Thursday, 13 May 2010

So you want to be a grad student?

Now for something completely different....Skip this if you are looking for more flower pictures, but if you want to know if entering a graduate school (or starting a PhD course for the non-US readers) is the right thing for you, or if you want to know what lies behind the ivory tower of post-graduate education, then this is the article for you.

As a background and a disclaimer, I did a PhD in Biological Physics at one of the leading universities in the UK. All of the opinions stated here are my own and related to my own experience (unless noted otherwise). The pretty comics are provided by (great read by the way, if you are a PhD or a spouse of a PhD).

Let’s start with some of the reasons why people do a PhD.

1. I have nothing better to do after my undergrad / job market sucks, better get a PhD first

By far, this is the most common reason I found among young graduate students. They might not admit it outright, but if you probe a bit deeper, most will implicitly acknowledge that they take a PhD course because there was nothing better to do, or perhaps trying to get a real job was such a hassle, making a good CV, preparing for interviews, etc. Someone once said,
"Grad school is the snooze button on the alarm clock of life."

But what to do once you get your PhD and the alarm clock rings again? That leads to the next item in the list.

2. Getting a PhD will help me to find a good job

When I entered grad school, I imagined that once I wake up from my nap, which is the grad school, the world will be rosy and my path will be paved with gold. Companies will shout, "Come to us! We need you!" Then I woke up, and found myself jobless.

Statistics on PhD employment show that about 50 – 60% of PhDs are employed in the academia, another 30% are employed in industries related to their PhD work, and the other 20% spread between government (including non-university teaching positions) and works unrelated to their PhD. As you can see, most PhDs are employed in academia. A big proportion of this is employed as a postdoctoral research assistant (postdoc). Because there are so few lectureship positions around (let alone those leading to tenured positions) but there are so many graduate students, most universities in the western world are forced to vet for good candidates through the postdoc system. If you are not familiar with the system, a postdoc is a researcher employed on a contract basis, typically for 2-3 years at a time. The idea is more or less a Darwinian one: the postdoc system gives an opportunity for PhDs to prove their ability (by doing research, writing grants, lecturing). Only the best will be offered a full time lectureship position. Otherwise, either you move on to something else, or do another postdoc. Due to the intense competition, it is very common (at least in my field) to take up to 2 postdoc positions before getting anything permanent. That’s at least six more years of your precious life on top of your PhD, underpaid and with no job security! But for the successful ones, life ahead is rosy, or is it?

PS: An observant reader will notice that I mentioned "western world". It is true that competitions for university lectureship positions are much less intense in Asia (not sure about other parts of the world). However it is also true that they are generally less prestigious and less well funded. Even in places where money is not an issue (Middle East and Singapore to name a few), lectureship position entails more teaching and administrative matter rather than research (I heard that first hand from my lecturer in Singapore). If that’s your cup of tea, then great!

3. The academic world provides stable job

Stable is the right word for it. The Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “stable” as (emphasise added):
placed so as to resist forces tending to cause motion or change of motion

The bulk of the stability in academic job is provided by the tenureship system. Once you managed to jump through the hoops of postdoctoral system, if you are lucky, you might be invited to join a tenure-track position. A tenured professor is pretty much guaranteed job for life. Only in special circumstances (for example sexual harassment), would a professor lose his/her tenure. This is the tip of the pyramid, the highest in the food chain, of the academic world. This privilege comes through a very rigorous process. A budding lecturer is put through in a lectureship position for 5 years, and during that 5 years, he/she has to prove his/her ability through another round of research, grant writing, and lecturing (do you start to see the pattern here?). This time the lecturer will be in charge of his/her own group, managing several postdocs and PhD students. He/she needs to secure funding for the whole lab (by begging for writing grant) and might be involved in more administrative roles (admission, supervision, organising course).

Once you get your tenured position, life is indeed stable. You will be doing the same thing year after year, research, grant, teaching, administration, wash and repeat. For some people this is heaven. If this sounds like heaven to you, congratulation! You just found your life calling. Now if only you can get it before it gets you.

4. It will be a lot of fun

Oh, it is fun. Don’t get me wrong, it is fun. Getting paid to play with shiny cool toys (did anyone mention laser?) is indeed fun. What’s not fun are commuting 2 hours on public transport because you can’t afford a car (I have done it myself), trying to start a family on a PhD stipend/postdoc salary (done that as well), getting thesis-related depression (got that, although not as severe), relocating your family across the country (if you are lucky) to chase that coveted tenure-track position (thankfully haven’t done that). I guess the message is, life as a PhD is fun when you are young and free. Unfortunately, no one has found the forever-young elixir, and unless you are Donald Trump, one day you will need to worry about your responsibilities (kids, mortgage, car, you know, the usual stuff).

5. I will be doing useful works for the good of humanity

I think here lies the biggest misconception about PhD research. A PhD is supposed to engage in cutting edge research, pushing the boundary of human knowledge. So cutting-edge that it is of limited (or no) use to the general population. Someone once remarked that getting a PhD is like
"knowing more and more about less and less thing."

True, once in a while you will get some worthy inventions, like X-ray, MRI, laser, vaccines, which can save the lives of millions. But that’s probably just 1% of what’s going on. For the other 99%, nobody outside the 10 people in the world doing similar research will understand or need your research output. It is also true that in grant applications or research papers, we always say "this result has an important implication for our understanding of cancer/aging/AIDS/other-life-threatening-diseases."

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that PhD and the academic world are not necessary. They are important. Even if only 1% of the output from academic research is ever to be useful for humanity, it is still worth it. It is just not worth wasting your life on. Let someone else do it!


For those of you who read this far, I hope I make my conclusion pretty obvious. Don't do it! It’s not worth your life. Get a real and well-paid job somewhere else, start a family, have a life. If you can’t do any of those without a PhD, then getting one will only make things worse.

"But, surely things will be different for me! After all, I graduated from XYX University with a first class/summa cum laude."

I have been here myself, and if you are like me, you will ignore the advice I have just given and go to grad school anyway. There is something about blissful ignorance and denial of life's facts that will make you a good grad student. Carry on reading!

If you still decide to do it, there are a few things that will help you to be less miserable succeed:

  • Get a job in the industry. Seriously dude, especially if you are fresh from undergraduate. The last thing you want is an existential crisis in the middle of writing your thesis. Nothing helps better than remembering how boring it was to sit down in a cubicle 8 hours a day doing the same thing over and over again when you are having a bad day after sitting 10 hours a day in front of your laptop re-editing paragraph 2 of chapter 3 of your thesis for the sixth time today.

  • The first thing you want to do is to find the subject that interests you. If you are undecided about which subject to choose, get into an inter-disciplinary programme. This will leave your options open for a bit longer until you know what you (think) you want.

  • Finding the right supervisor is the key. Like finding a good second-hand car deal, you can’t outright trust whatever a PhD supervisor says about the work and the lab. The best way to get your toes in the water is by finding a short project (a few months) in the lab you want to join, to get a taste of what lies ahead. Most Universities will have such scheme, just ask.

  • It is still not too late to quit!

  • If you have found a good lab and thesis subject, congratulation! If you want more tips on how to be a successful PhD student, tune in to my next article (which I hopefully have time to write in the next few weeks).


Snowcatcher said...

Wow. That was a lot of thought and work. Thanks for doing it, although it doesn't apply to me. It was interesting reading about some of the things you apparently have had to go through.

Yes, we've had two more days of snow. Doesn't do much for the garden!

I've left a challenge for you on my blog, if you do that kind of thing...

Alvin said...

Good humor albeit insightful tinged with realism minus utter cynicism. - from someone who's "been there; done that!"
Higher learning is as it should be - to learn more; a continuous process & not as an end itself.
Even in theological realm, academic pride leads to nowhere - "vanity of vanities." One glories in the knowledge of God - that's true wisdom.

Viola Deo said...

Hi Yusdi,

thanks a lot for writing this. Really enjoying the comics and your analysis + conclusion :) I'm J's friend, so it's a bit surprise seeing you writing in this blog hahaha (rare thing :P). Nice post. Can't wait to read the next one :)

btw, all the best for your new job :)


uncivilizedlegend said...

a very gud stuff to read " inspiring for those who are in deli'ma " the good point for those who are have got the uninterested topic and supervisor is to either go for interdisciplinary or its never too late to quit.....:)