Grad School Needs Its Own Change.gov

Nathan L. Vanderford wrote a bold article in Nature Biotechnology last month. In it, he called out graduate education, saying that the system was broken but fixable. He made some statements that I think most graduate students, especially those from the sciences, can relate to. I know I sure can.

What I found was that graduate school was not impossibly difficult from an intellectual standpoint, but it was painfully hard from an emotional and physical standpoint. I felt as though faculty had the mentality of putting students (and postdocs) though, well, torture—because that’s how they went through graduate school and their postdoctoral fellowship.

And the quote that really spoke to me:

I also found it mentally frustrating that graduate education is narrowly focused on preparing students to eventually become faculty in major universities in which they would be running their own research programs.

There just isn’t enough room for every Ph.D. student to gain a faculty position. What’s more is that a lot of students don’t want faculty positions. I know I don’t.

Vanderford’s main areas of change focused on faculty supporting of alternative career paths, multidisciplinary course work, and active work experience (job work, not lab work).

As some of you (hi, mom) may know, I’m working toward a career in science communication. Although I’ve had to seek out opportunities and resources on my own (including finding a way to fund a trip to the National Association of Science Writers conference last November), my PI has been extremely supportive. When I first told him I wanted to go into science writing, he tried to convince me that academia would provide a better job. And, yes, I’d make more money in academia, but if I was in it for the money I’d have gone to business school. After he realized that my mind wouldn’t be swayed, he gave me a contact at the Materials Research Society (where I sometimes write articles for their website, shameless plug) and he lets me spend time working on my writing goals (as long as I have research results).

I love science. But I don’t love the culture in academia. I don’t love the isolation and the tedium and the ridiculously narrow focus. I want to know everything about science and I want to share that knowledge with others, so I’ve chosen an alternative career path that will let me do just that.

Judging from a poll on Benchfly.com, where the article originally appeared, a whopping 77% of people think graduate education “needs a complete overhaul.” Only 4% say it should stay the same. (The remaining 19% are wishy-washy about it.) I don’t think making the changes that Vanderford proposed would be too hard to implement. Many schools are already focusing on multidisciplinary research and coursework (I took a graduate level engineering course and it counted towards my requirements). I’ve also been told that taking an internship during my education is fully possible—structures are in place to handle a temporary leave—but I was offered no help in obtaining one (and ultimately didn’t). The most difficult change will be removing the mindset that academia is the be-all-end-all of doctoral education. A Ph.D. is no less of a Ph.D. if they choose to go into industry or work for a non-profit or go into science communication or do something else entirely. These academic biases may not so easily be removed, but if they are then graduate education would be infinitely more helpful to achieve what most of us are here for: to get a job.

Lab Group Prejudice

I recently came across an article explaining Henri Tajfel, a social psychologist, work on group mentalities. The experimenters divided people into arbitrary groups then let individuals, without any conversation with the group, decide how money would be split among the two groups. Now realize that the groups were completely meaningless, the participants knew this, no actual money was transferred, and individuals couldn’t choose to give money to themselves. Still, participants showed a bias against the members of the other group by rewarding them with less money. The conclusion reached by the researchers was that group mentality was even stronger than we might think.

So is this group mentality true in labs? As a graduate student, you spend a lot of time in the lab, interacting with the same people everyday. Together, you celebrate when something works and you bemoan when something doesn’t. You share stories of being yelled at by the professor and failing certain graduate requirements (which they always let you redo). The bond between people becomes pretty strong—and so does the group mentality.

In fact, right off the bat when meeting new students we specify our lab group—”Hi. I’m Jenna and I’m in the Locklin lab.” Often followed by questioning their group alliance—”What lab are you in?”

Sure, internally the group mentality is important. In such stressful times it is comforting to know there are people who will be there to help and encourage you. But what about externally comparing two groups. Would you expect much bias?

I am in a prime position to answer this question as a go-between for two different worlds of chemistry: experimentalists and theorists. And believe me, I have heard a lot of bullshit from both sides. Experimentalists bash the theorists for not being able to do “real” chemistry, while the theorists bash the experimentalists for being lab monkey goons that don’t understand the fundamentals. Both sides are fiercely resolute in their opinions. But which side is correct? Are theorists incapable? Are experimentalists goons?

The answer is neither, no, and absolutely not. Remember, both of these sets are made up of highly educated individuals seeking post-secondary education. Everyone here is competent. So why such animosity? What causes the inability to recognize that the other group is smart and talented? Is it the group mentality of “we’re better than you”? Do we actually need to compare the two and say one is better? I think not. Comparisons, in my opinion, only invite opposition. In a comparison, something is the best, something is the worst, and something else comes in second. No one wants to see themselves as the worst, and many people have trouble being second—especially when you dedicate your entire life (and sanity) to something.

If the group mentality can’t completely be stopped, which is pretty damn likely considering all of the psychological research which points to an insuppressible group mentality, we can at least stop the comparison. Let’s maintain all the benefits of a close-knit group, without judging ourselves against others. Then, maybe, we can all get along.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Working for two professors is hard, especially when they have different opinions. I end up being the liaison with the general feeling that both blame me for the other’s resistance  It doesn’t help throwing two more graduate students in the mix, both on the same side and very against the other. Somehow I’m expected to remain politic and get along with everyone, but I’m not sure how to stand up and take a side. I’ve thought about what (to me) is the right option, and I’ve tried to express it in a courteous way, but every time I’m shut down by both sides.

This argument has dragged on for months. One side gave in out of sheer exasperation, and the side that won doesn’t even believe in the project. (Guess which side I took.) I suppose this is a lesson in teamwork that everyone learns eventually, but it’s not a fun one. It’s just wasted effort.

Is graduate education changing?

An American Chemical Society report commissioned by the society’s president Bassam Z. Shakhashiri–who gives an annual lecture entitled “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri”–calls for an overhaul of graduate education. The main focus rests on increasing opportunities in the dismal job market, but the report also suggests ideas on improving the graduate experience by updating safety protocols, reducing graduate habitation, and treating postdocturals as professionals. (It hadn’t occurred to me until now how poorly post-docs are treated–made to work all hours at the whim of a capricious boss who has the same educational qualifications, but gets paid considerably more and works considerably less.)

Chemistry graduate school seems to have it worse off than other graduate programs. The average time a chemistry student spends in grad school is 5 years compared to the 3 or 4 years of other programs. And 5 is just the average! We all know plenty of 6th year students and maybe one or two 7th year students. Leisure time is spoken of in hushed tones lest the boss hears a conversation not concerning work and finds out–gasp!–that you actively participate in a hobby. Why spend time doing something you love when you could be working! All social activities get pushed to the wayside, and most of my fellow students know no one outside of chemistry graduate students–myself included. Dating outside of the department is unheard of and most students are either married or single and not looking. We toil through hard, time-consuming research for barely enough to scrape by–I make $22,000 a year before taxes and school fees, I end up taking home about $1,400 a month. We do this with the hope of graduating  with a well-paying job at hand, which is increasingly a fantasy.

It’s no secret that every graduate students thinks about quitting at least once–who am I kidding? It’ more like once aweek. Would the stresses of graduate school be alleviated by more pleasant bosses and less slave-like labor? I think so. I’m a firm believer that stress hinders learning (and productivity). Yes, science takes time. But does it take fourteen hour days, six days a week? I’m not sure of ACS’s plans for the overhaul–one professor suggests doubling the salary and halving the students–but I am ready for it.