Thoughts on Grad School

For some background, there is no way I would have known in college that I would not have wanted to apply for postdocs after my PhD. My career plan then was to go through grad school, be successful, and someday end up a professor. During my Masters' degree I realized that this may not be the life I wanted. My advisers at the time (who were married to each other) would routinely be at the institute until 8 or 9 in the evening and would come in early in the morning. I often wondered if they discussed much else than physics at home. During my PhD, I also observed my advisers working long hours and working on weekends and holidays. Once my adviser even told me that anyone I (a physicist) dated should expect for me to be unavailable on weekends and holidays when there was important physics to do. Still, I was in too deep at this point so I determined the minimal amount of work I needed to get a PhD and completed that. Now that I have a job as a data scientist, the benefits of my PhD seem to be the people I met and the connections I made (which did help me get the job), but the actual knowledge I gained during the degree has been mostly useless. Looking back, I'm reminded of some of the major issues with UC Berkeley and academia and have outlined them here.

Academia takes advantage of people
For some reason, during grad school you are expected to volunteer your time, with no pay or credit. This is especially apparent during the summer when my contract said I was supposed to work 19 hours/week, but my adviser expected me to come in 40+ hours/week. What also shocked me is when I told fellow grad students about this issue, they were not even aware they were only supposed to be working half time. Further, if an adviser does not have funding and the student teaches during summer to cover costs, the student has no obligation to do research during that summer, but this isn't communicated to the student. These facts are rarely spelled out. The sad thing is, this doesn't end with grad school. I know post-docs (at my institution and others) who have told me that their contracts say they should work around 40 hours/week, but are routinely actually expected to work 50-60 hours/week.

My last semester in grad school I was not enrolled in classes, not getting paid for research and was just working on my thesis. Hence, there was no obligation for me to do anything that was not for my benefit. Still, my advisers tried to guilt me into coming into the office often (with threats of not signing my thesis) and to continue doing work. It still bothers me I paid the university (for full disclosure, I made plenty of money during a summer internship to cover these costs) for the "opportunity" to work for the research group for that semester.

When research is done for course credit, the lines are blurred a bit. The time spent on the "course" is not necessarily fixed. I would think that if it is a "course," then research obligations related to the course should start when the semester starts and end when the semester ends. Certainly the "course" should not require a student to attend a meeting on a university holiday or weekend (which happened to me during grad school). Most universities have standards and expect professors teaching courses to be available for their students. Some graduate students I know talk to their advisors a couple of times a semester which I would think hardly respects these standards. This has also led me to question what can and cannot be asked of a student in a course. For example, if there were a "course" in T-shirt making that made students work in sweat-shop like conditions to get a grade in a class, would this be legal? While not a tangible product, research for credit is a somewhat similar scenario where the students are producing papers that will ultimately benefit the professor's fame (and a small chance of benefiting the student).

Another issue is that, as budgets get tighter, expenses get passed off to students. During my time at Berkeley, keeping pens and paper in a storeroom was deemed too expensive. The department suggested each research group make their own purchases of these items through the purchasing website. Not only is this a waste of graduate student's time, the website was so terrible that often it was easier just to buy items and not get reimbursed for them. Most research is done on student's personal laptops, and while a necessity to continue work, rarely is their support from the university to make this purchase or pay for maintenance when it is used for research work. There is no IT staff, so again it falls on students and post-docs to waste their time dealing with network issues and computer outages rather than focusing on the work that is actually interesting.

Academia tries to ignore that most of its graduate students will not go into academia
I apparently have a roughly 50% chance of "making it" as a professor, which is mostly because I attended a good institution and published in a journal with a high impact factor. PhD exit surveys have found similar rates for the fraction of students that stay in academia. Yet, the general expectation in academia is that all of the students will go on to do a research-focused career (I know some professors who look down upon a teaching-focused career as well even though this is still technically academia).

Even after making it extremely clear to my adviser that I had no intentions of pursuing a postdoc, he told me that I should think about applying. He went so far as to say data science (my chosen profession) was a fad and would probably die out in a few years. Once during his class he seemed quite proud of the fact that between industry and academic jobs, most of his students had wound up staying in physics. While my adviser wasn't too unhappy about me taking courses unrelated to research, many advisers will strongly encourage their students to focus on research and not take classes. This is terrible advice, considering useful skills in computer science and math are often crucial to get jobs outside of academia.

The physics curriculum, in general, is flawed. At no point in a typical undergraduate/graduate curriculum are there courses on asymptotic analysis, algorithms, numerical methods, or rigorous statistics, which are all useful both inside and outside of physics. Often these are assumed known or trivial, yet this gives physicists a poor foundation and can lead to problems when working on relevant problems. I took classes on all of these topics, though they were optional, and they are proving to be more useful to me than most of the physics courses I took or even research I conducted as a graduate student.

This is a problem at the institutional level as well. For physics graduate students at UC Berkeley, the qualifying exam is set up to test students on topics of the student's choosing. I chose numerical methods and statistics as my main topic, but my committee asked me no questions on numerical methods and statistics (to be fair, one member tried but he didn't know what to ask, but then again, he could have prepared something to ask since the topics are announced months before the exam). Instead my committee asked me general plasma physics and quantum mechanics questions which were not topics I had chosen. I failed to answer those questions (and have even less ability to answer it now), but somehow still passed the exam. This convinced me that the exam was nothing more than a formality, yet no one was willing to make changes to make the exam more useful. An easy change would to frame the oral exam as interview practice, as most graduate students have no experience with interviews.

There are many student-led efforts to try to make transitioning into a non-academic job easier at UC Berkeley. But the issue is, for the most part they are student-led and have little faculty support. I was very involved in these groups and it was quite clear that my adviser did not want me to be involved. Considering that involvement is why I have a job right now, I would say I made the right choice.

Your adviser has a lot of power over you
As I alluded to before, even though I was receiving no money or course credit from my research group in my last semester, my advisers threatened to not sign my thesis unless I completed various research tasks (some unrelated to the actual thesis). I've talked to others that have had similar experiences, and I hate to say I'm confident that this extends beyond research tasks in some research groups. This could be solved by making the thesis review process anonymous and have the advisers take no part in it, but there seems to be no efforts to make this happen.

Another fault is that advisers can get rid of students on a whim. I've known people who have sunk three years into a research group only to be told that they cannot continue. Then, the student has to make a decision to start from zero and spend a ridiculous amount of their life in grad school or leave without a degree making the three years in the research group irrelevant. Because of this power, professors can make their students work long hours and come in on weekends and holidays. If the student does not oblige, the time the student has already put into the research group is just wasted time.

It doesn't help that research advisers are usually also respected members of their research area. That is, if a student decides to stay in academia (particularly in the same research area as grad school), the word of their adviser could make or break their career. This again gives opportunity for advisers to request favors from students.

Further, the university has every motive to protect professors, especially those with tenure, but not graduate students. This became embarrassingly clear, for example, in how the university handle Geoff Marcy before Buzzfeed got a hold of the news. If professors can ignore rules set by the University (and sometimes laws) with little repercussion, there is little faith graduate students can have that new rules the university instates to any of the problems mentioned here will be followed. I don't want to belittle the (mostly student-led) efforts to make sexual harassment less of a problem at UC Berkeley, but ultimately the only change I can pinpoint is that there is now more sexual harassment training, which has been shown by research at UC Berkeley to lead to more sexual harassment incidents.

Ultimately, graduate school and a career in academia certainly works for some people. Some people are passionate about science and love working on their problems, even if that means making a few sacrifices. Progression of science is a noble, necessary goal, and I am glad there are people out there to make it happen. My hope is that many of the problems mentioned here can be rectified so that the experience for those people and also the people who realize that academia isn't for them can succeed on a different path.