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Credit: Hal Mayforth

The Audacity of Graduate School

Sometimes my wife asks me whether I’m glad I chose to go to grad school. This is, of course, a trick question, since grad school is where we met. Accordingly, I know that the correct answer is yes, I’m thrilled that I went to grad school and I’d do it again in a second. I wouldn’t change a thing, and incidentally, no, I don’t mind that you ate all of the Ben & Jerry’s that we just bought.

But romantic serendipity aside, am I glad I went to grad school? Evidently not completely, because when I graduated I wrote a book called Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School. (Incidentally, every publisher but Random House rejected the book on the grounds that—seriously—you can’t sell a book that targets a demographic without money.)

Also, Belgium is the land of chocolate and beer.

Ever since the book was published I’ve been traveling to various graduate schools around the country talking about how to endure the low points of higher education. And I’ve had the same feeling at every university I’ve visited.

Wow, I’ve thought. These grad students are very grad student-y.

Know what I mean? There’s something universal about the graduate school experience, something inherent in the type of person who chooses to enroll in this quasi-extension of college, quasi-delayed beginning of Real Life, quasi-job whose hours are undefined beyond being modified by the word “many.”

The commonality of graduate students first struck me at Tufts University. “Have you eaten yet?” asked one of my graduate student hosts before the talk. I replied that I hadn’t. “Good,” she said. “There’s some kind of event downstairs, and we were thinking of sneaking in and taking food.”

Then, this month, I spoke at the VIBes in Biosciences conference in Ghent, Belgium. When a grad student met me at my hotel, I asked if he knew where to find the hotel breakfast. “Sure,” he said. “It’s around the corner here. I steal food from them all the time.”

Thus I conclude from two data points (enough for a straight line! R2 = 1!) that grad students around the world love to steal food.

There’s another quality grad students seem to share, and it’s not a great one. (Stealing food is a great one.) It’s the tendency to be pitiable, and that’s weird.

Somehow there’s a general sense that grad students are wasting time doing something they’re too old for: Marge Simpson famously said that grad students made “a terrible life choice” (this from a woman who thinks potatoes are “neat”). The overworked grad student seems to embody the most pointless aspects of academia.

This reputation is prevalent not just among the general public. Even on campuses, grad students are the butt of jokes. I had a professor who used to begin class by reading his favorite sections from the undergraduate newspaper, and one day he laughed at a headline about a grad student who’d blown himself up in the chemistry lab. The undergrads in the class laughed, too—a grad student blew himself up!—but I thought, uh, I know that guy. He’s in my friend’s lab. Now he’s in the hospital. That’s not funny.

What other profession would evoke that kind of response? Can you imagine students laughing about a scuba diver who drowned or a bus driver who crashed? Somehow, by choosing to stick around campus for a while, we’ve proven ourselves to be idiots.

When politicians brag about America’s intellectual capital, many of the people they’re talking about attended graduate school. See the contradiction? Advanced degree recipients invent the technologies we rely on, develop the products we’re known for, and are generally highly regarded. Somehow, though, the path to Great Things winds through buffoonery. At your high school reunion, having a Ph.D. means you’re smart. Being in the process of working toward your Ph.D. only earns you condolences, especially when your classmates catch you stuffing dinner rolls into your pockets.

At the conference in Belgium, I delighted in how much grad students around the world have in common. At first. Then, when I started telling a story about spending my postbaccalaureate years living in a sewage-filled basement (it was cheap!), I sensed that the European students couldn’t relate.

In America, Ph.D. students are often seen as fools. They work long hours for tiny stipends, serve as cheap labor for their advisers, and sometimes can’t even tell you—within a standard deviation of years—when they anticipate graduating. Their significant others grow impatient and doubtful as the time ticks by, and they all gaze with fear and dread at the classmate who started the program during the Clinton Administration yet seems to have accomplished nothing worthwhile. (Like the Bush Administration. Zing!) And for what? To land a job that, as many sources have reported recently, is not likely to exist.

In Belgium, apparently, there’s no pity for Ph.D. students because there’s nothing to pity. A Ph.D. student there is accorded the reverence of any intelligent worker. Ph.D. programs are 3 or 4 years long—and oh, the stipends! Nearly every student I talked to cited a figure of €2000 a month, which is about $31,000 a year. That may not sound spectacular (though depending on your graduate program, it may), but Ph.D. stipends are tax-free in Belgium, thus dodging what would otherwise be a tax rate of about 50%, which puts Ph.D. programs on par with jobs paying $62,000 a year. In America, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, such jobs include mail superintendent, insurance sales agent, theatrical makeup artist, or two postdoctoral fellows working simultaneously, possibly inside a hilariously oversized trench coat.

Also, Belgium is the land of chocolate and beer.

So—and I don’t mean this to sound flippant—why does anyone in America go to grad school? I know that question rang in my head throughout the seventh year of my Ph.D. program. I had spent my fifth year telling everyone I’d surely graduate within 6 months. I’d spent my sixth year saying I just had 3 months left. I spent the seventh year telling everyone to shut the hell up.

But the more grad students I meet, the more I understand something about the kind of people grad school attracts. Students who hear my book title ask why I hated grad school, and the fact is that I didn’t. I had fun in grad school, I learned a lot, and I met a lot of great people, including one wife. Yes, there are aspects of grad school that could be improved (I dreamed of living in a basement without sewage), but despite the obvious downsides, many people go to grad school because that’s the kind of people they are. Grad student-y.

The trade-off for a pitiable existence is that you get to research the subject you love, alongside others who feel the same way, and often that’s enough. You complain, “Ugh, I spent 15 hours in the lab yesterday,” but part of your brain says, “Yes, I spent 15 hours in the lab yesterday!” You complain that no one understands what you’re working on, but inside, you gleefully think, “No one understands what I’m working on!”

In the documentary Comedian, Jerry Seinfeld tells a great story about the Glenn Miller Orchestra. After their plane is forced to land in a field, they trudge through snow to a gig, cold and miserable and carrying heavy musical instruments. Then they see a farmhouse, inside which is a happy, cozy, Norman Rockwellesque family enjoying dinner. One musician turns to another and asks, “How do people live like that?”

That’s the grad student mentality. I watched my friends, just out of college, getting jobs in the corporate sector. While I was stealing pizza from seminars and running an isothermal titration calorimeter, they were talking about “maximizing outflow” during “breakout sessions.” Then, at 5:00 p.m., they all stood up and went to strange places: their houses. How do people live like that?

Let’s not get complacent about the things that need fixing. Grad students need higher stipends, clearer ending dates, the collective bargaining power that comes from unionization, and bigger pockets to accommodate more dinner rolls. Most of all, they need better job prospects once they’re done. But even if I hadn’t met my wife, am I glad I went to grad school? Yes.

Or maybe that’s the other postdoctoral fellow in this trench coat talking.

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