Pros, Cons, and Neutrals of Graduate School

George Rodriguez is a senior principal materials data scientist. He earned his MS in statistics after earning his PhD in chemistry at the University of Rochester.

The thoughtful four-part Amstat News series titled “To Get a PhD or Not To Get a PhD?” told interesting stories by ASA members about how their choices in graduate degrees affected their professional experiences. These pieces provide anecdotal perspectives from which to draw collective wisdom when deciding between the MS and PhD.

Accordingly, we should expand this conversation to assist those considering whether to attend graduate school or join the workforce without advanced academic training. This debate is typically limited to listing pros and cons. However, I will elaborate on these considerations here and recast a few arguments from both sides as neutral. I hope this alternative approach provides undergrads with a different foundation for decision-making as they approach their post-collegiate plans.

As a senior technical professional, I am often asked to meet with undergraduate interns who are considering what to do after college. I approach these conversations with the intention of giving a balanced point of view. Yet, I routinely come down strongly on the side of the extended educational commitment.

Admittedly biased, this view is based on a closer examination of the pros and cons, which allows me to conclude that some arguments against graduate school become inconsequential in the long run and others apply to both the graduate school experience and joining the workforce without a higher degree. Accordingly, these points should not be labeled as pros or cons, but as neutral considerations. Still, the consequence of this relabeling is a stronger case in favor of advanced degrees.


Graduate school is a unique place to expand technical expertise near similarly minded people guided by professional educators motivated to help learners thrive. Although professional training for working people is available in the form of short courses, these abbreviated learning experiences can feel like drinking from a fire hydrant, as they don’t allow the slow-burn time necessary for proper assimilation of difficult material. The almost explosive speed by which formal online graduate education options (e.g., Coursera, edX) have appeared in recent years suggests a growing preference for bone fide university course work as training.

In addition to the opportunity to extend academic training prior to competing in the workplace, graduate school allows more time for personal growth in a nurturing environment. The vagaries encountered in entry-level positions offered to those with only a bachelor’s degree do not afford young people the best atmosphere for the rapid growth necessary in early career stages.

Easier and faster access to leadership positions is rarely mentioned in this debate, yet it is an important aspect of a fulfilling career. Joining the workforce with postgraduate degrees provides a higher likelihood you will be involved in intellectually challenging work, have greater independence throughout your career, and be closer to organizational decision-making than those who chose to enter at the bachelor’s level.

Yearly surveys by professional societies provide strong evidence that those with master’s and PhD degrees will generally earn higher salaries and retain higher earning potential throughout their careers. Furthermore, graduate degrees are the foundation of a stronger résumé and higher professional status (i.e., leadership opportunities).


The major negative in the graduate school debate is cost. First, there is the immediate cost of paying for graduate school. This financial burden is particularly painful if one is already loaded with undergraduate student loans.

Master’s students are more likely to deal with cost since many PhD programs provide stipends through grant-supported research or teaching assistantships. These financial resources cover enrollment and provide for living expenses. Although modest, this income often means additional debt is not incurred. It is also worth noting that student loan payments are suspended while attending graduate school.

Second, the time it takes to complete higher degrees is time you are not earning a full salary. However, the typical higher earnings that come with higher degrees will allow individuals to catch up with those who begin working right out of college.

The takeaway is that although cost is certainly an important consideration, particularly for non-funded master’s degrees, it is not strong discouragement in light of the long-term financial outcome.

There is one negative aspect of graduate school not often mentioned. That is the years one spends living like a grad student. This uniquely focused lifestyle means getting by with nominal pay, which translates to comparatively limited choices of vacations, cars, and diet. My culinary experience based on creative variations of Ramen noodles comes to mind.

However, many say their graduate school years were the happiest time of their educational experience, despite the dismal financial situation. University resources are still available to graduate students, socializing does happen, and even marriage and children don’t necessarily have to be postponed.


Three reasons commonly given against graduate school (cons) are the lack of a job guarantee after graduating, hassles of the application process, and hard work comprising advanced education.

However, there are no guarantees of getting a job, regardless of your degree. The application processes to graduate school or industrial/government employment are similarly stressful. And why would it be harder to spend a few years in advance training than to compete for professional advancement without a master’s or PhD degree? Accordingly, the consternations associated with the above three reasons are similar, no matter which path one takes. So, I consider these neutral arguments.

I have seen opportunities for networking described as a reason to attend graduate school (pro) since universities attract academics or industrial researchers for sabbaticals or seminars. However, many industrial and government workplaces also bring representatives from various sectors for technical or legal consultations, presentations, and collaborations.

For example, my worksite hosts weekly seminars, which allow us to engage speakers in one-on-one discussions. These presenters have included Turing and Nobel Prize winners.

Additionally, companies and government agencies encourage and pay for participation in professional societies like the American Statistical Association or Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, which provide ample opportunities for networking. So networking is part of both graduate and professional experiences and therefore a neutral argument.

The decision to complete postgraduate degrees or join the workforce straight from college requires careful considerations that go beyond a simple list of pros and cons. In balance, however, postgraduate education before competing in the workplace is almost surely well justified.