Graduate School (Answering My Son’s Questions – Part 2)
Michael Gollin (with help from Max Gollin)
Going to grad school should be a purely pragmatic decision, although with some fun, of course. It is not like college. It is directly tied to choice of career(s). It should not be a way to spend time (and money). You should certainly get scholarships and fellowships and teaching posts.
The degree program you choose depends on what degrees people have in positions you would like to have. This is what’s called a terminal degree, like JD for law, MD for medicine, MBA for business, PhD for professors, or a Master for teachers.
The reputation of the department or grad school among peers is often more important than the university itself.
There are no reliable directories and ratings, in contrast to college. You need to network aggressively with your professors, advisors, family, friends, LinkedIn, and career placement office. Find the prerequisites and complete them. Research departments, grad schools, faculty, and email them and visit.
Grad school is professional training, not liberal arts. You may consider several very different paths. Explore them all thoroughly but wait until you know before you decide which way to go.
When I was a senior (age 20), I considered PhD and MD programs, so I took the GRE and MCAT. But I wasn’t ready to commit. I wanted to go to Europe for a year. I asked around and my parents did, too, and on winter break I met with the husband of the daughter of the Rubins, best friends of my parents. He was a biology researcher at the U of Rochester and he had worked with Erik Kubli, a Swiss fruit fly researcher from Basel. So I wrote a letter describing my research with fruit flies. About a month later I got a response from Ilan Deak in Zurich offering me a fellowship from the Swiss National Fund for a doctoral position working for him at the University of Zurich. It paid enough to live on.
It was not simple because the administration said I was not eligible for a PhD position. My professor arranged for me to qualify for the grant provided I completed the requirements for a Diplom, equivalent to a master’s degree. After a year Professor Deak died, apparently a suicide. I then arranged to continue my work with Prof Eppenberger at the ETH. I stuck around because it was a great deal to be in Zurich, even though I decided early not to be a bench scientist.
I considered a doctoral degree and career in marine biology when I was doing the 2 week lab portion of a marine biology course at Banyuls in southern France. I also thought about studying enology at UC Davis for the love of wine.
Eventually I chose law school because I liked political arguments and was more concerned with the application of technology to society than with doing science. I thought about environmental law. The education attracted me. I took the LSAT as a walk-in standby on the US military base outside Stuttgart. (I scored about the same on all standardized tests.)
Applying to law school and business school is relatively simple compared to other graduate programs because there are so many and the degrees are roughly similar. I was happy with BU and with my degree and career.
So I spent about three years figuring out the right grad school for me and then three more completing it. Many of my colleagues went all the way through a PhD before going to law school, so I feel like I was relatively focused.
Editor’s note: this is part of a series of advice letters my dad wrote for me in September 2014 when I asked him for some guidance on the big things in life –Max