Professors weigh in on options for post-grad pursuits

Though Vassar may always hold a special place in a student’s heart, what comes next offers new experiences in equal parts terrifying and exciting.

Meanwhile, seniors expected to graduate this May and those who are thinking about obtaining a post-secondary degree are faced with another dilemma: do I go directly to school or take some time off first?

Professors from various disciplines sympathized with seniors, giving anecdotes from their own educations and careers, while offering advice for the always uncertain future.

Many of them touted the merits of taking a year off, and some even wished they had put off graduate school longer.

Professor of Biology and Chair of the Biology Department John Long advised, writing in an email, “If you think you might want to take time off from school or hurtling headlong into a career, then do it now. You won’t be able take time off from your life later on when you have obligations like a car loan, home mortgage, and a family.”

After he had completed his Bachelors Degree, Long decided to head straight into graduate school, after doing a trio of prestigious internships. “I was ready to keep doing what I loved: research on marine vertebrates.”

On the other hand, Associate Professor of German Studies Jeffrey Schneider took four years off before graduate school. He admits in an emailed statement that, while he took the time to get job experience, he was also feeling burnt-out from working on his thesis and advanced coursework senior year.

“I was also tired of feeling like I always had something to do: i.e., having to study all day and night on Sunday, late into the night, etc.”

Assistant Professor of English Hua Hsu took a year off before returning to school. He shared with Schneider a similar sense of exhaustion after his undergrad years.

Hsu wrote in an email, “I had a somewhat tumultuous senior year of college so I wasn’t ready to apply to PhD programs.”

Taking a year off or more opens up opportunities to pursue hobbies that college may not have allowed time for or find work to help figure out one’s career trajectory.

Schneider outlined some of the pluses he saw in deferring graduate school.

“In addition to saving money, one of the big benefits is having work experience to compare with academic work,” he said.

Time in the private sector for Schneider also gave him a better perspective on what he was looking for in a career.

Wrote Schneider, “While I enjoyed my four years at two different companies, I eventually realized that it wasn’t as intellectually challenging as I wanted.”

Knowing for certain that he enjoys the teaching profession and having other experience helps him stay assured and interested.

“I think it is easy for faculty members who went directly from undergrad to graduate school to a faculty position to feel like teaching at the university is all they know how to do,” said Schneider, “And when you feel like you don’t have other options, even something you enjoy doing can feel like a trap.”

He added, “And during difficult times (and every faculty member has them), I have always been able to remind myself that I chose this profession and that I can also leave to do something else if I no longer enjoy it.”

Associate Professor of Geography Joe Nevins began work on his advanced degree without any initial aspirations to be a professor.

“I did not have a good idea as to what I wanted to do after graduating college. Graduate school was one option of many that I was considering. Indeed, when I went to grad school, I was only committed to getting an MA. I had no intention of getting a PhD,” Nevins wrote in an email.

The time off can also be down-time to pursue passions neglected during the college grind.

Visiting Instructor of Religion Max Leeming took three years off after college. She told how she explored her interests in photography, singing, biking and roller-blading.

She added in an emailed statement, “I definitely wanted to get experience in the real world in a place away from home and in a city in which I had always wanted to live—San Francisco.”

Hsu spoke of his time off, saying “I taught a test prep course in Berkeley, I did a radio show with one of my college friends and I spent most of my free time buying records. That was the year I started freelancing as a journalist.”

Still, if seniors do decide to go on to grad school, there remains the problem of finances. Several professors mentioned that some graduate programs are fully funded.

Long said in an emailed statement, “A PhD in the natural sciences is like getting a job: you get a living stipend, your tuition waived, and free medical benefits. No loans!”

Schneider wrote, “Pursuing a PhD in most academic disciplines usually comes with free tuition and a full stipend or teaching assistantships.”

Hsu spoke of his own experience: “I got rejected from most of the graduate programs I applied to and, luckily, the ones I got into were fully funded.”

However, for Leeming, her financial problems were not so easily resolved.

She said, “Unfortunately, financial factors didn’t influence me enough in any decision I made. I really had no concept of living on my own, and certainly no idea how much the debt I would accrue in graduate school would prove a burden.”

That wasn’t all, though. Leeming shared that she was uncertain about which direction she wanted her life to take or for what exactly she wanted to use her degree.

“Even after having a three-year interim between college and graduate school, I didn’t have a clear goal for my graduate studies. This elongated my already expensive graduate career.”

If she could give Vassar seniors some advice about post-secondary education, she would urge them not to go in debt if at all possible.

She said, “I would tell those wanting to go to graduate school that they should absolutely know what they are going to study and go somewhere that provides funding.”

In his own experience, Assistant Professor of Political Science Samson Opondo questioned whether it mattered how many years were spent between undergrad and graduate school.

“My ongoing learning has been far too layered to be defined by degree matriculation dates. As a student, I always operated outside and between universities while simultaneously working on a number of non-university projects,” wrote Opondo in an emailed statement.

Opondo took a year off before graduate school and received his education in Kenya.

Furthermore, he questioned the division drawn between academia and the so-called real world.

Wrote Opondo, “Isn’t academic life one among many sites of reality? Maybe even a producer of realities. I find it difficult to make sharp distinctions between the ‘academic world’ and the ‘real world.’”

An academic life need not be an insular life, according to Opondo.

He wrote “My education always engaged spaces beyond the university and was deeply influenced by encounters from other spaces.”

As to what he would say to the average Vassar senior, Nevins offered his own take.

He said, “Take your time. Gain life experience outside of post-secondary education institutions before deciding whether or not graduate school is a good option to pursue.”

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