In Defense of Grad School

I’ve received lots of praise and pats-on-the-back for my acceptance into Grad School here at UofT for Computer Science.

However, there’s another side of the coin.  While I was still mulling the decision, I mentioned it to a few people here and there, and sometimes I got a strange look…like I’d agreed to have a lobotomy, or take experimental medication or something.

Believe it or not, I’m still getting it from time to time.  It’s strange.

At one point, I posted my Grad School status on Twitter, and got back the response “Don’t!  It’s a trap!”  Trap?  Really?  Have aliens taken over the school?  Am I unwittingly joining some bizarre cult?  Am I going to get pushed down an empty elevator shaft on my first day?  Awful hazing rituals?  What’s going on?

What’s wrong with Grad School? I’ve asked a few people this question, and gotten the following (paraphrased) responses:

  1. You’ve been in school too long.  Get out now and enter the work force!  Don’t you want to have fun?
  2. Grad School is expensive.  You’re going to go deeper into debt.
  3. If you choose a thesis/subject that you end up disliking, it will be an awful experience
  4. Work first.  Then go to Grad School.  Just trust me.
  5. You’re educated enough – you don’t need a Masters degree.  You’ll learn everything you need in the field.
  6. The courses are super hard and boring.

Here are my responses, in defense of Grad School – they’re numbered to correspond.

  1. Who says Grad School isn’t fun?  I really enjoy the field of Computer Science, and this is my opportunity to do some cutting edge research.  The whole point of a thesis (I believe) is to focus on something in the field and make it my own – to master it.  This means background research, thesis, experiments, conclusion, the whole bit.  That’s the science part.
    Also, there’s a self-serving economic payoff:  Bachelors degrees are going down in value.  Lots of people have a B.Sc.  A Master’s degree stands out, and will bring higher pay and more interesting jobs.
    My uncle once said that his days in Grad School were the most educational because of the people that surrounded him, and the conversations that he had.  I think I’ll find that here, and it’s exciting.
  2. Believe it or not, I’m actually getting paid to do this.  Sure, I owe the University a chunk of money.  Thankfully, the Department of Computer Science is paying for it, and I should have enough left over to live a modest lifestyle.  Living like a student for one more year isn’t so bad – it could certainly be worse.
  3. Why would I choose a thesis or subject that I don’t like?  From what I’m told, the first few weeks of Grad School are spent scouring around with a supervisor, trying to nail down a thesis subject.  I plan to do one better, and try to nail a thesis subject down this summer.  Once I’ve got it nailed down, I’ll do the background reading, and try to figure out some interesting experiments.  It’s easier said than done, but I’m not going to be stupid enough to pick a thesis on something I really can’t stand.  Am I going to do my thesis on complexity theory?  No, of course not.  Am I going to do it on how to teach software engineering students design patterns in a more visual, animated way?  Who knows, maybe.
  4. This answer assumes that I haven’t worked before.  I’ve worked.  I’ve been out there.  “You haven’t seen the real working world”…well, maybe I haven’t, but I’ve seen something that’s probably pretty close.  Working three summers at the school board hasn’t been a cakewalk.
    Some might argue that working for a while before going to Grad School will help me to gain the discipline necessary to work in an unsupervised environment.  Well, I have to tell you, I was barely supervised at the school board.  They gave me a task, and I did it to the best of my ability, with little-to-no oversight.  I set my own schedules, I dealt with clients directly.  I can work on my own.  I can manage my time.  I know how to work hard.  Don’t give me that “real world” crap.
  5. Like I said in #1, a B.Sc. isn’t what it used to be.  Lots of people have them, and it’s probably becoming less useful as a marker for separating the wheat from the chaff.  It’s only 17 months more work, but I think the payoff is going to be considerable.
  6. Maybe.  Thankfully, I’m only taking two a maximum of three per semester.  Workload does not frighten me anymore – I’ve been overloading myself for years, and I’m fine.  I’m not at all saying that Graduate School courses are going to be a breeze – but, and I hope I don’t sound arrogant,  I’m more-or-less used to doing the practically impossible.

Have I missed any reasons for not going to Grad School?  Do my rebuttals miss something entirely?  It’s a bit of a moot point now – I’ve already accepted the offer.  But if there are any interesting reasons that I missed, I’d love to hear them.

9 thoughts on “In Defense of Grad School

  1. Eric

    Nice post Mike. I graduated from McGill recently and have applied to UofT for graduate studies (at the IHPST). I’m happy I found your blog serendipidously. I’ve encountered something similar and it was interesting to read your responses. Something I too am excited about grad studies is spending time engaged with other passionate peers and profs. It’s also cool how you’ve chosen to blend drama and comp.sci. cudos!

  2. AG

    The truth about grad school!

    Response to your points as numbered:
    1. If you love CS, grad school is way more fun than undergrad. You get to concentrate on what you like.
    2. Grad school does pay for basic necessities. You probably won’t be able to pay down debt but then again you don’t have to pay OSAP while in school. Even if you do take on a bit more debt the higher salary upon graduation will make up for it. It is an investment in your career.
    3. You will spend the first few months nailing down a thesis topic. Even if you do come to grad school with a topic in mind there will be so many cool things you never thought about. The trouble isn’t coming up with a topic it is narrowing one down.
    4. People work in the real world for like 30 years don’t rush it. So here is the deal, if you do your Masters right after your undergrad, yeah you have been in school for like 4 years, but you are still in student mode. You know how to study and you don’t know what it like to have free time. After you work for a while it requires so much more discipline to go back to school and study. Plus once you know what it is like to have money it is so much harder to go back and live like a student again.
    5. True..True
    6. If you are going to UofT you will probably take 3 in the fall in 2 in the winter. The key to coursework is to choose your course wisely. Cross listed courses are generally more work, and topics courses are fun. Picking courses without exams or midterms is generally a good idea and picking topics you enjoy is always a good idea.

  3. Geofrey Flores

    Really, the only thing that you should care about is whether you love doing it. Personally, the added value here is proving that you have the determination to do something that you love and the experience on working on cutting edge research. Some industry experts like Joel Spolsky and Erik Sink say that a graduate degree actually becomes a detriment when looking for an industry job because of the tendency to focus on a specific thing for a very long time and the tendency to be too theoretical [1]. But given that you already have the experience of working for other people, I’d say that you’re smart enough to know when to not overdo it.

    However, I don’t agree that graduate school differentiate yourself that much in the field because as they say, research skills doesn’t really transfer that well practically (or so they say, I’ll never know). Malcolm Gladwell also pointed out that you only need to be “smart enough” to do the impossible, so a graduate student in my opinion isn’t necessarily “smarter” than an undergrad. Again, it just proves (to me at least) that you’re willing to spend enormous time and effort in order to do something that you’re interested in.

    So, in short, just do it because you want to. Don’t try to reason it out because others will always find something to bitch about (like me). Two years is not a lot, possibly shorter, and the experience I guess is something that you might not ever have working in the field. Maybe after two years, you get to tell us why we should all do graduate studies :).

    I’ve also asked around graduate school (which I’m still thinking of doing someday), and the only advice I seem to get is to try doing it in a different school. That’s probably pointless at this point, so just go out there and have some fun, maybe we’ll be coding algorithms in the “real world” after your name in a few years.

    [1] The Guerilla Guide to Interviewing –

    Some other links you might be interested:

  4. Mike

    @Eric @AG: Thanks for posting, glad to hear from you both!

    @Eric: Yeah, like I said, my uncle found conversations with profs and other grad students to be the most educational part of his schooling. It’s also a nice thought to be near cutting-edge research, and to discuss it with others who are also interested.

    @AG: In my post “Hello Graduate School” ( I listed some courses I’m considering. Have you taken any of them before? If so, what did you think? Is there a graduate student anti-calendar?



  5. Mike

    @Geofrey Thanks Geofrey! Thanks for the good points and the articles. It’s nice knowing I haven’t been the first to mull over this!

    Really good articles here. Joel Spolsky (and you, by proxy) just convinced me to bone up on C over the summer. 🙂

    Anyhow, thanks for the readings, and things to think about. Cheers!


  6. Jorge Aranda

    Judging by your post, I’d say grad school is perfect for you. Congratulations!

    However, among the points against grad school that you listed, I agree with one: working first and then going back to grad school is better than not leaving school at all, especially if you’re doing software engineering research. The reason is not that you learn to work independently, but that you develop a feel for what works and what doesn’t work that cannot be taught in the classroom. We have too many researchers proposing tools and ideas that will never work in practice; I believe that had they spent a few years suffering the impact of their mistakes in their wallets they’d know better.

    This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go to grad school if you have no work experience, but it’s something to keep in mind as you think of research ideas. Perhaps your experience at the school board will help you with this.

  7. Brian

    Nice reasoning Mike.

    Of the negative remarks you’ve heard about grad school, I wonder how many are clearly thought out and firmly held opinions.

    In some cases it may be the dog in the manger scenario, “I can’t eat the hay, but I don’t want you to have any either”.

    In others, it may be just a natural negativity that you find everywhere, and I know it exists in me too. Present a positive goal, and a part of my brain immediately starts to look for the downside.

    And I think lots of people also have a natural contrary streak in them. Had you said you were not going to go to grad school, these same people taking the negative view might well have been giving you arguments for why you should go.

    My guess is that you’ve had much more positive response than negative. Regardless, I was interested to see the way you took note of the negativity and got the benefit from it. A good piece of work.

  8. Mike

    @Brian Thanks Dad. 🙂 Yeah, it’s true – no matter what you do, somebody can find a problem with it.

    I guess we’ll see how grad school pans out. Another adventure…

  9. Mike

    @Jorge Aranda: Sorry – didn’t mean to ignore your post! Thanks for replying!

    I’m more or less aware that Graduate studies can be very theoretical. It’s not too big of a surprise to hear that there are “mad scientists” proposing this or that genius (and unworkable) solution, and scribbling on whiteboards.

    Luckily for me (and I say this in all honesty and without false modesty), I am not any kind of savant or genius. I’m just pretty good/fast at learning – I can listen, I can imagine, I’m focused, disciplined, and I work hard. All in all, I picture myself as being pretty practical.

    So I agree with your point wholeheartedly, and hope that this practicality, as well as my work experience, will help me keep my future research from becoming…useless. 🙂

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