Wednesday, November 17, 2010

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.

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41 Comments:

At 1:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks YFS--you make me feel so much better that I'm not the only one. To the commenter: please don't go get a Ph.D. Please. If you must, go for a master's and try to get into industry.

Second--being in a position where I observe and speak to both Pharm.D.s and nursing degree people in their natural environment, right now the job situation there sucks too. . . for entry level, anyway. A recently graduated nurse (bachelor's level) said that half her class is still unemployed, because YES there is a shortage of nurses, and the reason for the shortage is because no hospitals will hire nurses. Especially recently graduated ones. For Pharm.D.s, Walgreens and associated stores have cut entry level spots down to part time (no benefits) for up to a year because of the economy. So in both cases, probably still a better option than a Ph.D., but probably not much fun either.

 
At 1:19 PM, Blogger Becky said...

On the other hand, there are some of us who have had a more positive graduate school experience.

I'm not done yet, but I wrote my own fellowship proposal and got funded (twice). I work with (mostly) nice people who have reasonable expectations about work/life balance. My project has been delayed a few times, but I'm okay with that because I truly think it will result in better science at the end. And I've never seen an instance of falsification of data or unethical laboratory behavior.

I often suspect that there are some more subtle/unconscious biases going on with certain members of my group. ("Oh, it was you that did ? I thought it was .") But you just point it out when it happens as politely as you can. (And the response I get is usually, "Oh. My bad.") Plus, I don't think that this phenomenon is unique to science.

Like all things, there's a certain amount of luck involved. It's definitely not puppies and rainbows 100% of the time, but I'm actually pretty happy most days.

It's just an anecdote and I'm not trying to refute Ms. PhD's experience. I just thought I'd add another story to the pile.

 
At 1:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If you could turned back time, would you have chosen to do the PhD route?"

No. Hell No.

"How about Post-doc's?"

No. DOUBLE Hell No.

"How hard was it to just walk away from the dream of getting tenured?"

I never wanted to be a professor either. I got talked into it by well-meaning people. My heart was never into the rat race. I wanted to work in a lab on my research ideas, but more importantly, I wanted to work with good people. My dream was to happily keep doing what I enjoyed doing with people who enjoyed their work too.
jc

 
At 4:42 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 1:19,

Right back atcha. Commenters who say "me too" make me feel so much better!

Also, thank you so much for correcting me on the nurses & Pharm D suggestion. My limited knowledge about those careers is probably less reliable than yours. Thanks for speaking up!

Becky,

Like I said, some people have a fine time in grad school. I did say that.

And if you're lucky, your postdoc will not be the opposite. Let us know how it goes.

jc,

As always, couldn't have said it better myself.

 
At 5:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another vote for not doing a PhD.

Depending on the industry, some super-large companies will actually pay for your graduate work if that is a thing you decide you'd like to do. I highly recommend this route, as you will by that time already have accumulated some research experience, and you will be less likely to get screwed over on the TA-delayed graduation. Several of my fellow grad students at Big State U had their defenses delayed by 2-3 years after they had written their dissertations and published in GlamourMagz, just because the department needed warm bodies to TA the pre-meds. If you have outside money, you are in and out and done.

Speaking as an industry scientist, there are now many folks eliminating the PhD from their CVs and telling people they have a Master's or took time off to have kids--just so they can qualify for technician jobs. All jobs for PhDs are thin on the ground now, not just academia.

I say this very sadly, after watching my nephew do a PhD in astrophysics and his subsequent unemployment, but being a professional scientist these days is a bit like being a professional musician. You can be highly-educated by the very best schools, quite talented, and it has absolutely no bearing on whether or not you will still need a day job to pay the bills. Some will be fortunate enough to become studio musicians or play in a local orchestra, a rare few will be stars, but mostly it's going to be a passionate hobby and you'll need a day job in something practical. It's all well and good for people to tell you that your rendition of Figaro was Carnegie Hall-worthy, but even so, you need to eat. Unless you have wealthy family who are willing to support you indefinitely, you're probably better off with a second major in Accounting.

 
At 7:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this is the best post you ever wrote YFS.

A "me too" from me as well.

 
At 7:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a final year PhD student I will say hell NO. Although one good thing which happened during my PhD life is I met my partner so I don't regret much but I don't suggest anyone). Just 2 weeks back I got a job offer based on my previous job experiences, and I was so tempted to quite the PhD to join the job that I can't tell you. But I came so far so I just want to get out with a degree which I am not proud at all.

 
At 8:17 PM, Anonymous Amanda said...

What career path, science or otherwise, do you imagine is GOOD right now? It's nice to say that you could just go get a job at a company, but there aren't jobs in companies, either! At least, in my experience with graduate school (not in science), PhD research funding pays more money than unemployment. . . the economy is pretty bad. . . and I'm kind of tired of academics talking like this is specific to the academy -- everyone is struggling.

Now your arguments about the living situation that is academe are absolutely viable. I just don't buy the argument that jobs in these particular fields are harder to find than jobs in any other fields. As far as I've gathered from friends in many other areas, jobs aren't coming easy these days in any industry.

 
At 8:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is a different perspective. I finished my PhD in Pharmacokinetics early this year and was lucky to find a good job in a major pharma. My grad school experience in a mid
tier university under a reasonably known prof was good. I had my ups and downs with the prof, but wouldnt regret doing it. I had around ~5 yrs industrial exp outside US. I think if you pick a research area in PK/PD or clinical pharmacology, you will have a very good future. Infact, I would encourage anyone to pursue Pharm D or PhD in PK. Individuals with PharmD have equal opportunity in industry or FDA in addition to being a pharmacist. So you have got several options after PharmD and would be better off than PhD in other discipline. I have a pharmacy background too.

BTW, I had only one single author publication in a mid impact journal before graduation. So it didnt help me much either. I think if you plan ahead, do internship in industry or FDA while in grad school, you shouldnt have a problem in finding a job. And, by the way I cant stress enough about networking.

Good Luck! Have a positive attitude, work hard and network! :)

 
At 8:15 AM, OpenID spinsandorbitals said...

Your thoughts are dead on. It does feel nice (to be less alone) to read that someone else has observed and experienced similar things -- that it's not just that we are "reading too much out of it."

 
At 10:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm loving grad school. My Ph.D. program is excellent, I have a fantastic advisor, I can do the work I like and care about (not stuck doing my advisor's agenda) and am being trained to return to industry. I just always wanted to dive in deeply to a topic and the Ph.D. lets me do that. YMMV, but my experience has been awesome. (I'm in Social Sciences, FWIW)

 
At 11:01 AM, Anonymous prodigal academic said...

I'd say the answer to this question depends on why you want to go go grad school. If your goal is TT or bust, I'd say no. If you want to explore your field more, I'd say yes. If you want a job in industry, it depends on the school and the industrial area.

My friends and colleagues have had every combo (bad grad/bad postdoc, bad grad/good postdoc, good grad/good postdoc, good grad/bad postdoc) and that does seem to be a bit of luck. But there are as many reasons to go to grad school as students. Sometimes it can be worth doing and not just in the "the journey is its own reward" way.

I know people who are now teachers (middle or high school level), clergy, and IT pros who went to grad school in physics, chemistry, or biology for fun before starting their (previously chosen) career path. Especially for low paid professions (teacher, clergy) there is not much of a salary hit, and to them the 5-6 years investment in pursuing their interests was worth the delay in starting their "real" careers. I admit that I wouldn't have done that though.

If you are in a field (like mine) with low unemployment (even now) and good industrial prospects, are looking for a higher paying/better job, and look mostly at schools with good industrial contacts/placement, it can be a great investment. Salaries go WAY, WAY up with advanced degrees in my field, especially since a BS/BA in my field pays very poorly (in fact, not a whole lot more than a student stipend), but MS and PhD level positions pay very well. A BS + 5 years makes much less than a starting PhD and has more interesting job opportunities (most in development or processing, or very applied not basic reseach, alas).

 
At 11:28 AM, Blogger Tim said...

I have a feeling that miss phd's phd did not go so well, but frankly, that could also be her own fault... in all this complaining about how broken the system is, there is not ONE screwup on her part.

i did a masters that didnt get me anywhere, because i was lazy. I could only get an obscure phd which i didn't want, so i fluked my way into medschool, and now im in a postdoctorate position at Harvard. There is nothing i really did to deserve it, it all just kind of fell together. I have no specific talent or ability whatsoever (if you dont count this briliant post of course). And if anything went wrong with my career, i would first blame myself not "the system" or getting backstabbed.

My advise to that person is to DO SOMETHING, and if graduate studies are conducive to your affinity - then go for it! There is no reason why it wouldnt work out for you, and there sure as fuck is no reason why it would work out any worse than any other job. Now write that down.

MISS PHD will you PLEASE STOP demotivating people!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! you have NO right advising such people, based on your own experience. do not think that because lots of your "followers" agree with you (unlike myself), you are right. You are just selecting for insecure individuals without the ability of self-reflection such as yourself, who prefer to blame other people (your backstabbing PI), other social groups (your parents, men), and life/science in general. You are responsible for your own life.

 
At 1:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

to anon 10:32am,
I would have written and said the same exact thing while I was blissfully working on my PhD. I had a fantastic advisor, work I loved, and an awesome experience.

Had I known then what I know now about the job market for PhDs:

-how women smartypants with PhDs (the nerve of those bitches!) would be such a threat to insecure douchebags everywhere in hiring and peer positions in academia, industry, and govt

-how no one wants to pay anyone with a brain anymore when they can hire a student for peanuts. It's not how much you know, it's how low you'll go in salary.

-how student loans are devastating to those who now can't find work they paid for the training to do

-how often I dumbdown and chop my publication record to potential employers because they don't want to pay me for a PhD + x years of experience

-how often my PhD and experience don't count anyway. This happened to me every year post-PhD. My PhD was not counted in my last job, my previous postdoc experience was not counted in my 2nd postdoc, and I am currently being paid for only having a PhD because they don't count years of experience for postdocing or years of experience before grad school.

-how many times I've heard from employers that they had 500 applications for the one position I applied for, in industry, academia, and govt.

-how I am overqualified for scientist/tech positions but underqualified for supervisory positions with a PhD

-how many times in the past 10 years I was told "the old boomer geezers will be retiring in a few years, plenty of jobs will be open in your field" while those same old geezers plan on dying at their desks while reading John Grisham novels at work everyday

-how many times post-PhD that I've changed research direction to try to get a leg up in other advancing fields, and how badly that backfired on me because of pisspoor mentoring and clueless twits who know nothing more than me about the latest technologies. It's like the stock market: diversification is a failed strategy for hedging your bets against a fuckedup system.

My advice to you Anon 10:32am: START LOOKING FOR JOBS NOWWWWWWWWW. The job market is not improving. ****You do not need a PhD in Social Science to get a job in industry.**** I hope to all hell that you are not taking out student loans to pay for your PhD. Your chances of getting a job in industry are better IF YOU DO NOT HAVE A PHD because most of the positions being advertised now are entry-level. The days are gone when anyone with a PhD can waltz into a supervisory position. The days are also gone when anyone with a PhD can get an entry-level job.

Please check the job ads, look at the market, apply for some jobs to see if you even make the short list or get a phone call. It can't hurt to test the water with getting your feet wet.

And I hope to all hell that you are being "trained to return to industry" SPECIFICALLY for an open position that you have networked about, that you know exactly the skills that are needed to walk into the job straight away, that the position is not temporary or another training position leading to another training position. Good luck to you.
jc

 
At 5:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

just wanted to say... there's no doubt in my mind... ms. phd would make a great prof n researcher... clear and objective... and did i forget to mention logical?... i'm sure this is hacked to death, but the tenure system needs to be overhauled... no sense in propping up a system that does not reward on performance basis... i don't mean churning out papers by the numbers so as to justify one's upcoming grant application... but i'm talking about quality research based on fundamentally sound science...

 
At 9:25 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 10:32 and prodigal make a good point: It DOES depend on what field you're in.

The problem is, prodigal, your field might be great now, but when this person gets out of school (+/-) postdoc, there may be a few thousand other people who also thought your field would be hiring.

At least, that's what happened to me. There were plenty of good-paying positions when I started grad school. I went to a program with good industry connections and having a PhD should have helped me.

Best laid plans and all of that. Just remember, this is your life and it's passing you by, one bad decision at a time. Lots can change in 5-15 years of training time. Wars were started. Economies crashed. Etc.

You don't get a do-over. You might assume you can just switch to something else later, but keep in mind, just going through the process of "training" changes you. If you work your ass off, like I did, you will be tired. If you give it your all, like I did, you won't have a lot left to give another career afterwards. And you won't have any savings. And you won't have any healthcare.

If you're just there as a tourist, maybe that's for the best, don't wear yourself out, don't do too much, just have fun with it. Right?

Doing controls, as one of my good friends likes to say, is for suckers.

Anon 5:47, THANK YOU. Although I gotta admit, at first I thought you were being sarcastic! (I had to delete another comment - posted 3x - that said I must be negative because clearly, I'm such a loser.) All in day's anonymous blogging, I guess.

 
At 3:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

to anon 10:32am,
I would have written and said the same exact thing while I was blissfully working on my PhD. I had a fantastic advisor, work I loved, and an awesome experience.

Had I known then what I know now about the job market for PhDs:

-how women smartypants with PhDs (the nerve of those bitches!) would be such a threat to insecure douchebags everywhere in hiring and peer positions in academia, industry, and govt

-how no one wants to pay anyone with a brain anymore when they can hire a student for peanuts. It's not how much you know, it's how low you'll go in salary.

-how student loans are devastating to those who now can't find work they paid for the training to do

-how often I dumbdown and chop my publication record to potential employers because they don't want to pay me for a PhD + x years of experience

-how often my PhD and experience don't count anyway. This happened to me every year post-PhD. My PhD was not counted in my last job, my previous postdoc experience was not counted in my 2nd postdoc, and I am currently being paid for only having a PhD because they don't count years of experience for postdocing or years of experience before grad school.

-how many times I've heard from employers that they had 500 applications for the one position I applied for, in industry, academia, and govt.

-how I am overqualified for scientist/tech positions but underqualified for supervisory positions with a PhD

-how many times in the past 10 years I was told "the old boomer geezers will be retiring in a few years, plenty of jobs will be open in your field" while those same old geezers plan on dying at their desks while reading John Grisham novels at work everyday

-how many times post-PhD that I've changed research direction to try to get a leg up in other advancing fields, and how badly that backfired on me because of pisspoor mentoring and clueless twits who know nothing more than me about the latest technologies. It's like the stock market: diversification is a failed strategy for hedging your bets against a fuckedup system.

My advice to you Anon 10:32am: START LOOKING FOR JOBS NOWWWWWWWWW. The job market is not improving. ****You do not need a PhD in Social Science to get a job in industry.**** I hope to all hell that you are not taking out student loans to pay for your PhD. Your chances of getting a job in industry are better IF YOU DO NOT HAVE A PHD because most of the positions being advertised now are entry-level. The days are gone when anyone with a PhD can waltz into a supervisory position. The days are also gone when anyone with a PhD can get an entry-level job.

Please check the job ads, look at the market, apply for some jobs to see if you even make the short list or get a phone call. It can't hurt to test the water with getting your feet wet.

And I hope to all hell that you are being "trained to return to industry" SPECIFICALLY for an open position that you have networked about, that you know exactly the skills that are needed to walk into the job straight away, that the position is not temporary or another training position leading to another training position. Good luck to you.
jc

 
At 7:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't do it...

And, just as been said, industry is not the haven it used to be. So, be smart and try to find something that doesn't limit your employability after the degree. YFS is right on... the experience changes you and from the experiences we've had, most people on the outside don't understand. Even other senior scientists/PIs don't get it. I was noticing an article--don't remember where is came from--that described a scientist in the terms of recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder. So, it really does mess with your head. Once you've been down the path, you can't go back to the person you once were.

And, just for those interested:

http://www.economicpopulist.org/content/research-development-being-offshore-outsourced

 
At 12:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you YFS.

 
At 12:26 PM, Anonymous Bashir said...

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.

This part is key. Many students start graduate school with little understanding of what they have gotten themselves into. Part of it because so many well meaning folks can't or won't give blunt advice to potential graduate students.

 
At 6:32 PM, Anonymous FrauTech said...

Spot on Ms PhD, and your last comment fantastic too.

I want to double (or triple) the recommendations not to go into pharmacy or nursing just for the guaranteed job. But people who are whining about there not being "any" jobs right now I think are misunderstanding as well.

MsPhD said in her last comment:
You don't get a do-over. You might assume you can just switch to something else later, but keep in mind, just going through the process of "training" changes you. If you work your ass off, like I did, you will be tired. If you give it your all, like I did, you won't have a lot left to give another career afterwards. And you won't have any savings. And you won't have any healthcare.

I think that's the hardest part. Before I went to college I thought "it's okay, if this degree doesn't work out I can always become a teacher, they always need teachers." Well that's not always true anymore. It changes every other day. And even lawyers are having a hard time getting a job right now. But when I graduated I did get an administrative job. It was boring, monotonous, and low-respect. But it paid better than being a teacher ever would have. And that's the trap. As a poor grad student you might think you're okay with being an idealist and poor the rest of your life. But at some point you want to earn some real money and own some real furniture and not eat ramen the rest of your life just so you can work a job that is less crappy than other jobs.

I don't know what to suggest people study, except to say always have a backup plan. And a backup plan for your backup plan. And get as much work experience as possible, in pretty much anything but fast food or retail. Any office environment could lead to another job some day. And while you're an undergrad is the easiest time to get a job. If you don't fall in love and are willing to move anywhere, you have even more options. And if you fell in love and are now "stuck" somewhere, hey, cheerup, love's not easy to find!

In this economy nothing is sacred anymore. I know lawyers, engineers, accountants, PhDs, managers, secretaries, machinists, painters, construction workers, and mechanics who are all out of work. The job fairs are dismal and 95% of getting a job right now is luck. But I suspect it will pick up in a few years and there will be a new "hot" job everyone is doing. However, I'm not sure the same can be said for academia. More people going back to school in this economy just means more people competing for less. And when you've undergone that much education, it gets harder and harder to tell yourself to do a good job for menial pay and no respect. So learn as many trades/jobs as you can, be as flexible as you can, and always plan for the worst and for the future.

 
At 6:33 PM, Anonymous FrauTech said...

Spot on Ms PhD, and your last comment fantastic too.

I want to double (or triple) the recommendations not to go into pharmacy or nursing just for the guaranteed job. But people who are whining about there not being "any" jobs right now I think are misunderstanding as well.

MsPhD said in her last comment:
You don't get a do-over. You might assume you can just switch to something else later, but keep in mind, just going through the process of "training" changes you. If you work your ass off, like I did, you will be tired. If you give it your all, like I did, you won't have a lot left to give another career afterwards. And you won't have any savings. And you won't have any healthcare.

I think that's the hardest part. Before I went to college I thought "it's okay, if this degree doesn't work out I can always become a teacher, they always need teachers." Well that's not always true anymore. It changes every other day. And even lawyers are having a hard time getting a job right now. But when I graduated I did get an administrative job. It was boring, monotonous, and low-respect. But it paid better than being a teacher ever would have. And that's the trap. As a poor grad student you might think you're okay with being an idealist and poor the rest of your life. But at some point you want to earn some real money and own some real furniture and not eat ramen the rest of your life just so you can work a job that is less crappy than other jobs.

I don't know what to suggest people study, except to say always have a backup plan. And a backup plan for your backup plan. And get as much work experience as possible, in pretty much anything but fast food or retail. Any office environment could lead to another job some day. And while you're an undergrad is the easiest time to get a job. If you don't fall in love and are willing to move anywhere, you have even more options. And if you fell in love and are now "stuck" somewhere, hey, cheerup, love's not easy to find!

In this economy nothing is sacred anymore. I know lawyers, engineers, accountants, PhDs, managers, secretaries, machinists, painters, construction workers, and mechanics who are all out of work. The job fairs are dismal and 95% of getting a job right now is luck. But I suspect it will pick up in a few years and there will be a new "hot" job everyone is doing. However, I'm not sure the same can be said for academia. More people going back to school in this economy just means more people competing for less. And when you've undergone that much education, it gets harder and harder to tell yourself to do a good job for menial pay and no respect. So learn as many trades/jobs as you can, be as flexible as you can, and always plan for the worst and for the future.

 
At 1:03 PM, Anonymous figuring-it-out said...

what's your email YFS? i've been meaning to send you an email for some time now. greatly appreciated if you could post it, thanks !

 
At 7:58 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

@figuring-it-out, email for msphd is yfsblog at gmail.

 
At 5:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

http://www.nature.com/nrm/journal/v9/n9/full/nrm2482.html

From Nature's interview with David Baltimore:

But the present generation of up-and-coming scientists faces serious infrastructural problems that are intrinsic to the research enterprise. Consider faculty positions, for example: a large number of qualified people compete for a limited number of positions. So, unless one is extraordinarily brilliant, most people that enter biomedical research face a kind of Darwinian selection for those who have accomplished something substantial. And because the length of training has become so extended, it takes a long time before one can really be in a position to make substantial contributions. Nowadays, people need to stretch longer and longer to publish first-class papers in top-ranked journals, a reality that is reflected in the rising average age of people getting their first significant research grant. The system is trying hard to support young investigators and does that rather well, but this support also tends to delay the time before people really learn how to write credible grant proposals. The aerospace industry uses the term 'fresh-outs' to describe people who are just out of training. There are a lot of fresh-outs in biomedical research, many of whom are already 40 years old or older when they are beginning their careers as independent investigators.

 
At 12:48 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

re: the quote Anonymous chose,

A major point of this blog, and many others, is the question about what should be considered "something substantial" and why.

I can name several people who have done very little of substance who nonetheless got faculty positions.

To her credit, one actually admitted to me that
a) she felt extremely lucky to have gotten a job
b) she is embarrassed by how much more I've accomplished than she has

But she has a tenure-track position, and I don't.

It's one thing to say "yeah, it's competitive and that's bad" but what I've been trying to say all along is that ON TOP OF THAT, it's not even a fair competition based on "accomplishments". At all.

 
At 4:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's one thing to say "yeah, it's competitive and that's bad" but what I've been trying to say all along is that ON TOP OF THAT, it's not even a fair competition based on "accomplishments". At all.

Yes, Ms.PhD, I completely agree with you. There's a lot of factors in this. I can relate to how it feels. Pretty depressing.

Anon 5:11 PM

 
At 11:34 PM, Anonymous app said...

The quote Anonymous posted above exemplifies very well the disgusting lie that faculty in academic science like to tell about what it takes to succeed in this game. "Darwinian selection for those who have accomplished something substantial" - give me a fucking break please. Here are the substantial accomplishments of the vast majority of the selected ones:

(1) Joined the group of Famous Dude (FD) as a student. (2) Succeeded in establishing a wonderfully supportive relationship with FD. (3) Did a more or less competent job of carrying out FD's instructions on various projects assigned by FD. (4) Did one or more postdocs with FD's equally famous buddies, repeated the accomplishments (2) and (3) there.

At no stage in the process is the "anointed one" required to demonstrate any substantial intellectual creativity or independence. (FD and his buddies will simply declare, based on their infallible gut instincts, that the anointed one has these qualities.) In fact this isn't even required once the person gets a tt position. E.g. for grant application just add a few tweaks to the projects done previously with the FDs; the FDs will love it and it will get funded for sure.

Finally, just want to add a few remarks following on from MsPhD's great post and comments. One thing anyone contemplating doing a PhD in academic science needs to know is that it is modeled on the feudal society of medieval Europe. Enlightenment ideals about meritocracy, equal opportunity and all that never caught on here. Instead, there is a Natural Order of Things in which everyone has their place. Some are born to be lords, but the vast majority are born to be serfs who toil in the fields until they are old, worn out and ready for the scrap heap. Another way of saying this is that academic science is a Care Bears' Tea Party, but only for the right bears.

 
At 9:30 PM, Anonymous 2xPostdoc said...

Hahaha, guys, I am glad my already former colleague gave me the link to this webpage, and happy to enjoy your company :)
I probably instinctively pass through 3 years of industry, 3 years of academy postdoc fellowship with all troubles described and currently looking for the next job in both. Guys, I really stuck. I tried to make a last move to the city of the Big science, but failed because of all described above :) Big Dudes do not need neither "intellectual creativity" nor "independence". Moreover, Its really scaring. This is a virus disaster, which could destroy whole so carefully built system.
:) and you forgot to mention, that for people from outside of country, there are absolutely no way up without "substantial accomplishments" described by app :)

Guys, not all so bad... Look, we are here, we exist, there are many of us. So, it is still not so deadly bad :)

Best to all of you :)

 
At 4:56 AM, Anonymous app said...

2xPostdoc, welcome! And thanks for showing that my power to kill a comment thread is still not 100% effective :) Good luck in the city of Big Science, you are sure going to need it! For what it's worth, my experience of trying to survive as a non-anointed one is that we are like scavengers, hunting for the scraps left over after the anointed ones have filled their bellies. Not many scraps to be found in big science cities since too many anointed ones there. But for those of us who are flexible/desperate enough, there are more scraps to be found in untraditional places, e.g. various countries in Asia. That was my experience at any rate. Still, despite eventually finding a tt faculty position that I'm very fortunate and happy to have, I have to say that the soul-destroying crap one goes through to reach this point is definitely not worth it. No way would I choose this path again if I could start over.

"Guys, not all so bad... Look, we are here, we exist, there are many of us. So, it is still not so deadly bad :)"

True, but that's probably also what the serfs used to tell each other back in the Middle Ages ;)

 
At 9:07 PM, Anonymous 2xPostdoc said...

Hahaha, App, love your medieval story. I kind of was hunting mammoths, and twice was lucky, and was allowed to eat scraps even with some meat on it, although was beaten after leaving each of my 1st and 2nd owners. While hunting on a 3rd mammoth, I realized that I actually really love animals and 3rd one could kill me too... So, I just let him go, and 3rd owner had let me go without beating me :) I really love animals :)
Now I am looking for some chicken farm to feed birds and have eggs :)
Probably it will be right and more safe decision :)

 
At 10:35 PM, Anonymous 2xPostdoc said...

Dear App,
I looked once more on Ms.PhD experience:
"To her credit, one actually admitted to me that
a) she felt extremely lucky to have gotten a job
b) she is embarrassed by how much more I've accomplished than she has

But she has a tenure-track position, and I don't."

And... I am very sorry for a critique of your beautiful scheme of career growth, but you definitely need (before final submission for publication) to add a * at (3) and put a note, that for females of reproductive age with available option ..x, stage (3) is optional. As, probably, Ms.PhD was not aware of, because of a stream of lightened scientific ideas :)
Thank you very much in advance,
Yours 2xPostdoc :)

 
At 2:12 AM, Blogger Caro said...

Coming to this late but just wanted to say well said YFS.

 
At 7:08 PM, Anonymous app said...

2xPostdoc,
I'm not sure what point you are trying to make, but there is no doubt that women are generally at a disadvantage regarding (2) and (3). Re. (2), the FDs tend to bestow their support on people who remind them of themselves, which is a bit of a challenge for those who have the opposite gender. Re. (3), by now there is lots of evidence from various sociological experiments that shows that women are evaluated as being less competent than guys with the same accomplishments, publication records etc. Gender bias is alive and well, unfortunately.

Good luck with the chicken farm :)

 
At 1:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my experience, when advisors fail to mention opportunities it has very little to do with your capability and a lot to do with their preceptions of science and own agenda. This sounds cynical, but with the best will in the world, even PIs who wish to be supportive are limited. For example, they may be out of touch with the number of papers now required annually to be competitive in the job market; or they may be unaware that many jobs and postdocs are advertised well in advance of the start date, and hence be very surprised you are even looking. They may also be simply too wrapped up in their own work to really think about what your long term goals are, and what you need to do to achieve them.

That is my experience over and over- none of these people were mean, or unkind, and were genuinely pleased for me when I have been successful, but I have found I have to analyse the job market, the opportunities, the things I should apply for MYSELF, because essentially they are either out of touch or have more pressing priorities of their own. So don't get put off by their lack of care for you as a student or postdoc, it certainly doesn't mean you are not as good.

 
At 8:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the problem with academic science that no one wants to tell grad students, is that it is based on the tournament model - winner take all. What happens to every one else? You get forced out eventually or else spend the rest of your career not being able to fulfill half of your potential.

Grad students should be informed that aspiring to an academic science career is similar to wanting to become a pop star or start athlete. For every artist/band that becomes famous there are thousands more who are just as talented and hardworking but who will never get anywhere close and have to be content with playing minor gigs in crappy places forever or having to give it up altogether.

Universities, professors, and other "advisors" of grad students need to tell the grad students that this is how academic science as a career works. How else is the student to know? (except from disgruntled postdocs, who they will not listen to anyway and just dismiss as sour-grapes...I know I did when I was a student).

But the problem is that universities and professors and other 'advisors' of grad students will not say this because these are the same people/institutions that benefit from having grad students working for them under the guise of receiving "training". In fact their very survival and careers depends on the existence of large armies of grad students toiling under the assumption that they are getting "trained" to some day step into their advisors' shoes. Why would they say anything to scare away students?

If you're going to exploit grad students by all means do so but be honest about it rather than lying that this is what is going on.

 
At 10:06 PM, Anonymous chemistry girl said...

I just came across your blog after bawling my eyes out feeling depressed about myself and the grim career future. I too, like many others, started down this path because of my passion and interest in science (chemistry for me). While I've had a pretty good experience in my graduate work and currently enjoying my postdoc, being in this field has kept my husband (then boyfriend) and myself apart for 6 years and still counting. We've made so much sacrifice to the point that I really doubt my love of science is worthy enough.

The situation is particularly hard for female scientists because their partners are less likely to accommodate geographical changes. I've seen many male postdocs who bring their wives and families with them, but I have yet to meet a husband who follows a female postdoc in pursue of her career.

There's an interesting article on economist on PhD entitled "The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time". I'd encourage everyone to read it. Here's the concluding paragraph:

Many of those who embark on a PhD are the smartest in their class and will have been the best at everything they have done. They will have amassed awards and prizes. As this year’s new crop of graduate students bounce into their research, few will be willing to accept that the system they are entering could be designed for the benefit of others, that even hard work and brilliance may well not be enough to succeed, and that they would be better off doing something else. They might use their research skills to look harder at the lot of the disposable academic. Someone should write a thesis about that.

http://www.economist.com/node/17723223

 
At 1:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just want to add a comment from the "other side"

I am one of the lucky few who got on the tenure track. I am at a Tier 1 institution. I have fellowship funding at the moment. I have a PhD from a podunk state U and a workmanlike postdoc and 8 first author pubs (none of them are CNS). I never worked in a Big Time Lab, or had a letter from a Big Time Scientist.

I could have been you, a couple of years ago. I was trapped in a crappy lab, with a crazed boss, and no apparent way out. But what saved me was that I insisted on being hired as a "research instructor". That way, I could write for grants.

So I wrote. And I networked. And I looked for grant opportunities. And (here's the key)I played along with the crazy lab enough to keep me going until I scored funding of my own. I did anything the department asked - teaching, committee work, etc. It wasn't pretty, and I'm certainly no superstar, but I did it. I bought my freedom.

And you know what? I couldn't have gotten this far without, as you so kindly put it, "mind altering drugs". Don't knock them. When the anxiety and the depression were too much, I got help. The meds let my brain heal. They give me the space I need to really focus on work. I am more "me" than I have been in years.

 
At 10:36 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Good for you, that you somehow managed to "insist" on being hired as a "research instructor".

Been there, tried that. No one was willing to give me a job title that would make me eligible to write my own grants.

If you want to contribute to this blog, you're welcome to submit a post about how best to "insist" and get what you want despite your bosses being obstinate, egomaniacal or just plain sociopathic.

I'm glad you're happier now, however you got there. Good luck with your career.

 
At 5:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Howdy! Fascinating conversation going on here; I can identify with a lot of the frustrations.

One little point of anecdata: I'm a lady postdoc, and my boyfriend (now husband) followed me from the US to Australia. It happens... sometimes?

 
At 9:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm trying to finish my dissertation and I'm trying to figure out what to do next. I've been offered post docs, but I really don't like what I see in my field, or with funding, and I know I don't want a soft money position. I cried reading this post. I need to get out while the getting out is good... no post docs for me. Thank you for being honest.

 

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