I met up with a college buddy last week, one of the ones who, unlike me, graduated on time and then headed off to graduate school to study analytical chemistry. We'll call him Jack. Jack was with his old roommate, and the two of them saw me and came over to talk. After Jack and I caught up, I asked him how TA'ing was and if he had chosen a research group yet. And as he complained of his duties, I was again glad that I decided to stay in undergrad an extra semester in lieu of going to graduate school.
At some point, Jack's friend turned to me and said, "So did you graduate yet?"
"No," I said.
"Do you plan on going to grad school?" he said.
"No," I said.
"Can't blame you." He motions to Jack. "Jack here is a really smart guy."
Jack smiled and in his quiet speech said, "Tyler is smarter than I am."
"I don't think that's possible," the friend replied, chuckling. "Is it true?"
I looked at Jack awkwardly and shrugged. "Ya."
Looking puzzled, he then asked the one question that I've been asked dozens of times recently and that I'm getting really sick of answering: "So why aren't you going to grad school?"
I have two responses to this.
1. Not all "super smart" people go to grad school, and not all people in grad school are "super smart."
The idea consistently presented to me is that really smart people go to graduate school; that's just what they do. So I should be going. Slackers and dumb people don't go, and if I don't, I'm no smarter than them. This line of thinking is beginning to frustrate me. Who ever said that the top of the class has to go on and earn another degree? Why can't I be content with an undergraduate degree?
Also, there's an underlying assumption that is equally frustrating: If you have a graduate degree, you are more intelligent than someone who doesn't. Surely, you're more schooled --you've been in school longer, how can you not be? But you are not necessarily more intelligent. I've met many graduate students who weren't above average intelligence one bit. I've also met a few who actually knew less chemistry than me after an extra three or four years of studying it.
It's possible that the average intelligence is greater for grad students than for undergrads, but grad students probably contain a wide range of intelligence, just like in undergrad and high school.
2. I'm not going to grad school to study a subject I don't love.
Along with the grad school question, I also get asked if I'm going to follow in my father's footsteps and go to medical school. No, no I'm not. And here's why: I don't want the type of lifestyle that a post-graduate degree provides. I don't want to work in a lab, sacrificing my time with friends and family, hobbies, and personal goals for scientific pursuits, which, in my experience, seems to be the life that scientists live. I'm not going to medical school because after seeing my dad on call for far too many birthdays, holidays, nights, and weekends, I've decided it's not worth it.
But more importantly, I'm not doing either because I don't truly love chemistry or medicine. I'm still hoping to do something that I love and allows me to go home sometime around 5:00 p.m. to enjoy myself. It's not that I wouldn't be willing to make sacrifices, like if I ended up at graduate school for a completely different subject, but I don't want my life to be centered around work, especially work that I don't enjoy.