Is Grad School Really a Stupid, Stupid Decision?

This book seemed like a good read. Turns out, it wasn't. Credit:

Hello JAEP readers! I have to apologize for things being pretty quiet around here recently. I, and my co-pusher Glen, will be picking up the pace again with electron pusher goodness in the weeks to come. But to start, I wanted to let you all know about a book I recently finished. The title caught my eye, so I had to check it out: Surviving Your Stupid Stupid Decision to go to Grad School, by Adam Ruben (PhD!). In a nutshell, this book is not worth your time. If you want to know more, keep reading! I can summarize each chapter in a single sentence and spare you from having to read the entire book yourself. Chapter One walks the reader through the decision process: Do you want to ruin your life? If so, go to grad school. Chapter Two explains how to choose the right grad program. There are tradeoffs based on geographic location, cost of living, academic rank, but no matter what you choose it will be a bad decision. Chapter Three is all about grad student life: You will live in squalor with no time to sleep or tend to personal hygiene, and will need to depend on the free seminar donuts for daily sustenance. Chapter Four gives you awful advice on how to fudge your way through your research: Tips for choosing an adviser, writing grants, and how to cherry-pick your data to look more impressive than it actually is. Really, are you really turning data fabrication into a laughing matter in light of recent research scandals??

In grad school, you will become an expert at spotting free food, like the donuts at seminars. Photo credit: flickr use sgstarling.

Chapter Five is about how to deal with undergrads: the common undergrad stereotypes, how to handle liars, cheaters, and plagiarizers. Chapter Six is about non-PhD grad programs: If you go into law, medicine or business, you will pay more but also make more than a science PhD, and also make your Jewish or Asian mom proud. And finally, chapter Seven is all about how to defend, deposit and “get the #@%$ out of grad school,” including tips on how to make your thesis longer without adding content, and making the choice between the miserable tenure-track life and “the dark side” of industry. Come on, no mention of non-traditional career paths? Have you never heard of this blog?? The book is meant to be funny. The author, after all, is a PhD-molecular-biologist-turned-stand-up-comedian, who is also into writing, storytelling, and has a day job as a scientist. But I did not find it very funny, frankly. Maybe I would’ve found it more funny if I was into encountering the f-bomb every few pages and reading crass jokes that reference female body parts and compare the lab to a brothel. Seriously? I simply wasn’t a fan. One more thing—the tone of this book is just so whiny.
I’m a poor, poor grad student. My life is miserable, I hardly make enough money to buy ramen, I have no time to even shower, waa, waa, waa…
The easiest thing to do as a grad student is complain about being a grad student. That gets old after a while. Perhaps it’s because I have survived grad school and don’t think that it was a stupid, stupid decision at all. One thing’s for sure—if you’re actually looking for real, practical advice about grad school, you won’t find it in this book. So, don’t read it. And if you’re not looking for practical advice and are just so curious you have to read it-- okay fine, give it a shot, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. So what can you expect to see in upcoming weeks on JAEP? Well, we’ve got several profile posts on chemists with nontraditional careers in the pipeline, including the fields of chemometrics, medical sales and government. Also, Glen will be bringing us an update about life as a commuter chemist, and all the challenges that come along with that. Stay tuned! Update, 6/22/2012, 6:30 pm: A friend of mine just gave me a great idea-- I'll be preparing a post on books that are actually helpful for navigating your way through grad school. Post a comment below if you have a suggestion for a book that should be included in this follow-up post!

Author: Christine Herman

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  1. I could see going to grad school with a degree that isn’t useful would be a big waste of time and money. I wonder what caused the author to sound so whiny, since they are supposed to be a comedian.

  2. I guess Jason Altom was a whiny grad student too. Leave it to the ACS to come out with a defense of this broken system!

  3. @Phil: I agree– there is a lot that is broken about the system, and this is a complex issue. Some advisers exploit their students, and there are no repercussions or penalties for the abuse. Sometimes it’s even rewarded. This just isn’t right. What do you think needs to be done to fix this?

    I just didn’t enjoy the style of the humor in this book and didn’t find it worth my time. I personally have found grad school to be a rewarding experience, but I also was fortunate enough to have a good adviser. I know many, if not most, people who have survived (or not survived) grad school can’t say the same, and that is really sad.

    Also, the views expressed here are my own and do no necessarily reflect the position of the American Chemical Society.

  4. Maybe hiring some ex-industry folks as professors would help change the culture, or having an HR department with teeth. As much as I dislike HR folks in industry, they do perform a valuable function of keeping bosses from going over the line, like cursing someone out (which at least one PI at my graduate alma mater was known to do). In industry, this sort of thing usually gets nipped in the bud before it rises to a Corey-Altom-like situation, and there are plenty of ways to correct someone’s behavior short of outright dismissal (either abusive bosses or underperforming subordinates). In academia, not much can happen to a tenured professor unless he/she does something truly outlandish, so abusive behavior is allowed to continue and worsen.

    You probably wondered why Ruben didn’t just quit if he was so miserable, but it isn’t as easy as it looks. I was miserable for a long time before I quit with a master’s because I didn’t want to face people back home and admit that I quit. Suicide seemed like an honorable way out, and it scares the hell out of me today to think of how close I came.

  5. Graduate school can be a very good or a very bad decision, depending on exactly what you want to do. If it doesn’t get you where YOU want to go, it isn’t worth it. I got a lot out of grad school, with a so-so adviser. I did see people abused and exploited (not by him) The system often seems more designed for the professors than for the students. Choose your program well!

  6. Two books you might consider reviewing are: “A Ph.D. is not enough” by Peter J. Feibelman, and “How to get a Ph.D.” by Estelle Philips (the latter covers the British Ph.D. system, but is probably relevant to the U.S. as well). I discovered these books after completing my Ph.D., and wish I had read them whilst I was still a graduate student.
    Another book that looks promising is “The smart way to do your Ph.D.” by Dora Farkas. It’s based on interviews with 100 graduates. There are plenty of other suggestions available on Amazon, but these three would be my choice.

  7. @Phil: Thanks for sharing about your experiences. Your ideas about bringing people in from industry are interesting. I agree– I’ve seen grad students get treated in a way that would NEVER be tolerated in a “real” working environment.

    @David: Totally agree. Lots of incoming grad students say they came to grad school because they weren’t sure what else to do, and their undergrad research advisers recommended grad school. This is my story too. But now I tell undergrads that grad school’s not for everyone, and they should really think about what their goals are for coming before signing up.

  8. @Mark: Thanks for the book recommendations– I will definitely check them out!