Fortune and Glory!
(Why Go to Graduate School?)

Professor Ken Joy
Department of Computer Science
UC Davis

While I'm standing here in front of you, let me say a few words about something that can have a tremendous positive effect on your lives. I see a large group of students here -- some are seniors and are about to finish their academic careers, and some are freshmen and sophomores that are just beginning. The message that I will give you in the next few minutes is about graduate school.

Why go to graduate school? ................... The simple answer is Fortune and Glory.

Well, I hear a few snickers in the crowd, but I'm serious. Listen to me for a few minutes, and let me justify this! It's the difference between short-term and long-term investments -- and the focus of the investment is you.

First, we have to discuss the difference between graduate school and the undergraduate education that most of you are involved with.

An undergraduate education is considered by most universities as an education that prepares the individual for greater success in life. The objective is to produce a well-rounded individual who specializes in one area of study, but is also broadly prepared to take on a variety of tasks in life. From these noble goals, come the programs and majors that you are now involved with -- general education, majors, minors, core courses, prerequisites, required courses, etc.

Most undergraduates work from semester to semester, with little coherency in their curriculum. Once finals are over in the fall semester, they forget most of the details and begin to focus on those courses they're taking in the spring. Your undergraduate education focuses on short-term learning through fourteen-week courses, and little emphasis is given to integrating the knowledge that you have acquired.

Most people see graduate school as just continuation of undergraduate work, but that is far from the truth. In graduate school, the emphasis is on the long-term. The primary goal is to master the field of your choice, and then contribute to it -- and this changes everything. Let's be explicit! What do you get in graduate school?

    • You get to explore the field of your choice.

In graduate school, you get to study exclusively in the field of your choice. This means that there is no general education requirement, or required courses outside your ``major.'' The emphasis is on learning the material to master your field. You have hurdles to cross -- preliminary examinations, oral examinations, thesis writing, and research -- but these are not the short-term hurdles of an undergraduate curriculum.These are based upon long-term mastery of your field, and classes are one of the vehicles that help you do this. Finally, you have an objective in graduate school -- to contribute to the knowledge in your field. Your short-term goals all have to do with these long-term accomplishments.

    • You get to join a team of faculty, staff, and fellow graduate students who are all working on interesting problems.

When you attend a major university, you're surrounded by people working on state-of-the-art problems -- and you get to join them. You will join a team that is specializing in a certain area of study and you will work to contribute to this area and this team. It takes some ``spin up'' to be able to work on these hard problems, but when you begin to contribute, the feeling is great!

    • You get to work on the most interesting problems in your field.

      At a major research university, everyone is working on the most interesting problems in their respective fields -- for that is what we get paid to do. Whereas as an undergraduate, you frequently solve problems that ``illustrate'' the concepts presented in class, as a graduate student you work on problems that have national and international significance. In computer science for example, we are working on enhancing computer security, inventing new programming languages, expanding operating systems to work on networks of computer systems, inventing multimedia interfaces for the Internet, expanding the world of computer graphics, visualizing scientific information, expanding the capabilities of computer architectures, and enhancing computer networks. What could be more fun than working on problems at the forefront of this field?
    • You get a lifestyle that is the envy of most working people.

A University campus is a wonderful place to live and work. You will join a team of researchers and work on interesting problems in a great learning environment. You probably will work long hours -- but they will be your hours. Yes, you will not have a lot of money, but you will have enough. The environment, the freedom, the people, and the work make for a very enjoyable lifestyle.

    • You get paid to do this.

      The university pays you to go to graduate school. They pay you to work on interesting problems in your chosen field. Yes, every graduate student complains about their salary. But you do get paid for 20 hours per week, and your tuition is paid by the university. You also get office space, and can use the outstanding facilities of the university -- health club, computer systems, telecommunication facilities, library -- which are substantial perks.

So what do you get at graduate school? You get to join the best learning environment in the world -- faculty and students working on state-of-the-art problems on state-of-the-art facilities on a university campus. And you get paid to do this!

See the difference between graduate school and your current Bachelor's-degree program?

OK, so far, so good! But if I put myself in your position, I still have a question: ``Why did he entitle this talk `Fortune and Glory'?'' To see this, we have to examine the results of graduate education.

What is fortune? My desk-side dictionary defines fortune as ``a person's condition or standing in life determined by material possessions or financial wealth ; or success, especially when partially resulting from luck.'' And glory? ``Great honor, praise, or distinction accorded by common consent; a height of achievement, enjoyment or prosperity''.

So fortune and glory denotes success, wealth, praise and achievement -- and enjoyment. And how does this apply to graduate school? Well, suppose you graduate with an advanced degree. What can you expect as a result?

    • You will make more money.

      I don't care what survey you consult, all will say that the earning potential of someone with an advanced degree is much greater than someone with a B.S. If you ask some of my colleagues in the Computer Science Department at UC Davis, they will tell you that a starting Master's Degree student will make 20% more than a student with a B.S. I believe that this is incredibly conservative -- as most of my students earn about 40% more than those that we send out with a Bachelor's degree. But more importantly, a person with an advanced degree advances in salary much faster than a student with a B.S. -- much faster.

      Want evidence of this? Look at the upper-level management in any company. How many Bachelor's degree students do you see? Not many! Look at the cars in the parking lot outside a major computing firm. How many of the BMWs belong to students with graduate degrees? Probably most of them.
    • You will get better job opportunities.

      This is a big one! And it's big in two ways: First, you get to have the job you really want. I advertise that each of my former graduate students has the job they want -- and it's true. It may have taken an extended search, or a one-year internship, but they were eventually able to work themselves into the position they wanted. Second, you will be much more mobile than a student with just a B.S. degree. Think about this! Not only do you have a better probability of moving up quickly in your company, but if you don't like your job, you have a much better probability of moving into a similar, or better, job at a new company.

    • You will get to work on the most exciting problems available in your company.

      This is easy! When you graduate with an advanced degree, you have exhibited the ability to join a team of researchers working on state-of-the-art problems, and you have already succeeded in solving one or more of these problems. Your employers will know that you can be successful solving state-of-the-art problems and will put you in a position to do this within their company. They'd be foolish if they didn't!

      In addition, by committing to a graduate education, you have exhibited a commitment to lifelong learning. Thus your employers will know that they have someone who they can count on over the long term.

    • You will receive the notoriety commensurate with your work.

      Guess who gets to present the results of your work on these problems? You do! You first get to present the results to the managers and directors in your own company, and you frequently get to present them professionally. Professional publication and recognition comes to very few, and virtually all of these have advanced degrees.

So you will earn a higher salary, have better advancement possibilities, have better mobility, get to work on great problems with other great people, and receive the notoriety. What does this mean? Fortune and Glory! See it?

To reinforce this, let me tell you a short story about a university graduate, who took his B.S., went out to industry, and worked his tail off for a fine firm in Los Angeles. We'll call him Kyle. During the first two years, Kyle was happy in the job, and was feeling quite comfortable as his salary was increased several times. However, in the third year, he didn't receive the promotion that he thought he deserved, and he asked his supervisor for a meeting to discuss this.

After some initial discussion, Kyle's supervisor had to leave the office to take a phone call, and Kyle was left sitting there alone. While silently composing his final arguments, he happened to notice that his supervisor had left the ``official'' promotion list face up on the top of his desk. Temptation and frustration together was too much, and even though he knew it was wrong, he quickly glanced at the list. He couldn't quite believe what he saw! It was clear that he'd been passed over in favor of several co-workers who had done much less. When his supervisor returned, he was so distracted, he quickly communicated his concern and got out of the office.

The next day, Kyle solicited a meeting with the director of his division, who was well known in the company for being forthright with his employees. After some discussion, he was able to learn that the majority of these promotions were given to colleagues who had advanced degrees -- and this had been the determining factor in putting them over the top. In short, the director thought that they had a greater long-term potential in the company than Kyle. The company was thinking about its long-term health, not the short-term contributions that Kyle had made.

What did Kyle do? Well I can tell you because this is a true story, and I know! I know because Kyle's real name is Ken -- and this is my story. This incident made me put my head up and take a look at my long-term prospects at this company -- and the result was I went back to graduate school. And what did I get? I got the job I wanted; I got unlimited consulting opportunities; I got to contribute to the field of computer graphics; I got to work with the best students in the world; and I receive recognition for the work I do. In short, Fortune and Glory!

The message of this is not to start looking at lists on your manager's desk, it's to look at what you want to do and your long-term potential for doing it. I think you will find, as I did, that you have a much better probability of success if you obtain a graduate degree.

Before I wrap this up, let's go back and examine some of the excuses that students give for not going to graduate school:

  • ``I'm tired of being a pauper, I want to go out in the real world and make money.''

    Oh yeah! The message here is to stay in school, get an advanced degree, and eventually make much more money -- and the university will pay you to go! You not only get to make more money, but you get to do it in the field you want!

  • ``I'm tired of going to school. I'm going out and get a job where I don't have to go to class.''

    Employers look at a person who commits to graduate school as one who is committed to lifelong learning. If you ever give an employer the impression that you're not interested in learning -- and going to class is part of learning -- you should probably begin to review your resume writing skills. Lifelong learning is a part of continuous improvement, and that is what every employer must have from his employees.

  • ``I owe my parents a lot of money. I'm going out and get a nice-paying job so I can pay them back.''

    I'm sure that Mom and Dad would be very happy to extend your loan if they knew that you were much more likely to make a lot more money upon graduation -- and would be much more likely to pay back the loan in a timely way. If they were still not happy, you could sweeten the pot! Tell them that you would be willing to pay back 10% more, or would sign over some of the stock options available to you. Make their short-term investment a long-term one.

  • ``I want to go out to the real world and work on some interesting problems.''

    Right! When you're attending a major university, you are surrounded by people working on the most exciting problems of their respective fields. Each of these researchers is just dying to have some enthusiastic students work with them on their problems. Sure, when you're an undergraduate student, the university requires you to take a lot of classes that (supposedly) improve your physical and mental being, but in graduate school you get to focus exclusively on the interesting problems in your field.

All of these statements, which we hear frequently, focus on an extremely short-term view of a long-term problem (Your life!). Most who make these statements do not realize the benefits of a graduate education. They do not realize that a Bachelor's degree sets you up perfectly to enter graduate school. Sure there are pressures on you. But we are not talking about a continuation of undergraduate work, we are talking about graduate school, where you have control. If you look forward and examine the paths available to you, you will see that the best probability of success is through graduate school.

Let me back up a bit and state that it's not necessary that you go immediately to graduate school after receiving your B.S. degree. In fact, it can be quite beneficial to spend one or two years in industry to ``remove your training wheels'' in computer science.

But its easy to focus on the short-term (like Kyle did), and forget your long-term possibilities. So every time you walk by the rows of Lexuses (Lexii?) in the preferred parking lot of your firm, remember that most of their owners have letters after their names (like M.A., M.S., M.B.A., or Ph.D). They are inside working in the best jobs in the company, earning their large salary, working on exciting problems, and basking in the glory of their contributions. And you could be too!

Starting to understand? Let's push the point home -- and you should have seen this one coming.

What do you get from fortune and glory? Fun! Fun! and more Fun!

Think about it! Money and success, praise and distinction, and the sense of mutual accomplishment from working with others to contribute to the state-of-the-art in your field. What could be more Fun that this? The great jobs are the ones where its fun going to work, and you can have one of these jobs!

So here is your mantra -- Fortune and Glory. Whenever you want a reason to push yourself hard, think fortune and glory. Whenever you explain to your significant-other why you're studying so hard, tell him (or her) about fortune and glory. When you need to pull that extra grade point to get into graduate school, just remember fortune and glory.

And then put your head up and think fun, because in the long-term that is what you will have over all your peers who decided not to go to graduate school.

Fortune and Glory... and Fun!

This paper was based upon several talks given to computer science students at UC Davis.

Let us know what you think! Email us.

Still Interested? Take a look at our home page!

All contents copyright (c) 1998
Computer Science Department, University of California, Davis
All rights reserved.