Graduate school---now or later?

I wrote a post a while back exploring the reasons I think engineers should pursue a master’s degree, and because of that post, people ask me,

When? Should I go to graduate school fresh out of undergrad, or should I gain practical experience first and come back later?

There are some advantages to waiting until you gather significant experience, the biggest one being the increased context for the importance of the material you are studying. You’re going deep on topics you now have practical experience with, while for those doing the master’s right out of undergrad, the applications may be abstract.

On the other hand, I almost always recommend people do the masters fresh out of undergrad. Why? You’re still in an education mentality, you’re acclimated to living on tight finances, and your family is likely smaller than it will be later.

While many people say they’ll come back later to graduate school, it’s very difficult to (a) do it while working fulltime, or (b) quit your job and re-acclimate to a grad student budget. Huge lifestyle changes are normal (beyond all the time you’ll be spending studying).

If you wait several years, your mathematical background will be more latent—resurrecting those abilities can be difficult. Depending on how up-to-date you remain in the more theoretical aspects of your field, some courses may be well beyond your reach intellectually unless you can devote some serious effort on the front end. Don’t underestimate this—you want your mathematical instincts to be fluent.

So yes, while it’s a great idea in theory to gain practical experience before going to graduate school, you probably won’t actually come back. If a graduate degree is important to you, do it right now before you have the chance to let circumstances talk you out of it.