Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Should I go to Grad School?

Given I live in a desert which -- for the most part -- lacks colorful deciduous trees, the one way that I know it's fall is a flurry of activity concerning grad school applications. Since I teach an upper division core class for microbiology majors, I often get questions from students about what to do after undergrad. The first thing I tell them is this: The one burning memory that I have from graduate school is from sometime in the spring of 2004. It was my third year and I distinctly remember getting hit with the combination of relationship problems (long distance girlfriend and I finally broke up) and the 3rd year grad school treat of having a bunch of experiments with no hope of any successful results. Everything was so confusing. It was 2am, I was in the lab on a Saturday, the only car in any of the parking lots outside was my own, what the hell was I doing with my life? I sat there on the floor of the lab and cried. Seriously...even went fetal position a couple of times. With the perspective I have now, and looking back on all of my 5 years in graduate school, I can honestly say that getting a PhD sucked. It was a slog, a war of attrition. There were so many times I wanted to quit...BUT it was also one of the greatest experiences in my life. I don't regret any moment of it, and would do it again and again and not change a thing.

Why did I stay with graduate school? I had other options, I was a decently compensated intern at a pharmaceutical company all throughout undergrad and had gotten offers to remain on but turned them down. The 9 to 5 life and a daily routine wasn't for me. Sure I was turning down a good job, but I knew deep down that I'd be much more happy as a university researcher. I just always knew that I got bored with routines, with dealing with the same problems over and over again. Industry jobs seemed like scenes from the movie Groundhog day (I'm not entirely right or wrong about this). It seemed as though a job in academia would bring different challenges every day (and it certainly does). I wanted to be challenged, constantly, always from different angles. I knew that that kind of changing landscape of problems is what satisfies my brain.

It was during my time as an intern that I realized I really enjoyed asking questions, finding out how the world worked. I knew I didn't want to go to medical school, and graduate school just seemed like a good way to continue learning about the world. I remember being amazed that I could actually get paid (not a lot by comparison to other things, but enough) to go to school!!! I still can't believe that there are actual jobs that pay me to learn about the world and share what I learn with others. During my first of second year in grad school, my view of life solidified completely. It was at this point that one of the experiments I had thought of and designed actually worked. There I was, the only person at that moment in time that knew a new fact about how the world worked. It was thrilling, it was addictive...there is simply nothing like the rush you get when you get new experimental results. Sure, the paper that came of this experiment was pretty niche, but I was hooked. It's a combination of all of those feelings that helped me stay the research course even when things looked so incredibly bleak.

So should you go to grad school? It's definitely not for everyone, and as I say above, it really really sucks sometimes. It's simply a personal decision that I can only provide one perspective on. Every department and lab is different, and it's up to you to find a place to thrive. You have to find ways to motivate yourself to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to continue performing experiments even though 95% of them fail. Starting in grad school -- and continuing throughout academic careers -- you are surrounded by rejection. Rejection is never fun or easy, but over time it becomes easier to deal with.

I didn't think I'd make a ton of money with a PhD, I didn't even know if I'd eventually have a job. To this point there are a couple of things I can say now that I didn't know before 1) it's much easier to get an industry job with a BS or Masters than a PhD (companies can hire people and train them the way they want) and 2) it's easy to start out as a Masters student (or PhD) and upgrade to Phd (or downgrade to Masters) so your path isn't set the moment you start grad school. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my PhD when I started grad school (in the beginning I didn't think I'd actually be good enough at research to be a PI), but I knew that I enjoyed learning. My love of learning kept me motivated.

You don't finish grad school, you survive grad school. Your job as a graduate student is to make mistakes and to learn how to avoid making mistakes in the future. Your job as a graduate student is to consume every possible piece of information you can and learn to filter out good from bad. Grades really shouldn't matter to you anymore (in fact, if you can, take every class Pass/Fail). Classes are there not to prove that you can get an A, but to give you an opportunity to truly internalize relevant information. As a grad student you are much more likely to figure out some very small thing about the world that only a handful of people really care about, and that leaves your mom to question why you aren't a REAL doctor, than you are of actually making difference to human health. That's OK, it's all about building a foundation for the future wherever that may lead.

Looking back, there is one extra unexpected bonus that made graduate school worthwhile. Apart from the rush of science and research, grad school happened at a time in my life when I was truly becoming who I actually am as a person. I had moved across the country from NY to Oregon, and had started a life completely on my own away from the training wheels that undergrad life can bring. Some of my best friends to this day are people from my grad school cohort. People who were always up for a beer or pizza, people who shared similar experiences to me growing up as a bit of a science nerd. People from all walks of life, with very different perspectives, who nonetheless all found ourselves diving headfirst into research. I would be a very different person if I did something other than graduate school, because that was the moment in time when I really ventured out from the nest.

Grad school is one of the most difficult things I've ever done, and it's not for everyone, but for me it was completely worth it.


  1. The piece about industry being less varied than academia is only true if you let it be so. I know of plenty of professors who have “branded" themselves by doing only one thing on their careers. To them every problem looks like a nail. The same is true about industry, there are plenty of people, preferentially at the lower technical levels, who have a fairly predictable existence. However, I think this is a matter of choice. If you are not tolerant of a routine you will find a way of not dealing with one in both academia and industry. Finally it is high time that professors be honest with their students and tell them that the chances of the students themselves becoming professors are in the single digits, even for graduates of the most elite programs. Thestatistics are obvious and anyone smart enough to get through grad school should be able to figure this out for themselves.

    1. Very true! This post is meant to be an example, not a template. I was much more exposed to the manufacturing side of industry than research. I'm also completely aware that my experience is biased by the fact that I actually was able to get a job at a University. When I advise students I don't sugarcoat, I lay out the positives and the negatives and emphasize how difficult it is to get a job as an assistant professor. Like most careers, there are certain traits that give you a higher chance of success (not all people with PhDs or who are postdocs would actually be good professors). I also emphasize how there are a variety of other options outside of traditional academia, but again, these get limited from Masters>PhD>Postdoc.

  2. I think your post, although very thorough, is a missing key detail. Grad school can suck when experiments don't work, that is true sure enough. But even when the experiments do work they do not matter until the data is published. They matter to you, because now you know something about the world that no one else does. But knowing how the world works is not your bread and butter, papers are. To this end it is important to mention that in graduate school you are part of a lab that, if it is a good lab, has a number of students and a few postdocs. This means your advisor's attention is divided and your precious data, the data you collected during lonely long nights in the lab, can sit on her/his desk for months. This sounds scary, and here is a pice of advice to fix this. If you collaborate with postdocs in your lab, your data will be published rapidly. This means do not go to labs without post docs. Unless you struck scientific gold, your precious data will likely take a while to publish and this is incredibly demoralizing. I personally think the appeal of industry deals with these very problem. The data you gather in industry relates directly to a product, the product needs to roll out so the company can make money. People are interested to see your data as soon as possible and it is used shortly thereafter. Everything is faster and to me this aspect is very appealing.

  3. The most terrifying aspect of grad school in life sciences is that your success is inextricably entangled in the success of one other person, your mentor. Even if you work at the bench day and night, you will not be successful unless your mentor allows it. A good attitude on your part combined with a good mentor (who likes you) spells a wonderful grad school experience. Otherwise, may God have mercy on your soul.

    1. Very true as well. At least in the first year or so of grad school, there is some leeway in terms of switching labs. Key is to realize problems with communication and get out to another lab quickly if need be. Success is also a product of both independence and curiosity on the part of the student. Especially in beginning hard to feel independent, but very empowering once that realization happens so long as you are still part of the lab team.


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