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.