Should You Go To Grad School Somewhere Else?

by Judge Josh on September 23, 2010

Jeeves is not a butler. He’s a pretty accomplished undergrad at Illinois who isn’t sure whether to trust the traditional wisdom that says you oughta go to grad school somewhere different from where you did undergrad.

After all, what if your undergrad school has an absolutely phenomenal, world-renowned grad program?

Hello! As everyone has already mentioned, I do appreciate the time that you put into letting us know your opinion on the mess that is collegiate life.

graduate school somewhere different

Must you pack up and go just because you want a graduate degree?

Thanks, and you’re welcome! Thanks for coming around!

I’m a student at the University of Illinois: Urbana-Champaign, where I’m a student in the College of Business there (in an honors program, 4.0 GPA, etc.).

Outstanding! Congrats on the GPA, keep it up!

My program (Organizational Administration/Process Management) is not nearly as highly ranked as the accountancy program here, so I’ve made it something unique by adding a dual-degree with I/O psychology.

Great idea, and the two seem like a good match. The fact that you gave it that much additional thought and then executed the plan by tackling the double degree is probably an indicator of future success, I’d say, and without hestitation.


I’ve learned through my classwork and experiences that I like consulting, but I also like research. As such, I want to pursue a PhD in I/O Psychology (where U of I is 2nd in the nation according to the Society of Industrial-Organizational Psychologists [SIOP]).

Sounds like a great plan to me, considering that I/O psychology ought to be an industry with pretty steady growth as the American economy continues to mature, and while it slowly gets handed off to a younger generation of workers who have different needs from and expectations of a workplace. I could be wrong about that, but that’s what I read, and it seems to fit my experience.

But my real question is threefold: how accurate is the advice to not do graduate school the same place as your undergraduate?

Well — I don’t know, man, I’m not a big devotee of this at all. I understand the thinking behind it, but I also maintain that all things are relative to one’s goals and resources.

The idea behind the advice to do your graduate work elsewhere is basically this: By leaving your undergrad environment and starting again somewhere else, you’re exposed to more and different faculty members, resources, students, etc. Which, in your case, is supposed to make you a more well-rounded industrial psychologist.

I understand the logic: sure, the wider your exposure, the better. But the desire to do this should always be weighed against the money, time and convenience it’s going to cost to do so.

First, let’s acknowledge the obvious — the world is a lot smaller than it used to be in terms of interconnectedness. We’ve all got thousands of lectures from the world’s elite universities at our fingertips on the Internet. Advanced discussions on every imaginable topic are going on right now, just a few clicks away.

The idea that one’s perspective is necessarily limited by the school he/she attends is an antiquated one. Sure, in 1970, perhaps you really did need to up and move 1,0o0 miles away to another great university in order to absorb their ideas. Not so anymore.

Second, the traditional advice goes out the window anyway when your undergraduate school’s grad program is particularly outstanding, nationally ranked, etc. And as you’ve pointed out, yours is exactly that. Leaving that opportunity behind just to follow an aging piece of advice would be folly, I think.

Also, how possible is it for a company (consulting or otherwise) to accept a PhD as an employee?

Not at all. Companies hire Ph.Ds all the time. Practically speaking, of course, a Ph.D is more expensive to hire than someone without a Ph.D, so that necessarily shrinks the pool of companies willing to hire one. But then again, that’s why the average industrial psychologist makes something like $90k per year.

And what would you suggest regarding taking a few years to work before heading back for graduate school?

Great question. I’ll let you fill in the context before answering.

The companies I’ve been looking at have ranged from IDEO with design consulting to Bain with general managerial consulting to Mercer with human capital consulting. They’re all excellent companies, but I feel I’ll be disadvantaged if I have the same school for both undergrad and my PhD work.

Well, I can’t sit here and tell you with certainty and from experience and with certainty that *no one* will care that you didn’t switch schools. There are a TON of decision-makers in the world who make stupid decisions based on bullshit criteria. Can’t change that, unfortunately.  And so here I’ll give you my usual advice about things you can’t change — ignore them and turn your efforts and focus back to yourself.

If you work hard to establish yourself as a distinguished Ph.D candidate from one of the world’s best schools in industrial psychology, then I refuse to believe you’ll have difficulty finding employment. Focus inward, not outward, and you’ll get there, I promise you.

In fact, I was thinking of working for a few years and then going back for my PhD to get the work experience that many schools look for. At the same time, U of I doesn’t have this requirement (as far as I know) and many professors that I’ve talked to have said the most successful PhDs have been more younger candidates.

Yeah, this is a really good one, because there are strong arguments to be made for both sides.

Aggregating work experience is such a rock-solid career builder that you can almost never argue against it. Almost. In your case, though, I’m going completely off the rails and saying no — don’t get the work experience first.

You’ve got insider access to a top Ph.D program, and what I’m hearing from you is that you think you can get into it from your current vantage. That’s a rare opportunity. The faculty there is probably familiar with you and your excellent work, and that greases the wheels for grad admission.

Five years from now, that may not be the case. Many professors may have moved on, and to them you’re just another outside applicant on a piece of paper in front of them. Even the professors who haven’t moved on may not remember you very well, if at all. So in this rare case, by leaving to get work experience, you may have made it harder to get into the Ph.D program (Note: Remember, this is based on the notion we’re accepting here, that you can get accepted into the program right now, as soon as you finish your undergrad degrees).

Also, if you really want a Ph.D and you have the opportunity to get one while you’re still young and relatively unencumbered by a full-time job, a spouse, children, and the very serious weight of taking care of said spouse and children — seize it, my friend. Because even though you may be thinking right now, “I’ll just work for a few years and come back for my Ph.D,” it often doesn’t work out that way.

Because during those few years you’re out working, all kinds of stuff happens to you. You find a job you like, maybe, and you don’t want to leave it. Or you meet someone and perhaps you get married or you’re living together, and now you’re trying to reconcile those old hopes of a Ph.D with your companion’s hopes as well, and perhaps they aren’t too compatible (maybe he/she has a job offer far away, or is chasing a Ph.D somewhere other than Champaign, Ill.)

Point is: when you commit to “just working a few years,” you’re actually going down a path (life, I think it’s called :)) that’s fraught with distractions and detours which may derail you from that Ph.D.

And I’m not saying that’s all bad — you know what they say, “Men make plans, and God laughs” — but it’s as true as the day is long. So just be aware of the very real fact that, if you don’t do the Ph.D now, you may never do it.

Thank you for your time,
Jeeves

And thank you for the question! Hope you find it at least a little bit helpful.

— What about you guys? I’m sure some of you have opinions about or experience with the whole “go to grad school somewhere different” phenomenon. I’d love to hear from you, so let us know in the comments below.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Ed September 23, 2010 at 4:23 pm

You do not have to necessarily pack up and leave to go to another university. Even though many people believe in going to different schools for graduate programs, it really works as a two-way street. In your case, if you think the University of Illinois is your best option, continue your graduate studies there, as long as they want you. If not, explore your other options. You should have little to no problem finding a high-quality program to fund your graduate studies. Therefore, keep your options open, but do not remove the option from staying at the University of Illinois for the reason of attending different schools.

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Cassidy September 23, 2010 at 5:50 pm

SO I’d like to comment on the “work a few years” line. That’s great that for your program they don’t require a few years of work experience, but for almost all of the grad programs I looked into for International Relations only 3-5% of their accepted students were straight out of undergrad. Many schools “recommended” that their applicants have work experience to make a competitive application.

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Gia September 23, 2010 at 5:53 pm

Thank you for answering this question. I had some professors that said it’s nice to go to other universities while others said it really didn’t matter. The major problem was that no one could really explain why you should or shouldn’t stay at the same university. Great information! Thanks.

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kiwinc September 23, 2010 at 7:25 pm

If I had the opportunity to stay at my school to work on my graduate degree, I’d be all over it. Low tuition, I know all the instructors, and I have a very firm support structure in place already. I think the Judge is correct in this one – if your current school is already a well-known entity in the field, it can’t hurt you to stay.
If I am not mistaken, I have a friend who is doing something very similar to you and frankly, he’s pretty excited about the employment options he’ll have when he’s done. He’s looked at several different East Coast schools and the field is wide open. That’s a good field to moving into, no matter where you go.
Again with the Judge, I’d encourage you to stay in school and finish. You’ll need to do some internships anyway (and your work experience won’t help you there, I can almost promise you that). You’re going to have to work 50 years, anyway. Why rush it?

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Stephanie September 23, 2010 at 8:58 pm

All I can say is this. I just finished an MA in English and, in a workshop, the go-elsewhere-for-grad-school question was put to a prof in the department. This prof is probably in his mid-forties and said that he’s been on many many selection committees for various university jobs in various departments. Here’s what he said. Bachelor’s + Master’s + PhD = 3 degrees. In all the hiring committee meetings he’s been in, he’s never had anyone ever bring up the issue of an applicant only going to two universities for the three degrees. However, if an applicant has gone to only one university for all three degrees, it comes up in discussion every time.

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Jeeves (the one who asked the question) September 29, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Thank you again for responding to this question, especially the speed with which you did so! Also, thank you to the people that have commented.

In regards to my program, the thing is it’s a combined masters and PhD program. So to Stephanie’s point, it WOULD be a BS + MS + PhD in the same university. Different colleges, but still the same university.

Another major sticking point: the entire program is free for me (full tuition waiver granted + $20K stipend per year). I totally want to do it, but I also don’t want to spend 6 more years in the cornfields of Central Illinois (no offense to those who’ve lived in such places their entire lives).

However, to mitigate that concern, I was thinking about trying for a Fullbright or a Rhodes scholarship and getting my masters from a different university and then coming back (that is if I do go straight through).

If I DON’T go straight though, though, do you believe that keeping in touch with said professors would be of any benefit? I will be doing an honors research program that will give them my research and thesis-writing capabilities starting next semester and until I graduate (next year).

I would appreciate the collective’s wise advice 😀

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James October 12, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Jeeves,

Stephanie may have a valid point, but I doubt it is an across the board response. Sure, some places may have a problem with it, but many won’t. If it becomes an issue, you may have a great argument in the fact it was a dual M/PhD degree.

I appreciate the wanting to move elsewhere comment. However, is it worth it? Will the free program still be available if you do? Going for the Rhodes/Fullbright is great, but they are very competitive so don’t count on it until you get it. The free program is a huge decision maker. If you think it will be that big a deal, consider another option. Get the free combo degree, then get a Bachelor’s or Master’s at another school.

From an employer standpoint, I don’t see many who care if it was 1, 2, 3, etc. schools. Depending on what you want to do, the bigger issue would be the PhD. Consulting/teaching it helps, for jobs that don’t require it, it can hurt. Some employers are hesitant to hire a PhD for a position not requiring it; they may question why a PhD was applying for such a position.

If you don’t get straight through, then by all means, do keep in touch.

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Donita Yohe November 21, 2010 at 4:52 am

When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment.

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Julian Gittleman December 19, 2010 at 10:34 pm

Thanks for the info. I am doing research for a possible term paper at PSU. This helped me narrow my selections.

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