Sunday, August 31, 2008

-The right choice? Part 1

There is an intense discussion over at ISP that started as an idea on the over-supply of Physics PhDs and has heated over whether Physics (in general Science) as a career represents a bright, happy future.

I thought I should throw in one (the one related to the path towards the PhD degree) of my two cents, the next will come later. So, here it is:

Science is indeed a difficult career, it takes a lot of time and effort but in principle it will provide a great deal of satisfaction whenever a "discovery" is made. Science is not for everyone, I personally think that anyone can learn science but only a few can actually do science. If you are in the latter group and want to learn about science, go for an undergraduate degree. As a physics graduate, I can tell you that I learned a lot during my undergraduate and when I finished I was as prepared (I think even better prepared) than my engineer friends.

But it was at that point that I noticed a big difference between those friends and my physics friends. They didn't want to go to grad school, at least not for an engineering degree, and I wanted to go. I had the idea that pursuing a PhD would give me the opportunity of learning a lot more about the things I thought were cool, do research while in grad school and at the end do independent research. On top of all of these, I thought a PhD degree would provide greater job security since there would not be many people capable of replacing me. With these in mind, I embarked in this grad school journey.

After a few years into studies, I have found out that it is not what I thought it would be. It turns out that chances are I will not end up doing research as I thought if I go for an industry job (many of my older friends that already obtained their degrees have engineering jobs that could've probably performed without the PhD), and if I decide to go for academia, it can easily add up to 10 years (5-6 PhD, 3-4 postdoc) before I get my first real job. It can take another 5-6 to get tenure and then have maximum job security.

It feels worse when you include some professors' attitude towards grad students. Grad students are considered cheap (sometimes free) labor, with long hours, no or little personal life and very, very low pay. And grad students are the ones that actually get the results in the lab (sure, professors come up with the ideas and money, but it is the student who does at least 90% of the lab work). In basic words, students are like slaves and the more you have and the senior they are the best. This presents a conflict of interests in my opinion. Universities (through professors) will demand more and more money to support grad students, and if you get professors to talk about your professional future they will all (ok, not all, maybe Okham, Doug and IP are more understanding) promise you the chance of a fairly paid, nice research job when they know it's probably not true.

I have witnessed professors that purposely keep students from graduating to get more results out of them with no consideration for the student's future, and I have seen many professors who keep their students as long as they can as TAs, demanding the same results as if the student were full time RA.

Science is a tough career, not so much for the science itself but for all the other aspects that make a science career. Many of those aspects happening even before you get to look for a job.

Is the (bleak) hope of a tenure-track position enough to still go through all that? Maybe, I can't tell for sure yet. What I do know is that I would have appreciated it if someone had told me before finishing my undergrad degree that grad school and academic life would be tough in respects I could have not imagined then. If they had told me that I would most likely end up working as an engineer and that even in that position I would make less than the guy that actually went to engineering school.

I also know that I would not call it a science career if it ended with grad school.


Anonymous said...

I have witnessed professors that purposely keep students from graduating... with no consideration for the student's future ... many professors ... keep their students as long as they can as TAs, demanding the same results as if the student were full time RA.

Yes, that happens. This is indeed one place where things are badly in need to be fixed. It may not be much of a consolation but, let me tell you -- it's nowhere near as bad as it was only 15 years ago. Graduate students used to be at the absolute mercy of their PhD advisor -- now there are often at least formal ways for them to complain, and while they are not perfect by any means, they are a starting point.
The disparity of treatment for graduate students who work under different advisors is a serious problem, and I am not sure how to fix that. You may be interested in knowing that sometimes advisors who support students off of their grant, buying them out of the teaching, face the resentment of faculty colleagues who cannot or do not want to do the same thing ("You are making us look bad with our own students").

In general, I think graduate students should learn to "shop around" for the right advisor, and switch to another one if they are not happy. The time spent with that advisor will be essentially wasted, but that is a lesser damage than sticking with someone with whom things are not working.
It is also very important to interview students who have been working with that advisor for some time, before deciding to join that person's group.

R said...


I agree, students should shop around(which is what I did) but this also has cons.

I have been at 2 universities. One (current) top 20, the other very lowly ranked. There are many differences but I would say that in the top 20 they care more about the student than in the other one. However, here is what happens, at least in my experience:

1) Top 20 has a recruitment weekend (for accepted domestic students) where they can talk to professors, learn about their research and how nice they are. Not top 20 doesn't have anything like that, so you accept an offer without knowing what's waiting for you. Professor's websites are often not updated, and you don't get to talk to any students before your arrival.
Definitely, Top 20 is better, because, in principle, you get to test the waters. The problem is that on that particular weekend everybody is so cool. They treat students nicely, whatever the question you will get answer whose purpose is to get you to accept that offer. In August, when classes begin it turns out things weren't as nice as previously pictured.

Also, some professors talk about a particular area of research which they are no longer doing, and if you decide to join his/her group you'll be in for a big disappointment.

Things could be better than 15 years ago, but still it is no consolation. Why should there be a difference between a grad student and a professor? I remember that first day, during the department's orientation when we were told we were colleagues now.

Okham, thanks for the comment. I guess my blog must suck because you are the first to ever comment. You deserve a post.