Getting past the comic stereotype of grad student life


I loved grad school. I have serious nostalgia for grad school. If I could be a grad student forever, that would rock.

In fact, my job as a faculty member is a lot like being a grad student. I do research, I teach, I write grants, I write manuscripts, I work with students less experienced than myself, and I build collaborations.

What about grad school was not awesome? You get to do research on exactly the topic or subsubfield that you chose to work in, you get to hang out with a diverse bunch of smart people with really similar interests, you presumably are traveling to conferences and sharing your work with others, and you have ample opportunity to shape your professional trajectory and identity in the direction you want. Sure, you don’t get paid much, but enough to get by. If you are in grad school later in life, it would cause some anxiety about saving up for retirement, I imagine. But in all, grad school rules.

Of course this might not be true for everyone. There are many kinds of graduate students, with many kinds of attitudes connected to many kinds of experiences. Labs are different, PIs are different, projects are different, and recreational pursuits vary. Some people have a horrible time in grad school. This I understand.

If you read the comics, grad students are pitiable creatures. They’re chronically poor and have no future. I’m not the only one tired of how the media consistently portrays grad school as financially insecure. In the context of the latest media sequester freakout, Joe Hanson agrees.

Humor often relies on stereotypes. In PhD Comics, the caricature of the miserable grad student is the basis of the humor. It’s often funny, and I’m a regular reader. I just hope people don’t buy into this stereotype as a mirror for their own lives, which is a recipe for misery.

The same for Matt Groening.

I realize that, as a fat cat tenured professor, this message might not be welcome to those who are unhappy. I’ll tell you at least this much: if you’re unhappy in grad school, then I don’t imagine you’d be happy as a tenured faculty member either.

15 thoughts on “Getting past the comic stereotype of grad student life

  1. “If I could be a grad student forever, that would rock.”
    I agree! I defend in one month, but if PhDs were better paying I would start a new one right after. It seems like the time you get to spend doing research goes down while the stakes go up as one progresses through an academic career.
    But I have had really great advisors for both my masters and PhD. I imagine you need to have quite a resilient spirit to enjoy grad school if you have a bad one (although what exactly makes an advisor bad is complex and often student dependent).

  2. I look back on grad school pretty fondly now too, but at the time it was damn stressful, and the lack of a definite future was pretty scary. The same can be said for postdocs. Doesn’t everyone recall all of that anxiety?

    Also, I think whether, “I’ll tell you this much: if you’re unhappy in grad school, then I don’t think you’d be happy as a tenured faculty member either.” is true for a person will definitely depend on your situation at either stage, and not necessarily about a lack of fit. For example, I was in a MISERABLE situation as a M.S. student (and we all had to have a resilient spirit to survive that. Fortunately, my PhD experience was wonderful.) Now that I’m a faculty member things are great. I just wouldn’t want anyone to read that passage and think, “Gosh, I’m miserable in grad school, so I guess I’m just not cut out for one of those professor gigs.”

    • If you had a Ph.D. experience as miserable as your MS experience, you probably wouldn’t have ended up in your current gig, right?

  3. What if you are the type of student who assumed that “demonstrating research independence” meant something more expansive at the grad student/postdoc level than what the actual standard turns out to be? In such a situation, person could get really tired of being under the advisor’s thumb, but still see a significant improvement in quality of life on the tenure track or once tenure is achieved.

    Possible exception to the rule? Clearly science is collaborative, so maybe this also relates to advisor/student dynamics.

    • Sure. But then you’re under the thumb of your dean and your chair. Or your own overdemanding students. Someone always owns you. Deans are owned by provosts. Provosts are owned by Presidents. Presidents are owned by the board or the Chancellor. Who are owned by the legislature or their own money.

      Having a crappy boss shouldn’t make you miserable as a person. You can have a bad advisor, but that shouldn’t make grad school experience inherently bad. A bad advisor can definitely make one miserable, of course, but usually that’s with your own permission. If you have crappy advisor, then you need to move on, not be miserable.

      • I enjoyed grad school on the whole but definitely feel less acutely stressed now that I’m on the tenure-track than I did as a grad student. During grad school there was always the possibility (albeit unlikely) that I could wash out and have wasted several years of my life. Now after a post-doc and 2 years on tenure- track, I feel relatively in control of, optimistic about, and that I’m quite enjoying my professional life (which is of course hugely due to being in a supportive department and overall supportive college). I don’t feel owned by administrators although I suppose that could change quickly if somebody decided they didn’t like me or decided not to take into account my preferences on classes to teach, etc.

  4. There’s so much that determines your experience in graduate school (or anywhere else, for that matter). I had a wonderful time in the last lab I was part of as an undergraduate. My labmates were fantastic, I learned many interesting and practical skills, and I got to spend time learning about things that really interested me. I couldn’t wait to be a graduate student myself. I still do believe that graduate school can be wonderful, once I make friends, adjust to living 500 miles from my family and significant other, and figure out what I want to do (both in terms of research/classes and once I finish), as well as figure out how to manage time. I decided to study a subject I was sure I was very interested in and would lead to my dream job, but now that I’m seeing the realities of the work, and being exposed to WAY more ecological/agricultural etc. related subjects than I ever encountered at my undergraduate institution, I am very far from certain that this is what I want to be doing. Personally, I think that if one’s personal life were together, and they were studying something they loved, grad school would be amazing. Without that, it’s rough.

  5. I entirely agree with the joy of grad school (although in Europe we don’t call it that), but in fact e.g. the Simpsons cartoon does not deny that: it shows people who would do anything to pursue a life in science, in spite of low return-on-investment. I see you are trying to counter the general assumption of grad students being miserable, but in fact the way they all cue for a faculty job actually indicates they love what they do. You have a faculty job now, right? :-)

    • You’re right, the Simpsons bit shows the grad students loving what they do. The Simpsons also shows grad students as pathetic creatures, even if they are enjoying themselves. The current PhD comics up now shows the ‘being-a-grad-student-is-annoying’ bit pretty well, as it often does. In the US, if you have a PhD, you aren’t assured of a faculty position (based on the percentages) but you are very likely to have a career in sciences if you plan right. And it’s hard to do that if you focus on how things suck.

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