Sunday, January 18, 2015

Becoming Me, Part I

I had a conversation on Twitter this morning about the purpose of a PhD. It made me think again about the role that graduate school and my PhD have played in my life. I've touched on this before, but my thoughts also fit into the thoughts I've been having lately about how I feel like I'm finally becoming me and not a hybrid of myself and who I think I'm supposed to be. Therefore, I'm going to explore it more fully, as part of a series of extremely navel-gazey posts about how I got to this pretty nice place in my life where I've figured out what really matters to me and have the opportunity to try to live a life that optimizes that.

Here's the tweet that started the conversation- you can expand it (I think) to see the whole discussion.

To understand why I say that the most useful things about getting a PhD were confidence and the ability to teach myself whatever I needed, you have to understand who I used to be.

I grew up in a what I'd call a lower middle class neighborhood. I thought I could use zip code demographics to demonstrate this, but zip codes are too broad, I think- my childhood zip code has a median income of $38,204 and my current zip code has a median income of $40,642. However, anyone who has visited my current neighborhood and my childhood neighborhood would surely say that the one I live in now is far wealthier. I guess I'm in the wealthy part of my zip code. So you're just going to have to take my word for this. By Robert Reich's proposed definition of the middle class, both my childhood zip code and my current zip code could be called "lower middle class," but single family homes in my neighborhood start at about $500,000, whereas some homes in my childhood neighborhood can still be purchased for less than $100,000.

Anyway, that's not all that important. Suffice to say that I grew up in an area and went to schools that my current peers would code as "rough." I had some wonderful teachers and generally think I got a decent education, but the difference between my education and the education of someone in an upper middle class neighborhood (not to mention someone who went to a private prep school) became painfully clear to me when I got to college. I went to the University of Chicago. I almost transferred out after my first quarter, because I felt impossibly behind my classmates. I credit two things with keeping me there: (1) a friend- who was dealing with far more difficult issues than I was- went to the campus counseling center and found it helpful, so I decided to try that, too, and (2) my first year boyfriend (who grew up in the Chicago area) had issues with his family and couldn't invite me home with him for Thanksgiving. I was stuck in a mostly empty dorm over the long weekend and didn't have anything to do except study... and I downright aced my next chemistry exam.

It is obviously more complicated than that. I was in the honors chemistry class because I had tested into it. I was at the U of C on a full scholarship, awarded on merit. I felt like I was struggling, but in reality, I was on track to get Bs and Cs at the worst. I was not failing, not by a long shot. So I had plenty of evidence that I belonged, if I'd chosen to see it. But I didn't choose to see it, for reasons that largely traced back to the expectations of women in the place where I grew up. Between the work with a counselor who was helping me understand the roots of my lack of confidence and the concrete demonstration that yes, I could succeed in my most difficult class, I pulled out of my funk and stayed at Chicago. I not only stayed, I flourished there, and went on to graduate with honors.

So why was I so lacking in self-confidence? It is complicated, and in talking about this I don't want to imply that I place any blame on my family. In fact, when I count up all the ways I've gotten lucky in life, my family (encompassing both my immediate family and my extended family) is at the top of my list. I have wonderful, supportive, loving parents and a wonderful, supportive, loving group of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. I have never in my life felt like I'd be without some place to go if I needed help, and I am smart enough to know how much that means.

My parents were both the first generation in their families to go to college, and I was the first person in my extended family to get a PhD. (In fact, I think I am still the only PhD in the family.) I grew up in an atmosphere that encouraged me to follow my interests and gave me support in doing so- but my ideas of what my interests could be were somewhat limited by what I could see. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written brilliantly about how he didn't even know what to dream of when he was a kid:

"When you don't have much exposure to the world the options you see for yourself tend to be limited--you can't really dream about that which you don't know exists. "

I am not comparing my background to Coates' background, not at all. But the core point he made applies to kids like I was, too. Your dreams cannot extend beyond what you know exists. My father was a librarian, so I naturally spent a lot of time in the library, and that undoubtedly expanded my horizons greatly. As a child, I wanted to be a carpenter, a country-western singer, a doctor, and an anthropologist. I didn't really know what that last one meant, but I loved learning about people and their cultures, and someone told me that is what anthropologists do.

I didn't think I wanted to be a scientist, because my science classes in school were all about what would happen and not why- and I have always been drawn to the "why" questions. However, I'd liked chemistry enough to consider it a possible major (perhaps I thought I'd become a high school science teacher? I'm not really sure what I was thinking when I considered chemistry as a major but not a career.) I was in that honors chemistry class because my chemistry teachers had been better than the others at giving me an inkling that science could answer some "why"questions, and because my high school chemistry teacher had advised me that I should take any honors classes I tested into, and I took his advice.

I think the environment in which I grew up had an even more profound impact on me than just influencing what I saw as possible career paths, though. I think it taught me a way of being that crippled my self-confidence and gave me a false impression of how I was supposed to be. It took me years to really recognize the extent to which the broader environment in which I went to school affected me.

In my home, girls could do anything and women's equality was assumed. In my school, some of my friends joked that calculus was useless to them, since it wasn't useful in the kitchen. One boy asked me if I was going to that "fancy" college to meet a rich husband. One of the mothers volunteering in the school told me that women who have careers are denying their true nature as women, which was to have and care for as many children as possible.

I had my butt grabbed at school so often that I can't differentiate the experiences into any distinct occasions. I do remember the boy who sat in front of me in one of my classes, who would reach back and run his hand along my leg anytime I wore a skirt, saying he was checking to see if I'd shaved. I do not know why I never thought to complain to the teachers about this treatment. I think I just thought it was how things were, and nothing that I could expect to change.

I was a vocal feminist, within my limited understanding of what that meant, and I took a fair amount of teasing from a couple of guys for it. I heard so many dumb blonde jokes that years later I shocked someone on a graduate school interview visit by rattling off twenty or thirty of them without needing to stop to think. But I was not bullied, and I was actually reasonably happy in high school. I never realized how many toxic assumptions about what it means to be a woman I was absorbing. I started to understand as I sat in the office of the counselor I saw in college, and struggled to answer her when she asked why I thought I should not voice pride in my own accomplishments, why I thought I wasn't smart enough to major in chemistry, and why I felt like I had to keep giving a boyfriend who tended to belittle me second, third, and fourth chances.

That counselor and some good friends helped me get onto a healthier path, mentally. I started to take myself and my own aspirations more seriously. As my success in my courses continued to grow, I started to feel more confident in my capabilities. I started to learn how to speak up for myself and began to expect to be treated with more respect. I can think back to specific professors who nurtured that budding self-confidence, and went out of their way to encourage me. (They happened to primarily be men, because most of my professors were men- so men professors, let this encourage you to also encourage your women students. We may not always have the self-awareness to thank you at the time, but we will remember and be grateful to you.)

I have often said that I think I could have gotten an equally good education at the state college near my home, and I stand by that. I do not think I would have gotten such a good education, though, because I do not think I would have had the self-confidence and the vision to seek it out. One advantage of a school like the University of Chicago is that the education is unavoidable. I did not need vision to seek it out- it was handed to me, I just had to accept it and do the work to absorb it. It was a place that pushed me to take my intellectual self seriously. In fact, given its rigorous distribution requirements, it practically forced me to take my intellectual self seriously. I consider myself very fortunate to have gone there, not because I think it is a uniquely excellent place or that I got a uniquely excellent education there, but because it propelled me along a path of intellectual growth and forced me to confront and work on my self-confidence issues and start to take myself seriously.

But the work was not complete by the time I graduated from college. Perhaps it would have been if I had started from a different place, I don't know. I do know that in a very real way, going to graduate school helped me grow into the reasonably confident woman I am today. The experiences of persisting through the inevitable research setbacks, of having and pursuing my own research ideas, of figuring out how to learn the things I needed to know that my adviser did not know, of being a world expert in something (albeit a small something of interest to a handful of people)... these experiences were invaluable to someone like me, who had once struggled to consider herself worthy of intellectual respect.

I went from my PhD directly into a job in a biotech company, and have continued to grow and learn along my career path. I graduated with a PhD and a far stronger sense of my capabilities, but I still had insecurities- and I still have insecurities today. I don't think you ever lose them, you just learn how to work around them. More importantly I still had an incomplete view of the possibilities for my life, and I was still operating within other people's ideas of what I "should" do. Learning to see that and figuring out how to get past that has taken another 15 years, and that is a topic for another post.

I'll close this post with the hope that it has helped explain why I am uncomfortable with the calls I sometimes see to limit the number of graduate students because of the lack of jobs on the other side. I understand the impulse, but I worry that doing so will close off opportunities to people who can benefit from them, and that this will disproportionately affect people who are starting from less privileged places. Tressie McMillan Cottom has written about how credentials like a PhD have different impacts for different types of students. I am not in the categories she discusses, and I am aware of the extent that I have benefited from the privileges I have- I'm white, I'm not a first generation college graduate, and I have a supportive family. But I also feel like the PhD provided benefits for me beyond those that people usually discuss. It happens that my specific career path was made possible because of my PhD- my first job and at least one job since required a PhD. But even if none of the jobs I had ever held had actually required a PhD, I would think the PhD was worth the five years it took me to get it. I do not think I would have had the confidence to place myself on this career path without having first done a PhD.

It is certainly true that a person could get to where I am today without a PhD, but I do not think I would have done so. I am sure I am not unique in this experience, and that is why I think we need to stop thinking of a PhD solely as job training, and start thinking of it as a valuable life experience, one of many different ways people can find their way to the path that is right for them.


  1. Anonymous5:49 AM

    Thank you for sharing this. I had a similar transition between high school and college. My high school was in a "rough" neighborhood and I had no problem getting mostly A's. When I went to college, I put in a lot of more effort and got B's and C's and was completely overwhelmed. I remember I had to drop a computer programming class my first semester of freshman year because it seemed impossibly hard. I took it again the first semester of sophomore year and aced it no problem. It really struck me that I had a confidence gap compared to a lot of the other students (as well as unrealistic expectations). By senior year, I had found my groove.

    - Virginia

  2. Very interesting! Thanks for writing this.

  3. Another Anon12:20 AM

    I also went through something similar between high school and college, for many of the same reasons you did. However, I want to offer a few counterpoints:

    1) Is it possible that many of the benefits you say you reaped from your PhD program were simply due to you becoming more mature? I think there's no way that you could possibly disentangle these two effects. I wonder, had you been working at a challenging job with opportunities to grow, if you wouldn't have developed and benefited similarly. Of course, not all jobs offer that, especially entry-level positions, which brings me to my next point....

    2) Not all PhD programs allow students to develop the skills that you did -- you were very fortunate. In some, especially in the biomedical sciences, grad students are treated like cogs in a machine; they are merely a source of cheap labor. I think this is where the call to limit the number of PhDs stems. It's very hard for incoming students to figure out if they are about to join a lab like this or not.

    3) Even if you have no out-of-pocket costs for your PhD, there are still opportunity costs. I'm in bioengineering, and strictly from a financial perspective, a number of studies have shown that the best strategy is to obtain a master's and then start working, assuming the job you want does not require a PhD. Many jobs in industry don't, as you are aware. I doubt few people would encourage students -- especially less privileged students -- to go to law school or medical school simply for the confidence-building or life experience, though people that go through those programs benefit in those respects as well. And I'm willing to bet an MD has more cultural capital than a PhD, since with the former you're considered a "real doctor."

    I think people should be given all of the information at the start and allowed to make their own choices -- they're adults, after all. But if limiting the number of PhD students results in fewer factory-style mega-labs, I'm all for that, too.

    1. I see your points, but I don't really agree. Most entry level jobs do not have anywhere near the independence a good PhD program has. They also don't usually have the latitude for failure that a PhD program has- as in, a company cannot allow a new entry level employee to experiment with their own ideas and perhaps have them fail in the same way PhD research does. I can't speak to bad PhD programs, I have no experience with that.

      Lots of people go to law school and then don't practice law. I can think of several people I know who have done that. I think the number of people who go to med school and don't practice medicine is smaller, but I also know of people who have done that. It would be interesting to see the statistics. I have not seen them.

      I understand the opportunity cost argument, but I think there is more to life than money, particularly once a certain level of financial comfort is reached. My stipend allowed me to support myself without going into debt. I now live an extremely comfortable life that I don't think even qualifies as middle class- I think I classify as wealthy, and have done for many years. Perhaps I could be wealthier if I'd managed my early career differently, but I truly don't think it matters.

      I'm not sure I'd be so sanguine if I'd gone into debt to get my PhD and ended up in a less well-paying career. It is hard to say.

      But here's the thing: I don't think we need to encourage anyone to go to get a PhD. I don't remember being encouraged- in fact, I remember the grad students I knew trying to discourage me. Are there a lot of people out there encouraging students to go get PhDs now? I don't know.

      I do know there are a lot of PhD students feeling a bit of angst about not "using" their PhD, because I meet them here and in my offline life. I think that angst is misplaced, for the reasons in my post.

      If the problem is bad PhD programs, then I'd say solve that problem. I had never heard that concern before- mostly I hear that the number of grad students should be limited because their aren't enough jobs. I think that issue will sort itself out with better information for incoming students, and with people thinking more broadly about what they might do next.

      I wasn't trying in this post to give anyone else life advice, and I apologize if it comes across as advice. I was telling my story about why I consider self-confidence and the capacity for self-directed learning to be the most important things I got from my PhD. Could I have gotten them another way? Undoubtedly. But I didn't, I got them from doing a PhD.

    2. Anonymous7:09 AM

      We'll be pondering a bit what the PhD gets you on a Feb 2nd post.

      I'm skeptical that more information will decrease the number of PhDs, mainly because it hasn't in the humanities. I also suspect that there are a number of PhD programs that aren't really that great. To be honest, we sometimes graduate people here that I'm embarrassed to have our school's name on their degree.

  4. I have the impression that the number of physics PhDs did self-correct, but that is just based on conversations, not statistics. If that is true, though, and the number of physics PhDs self-corrected but the number of humanities PhDs didn't, I wonder if the reason is related to the other options obviously available to people with the corresponding undergraduate degrees? I don't know anything about that, either- it is just a conjecture.

    I wasn't intending to advocate for anything with this post, really. I was just telling my story of what the PhD has meant in my life. In follow up discussions, I have advocated for people who already have a PhD or are already in a PhD program to think more broadly about was a post-PhD career can be. Perhaps I will write a follow up post clarifying this.

    1. Anonymous11:43 AM

      There's still an entire cottage industry that turns physics PhDs into finance people ready to work on Wallstreet. It's a big money maker for some universities. I'd have to look at the actual numbers to be sure, but I've got a coauthor still teaching summer courses in behavioral economics in one of these programs, so they haven't died off.

    2. Anonymous11:48 AM

      if you google: number of physics phds over time

      there's a pdf from the American Institute of Physics from 2012 that shows an upward trend and a powerpoint comparing the supply and demand for physics phds from 2011. The 2011 powerpoint's conclusion finds that more people are taking industry jobs right away (even though more and more people are getting PhDs). Faculty jobs remain steady. 50% go into post-docs.

    3. I stand corrected on the physics PhDs! My friend must just have noticed a drop in complaining about job prospects. Possibly because of the Wall Street pipeline?

      Did those people *need* to get a physics PhD before going to Wall Street? Almost certainly not. I guess it doesn't bother me that they did, though, as long as no one lied to them on the way in about their chances for a long term career in physics. Research can be really rewarding and fun- I can't really begrudge people for wanting to try to make a career in it, or even for wanting another 5 years or so of doing it before going off to do something else.

      But I'm straying into territory that makes me really uncomfortable, because I don't want to imply I'm giving advice to go do a PhD. At the most, I'm asking people to consider that "to pursue a career in research" is just one possible reason to do a PhD, and that even if you go on thinking that's why you're doing it, there is no great harm to changing to something else on the other side- as long as you weren't lied to about what the PhD would entail (both in terms of effort and in terms of expense) and what sort of career prospects it provides. The only degrees I'm aware of that essentially guarantee a job are ones like the MD, where supply is constrained and there is a board that matches people with their first job, aka their residency. I am not sure I think that system is any better overall than the one in science research, or even the one in humanities. But again, I'm straying into areas I don't know well and I don't want to imply I have any answers about what "should" be done.

    4. Anonymous1:58 PM

      No argument here. Of course, my husband and I are *both* in fields where we actually could directly use our PhDs for non-academic purposes (and my husband actually is). That's maybe why there's no out-cry about over-production in economics or most engineering fields. It is necessary for many of us to go into government, think tanks, and industry. That's why those jobs pay more!


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