I just read your book “Bachelor Pad Economics” and discovered your other work; I thought it was great. I’ve done pretty well for myself so far but I still wish I had that book years ago. I would like to share my story about grad school in STEM. Don’t worry, there’s a happy ending – sort of – but I wanted to share my experience with others and invite you to comment.
I grew up in a blue collar family in the mid-west and didn’t have much of money to go to college, so for my undergraduate I went to the satellite campus for a larger university that was about an hour from my parent’s house. I decided to study computer science and I had won some great scholarships that covered the cost of tuition. I did very well in the program and despite not having attended a big name school, I was able to score some paid internships with a large and prestigious tech company. In my senior year I had great grades, more than a year’s work experience in the field, more money in the bank than when I started, and a sunny and idealistic outlook. All of my professors said that I should go to grad school though and so instead of going to work upon graduation I went over to main campus to pursue my master’s degree.
First thing first, never go to grad school just because you are smart and hardworking enough to get in. In grad school you need to focus on a narrow subtopic of your field and do “original research” so that you can publish journal papers that hardly anyone reads and beg the government for grant money. You do this research under an adviser, who is basically a manager. Your adviser provides you with lab space, finds sources of government funding, signs off on your coursework and thesis, tries to micromanage you, and then takes credit for your research despite not knowing the first thing about it. You should start looking for an adviser before picking a grad school to make sure you are actually interested in the research the lab is engaged in. In my case, my adviser sold me on a bill of goods about applying artificial intelligence to medical research being done at a more prestigious university. In reality, he didn’t have a clue what these medical researchers were actually doing, he just had a friend who was doing a postdoc – that’s when you have a PhD but instead of finding a real job you work under a professor doing research – in that lab, and they were willing to accept me as free labor. By the time I realized that I wasn’t going to be working on anything like what had been described to me, it would have been politically difficult to back out because my adviser had already bragged to the dean that he had established a collaborative research project with this other university. Basically, I ended up finding some little niche where I could write computer programs that processed some data that the MDs couldn’t. The work was incredibly tedious at times, and it wasn’t anything like what I had been sold on, but at least I was able to squeeze a thesis out of it and get the hell out of dodge.
My adviser used various forms of manipulation to pressure me to go get a PhD. He even asserted that it wouldn’t overqualify me for any jobs, which I knew for a fact to be utter nonsense. If you have a PhD that focuses on an area that isn’t applicable to the job you’re applying for, most big companies won’t consider you. I decided to find a job with the company I had interned with as an undergrad. When my adviser found out, he added a requirement that I write another paper before he would allow me to defend my thesis. This delayed me by several months, resulted in me spending my last couple of weeks in grad school basically homeless and crashing on other people’s couches, and forced me to spend my last summer before starting work cooped up in a windowless room trying to throw together some nonsense paper.
It’s not to say it was all bad. I actually enjoyed being a teaching assistant. I would routinely get comments from students that I explained the material much better than the professors. I lost something though, and not just the two years of my youth it had taken me to complete the program. The whole thing made me much more bitter and cynical. I got to see how professors really spend most of their time begging for grant money rather than teaching students or doing research themselves. I got to see how a lot of these professors care more about prestige than actually advancing the frontiers of human knowledge. I got to see how universities will spare no expense in building and updating facilities that parents and prospective students see during their campus tour but never seem to have enough money to buy quality equipment for student labs. By chance, I actually got to overhear a conversation about hiring a new faculty member in which the only thing that was discussed was the effects on the department’s diversity rather than the qualifications of the different candidates.
Now that’s all over though, I’m making plenty of money and living comfortably. Yes, I still deal with the typical corporate bullshit and I have to put up with Orwellian pandering to women and minorities. A great example of this is the time when I was struggling to secure approval for necessary business travel while the company was flying women from around the world down to some “women in engineering” event – which from what I could gather consisted of a bunch of ego-stroking talks about how victimized they all are followed by a trip south of the border to party and shoot tequila. It doesn’t help that I’m now living in a liberal namby-pamby state either, but at least there is still the internet where people are willing to talk plain truth. All I need to do now is get to a point where I’m financially independent and finally say “fuck you” to all of this nonsense.