I’ll Admit It: I Loved Graduate School

At least once a month, I see blog posts from disgruntled current or former graduate students about “The Terrible Experience of Graduate School.” I advise a group of extremely bright undergraduates who are interested in research careers in the sciences, and they get scared to death by all these internet horror stories. The problem is, almost the only people who blog about their graduate school experience are the people who are (or were) extremely unhappy. There are certainly unhappy graduate students, but the truth is that many graduate students love the experience. But no one seems to want to write or read a blog post about the writer’s wonderful experience in graduate school. It sounds like gloating or bragging, and happy people usually are just content to be happy.

It is important to realize that graduate school life is very different in different disciplines. Most of the “Unhappy Graduate Student” blog posts I see come from students in the humanities. I freely admit that I have no experience with those fields, and I realize that conditions in the humanities may be considerably worse for graduate students than they are in the sciences. I expect that there are many happy humanities graduate students as well, who are also busily not blogging about their happiness. But this post is about what I know best: the sciences.

Even in the sciences, graduate school experiences are extremely variable. There are different expectations, funding levels, and experiences even across different subdisciplines of biology. But more than that, experiences vary a great deal by graduate program, and still more by graduate advisor. Success after graduate school also varies enormously by field, program, and advisor. This means that national averages about issues such as job placement are nearly meaningless. All that really matters is: how happy are students in a particular lab, and how have graduates of that lab fared after graduate school?

I always advise undergraduates who are considering graduate schools to do their homework and check out potential graduate school programs and advisors in person. Talk to faculty and graduate students in your field of interest, and ask about the best programs and labs. Undergraduates often assume that the best-known, most prestigious university will have the best graduate programs. Often, that isn’t true. Many prestigious universities have graduate programs in which advisors treat graduate students like dirt. That is not a rule, of course, and many prestigious universities also have excellent graduate programs and advisors. But the point is: you can’t judge the potential of a graduate program or a particular advisor just by the prestige of the university.

Graduate school is a long commitment: typically four to seven years. One of the biggest factors in a graduate student’s happiness is his or her choice of an advisor. Some advisors care deeply about the success of their graduate students, and do everything they can to help students maximize their potential. Other “advisors” care only about themselves, and treat graduate students as slaves to conduct their research. If you want to be a slave in someone’s lab, that is your choice, but realize that it IS a choice. Before enrolling on graduate school, meet with potential advisors, and discuss their philosophy of graduate education. Make sure that you and your potential advisor have similar goals and interests. If you want a particular outcome (such as a tenured position at a tier-one research university, or a job in industry, or a primarily teaching position at a liberal arts college), make sure that you go to a lab that will train you appropriately for that goal. If you are concerned about job prospects, ask your potential advisor what graduates from the lab are doing now, and where they are working.

Above all, talk with the graduate students who are currently in the prospective program and lab you are considering. Graduate students will give you the best and most honest perspectives on the pluses and minuses of a particular program and advisor. If everyone you speak with is unhappy, it is probably unrealistic to think your experience will be different.

It is also important to have realistic expectations for graduate school. Graduate school is a lot of hard work, and you won’t be rich in graduate school. That was certainly true for me, but I loved almost every second of the experience. At last, I was working all day on something I cared deeply about! I was excited to be discovering new things about the world that no one else knew. Yes, I was working long hours, but someone was actually PAYING me to do what I wanted to do. If I had treated it like a job, and counted up how little I was paid for long hours of hard work, I might have found a way to make myself miserable. Instead, I was being paid to go to school and to do exactly what I wanted to do. What an amazing opportunity!

In my case, graduate school gave me the freedom and opportunity to travel extensively throughout Mexico, Central, and South American collecting the samples that would become the basis for my dissertation research. I spent long hours living out of the back of a pickup truck, camped in remote places, often in dangerous conditions, eating whatever food I could scrounge from local markets. I was in heaven. I gladly sunk what little money I had into those trips, which I still count among the best experiences in my life. That is exactly what I wanted to do most in my life. If I had treated it as a job, I could have been miserable. But since I was doing exactly what I wanted most to do, I considered myself extremely lucky to have these opportunities. How many young adults have such freedom?

That is pretty much what I hoped I would get in graduate school: intensive field experiences. What I didn’t realize is how much more I would learn in graduate school. I learned about statistical analysis, and computational techniques, and molecular biology. I learned more about biodiversity than I could have imagined was known. I built a functional molecular biology lab from scratch, even building my own gel rigs (which were not yet widely available commercially) and distilling my own phenol. I learned to program. I learned to SCUBA dive. I built equipment to make chromosome preparations in harsh field conditions. By necessity, I learned to repair cars in remote places where no parts were available. In short, I learned all kinds of skills that have helped me solve problems throughout my career, and indeed, throughout my life.

Even with all the work, I also developed life-long friendships. I was sharing many of my experiences with fellow graduate students. Most of them were happy, but a few were not. The happy students have gone on to very successful careers at universities throughout the country. The unhappy ones largely realized at some point that a career in the sciences is not really what they wanted, and they went into other lines of work. But most of them are very content at what they do now, and even many of the ones in non-science careers tell me that they consider grad school to have been a valuable and worthwhile experience.

So should you go to graduate school? Well, graduate school is certainly not for everyone. You have to be passionate about what you intend to study. You have to be willing to push yourself to learn new things. You have to like to work very hard, and be excited by learning for learning’s sake. If this sounds like you, then you can likely find a graduate advisor and program that will help you meet your goals, and if so, you will probably love the experience. If not, then you probably shouldn’t go to graduate school. Otherwise, you will end up writing a snarky blog about the horrible experience of graduate school.

16 thoughts on “I’ll Admit It: I Loved Graduate School

  1. Rebeca

    I really liked your entry, and most, I agree with you. I’m a graduate student at Mexico’s University (UNAM) and I really enjoy everything of being a graduate student. And yes, I think that a good advisor is the key of success or at least the key of happily finish the grad school. But sadly, I like so much the things that I do, that I have no time to make a blog about how happy I am.

    1. David Hillis Post author

      Exactly, Rebeca! Happy people are often too busy with their lives. Glad to know that you are enjoying the experience!

  2. Tracy Heath

    What an uplifting essay, David! I too have loved every step of my academic career, and that had a lot to do with the fact that I had great mentors, especially my PhD advisor 😉 And I like that you highlighted that while you were happy, you still had to make some personal sacrifices. If getting a PhD in evolution was easy and paid lots of money, then I think our field would be completely different.

    1. David Hillis Post author

      Thank you, Tracy! My passions have evolved over the years, and I now take the greatest pleasure in life out of watching (and helping) graduate students mature into amazing scientists who go on to do great things that I never imagined. Keep it up!

  3. Dustin

    Someone once told me that in graduate school, “you will never have more free time in your life ever again.” I didn’t understand this at the time, as I felt that I was always working. But after I finished my PhD this statement made a lot of sense. While I was working all the time, I was doing things that I loved; i.e., catching and learning about snakes and salamanders, traveling around the country, and meeting a ton of great people (David Hillis being one of those great people). It was work, but it was work that I loved to do, and the fact is, I did not have to do any of the work. I could have had a thousand different jobs, but I chose to go to graduate school to work on things that I really like. Thus, I will always be a “middle-class” citizen, but I get to wake up every morning and teach students about topics that interest me, conduct research on topics that interest me, and write papers about topics that interest me.

  4. Katie

    While for the most part I agree with you, I do have a few comments.

    You stress the need to research the program and the advisor before taking a place; that is an excellent suggestion in theory. I moved 5000 miles for graduate school because I couldn’t find a place in the UK and I am my advisor’s first full graduate student. Yes, I could have researched him by contacting his previous advisors or other people in the department, but that would have been tricky. I couldn’t visit the school because I couldn’t afford the round trip plane tickets.

    The other point I’d like to make is in regards to working long hours and being paid for what you love doing. That is VERY true of the research but mine (and many other graduate students) funding is through a teaching assistantship and so half of my week is taken up with teaching lower level biology labs.

    Thank you for writing this article though and I do hope it encourages other people to go into graduate school. I am very happy with my choice to come here and I was incredibly lucky with my advisor (he is very hands on and allowed me to pick my own dissertation topic even though it is only related to his work by field).

    (3rd Year PhD student)

    1. David Hillis Post author

      Thanks, Katie, for this perspective. I try to get all my graduate students to TA, even if they are on a full-time fellowship, especially if they plan to go on in academia. Teaching is a big part of what we do as professors, and it is important to get training in teaching as well as research. I love to teach, and I frankly don’t understand why people who don’t like to teach become professors. That is, after all, a big part of the job. There are other jobs for Ph.D.s that do not require teaching.

      You are right that there are sometimes limits to researching a potential advisor. I’d suggest that students find some way to make sure that they at least share the same goals for graduate school with a potential advisor before signing on. I’m glad that it worked out for you, but in general, I think it is risky to sign on with an advisor without meeting him or her first. I understand that you had little choice, though.

  5. UCgrad

    As a recently minted PhD from a top program in organismal biology, I’d love to support the gist of this post. And I agree with everything that’s written. I did all of that myself, preparing to go into grad school, and it was good advice. But, at least for me, it wasn’t enough.

    I never stopped loving my work, and there were a lot of upsides to the freedom and fieldwork and creative problem solving, like described in this post. But the idealism and perfectionism that got me into a good program and with a good advisor backfired when it came time to finishing. I was routinely disappointed by the standards used to measure “good” work – prestige, quantity, “sexiness” of research, citing all the “right” people, etc., over and above being thorough and citing relevant (even if obscure) work by others. I was also really soured on all the personality politics and turf wars and tribalism in the department, the school, and the field. Add to that what you learn about how to get tenure – quantity over quality, schmoozing at conferences so that all the “right” people know who you are, being “influential” and “a presence”, and teaching as little and as poorly as one can get away with given the type of institution you have a tenure track job at. It all takes center stage (at least how I have experienced it) in place of high quality science that one loves to do. I thought I was an impervious, lone-wolf type. Turns out I’m more sensitive to the political and cultural milieu of my work environment and field than I thought I was. Having collegial, work-focused colleagues that I can work with (vs. against) is very important to me as I consider where to seek long-term employment.

    Add to that my very grave concerns about my ability to have and raise even one child AND secure a job AND get tenure in the next 10 years or so, AND save for my kid’s education AND save for retirement in a meaningful way (because let’s face it, social security is not likely to be around by the time I need to retire). Yeah, I’m hyperventilating just thinking about that. At 23 (applying to grad schools) I was savvy enough not consider programs (mostly masters) where I would incur serious debt. But I had no real grasp of financial reality and planning over one’s lifetime. Now, having learned a lot more thanks to the Great Recession, and looking down the barrel at being lucky to score a $60K/year gig as a 35 year old female, vs. $75-110K in industry right off the bat – it’s hard to feel optimistic much less enthusiastic about a career in academia. It’s really hard to advance other life goals (like financial independence in old age, and affording 4-6 years of private school OR college education for a single kid – but not both). I’m very tempted to follow my field as a hobbyist (I have at least a half dozen papers, probably more, of unpublished data). I do love reading, and few things are as addictive for me as a vast spreadsheet of data. But I don’t need to be paid to do that stuff. And, fortunately, the research I do is pretty darn cheap (museum specimen based) – my biggest research expense has always been travel.

    That said, I’m giving academia one last shot (as a post-doc in a radically different lab). Maybe I can find some mentors who actually seem happy in their job and can be role models on how to be academically and financially successful and retain a positive, non-cynical outlook throughout.

    1. David Hillis Post author

      Thanks for that perspective. Note that I wasn’t arguing that academia is for everyone. Some people do indeed fit better with other choices.

      A lot of the the things that you describe, though, such as “personality politics and turf wars and tribalism in the department, the school, and the field,” and what you learned about how to get tenure (“quantity over quality…and teaching as little and as poorly as one can get away with”) sound like serious problems of the programs you’ve been in. I strongly advise all my graduate students against these things, and they certainly don’t describe my department or experiences. I don’t deny that these are prevailing attitudes in some places, but they are not my goals or my experiences in academia. I hope that you can find some better departments and people with whom you can interact! If not, I hope that you find better options for a career. In any case, thank you for sharing your perspective.

  6. Adam

    I come from the discipline of communication, which touches on the humanities and the social sciences. My experience has been similar to yours. I’ve really enjoyed graduate school. I just wanted to affirm that your experience does indeed reflect that of many of us in the humanities/social sciences (even if we’re not blogging about it), and to thank you for writing such an encouraging post.

    1. David Hillis Post author

      Thanks, Adam! I am delighted (but not surprised) to see that many people in the humanities and social sciences feel the same way. Blogs are unfortunately biased toward the people who have an unhappy experience to relate, which is why I wanted to express the other side.

Comments are closed.