Wednesday, January 21, 2015

This Is Not Advice

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!


  1. I don't have a Ph.D., and I have no desire to get one. But I did go to grad school, which means that I have a lot of friends with Ph.D.s. Some of them have tenure-track jobs; some have contract jobs; some do not work in academia.

    Sometimes, I would hear this opinion voiced: "I don't know why [insert name here] is getting a Ph.D. She doesn't want to be a professor, so she's taking a spot from someone who does."

    First of all, no, she's not. She's taking a spot she earned. Second, who's to say that the person who wants to be a professor will become one? That's making a lot of assumptions about that job market that, frankly, one should not make.

    My feeling is that you should pursue a Ph.D. because you want one, and you want it to benefit you in whatever way you want it to benefit you. But you shouldn't pursue a degree you can't afford. That sounds like privilege, but I mean you shouldn't pursue a degree you can't afford to pay off. Don't go into debt if you don't have a good reason to feel confident that you can pay that debt off.

  2. Another Anon1:31 PM

    "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...."

    In the sciences, many students are supported through grants from NIH, NSF, etc. -- so essentially, taxpayer money. I want my money used to support the production of excellent science, not science "of varying quality." It is not in the best interests of society to have PhD programs around where students get mediocre training. I would argue that this applies to non-science PhD programs as well.

    1. There is a difference between mediocre science and mediocre training. I know some labs producing excellent science in which the training is haphazard at best.

      If the NIH or NSF are funding low quality science, that is a separate issue from whether or not the training program is any good. When the NIH or NSF are funding low quality training programs (since a lot of programs get training funds directly), they can and should insist on high standards- as I say in my post, I am generally in favor of high standards. But if there is an institution using non-public funds and it happens to produce mediocre PhDs... that's a different story, in my opinion.

      Also, there are plenty of mechanisms that can be used to evaluate training programs without placing a cap on the number of allowable slots.

      Finally, not all programs can be "the best." So, I don't really see how you get around having programs of varying quality. Also, what is "the best" in terms of one type of training might be "the worst" in terms of another.

      I'm not a rabid free market type person, but I really don't see any better mechanism to sort this particular problem out. The problem I see out there right now that bothers me the most is the lack of accessible information that can be used by incoming students to assess the various programs. I'd probably be in favor of any proposed regulation to help in that area.

    2. Anonymous3:40 PM

      My DH got government grants to get a PhD, and now a large part of his salary is being funded by SBIRs. Should the government not fund anything but academia?

      (Answer: The government funds research that they believe is being under-provided by private industry, who they fund is actually not as relevant as what they fund. Except, of course, those who are being funded care, and a lot of university infrastructure was built up assuming more steady government funding. One can argue about whether or not government grants to research are the best way to fund university infrastructure.)

    3. There's some really great stuff funded by SBIRs! Also... I know of companies that used SBIRs as ways to bootstrap themselves into profitability, which I consider a win, particularly given the biases and other issues in what VCs fund.

    4. Another Anon7:01 PM

      @Cloud: Please re-read what I wrote -- it's very short, so I don't think it'll take you long. I never said anything about only funding "the best." I am in favor of funding PIs (and by extension, universities) who provide their students with excellent training, because money to pay RA salaries is explicitly included in the budgets of proposals that I am familiar with and that fund the overwhelming majority of research in the US. Why should I be OK with someone taking my hard-earned money and using it to do a half-assed job?

      Unfortunately, I don't have time right now to provide a longer and more cogent argument in support of: "It is not in the best interests of society to have PhD programs around where students get mediocre training." But I'm surprised I need to....

    5. Anonymous7:11 PM

      Wow, "another anon," if that's your real name, you're pretty obnoxious. And very good at making straw-men.

      Cloud obviously read what you wrote and was making the point that government funding serves multiple purposes, one of them being the research itself.

      How, exactly, "another anon," would you propose figuring out which phd programs are providing mediocre training? Is there some kind of standardized board? What about the programs that give under-represented groups (whether race or socioeconomic status) chances they wouldn't otherwise have? How can you tell the difference between value-added and just starting with people who got excellent training prior to grad school?

      Or are you just here to insult people? Because I've noticed that when we get commenters who put "anon" as their name, they're usually just there to be annoying. I'm thinking that may not be limited to our blog.

    6. Another anon, I don't think we disagree as much as you think we do. I also don't know why you're flaming me, since I am just a random person on the internet and not someone whose opinion has any sway whatsoever at the NIH or other funding agencies. If you don't like my blog posts, you don't have to read them.

      The NIH can certainly insist on quality training when it funds proposals. I even agree this would be a good thing. I've seen little evidence that is checked carefully, but I only know what I saw as a student. I have never been a PI.

      Really, my only point was that I don't think the mere existence of people with mediocre PhD training is a harm to society, whereas the existence of people with substandard medical training very well may be- since once they are board certified, they can practice medicine and cause actual, physical harm to people. I do not think someone with a substandard history PhD or even a substandard chemistry PhD is as likely to cause actual, physical harm to others. Except, I guess, the chemistry PhD could blow some shit up by mistake.

      I will grant you that if public money is spent on poor training that is some harm to society. It is not the type of harm I was talking about. I was perhaps unclear in my post and could have made the meaning of my comparison with medical school more explicit.

      I'm happy to discuss further, but not if you want to insult my ability to read.

  3. I don't usually comment on this blog but have been enjoying reading it (and recently, your BM newsletter) for several years now. So first of all, thanks for giving me so many interesting things to think about over time!

    You mention the though decisions about how long to stay on a career path that is mighty crowded. As someone who is finishing up the last year of her PhD in engineering, I've been thinking about this a lot lately. For various reasons I think I've got a decent shot at a tenure-track job after a year or two of post-docing, and I'm not averse to doing a post-doc as I really enjoy doing research, and have some decent-quality-of-life prospects. So I realize I am luckier than many in making the choice to add a couple years of trying for the TT job a relatively easy one. But I have been told that it is significantly more difficult to find a job outside of academia after a post-doc than right after a PhD. Is this true, in your experience of hiring people? Apologies if this was covered in Navigating the Path to Industry and I somehow missed it (I loved reading it, though!)

    1. Anonymous5:55 PM

      My husband is a PhD in engineering and many of the people from his grad lab have gone onto industry after leaving academia at pretty much every point in their careers (from undergrad RA to tenured professor). Some of them are working directly with what they were trained to do. Some of them are working in sales for what they were trained to do. Some of them are independently wealthy because they got in on the ground floor of a start up you've probably heard of and may own one of their products (for more than one start-up!).

      And a few of them are still in academia. My DH is not one of them (he quit a TT job).

      Of course, a lot of these jobs were gotten through networking. Doing a post-doc just expands your networks.

    2. I have honestly never heard of a case where having done a postdoc hurt someone's job chances. However, in my industry, an academic postdoc won't really count much toward your years of experience when you're hiring- i.e., you'll still count as an entry level PhD track hire.

    3. I can attest that in certain branches of engineering having "too much" postdoc is not a good thing. I don't think it renders you unemployable, but definitely says you are not on the industrial track, and the industry folks are actually quite proud of their track. Basically, they will consider you a failed academic, and that will not be a good thing and may cost you a job with some companies.

    4. @KdB- given the varying answers you're getting here, I'd recommend you find people in the specific fields you'd be targeting, and try to get informational interviews with them. This would do two things: (1) give you a better feel for the impact of more time in academia on any future industry options- each industry has its own norms and culture, and (2) help you assess which path is a better fit for you.

      The only thing I'd add is that just because a route is harder or less common, it doesn't mean it is impossible. Solid personal recommendations from the right people can overcome a lot of other "wrong" things. So if you find yourself wanting to do something that seems out of the norm for the industry you target, I'd recommend emphasizing networking to try to get those personal recommendations.

    5. Thanks everybody for chiming in! I'll go do some more informational interviews. I have gotten conflicting advice from previous informational interviews, but perhaps this is because the industry I am interested in (data science) is relatively new.

    6. My gut instinct on data science is that since it is so new and hot, there are currently a lot of paths in. I suspect that will become less true as the field matures, but given its interdisciplinary nature it might always have a mix of entry points. This is just an impression based on what I've seen happen with other fields (such as bioinformatics).

      Good luck!

  4. Very thought provoking last couple of posts. I am a relatively recent PhD grad in the Biomed field now working in R&D outside of academia. I agree with your point that there are many benefits of pursuing a PhD even if you never intend on a TT position or even necessary want to stay in science. I had a very positive grad school experience and whether or not I end up staying in a related field (currently am, but am undecided about next steps) I think I will always feel that grad school was a worthwhile experience. As others have mentioned, its not that I couldn't have spent my mid 20s having a worthwhile experience while doing something else as well, but this was the path I chose and I learned a lot and, frankly, had a lot of fun.

    I do now find it interesting working outside of academia for the first time as a 29 year old. There are some things I think I have an advantage on over someone who has been working an entry level job since completing their BSc 5 years ago (independent work, critical thinking, problem solving), but other skills where I think I am behind (practical work related skills around budgeting and business decisions, for instance, and soft skills around navigating office politics, etc).

    1. True! I didn't learn how to do budgeting until my third job post-PhD. I have worked for more senior scientists who never learn it- they just muddle through and rely on support staff or their direct reports to do it for them.


Sorry for the CAPTCHA, folks. The spammers were stealing too much of my time.