Given I live in a desert which -- for the most part -- lacks colorful deciduous trees, the one way that I know it's fall is a flurry of activity concerning grad school applications. Since I teach an upper division core class for microbiology majors, I often get questions from students about what to do after undergrad. The first thing I tell them is this: The one burning memory that I have from graduate school is from sometime in the spring of 2004. It was my third year and I distinctly remember getting hit with the combination of relationship problems (long distance girlfriend and I finally broke up) and the 3rd year grad school treat of having a bunch of experiments with no hope of any successful results. Everything was so confusing. It was 2am, I was in the lab on a Saturday, the only car in any of the parking lots outside was my own, what the hell was I doing with my life? I sat there on the floor of the lab and cried. Seriously...even went fetal position a couple of times. With the perspective I have now, and looking back on all of my 5 years in graduate school, I can honestly say that getting a PhD sucked. It was a slog, a war of attrition. There were so many times I wanted to quit...BUT it was also one of the greatest experiences in my life. I don't regret any moment of it, and would do it again and again and not change a thing.
Why did I stay with graduate school? I had other options, I was a decently compensated intern at a pharmaceutical company all throughout undergrad and had gotten offers to remain on but turned them down. The 9 to 5 life and a daily routine wasn't for me. Sure I was turning down a good job, but I knew deep down that I'd be much more happy as a university researcher. I just always knew that I got bored with routines, with dealing with the same problems over and over again. Industry jobs seemed like scenes from the movie Groundhog day (I'm not entirely right or wrong about this). It seemed as though a job in academia would bring different challenges every day (and it certainly does). I wanted to be challenged, constantly, always from different angles. I knew that that kind of changing landscape of problems is what satisfies my brain.
It was during my time as an intern that I realized I really enjoyed asking questions, finding out how the world worked. I knew I didn't want to go to medical school, and graduate school just seemed like a good way to continue learning about the world. I remember being amazed that I could actually get paid (not a lot by comparison to other things, but enough) to go to school!!! I still can't believe that there are actual jobs that pay me to learn about the world and share what I learn with others. During my first of second year in grad school, my view of life solidified completely. It was at this point that one of the experiments I had thought of and designed actually worked. There I was, the only person at that moment in time that knew a new fact about how the world worked. It was thrilling, it was addictive...there is simply nothing like the rush you get when you get new experimental results. Sure, the paper that came of this experiment was pretty niche, but I was hooked. It's a combination of all of those feelings that helped me stay the research course even when things looked so incredibly bleak.
So should you go to grad school? It's definitely not for everyone, and as I say above, it really really sucks sometimes. It's simply a personal decision that I can only provide one perspective on. Every department and lab is different, and it's up to you to find a place to thrive. You have to find ways to motivate yourself to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to continue performing experiments even though 95% of them fail. Starting in grad school -- and continuing throughout academic careers -- you are surrounded by rejection. Rejection is never fun or easy, but over time it becomes easier to deal with.
I didn't think I'd make a ton of money with a PhD, I didn't even know if I'd eventually have a job. To this point there are a couple of things I can say now that I didn't know before 1) it's much easier to get an industry job with a BS or Masters than a PhD (companies can hire people and train them the way they want) and 2) it's easy to start out as a Masters student (or PhD) and upgrade to Phd (or downgrade to Masters) so your path isn't set the moment you start grad school. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my PhD when I started grad school (in the beginning I didn't think I'd actually be good enough at research to be a PI), but I knew that I enjoyed learning. My love of learning kept me motivated.
You don't finish grad school, you survive grad school. Your job as a graduate student is to make mistakes and to learn how to avoid making mistakes in the future. Your job as a graduate student is to consume every possible piece of information you can and learn to filter out good from bad. Grades really shouldn't matter to you anymore (in fact, if you can, take every class Pass/Fail). Classes are there not to prove that you can get an A, but to give you an opportunity to truly internalize relevant information. As a grad student you are much more likely to figure out some very small thing about the world that only a handful of people really care about, and that leaves your mom to question why you aren't a REAL doctor, than you are of actually making difference to human health. That's OK, it's all about building a foundation for the future wherever that may lead.
Looking back, there is one extra unexpected bonus that made graduate school worthwhile. Apart from the rush of science and research, grad school happened at a time in my life when I was truly becoming who I actually am as a person. I had moved across the country from NY to Oregon, and had started a life completely on my own away from the training wheels that undergrad life can bring. Some of my best friends to this day are people from my grad school cohort. People who were always up for a beer or pizza, people who shared similar experiences to me growing up as a bit of a science nerd. People from all walks of life, with very different perspectives, who nonetheless all found ourselves diving headfirst into research. I would be a very different person if I did something other than graduate school, because that was the moment in time when I really ventured out from the nest.
Grad school is one of the most difficult things I've ever done, and it's not for everyone, but for me it was completely worth it.