Why I Chose Grad School

Today’s Astrobite was contributed by Amandeep Gill, a graduate student in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. If you would like to contribute to Astrobites, please contact us!

For some people, the decision to go to graduate school is straightforward.  They know that they are cut out for a life in academia, often aiming for a faculty position at an R1 institution.*  I am not and never was one of those people, and the decision to go to grad school was far from easy.  I know I am just one of many who struggled with what seemed a formidable choice.  I want to share my story of realization that grad school was still right for me.

The only piece that was easy to place was my love for astronomy. I first said I wanted to be an astrophysicist in fourth grade.  I love physics. The Hamilton-Lagrange formulation of mechanics is beautiful to me, the arc of a soap bubble along its geodesic as interesting as its ever-shifting surface of colors.

But I felt that choosing graduate school was tantamount to yoking my entire life to the endless research plow, and when the fall semester of my senior year rolled around, I found I was not ready to make that kind of commitment.  I knew about the realities of job competition.  I was worried that, at best, a life in academia would become an inescapable rat race of publish or perish with respite in my forties or later.  Worst case, I could end up in my early thirties with a narrowly employable degree and no prospects.

I have experienced Imposter Syndrome and have never been absolutely sure that a career in research is what I want.  Moreover, I was a party to the infamous 2-body problem.  I had no idea when I was supposed to fit a family into a career track that seemed completely at odds with biological inevitabilities.  I didn’t want to have to choose between all of these things, but it felt unavoidable.

I didn’t apply as college senior.

After graduation, I went home for a couple years to do some soul searching.  During this time, I spent 1.5 years working for Starbucks (yay! for free coffee and good health insurance).  I worked in a mind-numbing internship for an educational software company.  I kept my options open by doing research with a local astronomy professor and taking a couple of physics/astronomy classes.  I also took some classes in computer science, thinking for a while that a Master’s degree in that field might solve my problems.

I always secretly wanted to be a teacher and tried applying to various jobs and fellowships but was unable to break into the profession after the fall 2008 economic collapse.  I did end up gaining teaching experience as an adjunct instructor, exactly the kind of job I might have had as a TA.  I thought about law school and how my background might make it possible for me to work on law related to space sciences.  I’ve always thought communication was one of my strengths and considered applying to MIT’s science writing program.

It was about halfway through this roulette of professions and ambitions that I started thinking about graduate school in a new way.  I realized that I don’t have to think about graduate school as an unbreakable 7 year commitment.  Like any other job, I am free to leave at any time to pursue other interests if I find it’s not for me.  Leaving would not mean that I am a “quitter” or that I have somehow failed, but rather that I know how to take risks and cut losses in pursuing a happy life.

For as long as I choose to stay, I get to go to school for free and am given a stimulating job, with benefits.  After a couple of years, assuming I meet expectations, I can choose to leave with a Master’s degree (at most institutions).  If I choose to stay on longer, I am handed a largely independent research position to make progress in any topic of my choosing for which I can find a mentor.  I know of no other job that affords this kind of autonomy and self-direction straight out of college, no situation other than a math/science Ph.D. where one is paid to earn a degree.

Graduate school does not have to be only a path to research.  If I want to teach or become involved in science policy, a Ph.D. can give me the skills and credentials to do that at any level of my choosing.  Many scientists become writers or choose careers in public outreach, and a graduate experience can be tailored to this end.  Just ask Neil deGrasse Tyson (or regular Astrobites contributor, Susanna Kohler).  I can choose to go into industry, finance, or any other profession that requires the ability to solve problems, analyze large data sets, use statistics, or design simulations. As long as one can justify the value of educational experiences, I believe most departments support students using grad school to explore diverse avenues of potential.

Amandeep Gill, University of Colorado, Boulder

Regarding my concerns for my personal life goals, I met several female professors in my time off who successfully pursued both academic and family goals without compromise.  My significant other and I have since landed in the same place, and I’m optimistic about prospects for a family, knowing several grad students and postdocs who’ve made it work.

After a year of graduate school, I can confirm that it has been a great experience so far.  I chose a school where I have the option of adding graduate certificates in college level teaching or science policy to my Ph.D., a department that cares about and researches effective astronomy education.  I am exploring research avenues I never considered before and think I may find I could be happy with this for the long haul.  I spend every day with wonderful people. I live in a beautiful city I would never have arrived in otherwise.  I am better compensated as a student than I was in my time off; I have more stability and satisfaction with my day-to-day work.  I am growing.  I expect, under any circumstances, to walk away with more skills and positive experiences than I arrived with, whether I take the well-publicized path, one I’ve carved for myself, or leave the field entirely.  And for at least this period of time, I have the privilege of being supported in moving forward with my childhood dreams.


* R1 refers to a group of schools classified as “Research Universities I” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  The 1994 definition specifies that these schools offer a full range of baccalaureate programs, are committed to graduate education through the doctorate, give a high priority to research, award 50 or more doctoral degrees every year, and receive $40 million or more each year in federal support.

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  1. Great post! I think many students have had some combination of those same feelings, and you successfully put it into words for us all. I like what you say about not being tied to an unbreakable 7 year commitment. Of course, as long as it’s working out, great! But, we don’t need to decide today where we will be in 7 years, just by choosing a graduate program. Keep up the good work in research, enjoy the day-to-day perks of the job, and thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Thank you for this excellent opinion piece. I recently made the decision to make a complete 180 degree turn and study physics after just completing a B.S. in business, and I’m 33! My experience in business has been less than stimulating and I’ve always been drawn to astronomy and physics. I know it will be a long haul, but I’m excited about the challenge. Just as the first commentor pointed out, I also liked how you wrote that grad school isn’t a 7 year commitment that is set in stone. We are all free to change our minds and pursue what makes us happy or keeps us engaged and their is nothing wrong with that pursuit, regardless of where it takes us.



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