It would be interesting to see response data for the same people during both their undergraduate and PhD programs. But even this is compounded by the quarter-life-crisis issues that are common at PhD ages anyway. Plus, the pool of PhD students consists entirely of people who said "yes, working in relative isolation, for years, with little pay, on a topic most people don't care about, sign me up!". As one of the people in that pool, I'm not so sure we'd be way happier in the other pool. There is a consumption value to doing a PhD and taking the path that interested you. And there is consumption value to not having a normal office job.
To be clear: I think we (professors and current graduate students) should make sure applicants understand what a PhD is like and best practices for minimizing the probability of a bad PhD. Even after controlling for intelligence and ability to work hard, it is definitely not for everybody. But likening it to a public health crisis on par with HIV, acknowledged clickbait or not, is a bit much.
I would be damned miserable.
>Plus, the pool of PhD students consists entirely of people who said "yes, working in relative isolation, for years, with little pay, on a topic most people don't care about, sign me up!".
Look. I've done both industry and academia. Money is great. I would be happy to get more money in academia. However, working in tech in a crowded cubical farm in a massive company, for years, on a topic most people don't care about, is not so different from academia as we typically believe.
That's not the only way to have a tech career, though. Maybe that's the highest-paying option for most people, but you can also do remote work, work for a small company, work less than full time (if you're good enough) etc. Basically there are ways for regular people to have not-super-stressful tech careers. It doesn't sound like there's a way to do that for PhD's unless you're already independently wealthy.
And I really don't think they were underperformers. I think the industry is just structured so if you stay in one job long enough, trying to avoid stressing yourself out over "moving up", your company goes under.
As a result of this scheme, I'm terribly depressed half the week, the environment in academia is so much worst and so very hostile. I was discussing it with my university colleagues and apparently we're one of the better labs in the country when it comes to team cohesion and work environment so I suspect it's not an isolated problem.
I dread going to my lab, I feel like calling in sick every morning that I have to go there. I get no work done at all during the day I just wait it out until I can get home and start working. The buildings are run-down, the people are non-responsive staring at their screen until lunch which is the only time we get a bit of human contact, people have irregular hours unless they have to teach in which case they're in their class the whole day so I see and talk to no-one for two days. The work-life balance is nonexistent.
My advisor is great but as mentioned in the article, she's the only one who cares about my work on the university's side of things and I barely see her once a month.
Also there's none of the small benefits that you get in a company like free-coffee, food, etc... At my lab we have a water-boiler on the floor, plugged into a socket in a corner of the room.
All in all it may seem like small things but it comes together to make it a terrible environment, and I'd like to think I'm a fairly emotionally resilient person but if i had to spend any more time there I'd quit in a hot second.
The coffee example was the first thing that came to mind but really it's so much more than that. At work we do weekly team meetings, we get regular themed events during national celebrations as well as over the whole year like baking contests, sports competitions, vacation photo contests, ... We get a sense of direction from management, we get a sense of purpose from our work and the whole company is focused on working together on a single goal to release our products, we get to interact with other departments and talk to people with a huge range of skill-sets, we're made to feel our work is valued, etc ...
Obviously there are drawbacks that I won't go into, it's not all rosy, but a lot is done so that work feels like a pleasant part of the employees' life and not a dreadful grind to get through.
Though the environment is weighing on me and I seem to have only negative things to say, I'm very grateful for the opportunities that my university has provided for me, and I love my labmates. I often feel it's a personal failure that I haven't been able to bring over some of my company's positive traits to our lab to spur some life into it, and that someone else might have done better in my place.
Honestly, what kept me afloat were my Chinese and Indian colleagues that pretty much lived in the office but were candid about the experience.
I'm not staying in academia because physics AP's don't make that much compared industry positions (I want a cybertruck :) ).
However, I'm glad I finished, because it's opened quite a few doors in industry to work on cutting edge tech with problems I want to work on.
Writing that paper means making getting funding and that means networking (giving talks, creating/maintaining collaborations), participating in inter/intra department grant writing, managing students to produce the work, etc.
Of course you could write an amazing research paper but more often than not it won't go to an amazing journal unless you have positive connections in the field (-ie potential reviewers and editors).
Papers in good journals -> Easier to get grants.
A major part of the tenure packet is grants and awards.
Teaching is not the top priority.
Professors have to bring in grant money to fund students, build a lab, travel to conferences to advertise the work, etc.
Plus the university gets a little slice of the grant.
I think we can get some of this data by examining mental health after grad school. I know for a fact that my anxiety attacks are all gone since graduating and I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have happened if I'd gone straight to industry instead.
What did you have anxiety over that is so different? I guess in grad school you worry about papers getting accepted/rejected, potentially funding running out, failing to produce interesting research and dropping out, this type of thing right?
In companies you have performance reviews, promotions and layoffs, office politics etc. to worry about.
b. You can switch jobs but you cant effectively jump gradschool. If I want a change of pace another job is always available.
c. Grad school has greatly diminished returns if terminated early. 5 years of PhD work but no thesis defense means you dont have a PhD. Lots of companies you can just leave and they still count towards your experience.
d. Grad students get paid peanuts, you have to worry about finances. Tech jobs pay a ton, I may worry about promotion but I dont worry about going to a restraunt/buying nice things/etc. If I want something most of the times I just buy it.
All of this makes grad school substantially more stressful than a normal job.
In Germany it's not considered grad "school", you're a full time "scientific employee" employed by the state and on a somewhat different plane of bureaucracic existence you're also a "doctoral candidate". The pay gap between academia and industry is also much smaller. It surely exists, but a scientific employee gets about 45k eur gross per year. Straight out of a masters it's typically 55-65k, or if you're really good maybe 75 (roughly) .
And I know people who dropped out and found a job without issues. In whst world does it not count as experience that you've mentored masters and bachelor students, probably took part in industry cooperation, traveled the world for conferences and gave talks, did in-house miscellaneous IT work, like you would at a startup.
It's really hard to compare an American PhD student straight out of bachelor's in medieval philosoohy of religion vs a doctoral candidate after a masters in Germany researching, say, machine learning for energy efficiency.
Grad student ~30k
Assistance professor ~ 100-150k
Distinguished full professor ~ 250k-350k
Industry after masters ~ 100-150k
Industry after PhD ~ 150-300k
Distinguish engineering fellow in industry (physics) >500k
I work at one of the major tech companies. I manage a team and a production system that could cause serious trouble if it went maximally off the rails. I sleep great.
In grad school I had panic attacks. I felt like shit. My self confidence was terrible. And this was despite publishing modestly successfully. In grad school the feedback you get for your work is (as best I can tell) almost entirely random (paper reviews are totally broken). Many people either have a completely absent advisor and no mentorship or a slavedriver who expects you to work insane hours and steals your credit. It does not surprise me even one bit that a huge number of grad students have mental health problems.
The question is whether the person making that decision feels forced into that decision because of the circumstances in their life. I think a lot of people who have issues during their PhD are there because they are under immense pressure -- from their parents, peers, or wallets -- and the life of a grad student can only compound that stress rather than alleviate it by providing some measure of satisfaction.
School sucks. I don't know what the solution to that is. Maybe there isn't one. But I didn't truly realize just how bad it was until I was done with it. I can only assume it's worse when you're in a graduate program, particularly in a field like philosophy where your post-graduation prospects are so low.
Funny you should say that. In grad school, I could predict with reasonable accuracy where I'd be any given day and time, because I kept roughly the same routine every week. It was comforting.
Sure, many PhD students report a high burden of stress, but comparing this to the general population is a poor assumption.
The prerequisites for getting into a PhD program (the least of which is an undergrad degree) already says something about the difference in the population.
I think you could very easily reverse the causation. High stress people tend to seek PhDs rather than PhDs produce high stress people.
And making the comparison to STDs as a health burden is naive. In the populations I’ve studied, the burden of STDs as a health issue falls almost exclusively on those with less education and lower opportunity.
A PhD is a choice made by educated persons, STDs arise out of something that isn’t a choice made by educated persons.
The stresses of grad school exist because the environment is deathly competitive. More people want to think for a living than there are positions to do so.
I’m resolved to the fact that I would never pursue a PhD for the sole fact of getting a tenure track position, but rather because I want to challenge myself. If I do pursue a PhD, I’ll probably be another member of the population reporting elevated stress, but not because I didn’t choose that path. At the same time, I wonder if I won’t be just as stressed to pass on the opportunity.
I believe there's much more to it. I've got a PhD, as does my spouse, my brother, and a couple other relatives. There are three major stress sources to consider:
1. You get nothing until you finish, and there are many things that can knock you off the rails: Your advisor can lose funding. He can lose his job, move to another town, or even up and die on you. You can encounter health or family problems that force you to go on leave, with no safety net or assurance that you can get back into a program. Every day you spend exposes you to a risk that you won't finish and become "the most miserable person in the world: The grad school dropout" to quote Matt Groening.
2. You're working directly for a person who is under little or no supervision, ethical control, etc. Students are at risk of getting overworked, harassed, and bullied by their advisors.
3. You're basically working alone with nobody to motivate you or help you pace your work, and nobody has a vested interest in your progress.
If you want a challenge, climb a mountain. If you want a terrible time, join a PhD program.
I’m not suggesting the situation is your fault for not knowing. But part of my advice to potential grad students is to talk to several current students of the advisor you’re considering. Reasonable advisors will not be offended by this, and if done in an informal off-the-record way (e.g. in person), I think most grad students will be honest about a bad advisor. Or at least impart some feeling for how their experience has been. For example, I personally know of cases where current students explicitly warned against working with an advisor during the admitted phd student visit day.
Not trying to argue that you should have avoided the situation, but I am curious about cases where the talk-to-current-students advice breaks down.
Even if not absolute, there is certainly more choice in pursuing a PhD than getting an STD.
Maybe someone experiences pressure to pursue a PhD (I have to some extent) but the end choice is in their hands, and anyone seriously contemplating a PhD will quickly realize the stress associated with it. Of the couple dozen or so grad students I’ve talked to, they were fascinated by subject matter and decided to pursue it further. Most were well informed of the consequences (stress, job outlook)
Pursuing a PhD signals privilege. Getting an STD does not.
That said, I can respect that you are.
All problems of grad school are caused by a massive oversupply of potential grad students, tens to hundreds of times more than necessary to fill all permanent faculty positions, and the fact that we willingly participate despite long hours, low wages, or, as the author complains, depressing architecture.
As long as this holds, it cannot be stopped by any economic reform or social pressure. It's part of the deal when you sign up.
The "shape" of the funnel will reflect the design choices we make, based on which groups to be "kind" towards, and which groups to be "brutal" towards. I think prevalent mindset is that it's acceptable to be most brutal in grad school admissions, or after granting PhDs -- because then people have a degree to take away and get to leave with a sense of closure, without much sunk cost worry.
The system of each faculty member graduating significantly more than one student is fundamentally unsustainable, and will lead to all kinds of problems. They can only be shuffled around and partially hidden, but never fully solved. It's amazing how many otherwise smart people don't want to understand this.
None of this is an argument against having empathy, but it is an argument against high-minded ideas that are supposed to change things without addressing the root problem, namely the 100:1 oversupply of grad students.
For example, peer review can be brutal, so why not start journals with gentler peer review requirements? Well, those already exist, they're called lower-tier journals. But they haven't relieved the pressure on PhD students one bit, because you can't make a career by publishing only in such journals. So why not just ban top-tier journals? Then competition would instantly shift to drumming up buzz for your papers by some other route, to get citations. Why not ban selection based on citation counts? Competition instantly shifts to indirect avenues, such as recommendation letters from prestigious people or extreme polish in presentations. And so on.
For context, this is a philosophy program!
STEM PhDs have a good enough job outlook that I don’t need to explain it. Humanities like sociology and history can often be parleyed into a career in social work, politics or law. This isn’t always the best career path, but it’s still a good bet for being the most interesting.
But philosophy is unique. It’s supposed to be central; philosophy is that field which justifies itself while work in other fields is demanded by some external force. Philosophy is humanity’s attempt to say things which are not contingent on other things, assuming that’s even possible.
So who could possibly tell a philosophy PhD that they’re on the wrong track? Shouldn’t philosophy, itself, provide that argument? And shouldn’t dealing with the questions of life itself, at the highest level, be at least a little stressful? Wouldn’t it be a little strange if becoming a philosopher follows a generally unremarkable educational trajectory?
4 years doing a physics PhD in the UK, almost all my experiments failed (in the building managers cranked up the heating/air con so the temperature was fluctuating +-5 degrees throughout the day and all carefully aligned optical components couldn't be kept aligned, etc way rather than the expected effect is weak), 30 mins with a supervisor once every other month, only person in group other than supervisor, etc.
Physics is definitely STEM, and I found it horrendous to find a job after graduating. It took in excess to 500 tailored applications and 6 months to get anything at all.
I was only a few weeks away from depending on welfare to avoid homelessness when I finally got an interview.
STEM skills shortage is an outright lie, all I see is an entire order of magnitude oversupply for STEM educated people.
Overall Grad School is an absolutely horrible experience, and I would completely defund public purse support of any university that engages in PhD "research" or "teaching" if it were in my power to do so.
Honestly, six months isn't that long. I've spent that long looking for a job. But I found one. And furthermore, getting a job in physics at all is the whole point of grad school. If that isn't a success condition for you, of course you shouldn't go to grad school. If you want money, be a chemical engineer or write software.
And this doesn't make you look good:
>4 years doing a physics PhD in the UK, almost all my experiments failed (in the building managers cranked up the heating/air con so the temperature was fluctuating +-5 degrees throughout the day and all carefully aligned optical components couldn't be kept aligned, etc way rather than the expected effect is weak), 30 mins with a supervisor once every other month, only person in group other than supervisor, etc.
I've been in two grad programs and had close experience with another three. Grad school is supposed to be self-directed. Unfortunately a lot of students show up with no communication skills and aren't helped in building them. But you can't self-direct without communicating. Especially not in science.
And everything about this paragraph points to a lack of effective and timely communication from your end. No contact with advisor? Advisor is busier than you are. You email first. Building manager stupid? Tell them off. No others in group? Email someone at another university. No response? Try someone else. You sit in a room and work alone, you lose.
Those are all things I wish I had done when I was in a PhD program, of course.
I'd be interested in seeing a survey on how many people currently working on a PhD believe it will lead to a tenure-track job. I'm a PhD student now and I'd be skeptical if it were more than 25% of people in my department, for example. (I myself have no interest in tenure-track jobs.) There does seem to be more demand for the jobs than there are jobs, but I think in the STEM fields I am familiar with, people are more realistic about what types of jobs they are qualified for. It helps that STEM fields have more options than the humanities, for example, too.
Also, my guess would be that many PhD students realize that they won't ever get a research job, and they treat this as their opportunity to do research.
Several Ph.D.'s I know work in jobs largely unrelated to their qualification and interest simply because there aren't many jobs outside of academia that make good direct use of a humanities Ph.D.; some languished for years in adjunct positions before giving up in hopelessness and frustration. Some work as administrators, however - universities seem to value administrators with Ph.D.'s, and at least you get to work at a university and interact with students occasionally. And you can, uh, still teach as an adjunct on the side. Maybe.
The sad truth is that universities (in the US at least) are almost feudal systems, built on the backs of adjuncts (who do the teaching) and grad students (who do the research.) Yet in spite of an absurdly cheap workforce, tuition is incredibly expensive and universities drink money like water.
Of course we're mostly data scientists now, because only 5% win the faculty lottery.
Data science wasn't a path that existed when we started. I wonder if its existence changes what people going into a Physics PhD expect.
This seems like a sad waste of physicists, even if the faculty pyramid scheme is obviously unsustainable. I for one would like to see more actual advances in physics.
Suppose you magically double the number of faculty positions. Within one year all of the new positions could be filled a hundred times over. Now you've back to the exact same scenario, except that now you also have twice as many slots for grad students, too.
/fellow physicist who went into DS
Honestly, the trend I seeing is that weaker students -ie can't find data science or consulting jobs- move on to post-docs.
Although, there are the dedicated few academics that also move on to post-docs as well.
Physics research always involves statistics, cough, 'machine learning' cough so that's how people are selling it these days.
After 5-6 years of making 25k per year and working long hours (which is not bad given the cost-of-living where I was in grad school is low), the salary becomes a very real draw.
Also a median time of 7.5 years for a PhD sounds unlikely... in my field (physics) that's probably more like 90th percentile. Perhaps that length is right for humanities, which do tend to be longer than the sciences, but there are an order of magnitude more STEM PhDs than humanities PhDs and many STEM PhDs are likely shorter than physics.