Whether or not to go to graduate school is a big decision for many, and there are plenty of reasons to pursue a higher degree. I personally think most people should go beyond a Bachelor's degree, especially in structural engineering. For some people going to graduate school may be the best decision while for others it is not.
From my personal experiences, here are four reasons you SHOULD go to graduate school right after your undergraduate degree:
1. You are in the rhythm of school
One of the main reasons I decided to continue with graduate school right away was because I had been a student my entire life – I was used to it. It made the transition a lot easier, and I did not have to re-train myself on how to study. Graduate school is definitely different from undergraduate studies, and it has its own challenges, but at the end of the day, the classes are structured very similarly at least to get your started and transitioned.
2. Some careers or companies may require it
In structural engineering, it is almost always required to have a master’s degree, especially for the more technical careers. Personally, I think having a master’s degree is going to be required in almost every engineering field in the near future. The work we do is very technical and requires a lot of different skills. Engineering is already one of the majors that has the highest number of required credits, so there is no room to add more coursework during an undergraduate program. However, while many engineering professions are highly technical and require advanced degrees, a lot of engineering fields do not currently require a master's degree. I would recommend checking your own personal case.
3. You may not have as many financial or personal obligations
Having a family or other personal circumstances will make going to graduate school more difficult. Graduate programs require a lot more time than an undergraduate program, especially if you are doing research. While you may be taking fewer class credits, those classes are harder and more technical. Graduate school is definitely not impossible with a family, but it is more difficult. I personally got married in the middle of graduate school and had a baby shortly after graduating. Just be aware of the time commitment and make sure your family understands and is supportive.
4. You want to find a job that requires high technical knowledge
There are a lot of jobs out there that are very technical, and the classes needed for these jobs are almost never available for undergraduate students. One clear example I can think of bridges in structural engineering. While almost all concepts are similar, there are loading, code, and design differences that require a deeper understanding of this topic. It is not impossible to find a job in a technical field like this without a master’s degree, but employers often prefer you to have a master’s degree so they know that you have that base knowledge already.
With those reasons in mind, I want to share the answers to three questions to give you an idea about what my experience looked like.
Why did I decide to go to graduate school right away?
I understood the importance of a master’s degree in my profession. I definitely was not ready to start working, and I wanted to have a more in-depth knowledge of structural engineering. For example, I was able to take more advanced classes, such as bridge engineering, matrix analysis of structures, finite element analysis, dynamic analysis of structures, advanced reinforced concrete, and prestressed concrete. Those classes are really important in structural engineering. However, I do also know many people working in bridge engineering without a master’s degree. In a past episode of the Engineering our Future podcast, I talk to someone who is working as a bridge engineer without a master’s degree, so make sure you check out that episode if you are interested in this topic.
What are some of the challenges I faced during graduate school?
My experience will vary greatly from what yours may look like. I definitely learned a lot in class and during research. My writing skills were not as good as they are now, and that was by far one of the hardest parts of my research. You may think that as an engineer there is not much writing, and if you do think that, you are as wrong as I was. Writing is one of the most important skills an engineer can have – not only written communication skills but all kinds of communication skills. You will learn how to better transmit your design in written and spoken form in graduate school. Then in terms of technical skills, I would not say it was too much more challenging. The technical concepts are just building on all the basic structural engineering courses you have already (hopefully) taken.
Would I do it again?
The short answer is YES! I believe I gained a lot of important technical and non-technical knowledge during that time. I was fortunate enough to get it completely paid for, as well. As I said earlier, I believe most jobs and companies are going to require a master’s degree in the near future, especially the highly specialized industries like bridge engineering. I do believe there are plenty of other cases where getting a master’s degree is not the best option, too, though – it is not for everyone.
I hope this helped you to think about what the best decision for you is. Let me know in the comments below if you are currently in the process of deciding whether to go to graduate school or not.