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Academia (vs. Industry)

Reasons Not to Go to Grad School?

There’s an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that’s been getting a lot of recent attention. It’s titled “Grad School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go”. The author, clearly (and to my mind, justifiably) embittered about what he sees happening, is an associate professor of English who sees no need to produce a huge surplus of people who want to go on to become associate professors of English.
Some of his warnings don’t apply to the sciences. The biggest difference is that there have always been many more places to find work with a science degree other than academia, which is not so true if you’ve concentrated your graduate studies on the life of Rainer Maria Rilke. Another key factor is that we don’t generally come out of grad school with academic debts. To be sure, a Rilke scholar would learn an awful lot about sponging money off wealthy people, but there’s that pesky poetic talent problem to be dealt with before you can put those techniques into practice. . .
Of course, these days the jobs aren’t exactly coming so readily for new science graduates, although we’re still in better shape than anyone over in the humanities. A lot of people are rethinking grad school, though, if the mail I get is any indication. For what it’s worth, I offer the Chronicle author’s list of bad reasons why people take on graduate study in the humanities – let’s take a look and see how many apply to the sciences. I’m going to number them for easy reference:

(1) They are excited by some subject and believe they have a deep, sustainable interest in it. (But ask follow-up questions and you find that it is only deep in relation to their undergraduate peers — not in relation to the kind of serious dedication you need in graduate programs.)
(2) They received high grades and a lot of praise from their professors, and they are not finding similar encouragement outside of an academic environment. They want to return to a context in which they feel validated.
(3) They are emerging from 16 years of institutional living: a clear, step-by-step process of advancement toward a goal, with measured outcomes, constant reinforcement and support, and clearly defined hierarchies. The world outside school seems so unstructured, ambiguous, difficult to navigate, and frightening.
(4) With the prospect of an unappealing, entry-level job on the horizon, life in college becomes increasingly idealized. They think graduate school will continue that romantic experience and enable them to stay in college forever as teacher-scholars.
(5) They can’t find a position anywhere that uses the skills on which they most prided themselves in college. They are forced to learn about new things that don’t interest them nearly as much. No one is impressed by their knowledge of Jane Austen. There are no mentors to guide and protect them, and they turn to former teachers for help.
(6) They think that graduate school is a good place to hide from the recession. They’ll spend a few years studying literature, preferably on a fellowship, and then, if academe doesn’t seem appealing or open to them, they will simply look for a job when the market has improved. And, you know, all those baby boomers have to retire someday, and when that happens, there will be jobs available in academe.

Reason #1 is probably common, to some degree, across all academic fields. Graduate school is, in fact, largely about finding out whether you have enough dedication to get through graduate school (and is used as a credentialing signal for that very reason). Reason #2 also probably happens to some extent everywhere, but in science research programs there often aren’t any grades after the first year. You have to get your validation from getting good ideas and getting your research to work, with is the same situation that obtains in the real world of science.
Reasons #3 and #4 are actually some of the things that keep people in grad school too long. Though the environment can be odd and stressful, you come to feel at home in it, and worry about going to some new situation where you won’t have a place that you’ve made for yourself. Everyone in the sciences has known people in grad school who’ve stalled out for just these reasons.
Reason #5 doesn’t apply as much for the sciences, I’d say. The kinds of jobs available to someone with just an undergraduate degree are often much different than the ones open to people with graduate training. And the material that you learn in grad school is much like what you started to learn as an undergraduate, just more of it and in more detail. The biggest change is in actually applying it to real research, instead of just learning it and doing well on a written test about it. That’s another transition that throws some people out of a scientific career.
But reason #6 would definitely seem to apply, both for academic and industrial jobs. I’d have to think that we have a lot of people who are taking a bit longer to finish their PhDs than they might have otherwise, and a lot of people looking for post-docs who might otherwise not have done one, while they wait for the job market to improve. . .

42 comments on “Reasons Not to Go to Grad School?”

  1. RB Woodweird says:

    I never understood why someone would major, let alone get an advanced degree, in a subject you can learn just by reading.
    And I never understood why people who wanted to be writers majored in writing. Just write.

  2. From your reply #5: “And the material that you learn in grad school is much like what you started to learn as an undergraduate, just more of it and in more detail.”
    But you also learn to question the material, see the weakness of it, find the cracks, be sceptical… (Or at least, you should!)

  3. bearing says:

    I will fess up to having fallen victim to #2 and #3 and #4 in some proportion, the result being my PhD in chemical engineering. I didn’t see it happen to people around me very much, so I might be an oddball.
    I stuck it out to the end, but figured out that I didn’t want to be an academic research scientist/engineer after all. Am raising children at the moment, much to my relief.

  4. Vader says:

    #3 certainly applied to me, to the extent that it was already starting to kick in in my choice of dissertation (I picked something much too safe) and unwillingness to risk going into a more challenging, and potentially more rewarding, subarea.
    So I went into the weapons of mass destruction business instead. It was a blast at first, but nowadays troubles keep springing up like mushrooms.

  5. J-bone says:

    How come everything is in italics?
    Anyways, with regard to #6, I don’t think people (in science anyways) are looking for postdocs because they’re being picky and waiting for the right jobs to open, I think they do it because there aren’t jobs. This is my situation, I never wanted to do a postdoc and in my 3rd year of grad school 3 people in my department got job offers of $100K+ right outta school. I never wanted to be a professor so a postdoc wouldn’t be necessary for me, but by beginning of my 5th year the market had bottomed out.
    I’m sure nobody here wants to hear another sob story about how bad the job market is, but I applied to various postdocs and jobs for over a year and was damn happy to get the postdoc that I have now. I went to a mid-tier school and once had lunch with a Fisher rep who told me that his old boss at Merck refused to hire anybody that wasn’t from Harvard. That didn’t boost my confidence a whole lot.
    As far as the rest of the article, I left grad school embittered as well, but I would still recommend it to people. In this country, higher education (at least in science) only makes your life easier (except under crazy circumstances like banks going bankrupt).

  6. Hap says:

    Numbers 1,2, and 3 all were true for me – I don’t do well with uncertainty, which unfortunately is a staple of research and life.
    I think a problem though is that being a Ph.D. in humanities doesn’t eliminate lots of job opportunities (partly because there aren’t many, but…) Being a chemistry Ph.D. means you can’t go back to doing the job of an M.S. student, though you are qualified to do so. The grad school education process is like a ratchet – it makes it impossible to go back in job levels in chemistry, and leaves only staying in the field or leaving as the only choices. Since many of the jobs now being pared are those of Ph.D.s, the lack of job mobility (in a seemingly far larger pool of available jobs) becomes relevant. The actual job markets for Ph.D.s make the apparent job market seem like a sick joke and likely further embitters people about grad school. It also risks making unuseful the large amounts of money spent training people to be science Ph.D.s (much of that NIH/NSF money spent on research, for example, is supposed to be an investment in training).
    Also, the utility of science fields means that grad school in science is likely to force a larger workload on students (because there is more incentive and drive to be successful by advisors and students because there is more at stake), and to make the environment harsher and more embittering than humanities grad school. It seems like there are a notable number of research groups with a reputation of being really bad places to work, and I didn’t think that that happens as much in the humanities.
    I don’t regret going to grad school, though, though it was not the best experience for me. While getting a real research job beforehand would have been a good idea, I wanted to study more chemistry, and grad school was the place to do it. Doing what you love have some value whether or not there’s money in it – whether someone else wants to subsidize it is another story, though.

  7. Tok says:

    The biggest problem today is the huge disconnect between the need for chemistry grad students and the need for chemistry PhD holders. The universities heavily recruit undergrads, who may not realize how terrible the job market is on the other side. But with the amount of money chemistry departments bring in for schools, they need to fill their hoods every year, regardless of what the job market is like on the other side. So when word starts to reach the undergrads and fewer of them go into grad school, the universities then have to ratchet up their recruitment activities, further glutting the market with unneeded talent.

  8. Texas Pete says:

    Interesting post, Derek. I finished a graduate degree in software engineering nearly 20 years after my undergrad in computer science. In the intervening years, I often thought “why go to grad school when I’m getting such a world-class education out here in the real world?”. All those years, I made a conscious and sustained effort to stay current in my profession, and I thought I was doing a great job.
    Going back to grad school was very eye-opening. I learned so much about what had been happening in my profession under my nose. I remember being quite surprised.
    Now, having the masters degree hasn’t exactly “opened doors” effortlessly, but I did pick up a lot of info that has been directly applicable to my current work.
    In fast-moving professions, like the hard sciences or engineering, I’m convinced that graduate-level education is a key factor to not being left behind. In the humanities, I’m not too sure of that. How many cutting-edge releases of Virginia Woolf have there been in the last few years, anyway?

  9. lkts says:

    Grad school is overrated. I’m determined to get through life without any more education. I probably sound stupid, yah, but i have a degree in the humanities and a job in big pharma IT (i have lots of computer work experience but no computer degree). My supervisors like the fact that I can write and edit well, especially since I work on web applications that need to be perfect for the customers. It would be idiotic of me to go back to school for a master’s…don’t need it, would be a waste of time and $$.

  10. Justin says:

    RE: #9
    As a BS now working in physical characterization in development, I wish I had made the choice to go to grad school a few years ago. I see many PhDs make a lot of mistakes and get multiple chances (not all I work with a lot of excellent people). To get the same opportunities I have be perfect for a lot longer. I believe the degree is highly valuable, even if the market isn’t great right. You have a much higher ceiling and a much higher basement. And, because in the sciences you don’t have debt, you can always change paths afterwards without the same repercussions as humanities. Going in for some of these wrong reasons may not be so bad in the end. But then again, I probably do not have an appropriate appreciate for the costs.

  11. darwin says:

    I only did it to impress the lady friends.

  12. Hap says:

    Having a Ph.D in chemistry means you can’t get an M.S. job – if that’s what you can do, then that’s a problem. The opportunity cost is probably nontrivial, as well – five or six years of income, roughly ($20K in GS vs. $30-40K? on the job market – probably more than $100K). If the job market were good, then that could be made up in a few (4-5 years) – but it hasn’t been good, for very long, in a while.

  13. J-bone says:

    lkts, I had a great job in a great location and I was very happy with that situation. Had I not wanted to change career directions, I wouldn’t have left that job, so if you’re happy and your group likes you, stay and don’t look back wondering what if.
    Justin, grad school will only make you angry about the inequity of treatment between people. I saw many a dumbass graduate from our program solely based on their ability to charm department chairs and others in positions of power and I know this happens at other schools too. One guy in his 5th year of grad school actually asked what a Lewis base was. He has a Ph.D in organic chemistry just like me. But he didn’t have the added stress of actually learning anything or producing anything because it didn’t matter; the department chair absolutely loved him.
    I obviously can’t say that you’re not likable because I don’t know you, but I’m willing to bet if some of the people from my grad program had your job they’d be taking it a lot easier and would suffer less consequence than you because of their ability to shmooze. You probably care about doing a good job, and that’s your fatal error. But if you decide you want to half-ass your way through grad school let me know, I can recommend a program.

  14. psi*psi says:

    #1 ONLY. I never particularly cared about grades or validation, and I really liked (one of) the job(s) I had after graduating. There are times I wish I were still just working–part of me hates the time crunches of being a student again. I’m just holding out for the awesomeness to follow after this year is over and I can JUST focus on research and nothing else.

  15. David says:

    Everyone should be allowed to pursue academic training in whatever field of study they’re interested in. If people want a PhD in Literature, more power to them. College education is always better than no college education, no matter the degree. No matter what discipline you study, coming out of school into this job market is tough. Chemistry PhDs can find career opportunities in many places besides chemistry (I did, and many of my former pharma colleagues did), our talents and discipline don’t represent skills exclusive to chemistry research. And literature PhDs? People who can communicate well are invaluable. Everyone needs to be able to think outside the box and find a career path that interests them, challenges them, and takes advantage of their skills, even if it’s off the path of their original intentions.

  16. Tok says:

    # 15 David – Where are these jobs for chemistry PhDs outside of chemistry and are they hiring now? I’m sure there are thousands of people who would like to know.

  17. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    About 23 years ago Jeffrey Meyers said in the National Review, “Rilke, the super-aesthete, makes Wilde look like a redneck, Proust a stevedore…The great snob and sponger complained about having to talk to his hosts at dinner, but repaid them with elegantly turned and thoroughly insincere letters of thanks.”
    While I do not entirely agree with the National Review on politics, I do wish some liberal magazines had writers as intelligent and thoughtful as those WFB hired for his mag.

  18. Bank on It says:

    The fact that Derek cannot get himself to forthrightly mention chemistry’s dirty secrets is a tribute to the blindsiding propaganda disseminated by the American Chemical Society.
    Open up that la-la land journal C&E news and you’d never know:
    1. There is an enormous oversupply of PhD chemists. As in 3 PhDs for every job.
    2. The future for Chemists in the USA is bleak and getting bleaker. Expect salaries to decline.
    3. There are only jobs for those who graduate the Ivy league schools.
    4. A PhD in chemistry is no longer a career, any more than a horse and buggy driver in the 1930’s.

  19. Bored says:

    #1 RB Woodweird:
    You are dead on about just doing the thing you are good at. Art is another example. If you are a good artist, you don’t need a degree in it. You just do it.
    As for what to do with a graduate degree, if you are lucky, you can appear on “Jeopardy” and win enough money to invest and live off the interest. There are a lot of “professional students” on that show…

  20. Chemjobber says:

    18: Bank on It, can you prove your assertion that there are 3 PhDs for every job? While I’m prepared to believe that there is an oversupply of PhD chemists, I am skeptical of such a specific statistic.

  21. milkshake says:

    66.7% of all statistics is just made up

  22. Still Jobless says:

    18, Bank On It: actually, graduating from an Ivy league school does not guarantee anything. If no company is hiring, it doesn’t matter where you went to grad school. I’m certainly experiencing this firsthand.

  23. Anon E. Moose says:

    How about this as a reason to not to go after a PhD? It appears to have two purposes: to learn trivially more material than an MS and, primarily, to suffer abuse from faculty. Just cruise the internet to find innumerable instances of people mentally crushed by professors who, like child abusers, dish it out apparently as a result of having been abused themselves. The system is completely broken and, as far as I’m concerned, an angel gets its wings every time a tenured position gets eliminated. Virtually everybody in science and engineering would be better off getting a coursework-only MS and then getting out into industry to actually do useful work rather than suffering for years in the virtually null hope of getting a good job in academia. Just say no.

  24. anon says:

    I agree with #18 on points 1 and 2. It may not be exactly a 3:1 ratio of PhD’s on the market:available jobs, but I do believe there are alot of chem PhD’s who had to switch careers after not being able to find a job. Even if you took a MS (like I did thinking that at least I’d be able to easily find a job even if it’s as a pair of hands), outsourcing isn’t going away anytime soon and will likely take away more and more American jobs. My boss told me that I need to get additional skills or training if I have the chance, since they could pay an outsourcing firm much less than my salary if they just wanted compounds to be made. (For those thinking that outsourcing just makes intermediates but leaves the final compounds to be made internally, that is no longer the case – they do it all.)

  25. Anonymous says:

    #23 speaks wise words. I left at the end of 2008 with a MS. I enjoyed learning and doing about chemistry (and getting published), but I grew tired of my boss treating me like a cattle being led to slaughter and feeling miserable coming to laboratory everyday. Although the market was crappy at the end of 2008, myself and my other MS friends didn’t have too much trouble finding big pharma employment.
    The PhD producing system has grown far beyond what is sustainable. Declining NIH grant funding and the decline of industrial positions has not resulted in the decline of PhD production – it has *increased*. Look up the ‘names’ of organic chemistry – they have anywhere from 30-50 people working for them. Where are all of these folks going to find employment? Regardless of how good or bad the job market is, chemistry PhDs continue to be cranked out in furor. PhD production and supply is totally divorced from the demand of PhDs needed in the working world. This is a big problem.
    I really enjoy working with a MS in industry. The money is good and I can save for my future, and my colleagues treat me in a civil manner (a far, far cry from graduate school). I don’t feel as if I’m losing my mind dealing with a bipolar advisor. I’m fully aware of outsourcing. If my job goes away, I will simply do something else with my life.
    Best of luck to everyone out there. Hopefully sunnier days will come.

  26. Observer says:

    Re: #2, John Spevacek
    But you also learn to question the material, see the weakness of it, find the cracks, be sceptical… (Or at least, you should!)
    Perhaps you should add, “and spell correctly, too.”

  27. Observer says:

    Re: #2, John Spevacek
    But you also learn to question the material, see the weakness of it, find the cracks, be sceptical… (Or at least, you should!)
    Perhaps you should add, “and spell correctly, too.”

  28. KeepHopeAliveBro says:

    22. Still Jobless on January 9, 2010 11:19 AM writes…
    “18, Bank On It: actually, graduating from an Ivy league school does not guarantee anything. If no company is hiring, it doesn’t matter where you went to grad school. I’m certainly experiencing this firsthand.”
    What happened to the entrenched alumni networks & blatant Ivy/IvyPlus nepotism in Big Pharma? Were they unable to arrange at least a dog-and-pony-show interview?

  29. Jose says:

    I suspect the 3:1 number is pretty high; a SWAG would be 1.5:1 or so, which is still massive.
    Any geeks want to set up a website and do a social marketing campaign to get real data on unemployed/underemployed pharma-biotech chemists? If the ACS cannot get their act together, maybe it’s time someone else did? ?

  30. Chemjobber says:

    Jose, I would be all for it, although I don’t really know how to go about this (as I’m not very HTML-savvy.)

  31. befuddled says:

    #1, RBW:
    In principle, you can learn almost *anything* just by reading, including science.
    I see no reason why humanities students shouldn’t benefit just as much from good instruction as science students do.
    And I would think that is true more for writing than for most fields, since the point isn’t to acquire information, but to develop a skill. For most of us, that requires a lot of guidance and feedback.

  32. befuddled says:

    Let me suggest reason #7 for science grad students; it certainly applied to me:
    (7) Being interested in basic research, they are not the kind of person to whom a hardheaded look at the expected job market for PhDs in their field comes naturally. Since they are convinced of the value of their work, they assume that there will be positions available (with reasonable salaries). They are thus almost completely unaware of the dismal job prospects in academia, or the extent to which management in industry considers research a (potentially avoidable) cost rather than a core competency.

  33. befuddled says:

    Oh, and let me add #8:
    (8) They are further lead to an unrealistic appraisal of the market value of a graduate degree by the lack of any pertinent information supplied by their academic mentors (who have every reason to keep the grad student pipeline full) or the mass media, with its frequent hysterical stories about an imminent shortage of scientists.
    Humanities grad students have it worse in many ways, but at least there’s no-one with any incentive to convince them that the world needs more experts in medieval Danish literature.

  34. J-bone says:

    Although the market was crappy at the end of 2008, myself and my other MS friends didn’t have too much trouble finding big pharma employment
    That’s because you were taking over jobs of the Ph.D’s that got laid off. That’s probably been one of the biggest shifts I’ve seen since this whole market crash.

  35. Vader says:

    College education is always better than no college education, no matter the degree.
    I disagree. There are some programs at some universities where the graduates emerge stupider than when they went in.

  36. fred says:

    “College education is always better than no college education, no matter the degree.
    I disagree. There are some programs at some universities where the graduates emerge stupider than when they went in.”
    Well, at the graduate level, it would appear business school would be in that category. At least Pharma execs have proven themselves utterly without a clue.

  37. Chemjobber says:

    I’ve decided to take up Jose’s challenge to come up with a web-based unemployment survey here – can you help me?

  38. chemist says:

    Wilf Cude (I think he’s the son of the NHL legend Wilf Cude) wrote “The PhD Trap” in 1987. I read the updated “The PhD Trap Revisited” (2000) which I highly recommend. He was saying much of this stuff for a long time but is rarely cited by the academics who are writing almost the same thing 20+ years later.
    I apologize if I sound like a shill, but I highly recommend “PhD Trap Revisited”.

  39. Philosophy Student says:

    Ha ha, this article is right on. Each of these reasons and more applied to me–fortunately, I’m significantly younger than typical graduate students and can make up for “lost” time. During my experience as a graduate student in philosophy, I’ve certainly learned that an academic career is not for me. Yet, this has been a priceless opportunity for me to grow and broaden my outlook.
    Of course, the tuition waiver and stipend didn’t hurt.

  40. Humanities says:

    Befuddled, I agree.
    It’s always the students who have no background in the humanities who make the assumption that you can learn writing or art just by reading.
    Perhaps, but only in the same way that you can learn science or math just by reading. It’s a skill that’s much easier to learn if you have feedback, if you have professors showing you where have you failed and guiding you in the process, and contrary to what some may think, it’s not always an easy process.
    Anyone can “just write,” but more than likely the writing will look unskilled if you don’t have any knowledge of the writing process. You can “just read” too, but people often misread texts. Literature degrees should teach you how to read closely (and not only literature).
    Of course, anyone can study and learn the process on their own, but you can do the same with science, too. It’s just more difficult without that guidance.

  41. Confusedchemist says:

    I agree with all of you. Currently, I’m in my 4th year of a honours chemistry program, with a MS position lined up for the following academic year. But having major doubts. If I’m not sure, should I do it anyway? Don’t get me wrong, I find the subject interesting, only problem is I have no academic and future career goals, so really I don’t know how I see myself in the next 10 years. I want to take time off, but people keep advising me agianst that. I’ve always wanted to be a mechanic, or even to drive trucks, I think that is awesome. Thanks

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