Wednesday, July 6, 2016

okay, this isn't original content neither

This is a good article in the Atlantic on why grad students don't finish:

Conclusion: maybe the grad students weren't crazy to begin with. Maybe their grad programs drove them insane.

Duh. Ya think?

- Mildred from Medicine Hat


  1. Grad school is certainly a high-stress environment, so I suppose one could argue that it has the potential to tip people who already have some vulnerability to mental illness over the edge into harder-to-ignore expressions of same. But I'm not convinced that mental illness is any more common among grad students than the general population. However, as with traditional-age college students, grad students in their mid-20s are at an age when many people who do have chronic mental illness of one kind or another are often being diagnosed, and/or are still in the process of figuring out how best to cope with their symptoms.

    All of the above said, I can't help wondering whether attrition has something to do with grad students looking around, noticing how things are going not only for their professors, but also for grad students a few years ahead of them, contingent faculty, etc., and making an extremely rational decision that continuing to pursue a Ph.D. isn't really all that smart a thing to do.

    One could almost wonder whether there's a bit of displacement and/or denial going on when faculty attribute grad students' leaving to mental illness. Who, exactly, has lost touch with reality?

    1. Long-time reader. I'm not an academic, but a lawyer who dropped out of a (very good) English Ph.d program a long time ago (think 1990s). I had excelled as an undergrad, and had always thought I would become a professor (of course, not having any idea of what that really meant).

      I spent two years in the program before dropping out. While I did read a few interesting things, I spent most of that time looking around and thinking, why would anyone want to do this? When I listened to the faculty talk about their research, it always sounded hopelessly esoteric and up-one's-own-ass, and most of them didn't seem particularly excited by it. The other students were clique-y in a way that was very much like high school. I had a lot of trouble coming to terms with how much the thing I had always wanted to do actually sucked. I was isolated, socially, and I became depressed (stopped doing my schoolwork, stopped going to class, barely dragged myself through teaching a couple of sections of comp as a TA). I never found anyone who was doing anything that I wanted to do myself. Finally, someone actually said out loud that this very good program had a job placement rate of 50%, after three years of looking. I thought about that for a while, and then just quit. (I'm sure it's worse now.)

      In retrospect, those two years were pretty terrible, and I was very, very happy when I realized that I didn't have to do it any more.

      Which is just to say that it wasn't for me. I'm sure it is for someone. But I can't be the only one who had that experience. I will say that I went to grad school, attended for two years, and subsequently quit, without ever having spoken to a faculty member about whether it was something I ought to do, or how I was doing, or whether I could do something to improve. This was my failing, of course, but no one employed by the department or the school ever inquired as to my well-being or my progress -- if I had an adviser in those early years, I honestly can't recall who that person was or if I ever met with him or her. I was just there, all by myself.

      (I'll also say that I had a similar miserable experience with my first couple of jobs after law school, so maybe I'm just a misfit. The difference was that I made a lot of money at those jobs. I eventually found work that is relatively tolerable and pays about 100K/year, which is low in my specialty.)

      If anyone asks me, which they generally don't, I advise them not to pursue advanced degrees unless they can articulate a reason that it will help them in their life or career. If not, just get a job and make money and follow your bliss or whatever on the weekend.

      Anyway, love the blog. Reddit sucks.

      The King of Seeking

    2. King,

      Sounds like you did the right thing getting out when you did, but the part I most applaud is this

      > If anyone asks me, which they generally don't, I advise them not to pursue advanced degrees unless they can articulate a reason that it will help them in their life or career.

      The major I teach is generally filled with a mixture of driven achievers on their way to lucrative technology jobs and really smart slackers with a lot of curiosity but no idea what they want to do with their lives. Naturally those in the latter group often hit on grad school as a way to avoid having to face the world for a few more years, and I tell them something very similar. The opportunity cost is just too high to do it without a well articulated reason.

      I enjoyed grad school, had a good group of friends there, stuck it out, did the post docs and got a teaching position at a directional state school. Which is not the job I thought I was going to get, but which I like fairly well. But I make barely enough to put me above the national median, which I hold up as an example of the opportunity costs.

  2. I'm having, I've been told by the very handsome man I love, that I am having a midlife crisis. I absolutely love being a professor, even with the frustrations, and I can't imagine doing anything else. But I keep looking at how much I (don't) get paid, and how much nonsense I must do to earn that paycheck, and I keep wondering if maybe I should have chosen something else. Still. Whatever. I could never do 9-to-5 wear-a-tie, and at least I've found a way to make my actual interests into my research. So really I'm lucky; just wish I was rich, too.

  3. I have to say that doing a Ph.D. in Big Hamster Science (tm) I had a lot more peer support than the article describes. I mean, we tore into each other's work when it needed it, but much more often we were helping those around us: be it with house-moving support, tech support, extra hands for crunch time on getting your subsystem up to speed, which text or paper to read if you need to know about X and so on. We were, after all collaborators on the Great Big Project and for it to be successful everyone's task had to be done and done well. The collaboration itself gave you a group of peers with a shared interest. Somewhere in that gaggle you'd find a few at about your stage who you got along with.

    Of course there was still a lot of stress. Hell, the place was a pressure cooker. The clock was ticking; the pay wasn't really enough so financial crises came up all to regularly; someone needs to fill the night shifts when the experiment is running and you're the lowest ranked person who might be trusted to be shift leader; and so on. There was some depression and anxiety about (might have been diagnosable myself, but the student health center was six states away from my data...) and who can tell if the obsessive guy in the next cubical is really as paranoid as he sounds from the outside? Certainly, some of the coping mechanisms on display were pretty bizarre.

    So I have these mixed feelings where the breathless scaling of intellectual heights rubs elbows with a crushing worry that my funding would disappear before I finished and it all stews in a roiling social broth.

  4. I don't think it matters if this isn't original content. One of the reasons I've always like CM was that it saves me from having to read the Crampicle, and many other publications that often make me feel the bile rising.

    1. Has anyone considered the possibility that many grad students who drop out do so because they are sane? They now know about the horrible job prospects, see what exactly goes on in academia, find out how this can drag on year after year, and realize that no one in their right mind should put up with this---and could make a lot more money doing just about anything.

      Ever hear of the concept of calling in "well" to work? It's saying, "I've been sick since before I started this job, but now I'm well, so I won't be coming in anymore." (Yes, I've read Tom Robbins, don't look so surprised.)

      The opposite end of the spectrum is the perpetual grad student. It's a pathological attachment to the grad student lifestyle, and budget. It's more common in math departments, since these people can make a living teaching elementary calculus to engineers, the sort of mathematics that real mathematicians turn their noses up at. And so they muddle along, year after year: I knew a case who'd spent at least 25 years doing this. I tell my students that being a perpetual grad student is a career path you do NOT want to follow: there's not much of a pension plan.

  5. I'm happy to say that all of my friends who left before the PhD (usually with an MA) made sound and reasonable choices that gave them happy and fulfilling lives.
    And, may they be praised, take me out to nice dinners at places I could never afford!
    For most of them, their jobs are no more nurturing than grad school was, and, for most of them, the pressure is just as high, but the rewards, both financial and psychological, are much higher. And my friends and I were all in grad school 20-25 years ago; are we sure attrition of PhD students is a new problem?

    1. My thoughts run the same way (especially in light of King's post above). Maybe grad programs ought to consider attrition a natural part of the process, a sign that the faculty are actually doing a good job of advising/mentoring?

      I'd say the real problem (and I fit this description for some time) are people stuck in limbo, having difficulty finishing for a variety of reasons, but partially because they dimly realize that the outcome they envisioned doesn't fit the reality of many good and competent people around them. Cognitive dissonance/denial can be a powerful paralyzing force. It seems to me that those who wake up from it sooner rather than later, and act accordingly, may well be the sane(r) ones.