No one true path for PhDs

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So, there’s a nice little op-ed piece up at the Chronicle for Higher Education. (For the non-academics out there, it’s sort of like People magazine, but with History professors instead of Kardashians.) It was written by Jon Bardin, a current PhD student at Cornell Med School, who is planning to abandon the canonical academic path. Unfortunately, it’s behind the Chronicle paywall, but basically he argues against the idea (much hyped, recently) that there is an over-production of PhD students. At least in the sciences.

He mentions the common complaint that graduate school has become a sort of pyramid scheme, where huge numbers of PhD students enter, with the implicit promise of a tenure-track position waiting at the other end of the tunnel, while there are not nearly enough such positions available.

This is true, but he argues that we should look at the situation from a different perspective.

First, he argues that there are many alternative careers for PhDs. Of course, we all knew this already. After all, Starbucks is almost always hiring. But, actually, he argues that the skills that you develop in grad school are widely applicable. He talks specifically about the humbling experience of having his first manuscript rejected:

Through this and subsequent experiences, I learned to absorb the sting of harsh rejection, to ingest criticism, to accept its value, and to turn it to my advantage. These are life skills, not scientific skills, and rejection was only the beginning. Since then, I have had to devise and adopt quick, practical solutions to unexpected problems, to communicate clearly and concisely in front of crowds, to think on my feet in response to an unexpected question, and to pick my battles within my own research group. Perhaps most important, I have learned to approach problems by reducing them to their component parts and solving them one by one.

These are experiences and skills that will carry me through many dark days as a writer. But the same skills would have benefited me if I were leaving for the pharmaceutical industry, or for consulting, or to open a microbrewery. Everyone needs a problem solver, an articulate communicator, a thoughtful arbitrator. If graduate students can learn to approach their education as a series of learning opportunities rather than a five-year-long job interview, I think many who choose to leave would find that they had not wasted their time but rather that they had learned a great deal in a safe environment, while being paid, to boot.

These are great points. Now, the availability of funding varies a lot from field to field, but, at least in the sciences, I think the typical graduate student stipend is somewhere on the order of $30,000 per year. Now, that’s not huge money, but it is enough to provide a comfortable living. Add in the fact that grad school is a great social environment (at least, it is if you’re a dork, and you like hanging out with other dorks, which, if you’re reading this, you probably are, and probably do), and you’ve got the makings of a pleasant and rewarding five years.

The trick, of course, is to find an advisor who’s not a jerk, but that’s a topic for another post.

The other point that Bardin makes is that the problem is not one of the availability of a certain type of job, but of the perception that the tenure-track path is the only honorable one. What is needed is a change in attitude, from the students themselves, and from the advisors responsible for them. In Bardin’s words:

Such a change in attitude should start with graduate advisers, who must fulfill their role as true mentors, helping students explore the range of opportunities that their training has enabled, both inside and outside the box. Crucially, they must make it clear that leaving academe does not suddenly brand them a waste of their mentor’s time; graduate students—and their older siblings, the postdocs—by virtue of being cheap, productive labor, are anything but a waste of time.

In a way, maybe we need to start viewing graduate school more like undergrad. After all, professors don’t resent teaching undergraduates who are smart and engaged, but who are going to do something other than academia.

Or, rather, most probably don’t. I’m sure there are some who do. (Those are also the ones you want to avoid when choosing an advisor.) But, they probably also resent the students who are going to follow in their footsteps, just for different reasons. What are you going to do? Resenters gonna resent.

Reposted from the Ronin Blog.

h/t to Ronin Kristina Killgrove.

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