tuition reimbursement if you decide later you want to get a Master's degree, instead of getting one now to find its not what you want (complete disclaimer: my masters is not in what I'm doing now, but I suppose it’s close enough). If that's not to your liking, many of the professional societies offer training classes that are more tailored.

 Justin - General Contracting/Construction Management – International

The single most compelling argument I can make for a student entering the work force as soon as they leave school is to gain experience.  I am sure it holds true in all forms of engineering, but in construction there is just no substitute for it.  Your master's thesis and all the extra course work will give you valuable technical knowledge, but in the end it all comes down to application, and you won't learn how to apply your knowledge in a classroom.  For that, you have to watch other people do the job and muddle through it on your own.

Dyson - Mechanical Technologist - Yukon Territories

We have a couple of young fellas if our office that just got their degree, so I asked them why they didn't get their masters, or doctorates.

Their responses fell into two distinct points; the first was that they were starting to get really burned out, the second was they knew their return on investment was negligible (eg: the cost of higher education didn't necessarily correspond to an increase in wages).

Perhaps you've worked for 3 or 4 years and paid tens of thousands of dollars to getting some sort of fantastic knowledge? Why not go out and earn that money back?

You also get a truly fantastic thing called time. A standard day is about 8 hrs that leaves the evenings and weekends free to do what you want. No late classes, no assignments, and no tests.

Johan: Software, Domotics Industry, Netherlands

Two types of people in the engineering workforce  drive development throughout industry: Thinkers and Doers. Neither is superior to the other, but both have distinct and valuable function. Without the thinkers, the doers would be stuck in using the same tools for all eternity and never finding better ways to solve problems. Without the doers, the thinkers would come up with all kinds of improvements but no-one would be there to use them. Both are important.

Now as far as I know, the Bachelor degree is best suited for a doer, while the Master degree is best suited for a thinker. If you know you're more of a thinker, or would like to be, go for the Masters. Otherwise, the Bachelor degree is enough to find a fulfilling job just doing things and solving problems.

Angela – Sustainability Industry – Vancouver

 It was obvious to me by the time I graduated that I wanted to get to work and get out of school.  The workload wasn’t the problem, in fact, by my fifth year I had finally started getting the hang of it. The problem was that many 4th level courses were obviously “if you go to grad school you’ll need to know this” courses, and they weren’t exciting for me.

I think you need to ask yourself: what exactly are the opportunities that the masters degree will open up for you that you can’t pursue with an undergraduate degree? And, are you absolutely certain that you are interested in those opportunities? Unless you’re doing cutting-edge R&D, experience usually matters more than education.
I get the feeling that getting halfway through a masters and then quitting is more expensive, more difficult and harder to explain on a resume then going back to school after some work experience. 

 Bruno - Polytechnique - Junior Software Engineer - Quebec (OIQ)

Being a software engineer, there were plenty of jobs available when I graduated. I was pretty lucky that there were plenty of jobs... My brother was not as lucky: he studied in Chemical Enginering and the jobs were scarce. I'd say that a good step towards your choice would be to look if the market is healthy for your specific field of engineering.
However, even with that in mind, the most important question you must ask yourself: are you ready to continue studing hard or do you want to start your adult life? For my part, I was really tired of studying, the choice wasn't even hard to make. I was fortunate enough to have parents that would have supported my decision to continue further, but I felt it was time for me to take my life to the next level and start my career, and I do not regret my choice!

Robert - Oil and Gas Industry - Texas, USA

You shouldn't let others push you into something that you're not completely interested in, and ask yourself, would grad school, 2+ years of studying, research and reports, be something that you want to be doing, especially if it's something that you don't find stimulating? I'd say take your GRE, because I think that it's valid for a little while but double check for yourself, and then if industry doesn't excite or stimulate you, well you had a small break from school, made some money, and grad school didn't magically disappear. Of course if you find a grad program that does interest you, then by all means go for it.

Kimberly - Computer Science Undergraduate - United States

I'm on my next-to-last quarter before graduating, so I'm in the same boat!

Working for a while allows you to save money for a masters. It also allows you to take a break from school and recharge.  If you're like me, you may not feel like you have enough momentum to continue on being a student.  Working for a while will help you build desire and momentum to be a student again.

Personally, I opted to sign a job offer to begin in the industry once I've graduated. Part of what determined that choice is that I had a job lined up that I'm very excited about.  It's also a company that encourages its employees to grow and also provides an annual incentive for those who pursue continuing education/a professional master's.  So I know that if I want to keep on learning in the future, I will have that option!

Have a question for our engineers? Email it to jam AT wastedtalent DOT ca ! Register now to join the discussion and comment on this post:

Make sure to check out the full answers in the PDF which should hopefully be attached below if the site is cooperating with me. I'm kind of ruthless with the delete button, so if this is an answer you're interested in, there's lots of good stuff in the pdf!

See you next month!