top of page

Industry to Ph.D. Pipeline: Graduate School 2.0

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

Emily sitting and showing off her “Girls Just Wanna Have Funding For Scientific Research” t-shirt.
Announcing that I was accepted into a PhD program and would be returning to Grad School in the Fall of 2021.

“You won’t like working a 9 to 5 job.”

“No! You need to stay and get your PhD – you’re such a promising academic.”

“You’ll get bored and be back in academics in three years.”

“You need to stay and represent women in STEM.”

“But you love school!”

Whether or not I asked for advice, these were the types of comments I received when I decided during my master's program that I did not want to immediately continue onto a Ph.D. program. Even though most of my closest supporters were incredibly understanding of my decision, these remarks echoed in my ears at every turn. I couldn’t escape them. But the one that was by far the most common:

“If you leave now you’ll never come back!”

While this sentiment can be true for some people, I find it odd that this is often something that is just accepted as fact in academia. Although progressing straight through from undergraduate to graduate studies could arguably be the most common route, it doesn’t mean it is the only “right” way to do it. After all, there is no ONE path to getting a Ph.D. And I don't think this is acknowledged enough in the academic realm.

Ultimately, choosing to continue on to higher education is a very personal decision and one that you have to come to on your own terms. As a graduate student who just finished her 2nd year of Ph.D. after taking off almost 4 years to work in industry, I wanted to provide a bit of my perspective on breaking the norm and following the “Industry to Ph.D. Pipeline”.

My Story and Why I Made the Decision to Take Time Off:

I’ve always been an extremely goal-oriented go-getter. I can honestly say I don't remember the last time I didn't have some sort of plan for my life. I knew going into college I wanted to get a master’s degree. I would get it all done as quickly and efficiently as possible. I would make it happen and figure out the rest when I got there. Through a freshman research program my university offered, I started my geography degree and undergraduate research in my first semester. I never looked back. Next thing I knew, 5 years later, I had stacked up two degrees, a minor, a certificate, and several publications. It was everything I needed to get into a competitive Ph.D. program, yet, I was left with an overwhelming sense of burnout and the daunting question of “now what?”

Like most 23-year-olds, I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. All I knew was that taking on a Ph.D. was a big life commitment, both socially and financially. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that 4 years of “life” can look very different at 24-28 than at 28-32. Also, I had never worked in a corporate setting before and couldn’t rule out enjoying working an industry job. After a lot of consideration, I decided that finding some solid ground in a stable, non-academic job was likely the best choice for me at that time. I could save money while assessing what I really wanted my next big goal to be. If I was going to do a Ph.D. I wanted it to be something I truly desired and was prepared for mentally and financially. I decided I would revisit the idea of Grad School 2.0 in 2020 when my GRE scores were set to expire.

What Drew Me Back to Graduate School:

After my master's, I worked as a GIS Technician/Analyst in the oil and gas industry. It was a great job. I really enjoyed the hands-on experience of applying what I learned about in the classroom to real-world problems. However, my desire for a Ph.D. never fully went away. I found myself still having that curiosity and drive for knowledge. I missed having discussions with people, looking for cutting-edge technology solutions, and having the agency to choose what I was working on. I also found myself still actively keeping up with all my peers in academia and updating my CV.

Enter 2020. The world was turned upside down by a global pandemic. I experienced the loss of one of my close friends. I was becoming bored and restless with my industry job. I was slowly inching closer to that self-imposed deadline to revisit the idea of grad school. The reality was at my doorstep. This was definitely a tough decision, but if there ever was a time for a change, now was the time. As one of my friends told me,

“Don’t fail to do something because you’re scared to take a risk. You’ll have a hard time forgiving yourself if you don’t go for it.”

How I Went About Starting the Application Process 2.0:

While I never fully let go of the “scientist” or “academic” titles in my mind, the idea of starting over again in school at almost 28 was a bit of a mental hurdle. I needed to figure out the process of looking for programs, talking to people, and applying while working a full-time job. I initially felt pretty alone in the early stages of this process. I stayed at my undergraduate institution for my master's. So, the idea of searching for programs was new to me. Most of my friends were either staying in industry, finishing up graduate or professional degrees, or well-established in academia. Here are some of the basic steps I followed that are valuable for anyone considering graduate school:

1. Make a Pro/Con List It may seem silly, but this was a big help for my decision-making. The further out I got from my first grad school experience, the more aware I became about the cost of living, living expenses, what I valued in life, etc. This helped me put things into perspective.

2. Reach Out To Old Advisors, Committee Members, and/or Mentors for Advice In my process, I sent many emails and had several calls with my academic support system. I wanted to get their advice on getting back into academics. This was very helpful in understanding how I needed to frame things and approach potential advisors after taking time away from academics. This is also a key step if you are looking for people to write reference letters! As a general piece of advice, keeping in touch with your mentors is a great practice.

3. Start Drafting a Personal Statement Writing is like using a muscle you haven’t thought about in a while – painful until you get used to working it again. While I was doing plenty of writing in my corporate job, it was mainly technical documents, progress reports, and emails. My first draft of a personal statement was very rusty and took me much longer to write than I thought it would. However, I allowed plenty of time to edit and work through my thoughts on this statement. I also found it incredibly important to really bring in elements of why I wanted to come back to school. A personal statement was an excellent opportunity to explain why and how taking that time off from school benefited me and my goals. Articulating these ideas was also helpful when I started reaching out to potential advisors, and I could fully justify how I was prepared to make a major life shift. 4. Start Researching Programs and People

Once I did the above, it became a matter of researching universities, programs, and people. I also tried to narrow down my research interests to something more specific. Knowing that you want to research and knowing what you want to research are two different things. So, searching for the right program allowed me to explore what research topics excited me. Having the agency to choose what I worked on was something I hadn’t been able to do in my industry job.

Overall, I'm glad I made the decision to return to graduate school for a Ph.D. I can also say that I learned a lot from working in Industry that helped with my academic career... stay tuned for Part 2 with more on this!

172 views0 comments


bottom of page