Should you go to graduate school.
A commenter writes:
I'm deciding whether to apply to PhD program in science (basic science research) or not. I've been unsure for many years, and time is tickling away.
If you could turned back time, would you have chosen to do the PhD route?
No, I don't think so.
How about Post-doc's?
No, I don't think so.
How hard was it to just walk away from the dream of getting tenured?
Honestly I never had a dream of getting tenured. I just wanted to run my own lab. I just wanted to be able to do my own research for a living, for a while. I don't even know if tenure is going to exist anymore, if you read the Chronicle of HIgher Education you'll see that tenure is... tenuous at best.
Deciding to walk away was a long, slow process of being miserable for a lot of years and thinking for a long time that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger... and then realizing that it still added up to a cumulative appearance of professional problems that I couldn't cure.
It took multiple friends and one therapist telling me that this was literally killing me, that it was eating me alive, that crying every day was not okay and that it wasn't worth being a martyr.
It also took realizing that while none of my so-called science "mentors" ever said I wasn't good enough, they weren't particularly encouraging, either. They were afraid to admit they might not be able to help me get a job, and one even told me I should quit. And maybe I should have quit when she said that, but I thought at the time (and still think) that she is unhappy and wanted to live vicariously through me leaving.
I realized I had to figure out my own limit.
And then I reached it. The second time my PI stabbed me in the back, I decided I had reached my limit and had to formulate an exit strategy, even if that strategy consisted of nothing more than putting one foot in front of the other until I made it out the door.
I've been following your blog for some time now. You seem to confirm everything that I have always feared about walking into the PhD, Post-doc, aspiring tenure position path.
I know it is hard -- based on observing grad students, post-docs, and those continuing to do more post-docs... many eventually go into industry, 1 actually got an assistant staff position (after over ten years of post-doc).
I might do this since I might have some of that slight chance. or I might have to make a DECISION now, and know that it is too small of a chance.
Yes, and even industry positions can be very hard to get, especially at the post-PhD levels. Especially if you have no industry experience.
Honestly, if I had to do it over again, I would have gone to work at a company for a year (at least a year!) before I applied to grad schools. It would be invaluable on your CV later, and it gives you a chance to see if you like doing research while having some gainful employment with benefits, the potential to stay on, and maybe even the chance to move up.
Or you might decide, after doing some benchwork, that you'd rather go to med school. I sometimes think I should have done that instead.
Or you might decide to do patent law or business school instead.
I might apply to professional schools (eg. PharmD).
My impression is that there are jobs for pharmacists, and that they pay well.
There are also lots of jobs for people with nursing degrees.
What are your thoughts, Ms.PhD?
Well, you've read my blog and my opinion hasn't changed.
I still think that the system is broken and very few people get through grad school and postdoc without regrets.
Some decide halfway through grad school that they're miserable, but they finish anyway and then leave.
Almost everyone else gets through grad school just fine but then runs into trouble during their postdoc.
Personally, I went in blind. I liked research and I had worked in labs, so I thought I knew. But I didn't realize that everyone was sheltering me and lying to me up until I went to grad school.
To this day, I think there were one or two people who genuinely believed (still believe) I would make a great PI someday. One of them told me, even as I was losing hope, that he thought I could be "one of the best". Whatever that means.
But I also think most of the people I came in contact with were barely hanging on themselves, and rather than telling me about their own uncertainties, chose to say nothing at all.
For example, I only found out later how many of my colleagues have been on anti-depressants.
A wise woman told me early on that I should "read between the lines". But I didn't know that she meant you have to pay attention to the silences.
Over time, I noticed that other students were getting better fellowships than I was, and I wondered why no one had encouraged me to apply for those or why my letters weren't good enough to help me win one. Or why grades from undergraduate classes seemed to matter more than the research proposal I wrote myself and got feedback on from my advisors.
I didn't know that many PIs write their grad students' and postdocs' fellowship proposals themselves. I didn't know until much later that I was competing with people who were willing to do that.
I wondered if it was that I wasn't good enough at science, but I don't think that was ever the problem.
It just didn't occur to me to find the Most Famous Dood I could find and kiss his ass to make sure he would write me a Most Glowing Letter (and possibly the entire research proposal section) for my grad school and postdoc funding applications.
I really thought you just showed up, figured out what interested you, and that if you worked hard people would notice and it would pay off.
But that's not how it works at all. You have to be strategic from before Day 1, you have to have all the political skills and then some family connections wouldn't hurt, either.
And don't kid yourself, that's probably true in all professions, to some extent.
I still think the most heartbreaking aspect of academic science is the hypocrisy inherent in claiming that science is the highest calling because it is supposedly supremely objective and ethical.
When, in fact, many of the most powerful scientists are neither objective nor ethical. There are subjective aspects to publishing, funding, and hiring, and there is plenty of room for unethical hijinks in those three areas.
And that is how the system determines who is successful in science and who is not.
Make no mistake, you will be competing with cheating, manipulating liars at some point in your career.
If you're bothered by that, then you probably won't be happy doing academic science.
Personally, it made me angry and depressed. I will not cheat, and I could not out-manipulate the liars. And I realized that for every one of these mini-battles I might win, there will always be another one to stress me out and make me more powerless and invisible when I lose.
And sure, I can blog about it, but there will always be trolls telling me I'm paranoid or that I should just put up with it like everyone else does.
Yeah, like everyone else who puts up with it by taking mind-altering drugs. Like that's a great solution.
Selfishly, I could tell you to go to grad school because I want more conscientious students to go into science and change things.
Realistically, I don't know if it's possible. I think that science is in a time of crisis (danger and opportunity) and it's anybody's guess whether things are going to change or just continue in a decomposing, downward spiral.
And I don't think it's fair for anyone to tell you it's worth investing your life in such a risky and potentially painful proposition.