The discussions that led to my last post
and the discussions that followed it kept skirting the issues of who should go to graduate school and whether there should be fewer graduate students. That made me uncomfortable, because I sure as hell don't know the answers to those questions.
So let me get this out of the way right up front: if you are wondering "should I go to graduate school?" my answer is "I don't know."
Furthermore, I'd say no one else knows, either. If I had a larger point in my last post (which is debatable) it is this: graduate school can mean different things to different people. No one can write any universal rules about whether you should or shouldn't go.
However, no one can write universal rules about what you should do after
getting a PhD, either. I am firmly in favor of a true expansion of our thinking about what people "should" do after they get a PhD and what "success" looks like, but that does not mean I think everyone currently doing multiple postdoctoral fellowships or working as an adjunct as they try to get a tenure track position is doing the wrong thing. What is "right" and what is "wrong" is a very individual decision, and no one can make it for someone else.
Similarly, I don't know if programs should be trying to shrink right now. I know that I'm generally in favor of high but transparent standards; honest disclosure of what a graduate program will cost in terms of time, effort, and money; and gathering and sharing information about the job prospects of people graduating from the program.
I am very, very uncomfortable about the idea that some group of people is going to accurately decide what is best for some other group of people, unless those groups are "parents" and "infants." Really, go read that Tressie McMillan Cottom post I linked to in my last post
, if you haven't already. Who among us really has the breadth of knowledge to decide what is right for everyone else? I certainly won't claim that I can look past my own privilege and make such a pronouncement in any sort of universal manner.
When I think about professions that limit the number of practitioners by limiting spots in training programs, I think about medicine. I can see a "public good" case for stringent standards for medical training programs and for strict licensing requirements. I don't see a similar case for PhDs. I'll go further and say that I don't really see the harm to society
from having more members who have PhDs, even PhDs from programs of varying quality, regardless of how those people are making their money.
I can see a case for harm coming to an individual from investing time and perhaps money into a PhD that results in poor career prospects... but is that what is happening? I don't know. I see a lot of examples of people who are realizing that the career path they hoped to get on is mighty crowded, and are having to make tough decisions about how long to stay in the jobs in the early parts of that path. I am not unsympathetic to this problem. It sucks. Career angst is absolutely no fun. But this does not seem unique to PhDs. Are there other career paths that are well-paved and easy to navigate, leading to wonderful, well-paid jobs for all who want them, and with frolicking unicorns holding up encouraging signs as you traverse them? If so, by all means... get on those paths!
I don't think such paths exist. I'm sorry. That sucks. I know.
My honest opinion of what I would do if I were a postdoc or adjunct and thought that my situation sucked is to stop being a postdoc or an adjunct and go do something else. Based on what I've done when I've found myself in other sucky work situations, I think I'd moan about the suckiness of it all for awhile, but then I'd embark on the difficult work of figuring out what other career paths might appeal to me and make a change. Sure, there are likely systemic changes needed in how both scientific research and undergraduate education are staffed, but I would not want to spend my life in misery waiting for those changes to happen. Neither institution is noted for being quick to change, after all.
I said I wasn't going to give advice and that is straying dangerously close to advice, so let me be clear: that's just me. I have never viewed a tenure track position as a uniquely desirable prize, and I have never had a life long dream to do anything.
One thing I learned in my own forays into career angst is that the acceptable ways out of said angst are very personal- what looks like a great solution to one person will look like a fate worse than death to someone else. The only universal thing is that you have to be honest about the situation to have any hope of finding a good path forward. Wishing that the world was different than it is won't do any good. If you're up for fighting to make the world different, more power to you. Otherwise, you just have to accept the suckiness and figure out your next move.
Oops. That is sounding a lot like advice again. But I think I'll stick with that one: you really do have to make an honest assessment of the situation if you want to have a good chance of figuring out what you should do next.
|Not all warning signs are this unambiguous.|
One other thing I feel comfortable saying: if that honest assessment leads you to determine that you made some poor decisions in the past or ignored warning signs and stayed on one path too long: let it go. Examine it only as much as necessary to make better decisions in the future, and then accept that the past is the past and evaluate your options in the present. Flagellating yourself over past decisions will not help you get to a happier place. You know more now than you did then, so apply that knowledge and figure out what you want to do next.
My last post was a personal story about the role the PhD played in my life. I got several responses that a person could gain confidence and master self-directed learning in other ways. That is true. But I
gained my confidence and mastered self-directed learning through doing a PhD.
My story doesn't mean that I think getting a PhD is a great decision for everyone. I think that getting a PhD was a great decision for me
. But let's look at the whole story.
I graduated from college in 1994. We were still coming out of a recession. It wasn't as bad as the recent one, but the economy still wasn't great. There were jobs for recent graduates, but they weren't as plentiful as they were five years later when the dotcom boom was booming.
I had a degree in biochemistry. I had worked as a lab technician in college and knew that was not a good long term career plan for me. I wasn't sure what my other options were. Maybe I could become a high school teacher? But I have a lot of teachers in my family and had absolutely zero illusions about how easy or well-compensated such a choice would be. I could go a completely different direction- but for all the reasons outlined in my last post, I didn't have a wide view of the options available.
Or I could go to graduate school. I had several competing offers from which to choose, all from really good programs. I had applied for and won an NSF fellowship, which at some of the programs meant that I would get an increased stipend.
I was living in Chicago. I liked the city. In fact, I loved Chicago, but I was tired of the cold winters. Several graduate programs in California had accepted me, including one that was offering to bump my stipend up to $18,000/year, thanks to the NSF fellowship.
My friends who were starting entry level positions were getting offers in the $20,000 - $25,000/year range. A bunch of my friends had no offers at all.
Getting paid $18,000 per year to go to graduate school in California sounded like a good deal to me.
I tried to pick a good, healthy program. I ruled out one where one of the professors I interviewed with said "Oh, you're from Chicago, so you're used to the idea that you work all seven days of the week." I also tried to pick a good adviser and a good thesis topic. But in fact, I mostly just got lucky and landed in a quality program and with an adviser who was not a giant asshole, working on a really interesting- but doable- project.
Even given that luck, there was a time when I considered quitting. It was in my third year, which I consider the darkest year- I was so far in that I couldn't see the light from where I entered the tunnel, but not far enough along to see the light at the end of the tunnel, either. But I did not have an abusive adviser and I wasn't actually miserable. I can't remember what swayed me to stay, it might have been something as embarrassing as not wanting to rock the boat in the relationship I was in, which I thought was going to last (it didn't). I don't know. But I stayed, and I finished.
My timing in exiting graduate school was far, far better than my timing in exiting college. I came out with a PhD and experience working with databases just as this new field of "bioinformatics" was exploding. I had a choice between a postdoc paying about $25k/year and a job at a biotech start up that paid $50k/year. I agonized over that choice for a laughable amount of time, in retrospect. I never had a strong desire to become a professor, and turning down that much extra money to continue on the professorial path was never going to happen, particularly since everyone told me that I could never be a professor working on the things I was most interested in (which was scientific data management... yes, I am aware they were all wrong).
The path since then has not been all sunshine and roses, but it has only rarely really sucked, and when it has sucked, I have (eventually) changed course. It wasn't always easy to figure out when to change course when things didn't suck but weren't really great. I've used a career coach twice, and found that very helpful in clarifying what I wanted out of my work life. And I've done a lot of navel-gazing.
So, that's another personal story. I am not arrogant enough to try to give universal advice, but I can tell you where I think I would have chosen differently if the situation had been different.
I don't think I would have gone to graduate school if it weren't a paid gig. It seems even less likely that I would have gone into serious debt to go to graduate school.
I doubt I would have persisted in graduate school if I had an abusive adviser. I base this on the fact that I have recognized other abusive work situations and (eventually) gotten the heck out. I cannot think of any career reward I think is worth tolerating abuse to secure.
If I had a strong desire to become a professor, I might have taken the postdoc over the start up job. Given the odds, I probably would not have gotten a job as a professor, or if I did get one, it probably would have been in a geographic location I did not find desirable. I have no idea how many postdocs I'd have done as I tried to land a tenure track position. Given my decision making processes in other cases, I suspect it would have been strongly influenced by how much I enjoyed the postdocs. I do not know if I would have been willing to move to a place I did not like just to be a professor. I can tell you that I would not move to a place a do not like to take any job now. There is no amount of job satisfaction that can overcome living conditions suckitude for me
But those considerations are all very much driven by the type of person I am, and what makes me happy. No one can tell you what the right answer to any career choice is, because no one knows what is most important to you. A good career coach can help you find the answers, but in the end, they come from within you.
Yeah, I know. That sucks, too. But I found that doing the work to figure out what really mattered to me was fairly transformative in terms of my vision for what my life could be. Maybe you will, too. Good luck!