As a young undergrad so many years ago, I was faced with an important decision. It was my senior year of college, and I had to decide what to do with my life.
I had started college with a plan to get my degree in biology and then after graduation get my masters in Physical Therapy. That was the plan. But as an undergrad I had several opportunities to participate in research, and I had a fantastic time at the bench. As my senior year approached, I was leaning more and more towards graduate school.
In fact, I foolishly spent far too little time actually weighing my options. So many of my classmates were applying for grad school, and the people around me in the lab definitely encouraged me to go on to grad school. I was smart enough, I could manage a pipet pretty well, so who was I to argue?
I can remember thinking as an undergrad that I could either get a job as a technician (or some similar position in industry) and try to figure out if grad school was right for me, OR, I could go ahead and just go to grad school and decide once I was already there. That way, my naive little brain argued, I wouldn't have "wasted" any time... if I didn't like it, I could always quit, right?
I actually figured out pretty quickly that bench work didn't float my boat*. I was much happier when I was taking classes, teaching, and doing other service work than when I was at the bench full time. But it turns out that leaving grad school is a lot harder than you might think.
The culture in academia creates the feeling that academic research is not only the most noble calling, but also the nexus of all brilliance. To leave academia, the implication is that you weren't smart enough to cut it. Quitting grad school then can only be interpreted as failure. Emotionally, I couldn't do it. I couldn't let myself be a failure, not in front of my friends, my parents, my mentor, my fellow students. And so I plugged along for 3 more miserable years, trying to make the best of it.
Now here I am, still at the bench because the two-body problem gives me very limited options right now. In my post-doc I am actually working now with a handful of undergraduates, all women, all juniors and seniors. They are starting to ask me for advice about graduate school. It would be easy to just tell them to go to grad school, but as difficult as it is, I owe it to them to be honest about my experience. Even if I risk being labeled a "traitor" by my colleagues.
I think that far too often undergrads only hear one message about grad school. From their professors, from their parents, from their counselors, from their labmates... all of those sources are likely to have a pretty biased opinion on grad school in general. Where will foolish young undergrads get a more balanced viewpoint?
I think it's really important for everyone who has the opportunity to provide advice and guidance to undergraduate students (most often academics of various flavors) to really help students make an educated decision about grad school, rather than just encouraging them as the default option. For many dedicated academics it's hard to remember that just because a student is talented doesn't mean they will be well suited for life at the bench.
For my part, I try to urge undergrads to take a year (or more) to work as a technician in a lab and see how they really feel doing bench work as a full time job. I try to share my experience and viewpoint with them so that no matter what they decide to do, at least they've gotten more than just one picture of what grad school is like.
For another realistic look at grad school, check out: Should I go to grad school? Short answer: No. **
*For the record, I LOVE science. It's beautiful. I love seminars, I love reading, I love thinking about data. But bench work is not fun for me. And so a career at the bench just isn't the right career for me in the long term.
**Thanks to Jenny F. Scientist at A Natural Scientist for the link.