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OPINION: You don’t have to go to grad school

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You might not need to go to grad school after all. Photo via Abee5 on Flickr.

While it might be the best option for some, opinion writer Haley Appelmann says graduate school might not be necessary for everyone. 

So, what do you want to be when you grow up?

If you are currently in college, this question may provoke more anxiety now than it used to when you were asked as a kid.

We all know the story. You graduate high school, go to college with or without any serious self exploration, graduate college with whatever major sounded good to you when you were 18, then look for a job.

Let’s say you are one of the lucky ones who does want to continue your career in your chosen field, but the lucrative jobs are saved for those with graduate degrees or PhDs.

This is a possible concern for all majors. After all, college and academia are one and the same.

But this issue is increasingly relevant for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors. Although the academic influence of a university can be great preparation for a career in academia, undergraduate students should be exposed to alternative options early on to be able to make the decision that is best for them.

Before a student decides to pursue a PhD, they should know the job market that is available to them. According to the National Science Foundation, the number of biology PhDs graduating each year has doubled over the last 20 years, but the number of available tenure-track positions has not changed. As expected, the percentage of PhD biologists with tenure-track jobs has gone down from 46 percent in 1981 to less than 30 percent today.

But what happens to all of these PhDs without tenure-track jobs? Some are stuck waiting in postdoctoral positions, while others give up academia to work in a multitude of nonacademic careers.

Those nonacademic career paths are not talked about as much in the college environment. After all, it is harder for universities to give students industry experience than it is to give them teaching or research experience, since the majority of work at universities is in academia.

However, that doesn’t mean that efforts shouldn’t be made.

Some graduate schools are already aware of the need for considering nonacademic career paths when structuring their programs. For example, Washington University in St. Louis’ career center has designated an adviser specifically for students working toward a PhD in STEM. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has introduced an emphasis on professional development with opportunities for setting goals, personal feedback from an adviser and career exploration.

This is a great development for those who decide to go on to graduate school, but what about budding scientists still in their undergraduate careers? The answer is quite similar.

Universities can help by connecting undergraduates to advisers and course tracks open to the idea of nonacademic work. They can also partner with industries to make industry experience  – not just research experiencea regular opportunity.

Students can help themselves by pursuing their outside interests. The college environment is one of the best opportunities a student can ever get to translate their passions into something they can write on a resume.

For example, if a student likes to write, they can join a campus publication. If a student likes to build computers, they can start a club for it. Turning your interests into a possible career starts with proving your interest.

The earlier that students are introduced to the “real world,” the better they will be prepared.   

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