Why go to grad school in science? Nod to R. Ford Denison

In this post at the blog "This Week in Evolution", R. Ford Denison hits the nail squarely on the head.

Why should you go to grad school? Because you want to do grad school.

If you are viewing grad school as something you have to grind through in order to get the faculty job you covet, don't go. Your chances of getting that faculty job are too low.

If you want the faculty job, you have to go to grad school. But you should believe that when you come out the other side, you will find grad school to have been a worthwhile experience even if you don't get the faculty job, and end up doing something (e.g. teaching high school, working in industry) that you might have been able to do without the PhD.

If you want to be a doctor, go to med school. Grind through it. You may not get a top job posting, but you can be pretty sure to be a doctor somewhere.

Even though grad school at least in Physics is still entirely designed to replace the faculty-- to make people into researchers in Physics-- the same very much does not apply. We produce way too many Physics PhDs for all of the faculty jobs and government research lab jobs that are out there. You have to want to go to grad school itself to rationally go to grad school.

Read the post I link to above. It's good.

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When I talk to prospective physics grads, the best thing I can tell them is... don't sweat too much whether to go, but if you do go, don't be afraid to leave.

You will figure out a lot of things as you move through your
20's--things about yourself, things about physics careers, and things about other possible careers.

The problem is that physics grad school has an expectation of permanence to it: You're going to grad school so that you can be a physicist for the rest of your life. I think that's part of the reason that many physics departments are ambivalent about, or even contemptuous of, master's degrees.

But no one should be expected to make a life-long commitment at 21 or 22 years old (at least about education or career). Don't be afraid to reevaluate your priorities, and if grad school isn't part of the picture, get out.

I think there's little harm in mistakenly going to grad school unless, once the mistake is realized, the change goes unmade. That's when people become miserable.

Yes, good point.

There is absolutely no shame in going to grad school, and then leaving after 2-3 years with "just" a Master's Degree. Indeed, there's no shame in leaving after one year without the Master's Degree.

Figure out what you want to do. Don't finish the PhD "just to do it."

I did know one guy who was 98% of the way there; he had a month or two of writing left, and had been in 6 years, but didn't finish. Now *that* is a tragedy; if you've gone that far, and have so little left, just finish it! But don't push for another year, or another two years, just to do it. If it's not the right thing for you, move on.


I've all but come to the conclusion that grad school isn't for me. 4+ years of work to earn my doctorate and another 4 or so years of post-doc sounds like too much of an investment for a career path that I'm really more or less ambivalent about (research). Plus there are the inherent insecurities involved with the job, and with the debt that piles up that's a huge risk to take.

Your advise is the best: someone who doesn't really want it, and think it's worthwhile even without landing a decent academic position, shouldn't go for it. At least in CS/Math/Physics there are plenty of non-research career paths one can choose from.

I'm a neurobiologist, but the same rules apply. Do not go to grad school for a PhD unless you are truly passionate about the subject. Going for an MS is different - maybe worth the risk if you're "just" curious. But in either case, grad school is like research, you've got to know when you're pursuing a dead-end and cut your loses.
Grad school was 20 years ago for me now, but I loved it and was lucky enough to have it eventually pay off.

Speaking of risk, one of the toughest things in deciding whether to go to grad school is that young students are trying to weigh costs and benefits without really knowing the value of time or money.

They may know that a Ph.D. will take 5-7 years (or so), but they don't know what their lives will be like when that time is spent and they can't get it back. This isn't just true of grad school, but few time commitments are as large and come as early in life as getting a Ph.D. (Having children would certainly trump it!)

They may know that a physician/lawyer/engineer/etc. can earn more than a typical physicist, but they can only guess what their lives will be like on $150k per year as opposed to $80k. Maybe they'll be miserable on $80k, or maybe they'll be quite comfortable. How can undergraduates, who've never even lived on their own, make a rational decision about that?

One specific comment I often hear from prospective physics grads is that physics grad school is a great option because it's "free". It is a privilege (can I use that word on Rob's blog?) to be supported by the taxpayers, but in terms of opportunity cost, it's actually quite expensive. After six years in grad school, you've lost tens of thousands of dollars in potential earnings. The benefits can still outweigh the costs, especially if the degree is essential for your chosen career, but you have to be honest about the costs.

People always ask me why I have stayed in graduate school when they find out that I do not want to do research after graduate school (these are often more junior students). When I talk to them about teaching community college or working in a museum or a high school or an elementary school, they look at me as though I am crazy. I have tried to explain that I want the PhD because I love science, I want to receive the highest academic degree possible in my field, that I think that education is valuable for it's own sake, and that being trained as a scientist will help me no matter what I do after graduate school. But still they shake their heads at me. I dunno. Maybe I should've left after a few years when I started to realize the life of a research scientist was not for me. Maybe I am crazy. I guess as long as I understand my motives it doesn't matter what everyone else thinks.

No, mrswhatsit, you're in for the right reasons. Wanting to do the degree, valuing the education -- all good.

The real problem is that people look at you funny if you say you don't want to go on in research. Given the degree to which we overproduce PhDs if they are only intended for research jobs, we should be not only accepting but encouraging of people who want to do other things.

To imply that they are failures is a sad model. The idea that we ask huge numbers of people to go through 5-7 years of grad school so that the top 10% will replace us and the rest will be failures is inhuman. It's *great* when people go on to do other things.

Rob, I suspect you will soon be going on to do other things. I hope you will cherish your time spent doing research & teaching, these were aspirations that I never go to fulfill. Nevertheless in my career in government labs, and industry I have earned considerably more than most scientists. Life afterwards can still be quite rewarding. But you are right about the wrong expectations being put forward.

I was pretty much burned out when I started grad school. I kind of treated it as a job. It had been what I'd always planned to do. So when it didn't really fit, I just continued on by inertia (until finally I was asked to leave).

So when it didn't really fit, I just continued on by inertia (until finally I was asked to leave).

Yeah, that's the worst possible.

It's hard; I've mucked it up myself from the advisor end of things. But if you're in grad school through inertia, it's far better to get out than to just keep festering away there. Too many people stay in grad school longer than they should.

It's sometimes hard for us to tell whether looking at ourselves or others whether we're dealing with "normal" grad student stress, or if we're dealing with somebody who is just staying in through inertia and would be better served by being advised to get out.