Sunday, August 03, 2014

Why You Should Never Go to STEM Grad School

From our STEM Advanced Degreed Agent in the Field:

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.

Thanks for being out there.


Beppo Venerdi said...

I had a somewhat experience when I when into a PhD Chemistry program and left with a Masters (no publication though). Here was my warning to people considering STEM grad school:

Doubting Richard said...

When I left university I first worked for a temping agency (is it the same term in the USA? Temporary work) and ended up in an insurance company office for the three months until I got a career job. This was in fact just after I turned down a PhD place in geophysics, mainly because I knew I did not have the dedication required.

The office was a good stop-gap and was full of recent graduates, but the manager, AE, had been there three years and been taken on permanently. AE had a PhD studying liquid crystals, an important and current field in 1995. He had thought it a field that needed research and would lead to a good job. He was the one stuck.

SM777 said...

All of the real/true research goes on in gov. labs. Darpa, NSA, and agencies that no one will acknowledge the existence of. Crony companies like M$ will be allowed to introduce this new technology to the so called marketplace due to their connections to the elite. This idea of universities performing meaningful research should be classified as an implausible "conspiracy theory" or better yet, a con job.

Dan Lavatan said...

I have an MS and I think it is an OK thing to do. If you can complete it in less than two years you will get paid more than equivalent experience and get a tad more respect in today's over- credentialed world. The OP's advisor was an ass, but the solution to that is to select/change to an advisor who is not an ass. It is the same with avoiding bad managers/customers etc.

Also, you are under no obligation to tell a potential employer you have a PhD - it would be impossible for them to prove due to FERPA etc. so you would not be overqualified. I would not advise one to get a PhD in order to go into industry, but some do OK.

RJ said...

I experienced everything that he did. I would add that dealing with professors and administrators is like being in junior high school again. It was unbelievable to me that 50 and 60-year old men were acting like children when the 'good' office became available. And those people are the biggest liars I have ever met in my life.

The Bottom Line: DON'T GO TO GRAD SCHOOL!!!

Tom the Impaler said...

Or grad school in general. All my friends and families experience in grad school has been profoundly negative in one or more ways.

Dave said...

Specialization (n) the process of learning more and more about less and less, until you finally know everything about nothing.

Anonymous said...

In my final year of University I walked up to the Information desk.
Me: "Could you please direct me to the men's room"
Woman: "It's behind you"
Me: "No, that's the men's toilet. You have a Womyn's room, why not a Myn's room?"
Woman: "Men don't need a room".
Me: " OK, where's the Straight room? There's a Queer room..."
Woman: "Straight people don't need a room".
Me: "OK, where's the white room? You've got a room for every race on the planet".
Woman: "We don't need one".
Me: "OK, what about an Atheist room? There's a room for every belief on the planet, and there are heaps of atheists."
Woman: "No".
Me: " So you're saying that, as a straight, white male atheist there are no facilities available for me?"
Woman: "You're in the majority, so you don't need anywhere to go"

I should have asked for a fee reduction as I was clearly getting less services than most other student.

Grey Enlightenment said...

Seems like he did OK. not like he's living under a bridge with insurmountable debts

GregMan said...

I saw all of this 30 years ago when I was a molecular biologist with an MSc. I turned down 3 offers for a free ride PhD because I didn't feel like working 70-80 hour weeks as a postdoc making less that what I was making as a lab rat.

So, like the man said, "there is nothing new under the sun".

Kristophr said...

I majored in computer science and physics.

I blew out of the University without a degree the second I could find work in my field. Back then, they needed talent more than they needed university paper.

Cart before horse. The object of education is to find gainful employment, unless you are trust kiddie, and don't need to work for a living.

JNorth said...

It depends on your degree. There is a lot of variation in STEM. As for Civil and Mechanical Engineering there is little need for a masters, at least until you get some actual work experience. At that point many employers will pay for it while you are working. Unless you want to be a professor (why?) there is not much need to get a phd.

Otis-Ocek said...

I'd say it depends. I have a electrical engineering and environmental engineering background. The EVEN got paid for with tax dollars, and I got to not work that hard another 3 years. I also thought at the time I could use the EE/EVEN to apply to companies that sold pollution control equipment. Anyway, it was not bad.

One thought I've had is that if you do another degree in another field, maybe do a thesis that requires to analyze large datasets with R or some statistical package. Know how to use R and computers well. This knowledge can apply to other sectors other than engineering.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who thinks grad school is not primarily about money and peer-reviewed publications for the major professor is a fool. I had one "rising star" professor at a prominent public university tell me "every publication costs me $75,000 in research funds." Never a mention of the quality, intellect or character of the grad students. If a GS brings in their own funding they get a degree - that saves the prof from having to write a grant proposal. Welcome to the 21st Century. Gotta love those PhDs.

Enjoy the decline.