Join 3,521 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The PH.D. Grind: A Ph.D. Student Memoir
June 30, 2012 2:05 AM   Subscribe

The Ph.D. Grind: A Ph.D. Student Memoir is Philip J. Guo's candid book about his six years of working towards a Ph.D. in computer science at Stanford University. Lots of Hard-earned wisdom and useful advice (especially in the epilogue) for those thinking about getting a Ph.D.

Guo is participating in the related HN thread.

Guo has also written Reflections and advice on life as a mid-stage Ph.D. student.
posted by Foci for Analysis (59 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite

 
It appears around half his advice boils consists of variations on "Sell, sell, sell", which is certainly the route to a faculty position. There are however an awful lot of people who choose academia partially because they lack the salesmen personality.

As an aside, there is more blatant salesmanship in more subjective fields like computer science than in fields like physics and mathematics, although obviously salesmanship plays an enormous role there, witness string theory.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:47 AM on June 30, 2012


He asks why anyone would go for a PhD and answers by analogy with the question "Why would anyone spend years training to excel in a sport such as the Ironman?" His mistake is exactly what you might expect from someone in academia, namely he believes that it's some kind of rationally made choice whose justification is other than an after-the-fact rationalization.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:01 AM on June 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


This makes me so glad that I left college and never looked back.
posted by localroger at 6:19 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's difficult for me to write objectively about the Ph.D. process since my experience has turned me into a person so bitter and angry that scalded black coffee tastes like nectar to me. And yet, I'm going to try.

(Okay, I tried, and it just came out as a screed, so I deleted it. One more try...)

(Nope, that didn't work either.)

Look, the fact that I can't even write about Ph.D. programs generally while remaining calm should tell prospective students something, as should the fact that my own goal has changed from "Finish Ph.D. and use it to do amazing research" to "Finish Ph.D. and use it to protect students from abusive faculty." I've managed to keep a number of promising students from applying to my department, so at least I'm having a little success.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 6:56 AM on June 30, 2012 [12 favorites]


Oh, yet another one of these things. [It reminds me of how, among science grad students, one can pretty much do all right, picking-one's-friendswise, by finding the XKCD-people and avoiding the PhD Comics folks like the plague (everyone is one or the other). ]

"Why would anyone spend years training to excel in a sport such as the Ironman?"

I also found this silly, for a different reason. I would guess that many more people attempt PhDs than triathlons (perhaps this is false), so it seems like he's explaining the motivation for a relatively understandable activity in terms of the motivation for a bizarre fringe activity, which is backwards.

It appears around half his advice boils consists of variations on "Sell, sell, sell", which is certainly the route to a faculty position.

Some of it also seems like this blog is maybe primarily his Might Not Get A Job Next Time (But Got A Book Deal) Plan B. A lot of the "sell, sell, sell" advice seems kind of alien to me. It could be that the field I'm in is way less competitive than (Guo's type of) computer science, or that I've thus far only been through one academic job search, but to me it seems like "try very hard to do good stuff, explain it clearly in your research statement, and apply for ALL the jobs" is more sensible than "sell, sell, sell". I mean, among the crowd of people with whom I've commiserated about job-searching, the ones who "grind hard" all got decent postdocs, irrespective of sales ability, at least to the extent that (hopefully) sales ability is less important in academia than elsewhere.

All that said,

it's very important to be grinding (working intensely) on research that you feel will get somewhere in terms of publishing, but not to worry about whether this work will define you as a grad student and be your magnum opus of a dissertation.

is sound advice, the way "actually do whatever it is you showed up to do" is often sound advice.
posted by kengraham at 7:09 AM on June 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


My grad school years (PhD in a social science field) were extraordinarily happy ones. I was sad when it was done. I got a job before the dissertation was done, and have had a satisfying and stable career ever since. Most of my cohort mates from those years who were serious about their work have jobs and good careers now. And most of our students today -- the serious ones -- are getting jobs. I know the stats, but for people for whom the Phd is the right choice (and it is a much smaller number than currently enroll in PhD programs) there are all kinds of reasons to do it and the prospects (at least in the several fields I know well) are not at all bleak for bright, hard-working, industrious, entrepreneurial, and original thinkers with projects that have practical, applied significance to real world problems. We need to cut the numbers of PhD students by half in most social science fields, maybe even more in the humanities. No graduate program that is not fully funding its PhD students for at least 5 years of study (fully meaning paying them a stipend as well as tuition/benefits, with at least a year or two of that unencumbered by teaching duties) should still be in the business, in my opinion. But academia at the higher levels is still not the dystopian hell of career-killing misery that the media seem so fixated on these days.

I spent 6 years reading and writing and doing research that was my passion, and got paid for it, and at the end of that was qualified for a career that has been linear and very satisfying in its own right, although less so that the pure selfishness of grad school (or satisfying in other ways).

My strong advice for anyone considering graduate study: don't do it right out of college, go get experience in the real world and discover problems that need solving, figure out the right program for you (not at all a simple task, it can take a couple of years of serious research) and don't pursue a PhD on your own dime, ever. If you're good enough, someone will pay you to do it. But don't be scared away by the chicken littles. The US, at least, needs PhD level researchers and teachers across all fields, and although the structures are changing, if we don't then we're fucked as a country anyway and you might as well do work you enjoy if you're gonna be unemployed anyway.
posted by spitbull at 7:14 AM on June 30, 2012 [11 favorites]


An ironman does not require 5-8 years of relative penury.

Also: The water is approximately 85°C colder in an ironman than in a top-flight graduate program.
posted by lalochezia at 7:22 AM on June 30, 2012


It appears around half his advice boils consists of variations on "Sell, sell, sell", which is certainly the route to a faculty position. There are however an awful lot of people who choose academia partially because they lack the salesmen personality.

Yeah, I find this interesting. Relatedly: a lot of people go into academia partly because they don't want to be bosses, managers or bureaucrats — and yet, if you succeed in academia, you end up running a research lab, where that sort of skillset is essential.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:46 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


An ironman does not require 5-8 years of relative penury.

I think the ironman is probably the wrong analogy. The right analogy is something like touring with a small-time band. You spend a lot of time broke, uncomfortable and uncertain about the future. Odds are it won't actually turn into a sustainable career, and if you think it will you're probably fooling yourself. The business model is fundamentally exploitative — even more so than most — and in a certain sense you're fueling that exploitative model every time you show up to play a gig.

And yet some people enjoy the work — even the crappy living-in-a-van parts — and end up feeling like the whole thing was worth doing. People are weird like that.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:55 AM on June 30, 2012 [14 favorites]


I think this comment from David Graeber and quoted here said it best:

There was a time when academia was society’s refuge for the eccentric, brilliant, and impractical. No longer. It is now the domain of professional self-marketers.
posted by euphorb at 8:18 AM on June 30, 2012 [16 favorites]


There is probably more room for university faculty than the RIAA, et al. allows for musician who actually make a living, but we're trying very very hard to fix that. Academia's long term prospects are currently a few well paid superstars giving video lectures that various universities recycle as their courses with adjuncts running tutorial sections. We might even reduce the number of academics earning a living wage below the number of professional athletes if we tried hard enough. :)
posted by jeffburdges at 8:21 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


And most of our students today -- the serious ones -- are getting jobs.

And I know many very serious students - from mathematicians to historians to philologists - who could not find academic jobs in their fields. You are probably right to point out that there are no industrial options for these fields (well, the mathematician is now a programmer - but he would rather have worked in maths). They all came out of top programs in their fields and worked very hard.

Of course, none are salespeople. Most of the best academics from a generation or two ago were also not salespeople, but quiet, often very modest and brilliant -- and now we are losing their equivalent in this generation.
posted by jb at 8:22 AM on June 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ooh, yet another thing for my generation to ruin!
posted by ChuraChura at 8:32 AM on June 30, 2012


Kengraham,
Can you elaborate on the xkcd / phd comics point you made, it sounds interesting,
posted by mulligan at 8:39 AM on June 30, 2012


The theme of XKCD is based around the wonder of science and all the cool things you can do with it. PHD comics gets a lot more of its inspiration from the frustration and grind of grad school.

For an illustrated example: XKCD vs PHD Comics
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 8:53 AM on June 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


mulligan:

It was sort of a throwaway metaphor with a grain of (anecdata-based) truth. XKCD stands in, in this comment, for a (perhaps naive) attitude of being interested mostly in the content of what one is working on, and in viewing researchy activities (or things like programming, or kite photography!) as a type of serious, useful play. Ideally, academia serves as the place where, society has decided, people who can't necessarily hack it out there in the open economy can do things, motivated mostly by sheer interest, that have epiphenomenal benefits for society. PhD Comics represents what is (apparently) increasingly the reality, which is that academia is Just Another Nasty Cutthroat Business. To be sure, PhDC laments that situation, but most of the fans I know "relate" to its whininess in ways that don't reflect their actual circumstances. My main "survival technique" in graduate school was to give a wide berth to impromptu three-hour support-groups (involving a knot of comparatively unexploited students in a department that treats them very well, compared even to other departments in the same university), and instead spend those three hours on going and trying to colour my graphs or compute my isoperimetric functions or whatever.

When I was looking for a postdoc (and this was very recently, and in fact I haven't even started that postdoc yet), I initially kind of resented competing with people who had CVs full of conference-organizing and "productivity workshop"-attending and fancy-website-having and other such "sales" that people do, motivated by the warnings of the PhDC attitude. I actually had a pretty fun time writing my dissertation, and the alienation and cynicism attendant to concurrently job-hunting felt like some sort of karmic retribution for having a relatively fun time.

Happily, things are not so competitive that there was no room for more XKCD-oriented people. In fact, among the ten or so people I know, in my immediate field, who were job-hunting when I was, everybody with "the XKCD attitude instead of the PhDC attitude" (as crudely measured by whether they wander up to me at a conference and start talking about math or start immediately engaging in job-search commiseration and notes-comparing -- it really is one or the other, IME) survived. This makes me happy, because some of these folks are my friends, and I would like to work with them should our interests converge.

I love what I do, usually, although it's the sort of complicated love that attends any long-term relationship, but I've also made myself the promise to keep my financial obligations so minimal that I can safely bail on academia the minute the PhDC aspects look like they're going to outweigh the XKCD ones. I also have no idea what things are like at other stages of one's career. My plan is to "grind hard"*, as well as I can, and if that's insufficient to keep me alive, feel no regret about going and doing something else.

*I appreciate the potentially ESL aspect of the whole thing, but isn't "grinding hard" the kind of thing that, depicted on one's facebook profile, lessens one's chances of employment?
posted by kengraham at 9:14 AM on June 30, 2012 [9 favorites]


Orange Pamplemousse has it, more or less.
posted by kengraham at 9:14 AM on June 30, 2012


Thanks, spitbull. I'm in the middle of a PhD program right now and enjoying it and I thought I was doing it wrong from all the articles and comments posted here.
posted by HostBryan at 9:18 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I feel like that's kind of an unfair characterization! I love my research and what I'm doing and a lot about being in grad school, but my love and its expression is necessarily tempered by the structure of grad school and the irritating things about it.
posted by ChuraChura at 9:19 AM on June 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


From the epilogue:

As long as some papers get published from time to time, then the professor and project are both viewed as successful, regardless of how many students stumbled and failed along the way.

It took me years to recognize when to defer to authority figures and when to selfishly push forward my own agenda.

Sentences like these make me deliriously happy to have been turned down by Stanford's CS PhD program n years ago.


Also: In my experience, the most important trick to getting an academic job (and tenure) is not to sell yourself, but rather to get other well-known people to sell you (using your results, citing your papers, writing you reference letters, etc.), while you concentrate on producing more good results. I know really good salesmen who couldn't get academic jobs because they were the only one selling; I also know hardcore introverts who got good jobs by focusing on the work and letting other people do the selling.

But, you know, confirmation bias.
posted by erniepan at 9:29 AM on June 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


My experience was very similar to that described by spitbull. There were moments that felt extremely frustrating within my six years, but overall it was a great experience. I was able to fully immerse myself in things I found interesting, while getting some pay for doing that. I discovered a love of teaching, found a job before finishing the dissertation, and love teaching.

I do recognize that graduate school is quite different for a lot of people based on why they went, their expectations, and also their actual program. One of the most important factors for me, at least looking back on it, was that my program (both sub-area and the larger department) was a collegial group of faculty who actually liked each other and worked well together. It wasn't competitive, but there was an overall desire for everyone to succeed. The program was also geared to eventual success in how milestones were set up -- we were encouraged to write more succinct dissertations that would be closer to publication-ready, for instance. Potential grad students are always encouraged to look for that one professor to pair up with, but I think that finding a supportive department might be as important when it comes to your happiness.
posted by bizzyb at 9:30 AM on June 30, 2012


There are multiple ways to improve your odds of getting a good job. All of them require doing good work (even people who are focused on selling themselves need something to sell). If you focus on self-promotion but sound like a dilettante in your interviews, you're not going to get hired.
posted by oddman at 9:33 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I love my research and what I'm doing and a lot about being in grad school, but my love and its expression is necessarily tempered by the structure of grad school and the irritating things about it.

Sure, me too. That's true of any situation. What I find unfortunate is just that academia contains the same type of systemic cart-before-the-horse stuff as other pursuits.

Obviously the dichotomy I introduced is a huge oversimplification and, in fact, I bet we find the same things irritating.

A better way to express what I mean is: for me, and for a lot of grad students I know, a university is a good place because it's like "whew, finally, after 20 years, I found this chunk of society where I have at least a reasonable chance of feeling at home and not being treated like I'm irrelevant and strange AND MOREOVER I get to do stuff that is awesome and that, incidentally, other folks might benefit from. Yes!" and then you get a bunch of spam from the Career Office about workshops on Selling Yourself, and a bunch of people go, and then you have to think about that shit, too, or you later will be kicked out of your refuge, with intense knowledge and expertise but, potentially, few marketable skills. Like I said, happily, so far it has not gone to those extremes, in my experience.
posted by kengraham at 9:38 AM on June 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


There are multiple ways to improve your odds of getting a good job. All of them require doing good work (even people who are focused on selling themselves need something to sell). If you focus on self-promotion but sound like a dilettante in your interviews, you're not going to get hired.

Right. So why bother letting the whole "sales" thing into the system at all? Comparing my experience to that of friends outside of academia, things seem much fairer in academia, in general, to the extent that the warning to Sell Yourself is actually pretty alarmist. What I'm worried about is that, once that warning becomes sufficiently deeply ingrained, the Way Things Are will change in such a way that it actually becomes necessary. Surely this is what's happened in other fields, where, unlike in academia, it is routine for unqualified or incompetent people to thrive at the expense of people who are just into "the work".
posted by kengraham at 9:44 AM on June 30, 2012


I think the thing to avoid, as far as "sales" goes, is underselling yourself out of modesty or familiarity-with-all-the-open-questions or fear-of-being-wrong or whatever.

I'm thinking for instance of one of the real trailblazers in my own subfield, Mayan linguistics. He never got a job despite having done really excellent research before he even started grad school, and having written one of the best dissertations I've ever seen on linguistic fieldwork. The scuttlebutt is that he got himself in trouble by saying "I have no idea" instead of "I have a guess," or "This is just a theory" instead of "This is what my current data strongly suggests." People who were familiar with the Mayan languages would listen to his talks and realize that he was probably right (and just being humble), but the vast majority of linguists who didn't know squat about Mayan languages took his own self-evaluation at face value and said "Okay, this guy is just a dilettante, he doesn't know how to use evidence or generate hypotheses, we're not interested."

It's just what the rumor mill has to say, but it's a plausible theory. And a lot of us do have a hard time convincing ourselves to go out on a limb and present the conclusions we've got.

The most important thing about "salesmanship" that I've learned in grad school is, it's better to be famously and provocatively wrong than to keep your mouth shut. If you get all your citations from people saying "This is an interesting idea but it can't possibly be true," that's better for your career — and better for science as a whole — than if you keep your head down and never publish anything citable. And I think that the great scientists of earlier generations did follow that principle, even if they weren't "salesmen" in the skeevy sense of the word.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:58 AM on June 30, 2012 [9 favorites]


So why bother letting the whole "sales" thing into the system at all?

Because professors (the people who hire new professors) are humans, not brains on sticks.
posted by erniepan at 10:44 AM on June 30, 2012


Because professors (the people who hire new professors) are humans, not brains on sticks.

I agree. Beyond a certain point (being conscious of one's audience when explaining one's research, not being an asshole to one's interviewer), "selling oneself" doesn't seem very humane; for one thing, it forces those humans to wade through an extra layer of bullshit when they could be doing their own thing. I've had several emails from hiring committees saying "This is not a job offer, yet, but if we gave you one, would you take it?". Presumably, being on a hiring committee is an onerous task and they were trying to avoid having the process dragged out by some Machiavellian candidate looking to collect as many offers as possible, stringing them along while holding out for something better. Inflicting a sales pitch, beyond "this is who I am and what I've done; take it or leave it" doesn't seem very collegial.

I'm talking mostly about people doing things specifically for the purpose of putting them on a CV, and that type of thing, here, not simply giving evidence that one would be a good person to have in a department, do high-quality work, etc.

I think the notion that other people do the selling for you is excellent, and I hope it's widespread (I think it is, based on the emphasis on getting good recommendation letters). I've benefited greatly from that, I think, and I think it keeps things relatively fair.
posted by kengraham at 11:07 AM on June 30, 2012


The epilogue is extremely good advice for thriving in the system. Really top notch. (See also A PhD is Not Enough! by Peter Feibelman)

The notion that the system isn't particularly necessary (especially in CS) doesn't seem to be addressed.
posted by underflow at 11:08 AM on June 30, 2012


After reading this, it just reaffirms the position that my grandfather told me once:

"B.S. is bullshit. M.S. is more shit. Ph.D is piled higher and deeper."

While I did not completely share his view, what I did arrive at after college is that degrees are a means to an end. I have met many, many brilliant people without degrees of any kind, and even more who have degrees that are doing careers not even remotely close to their major.

Take a degree for what it is... a sign that you can finish what you start. It's nothing more than that.
posted by prepmonkey at 11:10 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


The notion that the system isn't particularly necessary (especially in CS) doesn't seem to be addressed.

So CS is in a funny position here. The "downside" is that, yeah, grad school in some branches of CS is unnecessary, since if you play your cards right you can get a R&D-type job without any sort of higher degree. The "upside" is that — well, what the hell, why not go to grad school in CS? After all, if you've got what it takes to get admitted then your skillset already makes you highly employable, and so you can afford to spend five or six years working on a fun project for low wages without worrying that you'll never get a real job when you're done.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:43 PM on June 30, 2012


why bother letting the whole "sales" thing into the system at all?

One is that there are probably several dozen job candidates just as smart, well-read, hard-working and committed as your. In a group of candidates with essentially equal quantitative credentials, the one that sells themself best will significantly improve their chance to get a job.


Beyond a certain point (being conscious of one's audience when explaining one's research, not being an asshole to one's interviewer), "selling oneself" doesn't seem very humane; for one thing, it forces those humans to wade through an extra layer of bullshit when they could be doing their own thing

Are you an introvert? Because, honestly, I just don't see it this way (I'm an extrovert). Interacting with a people in a way which puts you in a positively light and encourages them to like you is fun. It's what you do at cocktail parties. Doing good research is hard, but talking about why I'd be a great colleague because I'm always happy to pitch in on a new project? Easy, peasy.
posted by oddman at 2:10 PM on June 30, 2012


kengraham, what's your field of research?
posted by Coventry at 3:08 PM on June 30, 2012


kengraham, if you're just about to start your first post doc, then I assume you haven't yet had to apply for funding of your own? And your advisor didn't share with you the gory details of that process? For me, the main unpleasantness of graduate school came from increasing disillusionment as I realized what it took to get funding -- how fashionable topics and sexy approaches got funded over more rigorous but less entertaining ideas, the unjustified optimism required in proposal writing, the "spin" which is normal in reporting results, the self-promotion and back stabbing involved in collaborations and press releases and patents. And above all, how much depended more on Who You Know rather than What You Know.

I saw some really good professors leave after not getting tenure when they couldn't bring in funding. I learned that universities see science departments as cash cows and judge job applicants on their potential for bringing in money (a 70% overhead charge, which went to the university, was tacked on to every purchase made with grant money. Every $17,000 per year stipend paid to graduate students also required an equal or greater amount of tuition paid to the university) and that if you can't bring it in, you will lose your job, and have a really tough time getting another one.

I was also depressed by the job prospects as I came to understand them (several of the post docs in our lab had been post docs for ~10 years, and I began to realize that waiting until after I had tenure to start a family might involve waiting forever) and by the inevitable failures that experimental science entails -- most research doesn't really lead anywhere, at least in my field. People try things, and mostly they don't work out. That is discouraging, especially when you see less talented and dedicated people succeeding at much easier projects, and know that their prospects are better than yours.

It seems to me like you got lucky in your choice of advisor (and field? I'm in experimental atomic/optical physics) and have been shielded so far from some of the nastier realities that PhD comics mocks. When the cartoonist who draws it talked at my university, though, it was to a sold out auditorium, and he made a bunch of good points about the higher than average suicide rate for grad students, and told us to look around the room, and at least appreciate that we weren't alone. For me, that was actually hugely theraputic.

But it was the "XKCD attitude" that drew me into science in the first place, and it was the disconnect between that idealism about scholarship and the realities of academia that really depressed me. I was and am a fan of both, as were my grad school friends.

(I am now out of grad school with my PhD and a good industry job, but still dependent on gov't research funding, and still frustrated with the realities of what it takes to get that funding.)
posted by OnceUponATime at 6:22 PM on June 30, 2012 [8 favorites]


We should clarify that "selling yourself" looks very different between different academic disciplines, and little like doing so in industry, erniepan and kengraham. Also, there is an awful lot of stuff people "do to put on the vitae" that's actually enormously useful for the community, kengraham, like organizing conferences.

There are however people who do very little but manage to worm their way into fairly important roles through playing weird political games. These people aren't necessarily natural borne salesmen, they simply figured out social tricks that buy them advantages but offer little benefit to the community.

Example : France's CNRS is famous for the good CRs leaving to take professorships that require teaching, while the weaker CRs hang around and focus on the politics of a DR promotion, which is morally a professorship with no teaching duties. Not all DRs fall into this category, but it's definitely a stereotype amongst French academics.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:26 PM on June 30, 2012


I'm talking mostly about people doing things specifically for the purpose of putting them on a CV, and that type of thing, here, not simply giving evidence that one would be a good person to have in a department, do high-quality work, etc.

I think "selling yourself" in the context the article was talking about has a lot more to do with things like 1) giving a really smooth and interesting talk, 2) writing attention-grabbing papers that are also careful not to overreach, 3) not being shy about asking people if they want to collaborate, 4) knowing how different audiences tend to frame the questions they're interested in so you can gear them appropriately, etc., and not CV filler activities. The first kind of "selling yourself" can have real impacts on your publication and funding records, which AFAIK are basically the only things hiring committees look for. From the article:
In contrast, my paper submission with Scott and Joel was far more successful because Scott was an insider who had previously published and reviewed many papers in the HCI conference where we submitted our paper. Of course, being an insider didn't mean that our paper was scrutinized any less rigorously, since that would be unfair. However, Scott could leverage his experience to present our project's motivations and findings in a way that was the most palatable to those sorts of reviewers, thereby raising our paper's chances of acceptance.
Thanks to FfA for linking this, by the way. I think it's a really insightful look at the academic PhD and I think it's also rare for someone so close to it to have that kind of perspective and to be able to put such an honest self-evaluation out there for all to see.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:51 PM on June 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Reading Guo's blog gives me the heebie jeebies. It reminds me of many things I loathe about academia. I mean sure, you can play academia like a game, but it's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
posted by tybeet at 9:26 PM on June 30, 2012


Yeah, I guess it's all just bullshit and I'm imagining the satisfactions of my academic career and wasted my time piling the manure higher and deeper and being a salesman.

Some serious ressentiment in this thread. Sorry some of y'all didn't succeed and now have such miserable lives digging ditches, right?


Oh wait, you're a lawyer? That's useful work!
posted by spitbull at 2:57 AM on July 1, 2012


After reading this, it just reaffirms the position that my grandfather told me once:

"B.S. is bullshit. M.S. is more shit. Ph.D is piled higher and deeper."


He probably also said "them what cain't do, teach," and "get off my lawn, kids!"
posted by spitbull at 3:00 AM on July 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


A final thought: name one profession that does not require entrepreneurial effort.
posted by spitbull at 3:07 AM on July 1, 2012


I have also written and erased a lot of comments. I completed my PhD at a "Psuedo Ivy" institution that encompassed much of the best and worst about graduate education.

The only thing I really want to say is that even here in this thread, people are implying (if not stating emphatically) that "being successful in academia" means a R1 professorship. Many, if not most, grad students will not get those jobs, but the big lie-by-omission at many grad schools is that there are amazing jobs that are not R1, and those of us who have them, and in my case aspired to them from the beginning of grad school, are not failures in any way, shape, or form.

I teach biology at a 4-year, non-selective, public college. The classes I teach never have more than 24 students, who range from high school drop-outs to brilliant young people looking for a bargain, to single moms, to returned vets. I have to be on my toes every day and know every bit of material and related material to be prepared to engage students in theoretical and philosophical discussion about that material because they will have questions and ideas, and they will stretch me in new and different ways. In my upper-level classes, which are more like 15 students, I am teaching the scientific process, the beginning of the research skills that I gained through PhD research, and writing. My research is surprisingly well supported by internal money, with no requirement to seek outside funding, and students who want to work with me on it are engaged and enthusiastic. All that said, the actual research requirements of my job are minimal, so I can do the research I enjoy, not the research that will make me famous.

This is not purgatory for failed grad students. This is an amazing job that I am lucky to have.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:48 AM on July 1, 2012 [13 favorites]


hydropsyche - when people talk about not having an academic job, they don't mean that they don't have a job at an R1 university - they mean that they cannot find work at any college or university. A friend of mine has a dissertation that won an award for being the best in her literary subfield. She has had no job offers. She taught for a bit at a private high school, but hasn't had anything since. Her husband, a social psychologist, did a second PhD in marketing to get a job. Both would have been very happy to teach at any college or university.

The job market in many fields is dire. Moreover, the teaching has suffered too - with adjuncts/contract people teaching large, required courses at my local (probably R1) university and being the only point of contact for ~200 students.

The fields where things are worst are those where there are no clear non-academic jobs. I have a masters and am ABD in history, but my job prospects are not much better than people with BAs (and my pay lower). Obviously, I made the choice to go to graduate school, but there are also a lot of things that my graduate school & department did not do (help students professionalize, support them to help them finish, support career searches in non-academic areas - leaving academe was clearly a "failure").

Doing a PhD - even fully funded - involves a very high opportunity cost for people in terms of lost income and delays in starting a family. These costs are greater for women (obviously, given that we can't delay having children as long) and to lower income people who can't rely on family money to buy a house or support their retirement.

I'm happy for those people in the thread who have had good experiences at graduate school. But those of us who have had less than ideal experiences during or after graduate school are not mindlessly bitter or deluded or feeble-minded or "just not serious" enough. We have had different experiences - perhaps because of our academic fields, perhaps because of different graduate school cultures (some offer a lot of support, some almost none - and it's not related to the research quality), and because we have all had different challenges in our projects and personal lives.

I am at a point where I don't think that I would recommend that someone do a PhD in my field, in my department. In another field or another department, that's another story.
posted by jb at 7:39 AM on July 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


I owe my existence to the stress of Ph.D. curricula. My parents were using the rhythm method, and when my mother turned up pregnant they were able to work out with great exactness which argument had upset my mother enough to mess up her cycle, and therefore when I was conceived.

Because I was a prodigy and spent a lot of time at work with Dad (he went on to teach at a commuter university until retirement), there is a certain sense in which I had been in college my entire life when I was 21. My parents were also masters of helicopter monitoring, gaslighting, and the casual emotional put-down, and when that situation blew up I got something of a revelation.

leaving academe was clearly a "failure"

This. And yet, when I left my parents and academe at the same time the world did not come to an end. There is definitely an attitude in academe that those in the circle are superior to those outside, and that it is somehow a tragic fall to end up in a lesser university or (horror!) industry. Stephen King absolutely nails this in the scene from The Tommyknockers where Gard relapses.

But here's the rub: Life inside the academic circle is no different from life outside. There are the same sociopaths, power freaks, lackeys, and sycophants you meet in any random group of people, doing the exact same things. Academics aren't better than other people. You can get the same skills and knowledge -- sometimes better in practical ways -- outside of that circle and without the politics.

I never even went back to finish my B.S.; I found that my "incomplete" engineering skills were highly appreciated in a blue collar environment where I had the satisfaction of installing and teaching people to use the things I had made with my own hands, and watching my employer prosper as a result and getting bonuses and pay raises. Dad had tenure so he had pretty good job security in the day, but I make more money than he ever did even adjusted for inflation and my job security is about that good.

With very rare exceptions such as Einstein or Chomsky, academia is a very small, sealed-up world where even the brightest stars are completely unknown to outsiders. In that respect it reminds me more than a little of the comment made by the procurator guy in Graphic Sexual Horror that the bondage porn stars who worked for Insex would be "famous" within their fanatical but narrow fanbase. It's a kind of success that doesn't translate outside of its original context; and that's probably why people deeply entrenched in academia are so terrified of being cast out.
posted by localroger at 8:25 AM on July 1, 2012


You can get the same skills and knowledge -- sometimes better in practical ways -- outside of that circle and without the politics.

Industry is filled with stupid politics and roadblocks of its own, though. One of my friends recently told me that in order to start a collaboration with another group, the requisite paperwork would take at least four months to complete (and this is rushed - usually it takes nine months). Meanwhile she has an expensive, top of the line instrument which is lying fallow, since she's unable to get enough samples to run on it. In comparison, this would be essentially unthinkable in the academic lab I'm in now.

Overall, I think the idea that you can escape scheming and politics by leaving academia is probably as unrealistic and dangerous as the idea that academia is a pure and monastic place untainted by petty human concerns.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:10 AM on July 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I guess it's all just bullshit and I'm imagining the satisfactions of my academic career and wasted my time piling the manure higher and deeper and being a salesman.

Some serious ressentiment in this thread. Sorry some of y'all didn't succeed and now have such miserable lives digging ditches, right?


You don't have to create any kind of narrative about others' failure to prove you own success. It doesn't threaten your success to say that the system is flawed. Your experience can be true at the same time someone else's is very different.
posted by liketitanic at 10:38 AM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Industry is filled with stupid politics and roadblocks of its own, though.

Oh, this is definitely true, particularly within the halls of large multinational corporations where the rules are often made up by people high up in ivory towers of their own. You can choose to weather the politics of such places, but outside of academia there are alternatives which do not carry the stigma that "being cast out" does within academia.

Quitting ExxonMobil for a startup does not carry quite the stigma that teaching at a community college does if you graduated from Princeton.
posted by localroger at 11:46 AM on July 1, 2012


jb: I pretty much agree with everything you said. And I definitely could have been you, except for accidentally stumbling into a field that is still hiring. I do not encourage my students to get PhDs, and if asked, I would never recommend the program I graduated from.

I just grow weary of being called a failure when I feel like I have succeeded. We met up with a college classmate recently. He has a PhD in a different field than mine and is adjuncting at a local private liberal arts college. I mentioned that the school where I work is hiring in his field, and he looked at me with such revulsion--he would rather work for poor pay and no benefits at the "right" kind of school than even apply for a job at a school like mine.
posted by hydropsyche at 12:00 PM on July 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


I mentioned that the school where I work is hiring in his field, and he looked at me with such revulsion--he would rather work for poor pay and no benefits at the "right" kind of school than even apply for a job at a school like mine.

Indeed. It's ironic because academia bills itself as a just meritocracy, but it's really an often corrupt rat race where every position is accompanied by little symbols of status and rank, like whether you have an office and where it is and hours spent teaching and on and on and on. In that respect a university is far more like a chicken plant than a chemical plant, and I've spent plenty of time in all three (and more) environments.

And because academia is a small, not very well funded world for the number of people who live there, there is a defensive denial that better paying and more secure positions outside of academia are at all worthwhile.

I'll admit it; my childhood dreams of discovering new elements or faster than light travel or planets around other stars went dormant and then died when I left the places where those things have at least a chance of happening. But that doesn't mean I haven't left a mark upon the world; if you live in the USA and you've ever eaten a chicken breast or catfish fillet, there's a very high probability that it crossed a machine that I programmed -- a machine that would not have existed had I not been here to realize it. Every day my phone rings with people asking for my help to solve problems that cost them real money and make their daily grind a real nuisance.

No, I'll never drive a rover around on Mars or discover an extrasolar planet, but neither will most people who went on to be engineers. Meanwhile I own a house, know I will have a job tomorrow, and have the respect of thousands of people who have seen me make their work lives easier or their businesses more profitable.

If you teach at Harvard, good on ya. But don't think we think you're all that just because you do.
posted by localroger at 12:45 PM on July 1, 2012


Oh, this is definitely true, particularly within the halls of large multinational corporations where the rules are often made up by people high up in ivory towers of their own.

In some industries, though, there isn't really any getting away from those large multinational corporations. In biochemistry, for instance, the main industry is pharma, and those companies tend to be behemoths because you need such an insane budget to do biomedical research and to get drugs through clinical trials. Startups do exist, but ironically, one of the best ways to start a pharma company is to be an academic professor, since so many of these startups are spin-offs of existing academic research. I think in engineering and CS, the entry costs are low enough that there's a healthy startup culture, and if you really want to you can go your whole life without working for a big corporation or in an academic department. But I don't think that necessarily generalizes even to other sciences.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:58 PM on July 1, 2012


Also, I think the split between academia and industry is a little overstated, especially now. One of my advisors spent significant time in industry before coming back to academia, has a startup of his own, and still has close ties to the biotech world; the director of my institute was a VP at a major biotech company; my other advisor has collaborated with places like Google (well, in the Sergey Brin era at least). There is a certain caricature of an R1 academic who openly or quietly scorns industrial research but I actually haven't run into any. I think the landscape has changed a lot over the last 20 years.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:44 PM on July 1, 2012


Biotech and pharma are very unusual industries because they have tight ties to academia and its culture. A better example of what I'm talking about would be food or chemical production, where nearly all the work is mundane and done by people who do not have degrees but just on the job training, and even the original research and production lab work are done in very informal circumstances. I do automation for these industries, particularly where such automation involves weighing equipment (my industry). If you work in biotech, you meet one of my coworkers probably twice a year when he shows up to verify that the lab balances are calibrated properly.

Back when kuro5hin was still a place worth hanging out at I wrote a couple of articles about manufacturing plant culture, Plant and Food Plant, which illustrate much more typical work environments.

I personally work for a mid-sized small business and it's not unusual for me to spend an hour talking with the owner about birdwatching or the latest science show he's seen or to announce that I firmly veto any possiblity of us proceeding on some project I've decided is too unworkable or risky. I worked my way up to this position from being a mostly ordinary service technician through a long history of being right about stuff and doing things that were widely reckoned, even by the degreed engineers employed by the manufacturers we represent, as impossible. That is an actual meritocracy at work and while I could make more money if I left for a bigger company, I would never be appreciated for what I can do the way I am here. That's my reason for not going for better bucks. I think it makes more sense than adjuncting at Princeton because it's not a community college.
posted by localroger at 2:06 PM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


He is basically taking the Thomas Edison approach. For example:

Anyone who has done creative work knows that the day-to-day grind is rarely fun: It requires intense focus, rigorous discipline, keen attention to detail, high pain tolerance, and an obsessive desire to produce great work.

This style of work is the same as "1% inspiration, 99% perspiration". I think a deeper understanding of how the very act of grinding can bias or even undermine the intended creativity.

Speaking as an Asian American, I find his attitudes to be very Asian, namely: play the game, be compliant, work hard. So again, I think there are some unstated biases that make his experiences difficult to generalize and make appealing to more kinds of people.
posted by polymodus at 4:01 PM on July 1, 2012


Localroger (and thanks for the links, btw, I'll check them out), I'm mostly responding to your statement above: "You can get the same skills and knowledge -- sometimes better in practical ways -- outside of that circle and without the politics." I'm certainly not defending the (bankrupt) idea that you can't have a good life where you make meaningful contributions outside of academia, but I would argue that depending on what kind of research you want to do, academia can open the doors to fields of study that would otherwise be totally inaccessible.

To relate this back to the article, PG was able to spend six years with a guaranteed income working on a diverse array of scientific questions that he was often able to choose for himself. That's actually a pretty good deal, and I'm not sure how he would have gotten that type of experience working at a large tech company or even a startup (both of which would have certainly involved a way higher proportion of "selling" to "research" in any case).

At its best, I think PhD training has a lot to offer. Chiefly, you can be immersed in research for years without worrying about how you're going to feed yourself, and you can take ownership of really cutting-edge research directions relatively early in your career. I'm definitely not blind to the many problems with academia -- a shrinking academic job market, abusive/controlling/neglectful advisors, the absurdities of grant writing, the huge imbalances of power, the increasing age at which people get their first grants/faculty positions, etc. -- and people in the academy should certainly do everything they can to make the situation better. As it is now, going through a PhD certainly makes a lot more sense for some fields, some situations, and some people than others. But I think that to conclude from this that there is no reason to get a PhD, or that people who get a PhD must have been tricked into working against their own best interests, would be a mistake.
posted by en forme de poire at 4:03 PM on July 1, 2012


"Guaranteed income," and "without worrying about how you're going to feed yourself" did not apply to my experience.
posted by OnceUponATime at 4:35 PM on July 1, 2012


This book is pure voyeurism for me to read - I took Dawson's class in 2008 and read the first Klee paper for class, and Cristi was his TA at the time. I know a whole bunch of folks who have PhDs in hard science, computer science, and engineering, and I am very, very glad I am not one of them. Lots of great observations in here about CS academia, Stanford, and the individuals involved that ring very true. Thanks for posting it!
posted by town of cats at 4:49 PM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


To relate this back to the article, PG was able to spend six years with a guaranteed income working on a diverse array of scientific questions that he was often able to choose for himself.

Yes, and that is a thing my wife and I both miss having missed out on to a certain extent. A few years ago we read a book by one of the scientists who just missed out getting direct credit for locating the K-T impactor site at Chicxulub; it was a riveting detective story involving mutlidisciplinary collaboration, a lot of lab work and computer simulations and ultimetely field work to verify the results. My wife and I were both seized by the conviction that this is what we had really wanted to do, and a bit of sadness that it had not worked out that way for us.

Then, we remembered, the reason we didn't go that route was THE MONEY.
posted by localroger at 5:32 PM on July 1, 2012


To expand on my comment that funding wasn't guaranteed for graduate students at my university: the department would support new students as a teaching assistant for two years, so two years of funding, at least, was guaranteed. After that point it was expected that you would have found lab to work on in, and would be supported by the professor's research funding.

The process of finding a lab consisted of knocking on office doors and asking professors if the needed any more students. I was told "no" by a couple of professors and began to worry that I wouldn't be able to stay past the end of my second year. Finally I found someone who said "maybe". I maxed out my TAship, and then I spent one summer working in his lab as a "temp," (no tuition had to be paid to the school on my behalf, so I was a lot cheaper for him, but I also got no subsidy for health insurance that summer.) When I did eventually become a research assistant, I was still occasionally shifted back onto TA support in another department, and then fellowship support for my final year. I don't think this is unusual, and I didn't mind it, except insofar as I was constantly worried about what would happen if some expected funding source didn't come through. I explicitly had no guarantees.

I knew one graduate student who left after investing three years, I think, frustrated that he was still on (uncertain) teaching assistant support instead of being able to do research full time. I knew two graduate students who dropped out of their PhD programs after 4+ years when their advisors left their institutions. (In all cases, there were other factors in the departures as well, but I don't think I'm oversimplifying too much.) And, as I mentioned, I saw professors who couldn't get funding leave the university, and many neurotic post docs hitting the job market with limited success.

This monetary uncertainty and stress was a huge part of what made graduate school suck, for me. I have been assuming it is a big part of why it sucks for everyone, but perhaps my experience is less typical than I thought...
posted by OnceUponATime at 4:59 AM on July 2, 2012


I can't resist one further comment to tie my previous two together. In the first one I said the suckiest things were disillusionment about the purity of scientific inquiry (which I discovered was tainted by fashion, cronyism, and spin), the job prospects, and the frustration of working on research that often didn't pay off. In the second I said it was my personal uncertain funding situation. But in my head it all seems like the same thing. Because my personal funding was uncertain, I had much greater anxiety about my research not paying off -- if my advisor wasn't happy with me, I had serious doubts that he would keep supporting me. The uncertainty also made me hyperaware of what our funding sources were and what we needed to do to get it, which made me feel complicit in participating in that disappointing system, and afraid to voice my doubts about it. Finally, my awareness of my own and others' precarious funding situations brought into sharp relief how much my future career would depend on being able to navigate that system, and made me much more discouraged about job prospects. The uncertainty of funding in general, and the reality of how it is obtained, is what sucked. I really am interested to know if others here saw things in these terms as well.
posted by OnceUponATime at 5:45 AM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm not saying there aren't huge problems in the academic job market, nor am I denigrating those who have had trouble launching careers. But I am calling out the extreme position that there are no jobs and a phd is a waste of time for any and all people.

I also said, very clearly, that even in the humanities the odds favor those who do useful, public-facing work. So far, in the humanities at the higher levels (elite universities) that remains a small minority.

Sorry, no offense intended. I've watched dozens of students and colleagues struggle in this market. But I've seen many succeed too.
posted by spitbull at 7:25 AM on July 3, 2012


The PhD in CS appears to be a waste of time and money for anyone who wants to work in industry.
posted by talldean at 10:58 AM on July 11, 2012


« Older "I still buy books faster than I can read them. Bu...  |  "Is online dating a different ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments