Don’t go to grad school! and other fairy tales


The fitness of organisms is measured by their reproduction. Successful scientists make more scientists. Successful professors make more professors, so the story goes.

With some folks, honoring a successful academic pedigree is almost a fetish. And it’s not just something that happens at research institutions, For those of us at teaching-focused institutions, sending students on to PhD programs is a source of pride, and often seen as a sign of successful mentorship.

On a day to day basis working with students, there are two huge facts that overshadow my mentoring relationships:

The first fact is that faculty positions are hard to get. Even if you’re very good, there is a huge amount of luck involved in grabbing the brass ring. Many PhD students and postdocs recommend that undergraduate professors not encourage their students to go to graduate school, because of the state of the academic job market. (Of course, there is no PhD problem, there is just an attitude problem.)

The second fact is that, in the United States, blacks and Latinos are scarce in ecology, and in science as a whole. We really do need to increase the representation of these groups in science. That means we need to send more of these students to grad school. This isn’t just an equity problem, it’s also a crisis for the future of scientific enterprise in the country.

My university student body is 90% minority, according to our newly invested president, if such a thing is mathematically possible. If anybody is in a position to “change the face of biology” as one friend of mine put it, then I’m in that place.

This could be seen as a dilemma: If I am trying to help out the field of ecology by diversifying it, I need to send as many of my talented students as possible to grad school. However, because job prospects in academia are so dim, then I’d be sabotaging the success of my students if I send them to grad school!


Cross-section of a not-double-edged sword.

I don’t buy into that dilemma. I think what is good collectively for diversity in science also is good for the students of mine who do go on to earn their PhDs. This sword only has one edge, which I realize is not necessarily a common sword. (A katana, I just learned, has only a single edge, as you can see.

I take money from the federal government with the promise that I’ll be a part of the pipeline to grad school. Consequently, I provide cool research opportunities to students and if they want to go to grad school, I think that’s great. But I don’t steer them in that direction, even though I provide a rental car for free.

I’ve been told that I’m doing a bad thing to my students by sending them off to grad school. I’m just tuning those voices out. Because those voices don’t know me, they don’t know my students, and they don’t know what the alternatives are for my students. For every one of my students who has passed through my lab and gone to grad school, I have a high degree of confidence that they are, or will be, better off for having received a PhD. I can understand how in the humanities, going into debt to get a PhD is a silly or stupid proposition. But some of my former students earning their PhDs are making more money from their relatively small graduate stipend than many members of their families are earning by working full-time back home. They aren’t taking out student loans, and they are getting experience with research, teaching, writing and problem-solving that will be useful in a great variety of possible jobs.

Most important for their career prospects, my students are building a social network that will help them find employment after receiving their PhDs. They will have developed practice hobnobbing with people from wealthier social classes. Even if they didn’t have a friggin’ PhD, they still have spent years in a professional milieu which otherwise would have been inaccessible. Of course they have to know that the odds of getting a tenure-track position are small, and they need to have an open mind with respect to their careers.

Our students should also know that they have more and better options with a PhD than without one, considering the social capital at their disposal when starting out on the job market. They shouldn’t be told they won’t get a job, when most people do.

Let’s put the employment options post-PhD into context with data. Nearly all PhD recipients in biology are gainfully employed, and the number of tenure-track faculty, industry and government researchers, and those with other non-research/teaching jobs greatly outnumber those that end up in non-tenure track academic positions. There are too many contingent faculty, and this is a problem for universities, but the existence of adjuncthood as a possible career option doesn’t mean that opting for a PhD is a bad choice. There is a far greater fraction of unemployed lawyers than unemployed Biology PhDs.

Unemployment rates for those that don’t go to grad school are worse for those who do. And the situation is even worse for first generation college students, who lack the social capital to get their first opportunities. So, no, I won’t be telling my students they can’t get a job if they earn a Ph.D. I’ll just tell them that they’ll be lucky if they land a tenure-track position and that they shouldn’t plan on that from the outset.

4 thoughts on “Don’t go to grad school! and other fairy tales

  1. I agree it’s largely an attitudinal shift that needs to happen; I do wonder if there’s a truly a tipping point at which the system crumbles; it should be challenging to get a faculty job and some luck is involved, for sure, but there’s a point for everyone where they say “it’s too hard, I’m not going to bother, inifinitely impossible” (here’s where I can say I wish I was Luke Skywalker, able to bullseye womp rats in my T16 back home). The hard thing is that it takes love/passion for research to get into graduate school and the culture is still very un-accepting if you say outwardly you want to do something other than academia (then why are you in a Ph.D. program? You answer why in this post).

    And I don’t know if this is true, but will it take large numbers of the best and brightest not going to grad school because opportunities are better elsewhere for academia to make the structural/attitudinal adjustments needed to make it a seemingly more stable enterprise?

    And I think today’s students who go into Ph.D. programs do so with eyes open about the prospects of landing an academic job, which wasn’t true when I was applying to graduate school (and that’s a good thing!). I try to take comfort in the fact that most Ph.D.’s are gainfully employed…but it doesn’t stop me from flipping the F**k out when I’m trying to pivot myself off the academic track into _________. I don’t even know what (and why did it take me so long to figure out that academia may not be for me?).

  2. Nice post Terry, spot on. My approach with prospective grad students is exactly the same as yours. I’ll only add that I think this is something prospective graduate supervisors should talk about with the prospective grad students who contact them, rather than just leaving it to the students’ undergrad advisors to talk about.

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