What’s (socially) wrong with graduate school?

My Final Report Card

I say to you that we are full of chemicals which require us to belong to folk societies, or failing that, to feel lousy all the time. We are chemically engineered to live in folk societies, just as fish are chemically engineered to live in clean water—and there aren’t any folk societies for us anymore. (Kurt Vonnegut)

Wolfgang Pauli apparently once said of a student’s work: “This isn’t right.  This isn’t even wrong.”, to deride it for being unfalsifiable.  Grad school isn’t quite that bad.  We’re all running the experiment together every day.  We can tell whether or not it’s working, at least in theory.  But only if we’re willing to look.  I’m looking; I say it’s not working, at least not for graduate students, not on average (mean or median, pick your poison).

Think about the flux of people through this system.  Have you ever heard anyone talk about thesis advisers kind of like they’re talking about a genealogy?  My adviser’s adviser is my grand-adviser.  I’m descended from Heisenberg.  It’s a kind of asexual species, the PhD.  You have only one parent.  That’s not universally true, but it’s a good approximation.  And like aphids, we are prolific.  How many students might you graduate in a career?  On average one a year for 30 years?  Even only one every three years results in the population growing by an order of magnitude every generation.  But obviously that’s not happening.  Not all those PhDs become advisers.  Not all of them stay in academia.  And by not all, I mean something like 90-98%, if we assume the population of academics scales roughly with the overall population.  And maybe that’s not a valid assumption, but if it’s not, we should at least think about why we would want to accumulate an ever growing slice of the population in academic contexts.

It’s not entirely surprising that academia is so focused on itself.  It is, after all, entirely composed of people that thought it was so great they wanted to dedicate their life to it.  And fair enough, for lots of them, it’s probably the right place.  Or a right place anyway.  But it’s not the only place.  The other possible paths get undersold, because they aren’t the ones the salesmen bought.  And who knows, maybe there’s not just a little bit of self justification in there.  Some of them must have a tinge of buyer’s remorse.  I don’t believe this underselling is acceptable.  If for every 10-50 students who come in, only one reaches academic reproductive age, what you’ve got is r-selection, or worse, because those at the bottom are ultimately vital to the functioning of the research complex as a whole, what you’ve got is a pyramid scheme.  We are paid in classic pyramid scheme style, with paper.  Just letters, in front of or behind our names.  And who, other than a graduate student, can you imagine working for their entire winter break, trying to get the same reaction to run repeatedly, working through every single solvent in the lab in alphabetical order, all the way up to nitromethane?  Who, other than the person who actually did that, can you imagine using the story as a pep talk?

My beef here is not with the pyramidal structure per se, but rather with the fact that very few within its upper echelons seem willing to describe it in these terms.  My cynical self suspects that at some level that is because doing so would reduce the influx of fresh meat for the grinder.  Now, we could retain this structure without being dishonest if we wanted to.  It’s the same structure as a tournament.  The only thing that’s different is what the participants believe about the plausible outcomes.  People behave very differently when they think virtually everyone can win than when they think virtually everyone will lose.  There are some people who value participation in a tournament for its own sake, not because they think they’ll win, but I don’t get the feeling that’s true of most graduate students.  Not incidentally, this is also the same basic structure as the Cravath system, used by law firms and business consultants and even the US military’s officer corps.  It’s up or out.  You will be periodically evaluated.  You will either be promoted or fired at each evaluation.  It’s one thing to work 70 hours a week while getting paid $70k a year at a law firm or consulting company where you know you’ll eventually either be fired or make partner.  It’s something else entirely to work 70 hours a week for $17k a year (and no retirement plan, bonuses, or decent healthcare) while being told you are taking part in the Great Scientific Endeavor.  You’ll have your quals, your props, your orals, your defense.  And we all know a PhD is not enough. Did you get a post-doc?  A second post-doc?  Two years in DC on a National Academies fellowship.  A third post-doc?  And only then, at the age of 36, the first thing you’ve ever actually called a “job”.  Academic adolescence.  Trying to grant PhDs before you’ve actually gotten tenure is like trying to get pregnant in high school.  You could do it, but is it really a good idea for anyone involved?  At halfway through your lifespan, you might then find yourself with a lab to really call your own.  Indefinitely.  Or at least, as long as you can find funding, and stave off your mental illness or dementia of choice.  Congratulations!  You are now a Winner!  You may proceed with the in vitro fertilization.

The cost of playing in this tournament is huge, and it’s not made clear up front.  Who joins a poker game without knowing the initial stake?  One cost is social vagrancy.  It is wholly outside our evolutionary history to pick up and abandon our entire social sphere every few years.  Graduating hurts, unless you’re sociopathic.  It is a discarding of everyone you know.  All the people you ran with, biked with, cooked with, ate with, drank with, cried with, talked to, fucked.  It feels that way.

But you tell yourself (and it’s true) they were all going to just discard me too.

That’s the plan.  The only plan anyone seems to have.  It’s a dumb plan.

One day you notice people start trickling away.  The people you became friends with even though they were further along, or people who were unusually productive and finish quickly (but who really gets close to them; they never leave lab).  The spell is broken.  The illusion falls apart.  It’s not a community really.  It’s a kind of simulacrum, created I have to wonder just how inadvertently by the larger institution you’re part of.  From then on, the new students look different.  They are no longer social potential.  You’ve been ditched.  You know you’ll be ditching.  What’s the point in investing the time to get to know them?  Better to concentrate on the people you’re already close to.  Better to buckle down and finish up.  Are you lingering?  Do you feel abandoned?  Advisers watch out for older students who consistently make friends with younger ones.  It’s hard to get rid of them sometimes, without actually kicking them out.  That loneliness is a motivational tool wielded by the institution.  Your friends and peers are gone.  You better get gone too, but there isn’t anywhere to go.  Nowhere in particular anyway.  People are everywhere, but they aren’t staying there.  They are the white noise in the background of your life.  The ironic static.  So you let your ambition guide you instead.

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. […] It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious. (Paul Graham)

How many times do we have to do this?  College, grad school, most post-docs are too short for it to seem worthwhile.  The beginning is already the beginning of the end.  Then we’re pushing 40, and realize the “circumstances” we’d imagined for say, having kids, don’t exist.  They aren’t just around the corner somewhere, after this one last hurdle, one last hoop.  Anyone who actually makes it as far as looking for a faculty job has been both trained and selected for a kind of tolerance of transience.  An ability to disconnect from or devalue the people around them on command, or at the very least to be satisfied with email romances and conference friends.  Our tribal attention spans are slightly greater than unreliable narrator Jack‘s single serving airplane friends.  Are these the people we want engineering our antigen injecting mosquitoes and non-lethal pulsed energy weapons?  Apparently.

You could be forgiven for getting confused.  For thinking, “Surely I haven’t been inducted into some kind of celibate monastic cult without my knowledge and consent?”, and then one day finding yourself torn between being looked down on by your colleagues for not prioritizing your work above all else, and being looked down on by yourself, and maybe someday your kids, for not being the kind of parent you wanted to be.  You could be forgiven for getting confused.  It’s not your fault.  But that may be cold comfort in a bubble world that isn’t built for real lives.  For personal lives.  Communities.  Folk societies.  You will be justified in moving back to your mountain.

Good luck at your defense tomorrow!  Just think, so soon you can be unemployed and working on whatever you want.

But this was always true.  I probably took my last (required) formal class when I was 15.  As in, physically compulsory.  Everything has been electives ever since, but nobody bothered to tell me, or I wasn’t listening.  I think that mistake is getting harder to make.  The knowledge box is cracked a little bit too far open.  Someday we’ll wake up and realize many of our younger colleagues are self-educated.  They grew up in Kibera, Jakarta, Sao Paulo, or Mumbai.  They used Khan Academy, Wikibooks, and Open Courseware.  And somehow, they do not have any student loans.

I’m all for education, but at this point I’m not sure how I feel about schooling.  I’m even for conspicuously excessive education, if such a thing exists.  If we’re going to take something to excess, I’d much rather it was education than violence, or logging, or mining, or fishing, or population, or the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

You are not your job.  You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis. (Tyler Durden)

You are also not your research.  Not your thesis.  Not how happy your adviser was about the plots you made this morning.  You are not your fucking PhD.  Unless the process itself makes you happy, what are you doing?  If the process doesn’t make you happy, how do you convince yourself that those occupations you can only have access to through the degree will make you happy?  Why would that be true?  Even if it’s not making you miserable, if the process is just bearable, how long are you willing to put up with the hurdles and hoops required to stay on track?  You’re not a train.  You can leave the tracks without being a train wreck.  With or without the letters and the paper, you’re smart and motivated.  I’ve actually seen job listings that said “PhD or dropped-out-of-a-PhD a plus”.  The difficulty is in dealing with the amorphous inhomogeneous reality.  Breaking ranks is freedom.  Freedom is chaos.  How will you know what you’re supposed to be doing if someone else isn’t telling you?  You could start a business.  It would probably fail.  Just like the first three research projects you worked on.  That’s okay.  It was financed with somebody else’s fiat currency anyway.

Next time you abandon ship remember: you can choose by decree to control some things.  Your job is not one of them.  The career trajectories, ambitions and ultimate locations of people you thought you were close to are also out of your hands.  But if you’re stubborn, you can choose your zip code, and some zip codes are better than others.

My room, which is not Michelle’s room, is filled with boxes.  Next week my zip code is 80302.  If you’re ever in Colorado, let me know.

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now trapped on Earth. Just trying to make sure we don't blow up our one and only spaceship.

13 thoughts on “What’s (socially) wrong with graduate school?”

  1. Do you remember what your thought process was in making that decision?

    This post has increased the traffic on the site by more than a factor of 10, from tens to hundreds, at least for the day. I’ve gotten several e-mail thank you notes. We aren’t the only ones who can identify with the experience. That totally makes it worth staying up until 6am to write. I wish more people would comment openly, but what can you do?

  2. >I wish more people would comment openly, but what can you do?

    Your wish is my command. Some of your wording looks awfully familiar: “my last (required) formal class”. I think I know what you mean, but nevertheless one has to reconcile one’s dreams with the education one needs to achieve those dreams, right? I started my third (sigh) graduate program with a particular goal that I wouldn’t be able to achieve without that education, so in some sense that really is the last required class. As opposed to wandering around in higher ed blindly. If you wanted to argue the point, you could have moved to the third world and been completely unschooled your entire life; nothing is physically compulsory in some sense! If you stayed in school till 15, then that’s just as arbitrary as my *mumblemumble* years in school, isn’t it?

    In my current program I haven’t really given a shit about my grades, and I’ve been both mildly amused and saddened at all these people fretting about getting an A- instead of an A. Perhaps that’s because I’m in more of a practical field and I know employers will care much more about my counseling skills than whether I forgot to turn in a silly assignment that resulted in an A-. But I hope that perhaps with enough times around the block (sigh), we may eventually get a little perspective.

    >That’s the plan. The only plan anyone seems to have. It’s a dumb plan.

    Hear hear. Thank you so much for this post. It really resonated with me.

    Also, my zip code is also 80302. Welcome!

  3. Oh, I shamelessly stole turns of phrase from lots of different sources and conversations involving people I thought might read this.

    Regarding the compulsory nature of classes… I guess what I’m trying to get at is we really go a long way in this system enforcing other people’s rules upon ourselves. If the outcome serves our personal goals, then that’s totally fine. If we’re enforcing their rules for their benefit, that seems less okay, occasionally to the point of being self-destructive. Even literally self-destructive. Last year at a school with a total student population of about 2000, we had two undergrads, one grad student, and one prof kill themselves. Of course that can’t all be attributed to the place and the culture, but they aren’t helping.

    1. You know, I didn’t really do any research out there on this, other than conversations with people I know. But good lord, is there a lot of horror to be found. Including this letter from Erick Carreria to one of his post-docs, at Caltech, when I was an undergrad, which just today got posted on BoingBoing. And someone who set up a blog to publicize the situation in their lab at Scripps (after having bailed in their 6th year without a degree). And James Watson describing science PhD students openly as serfs. And a recent NYTimes article too (admittedly focused on the humanities).

      Misery loves company, but, but, how did we get talked into this again?

      1. Unfortunately, there aren’t labor laws to protect grad students from being used and abused throughout their Ph.D. programs. Things like the Erick Carreira letter show that professors think (or *know*?) they can get away with anything behind closed doors. I’ve set up a website where PI’s can be rated and reviewed by former and current group members. When there are enough reviews, it will become useful to any prospective researchers looking to join a particular group. Also, graduate students currently suffering under a ‘tyrant’ may feel less alone and helpless if they had a place to make their situations known. I went through the same Ph.D. path… it wasn’t awesome, but thankfully it wasn’t a horror story like some I’ve heard and read about.

  4. This writer at Nature Jobs seems to think that it’s our own damned fault we don’t all end up with independent research jobs.

    Most new PhD students are ill-prepared, and as a consequence very few will fulfil their aspirations to be independent scientists.

    Nevermind the impossible flux argument.

  5. “Work hard — long days all week and part of most weekends. If research is your passion this should be easy, and if it isn’t, you are probably in the wrong field. Note who goes home with a full briefcase to work on at the end of the day. This is a cause of success, not a consequence.” Nevermind that I’ve done that for a decade. Grrr.

  6. Hanna linked this post on her blog, which is how I got here. I really understand your message, I just got my PhD from CU a few months ago.

    I too wish that someone had explained some of the realities to me. Recently one of my undergrad professors said that you can only have two of the following three: career, family, and sleep. In many ways I agree with that, but at the same time, it really depends on the person. I have found that those who are happiest and most fulfilled in grad school and in following careers are the ones who treat it like a job, i.e. 9-5 and no weekends. I don’t agree with those who say that you can’t progress if you don’t work 80 hours a week, etc. (At least I have not found that to be the case in my field.) After 40 hours a week, there really is diminishing returns on the quality of your work. I wish that it wasn’t standard for people to believe that working a normal week is tantamount to forfeiting success.

    I think you bring up a lot of valid and true points. I would like to say a little something about relocating every few years. I moved every 4 years like clockwork growing up, and my family was not in academia. The academic track is my no means the only career path where this type of moving is common. As someone who has experienced it more than most, I think that moving every few years is a richly rewarding experience, and rather than limiting your friend base, actually expands it. This is not to say that I am not sad when my friends move away, but rather it is by no means reason to give up on new friendships.

    Again, great post. I really do wish that my advisers and mentors had been more upfront about these issues before encouraging graduate school and beyond.

  7. Hi Laurel,

    Certainly the life of moving every few years is not unique to Academia. We’re just one small phyle within the ambitious career chasing “elites”. It just happens to be the slice I have experience with. And obviously not all programs are anywhere close to as insane as total synthesis (Carreria’s field, which thankfully I have no experience with). And I actually had a really caring adviser, who wasn’t a slave driver or a manipulator, and truth-be-told, averaged over my entire PhD, I probably worked something like 40 hours a week. (Of course, it was 80 hours some weeks, which later required mental remediation.)

    So what am I complaining about? I’m irritated by the disconnect between the story we’re given about how the whole scientific endeavor is structured, and the reality of it. I’m irritated that the nobility of the scientific endeavor (which I believe in!) is used in a systemic way to manipulate people, and to generate a cadre of analytical, quantitatively trained people who are jaded. Maybe this seems silly, or too subtle, but it really bugs me.

    I think I really disagree about the social consequences of moving around a lot though. I think it’s ultimately corrosive, both individually, and at the societal scale. Long distance friendships just aren’t the same. There is no ambient background interaction. No dropping in randomly to go for a hike, or make dinner. The character of an interpersonal relationship, in my experience anyway, changes profoundly depending on the frequency of interaction. All day every day (traveling together, parenting) is very different from multiple times a day (living with someone) is very different from multiple times a week (best friends) which is very different from a couple of times a month (friends, activity partners) or a couple of times a year (acquaintance). They just don’t feel the same at all to me. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe it’s because I grew up alone in the country in the same place for 17 years. But I kind of doubt it.

    At the societal scale, I feel like this vagrancy is corrosive because it robs us of our local leaders. The intelligent, thoughtful, educated, motivated people are always off running around chasing down the next promotion or opportunity, and so they tend not to put down roots in a place, and become intimately involved in its governance, and I think that hurts governance at the city level, which in my mind is actually the most important, accessible level.

    Anyway, congratulations on finishing. I graduated from CU in December. Maybe we were even in the same class.

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