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Take It or Leave It:
Graduate School Versus Working World

Anthony R. Wheeler
University of Oklahoma

As the school year recently concluded to a merciful end, many graduate students, especially during the summer, inevitably allow their minds to wander to the greener grass of the real world. All of the undergraduates we taught or did research with are running around looking for jobs, starting new jobs, or spending one last summer having fun before graduate school begins. Remember when they sometimes asked us for our opinions? As I found out when I arrived in grad school, not every grad student comes equipped with job-specific advice to give to our young, often fearful students. What is the real world like? Is it like the television show? Do I get to live in a cool pad, hang out with strange people, take wild vacations, or become a regular at the local bar? Come to think of it, some of my fellow grad students ask me the same questions. In fact, most graduate students fall into one of the following categories, they (a) entered graduate school straight out of undergraduate to avoid reality, (b) graduated from undergraduate and worked for a couple of years but fled to the safe haven of school, or (c) decided that their present career is unsatisfying and the lure of a better life lies just beyond graduate school.

In an attempt to quell the civil unrest brought about by the recurring job fairs and the warming weather, I conducted a straw poll of graduate students who have done a tour of duty in the real world to answer these, and many other, questions.

  • 58% of graduate students polled reported that, no, you will not live in a cool pad; however, 22% of these same students qualified their answer by asking, Do your parents have a cool place?
  • 17% of graduate students polled believed that you would in fact hang out with strange people. While this number appears low, you must consider that people tend to hang out with friends who are very similar to them. I must admit that I dont hang out with strange people.
  • 76% of graduate students polled said you would take wild vacations, although many reminisced about their own favorite Cancun story from their undergraduate days. Could any vacation be wilder than that?
  • As for the being a regular at the local bar, I could not gather sufficient data to report, due to the overwhelming fear of being labeled as a problem student. Even the promise of confidentiality and a debriefing did not elicit any reliable responses.

As I wrote up the initial report of my findings, in APA format of course, some of my fellow graduate students asked me to give a presentation at our weekly departmental brown-bag seminar. To my surprise, many professors also wanted some information about the real world. I seemed to have found my niche, my line of research. The presentation, all 15 minutes of it, drew rave reviews. In fact, I walked away from the meeting with more questions to research. It seems that many graduate students and professors daydream about making gobs of money (or just getting paid at all), taking paid vacations, flying all over the world on business travel, and expensing every conceivable purchase to the company because everything is always work related.

I went back to my spacious cubicle to plan my next data collection effort. Who shall I survey? How do I scale my items? How do I define my constructs? Can I do a literature review to find an established measure, because that sure is easier than making one myself? How do I appropriately measure peoples attitudes toward the real world? This poses such a vexing problem. I wondered if I could get a publication out of it. I bet I could at least get a revise-and-resubmit. I decided I would start with a literature review.

On my way to the library, my second home, my home away from home, I came upon a newspaper. I happened to see something on the back that changed my entire outlook on life and data collection: Las Vegas point spreads. The management students I take classes with frequently talk about the reliability of these point spreads, so I figured I could trust the spreads. I made an executive decision. I would base my data collection about the real world based on the Las Vegas point spreads.

Real world debt (-4) versus graduate school debt. We all have credit cards, but at least we really dont have the money to pay in cash like people in the real world. Besides, I view student loans as a great return on investment. Whats a few thousand dollars between me and Sally Mae? Who is this Sally Mae lady anyway, and is she related to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac? She must be so rich. I wonder where she went to graduate school? Pick: Graduate School.

Real world fashion versus graduate school fashion (-5). Have you seen some of the business suits that graduate students wear? I recently tried something new with my hair, which is considered experimental in graduate school. In the real world, your haircut is a more pressing subject around the water cooler than last weeks episode of Survivor. Pick: Graduate School.

Real world understanding of statistics versus graduate school understanding (-1). Four out of 5 dentists prefer daily flossing. 55% of high school students in the United States cant find the United States on a map. The odds of you dying when in a free-fall while sky diving are less than the odds of you dying in a freak paperclip accident. We know to ask if these are significantly different, and to us Monte Carlo isnt a place to visit. Pick: Graduate School.

Real world pet companionship (-3) versus graduate school pet companionship. In the real world, pets are no substitute for human interaction. Owning 12 cats, 4 lizards, 2 birds, and 1 turtle does not mean you simply love animals. It is a cry for help, a Jerry Springer Show, or a News Channel 9 feature story. Pick: Real World.

Real world bosses versus graduate school bosses (-7). We have bosses in graduate school? Your real world boss demands long working hours, loves to yell you idiot, you idiot at you, drinks Starbucks like shes a shareholder concerned about falling stock prices, and stares out the window contemplating what color her new BMW should be. In a related story, your major professor lost the keys to his office even though he keeps them on a string around his neck. Pick: Graduate School.

Real world water cooler talk (-2.5) versus graduate school water cooler talk. First of all, no psychology department gives out free water. Use the water fountain. Isnt it enough that we pay you all of that money to teach three sections of Intro? What, our potluck Thanksgiving dinner isnt good enough for you prima donnas? Now get back in that lab and write your thesis. Pick: Real World.

Real world vacation (-.5) versus graduate school vacation. Two weeks paid vacation with 1 week paid sick leave, plus 8 paid federal holidays, and all the weekends you can takecompared to fall break, winter break, spring break, and summer break. Even if you dont actually take a break and dont get paid, is this even a contest? Pick: Graduate School.

Real world happy hours versus graduate school happy hours (-4). This represents a classic battle of quantity versus quality. Every day in graduate school has the potential for happy hour. The local watering hole even offers specials to graduate students. So what if the real world companies sometimes pick up the tab? In a related story, when asked if he would pay for my next happy hour, my major professor responded, Only if you introduce me to all of your cool friends. Pick: Real World.

Real world work content versus graduate school work content (-10). Lets see. Peck on the keyboard, file a report, attend a meeting, listen to your boss drone on and on about a meaningless plan, drink a gallon of coffee just to stay awake, overhear your cubicle-mate crying because his girlfriend thinks they need to take a break, and play solitaire all day just to pass the seconds, minutes, and hours. Maybe the real world isnt all it was cracked up to be. Pick: Graduate School.

Real world preparation for work (-11) versus graduate school preparations for work. An old Latin saying existswell, my Latin is a bit rusty right now, but the gist of it goes something like this: Preparation is the mother of students. An old American saying exists, too, that goes something like this: I dont take my work home with me, literally or figuratively. You get the point. Pick: Real World.

Rooting for your team in the real world (even) versus rooting for your graduate schools team. Drunk, wearing a ball on your head, painting your chest red and blue, and going into a deep depression when your team loses. If this describes you in the real world, you are fired. Grow up, junior! Pick: Graduate School.

Final Score: Graduate School, 7. Real World, 4. In the end, it does not appear to be close. When I presented these results at a departmental brown-bag seminar, 4 out of 5 professors agreed that I should no longer consider myself a graduate student in good standing.

Lets be honest with ourselves. We all question why we entered graduate school at some point in our studies. Even the most ardent academic will confess to moments of doubt along his or her road to a successful career. Some of these same academics will also tell you that they still dont know what they want to do when they grow up. Graduate school, like most of our endeavors, is a means to an end, and we choose the course of our adventure for our own reasons.

When we enter graduate school, we do so for the freedom and independence it offers. For people interested in academics, graduate school offers years of unfettered scientific inquiry. For the people interested in earning their advanced degree and taking their knowledge into consulting or industry, graduate school offers vital knowledge and experience needed to succeed. When my undergraduate students ask me whether they should apply to graduate school or find a job, I tell them that they cannot lose with either choice. The years I spent working prior to entering graduate school were some of the best years of my life. Those years also provided me with a certain perspective about what is important to me, and those years of learning have enabled me to succeed in my studies. My advice to those graduate students entertaining, sometimes constantly entertaining, thoughts about leaving school to go out in the real world is to remember why you came back to school. If you achieved the goals you set, then move on to the next challenges, wherever they may be.

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