Grad School is a Crock

For the past month or so, I’ve been hearing and reading a lot about what would get you the best ROI on your Bachelor’s degree.  The consensus seems to be that unless you’re going for a STEM degree, you’re going to be in for a hard time post-graduation.  I agree with this statement.

However, going on to get a PhD in STEM is a waste of your twenties.  Unless you really want to be some professor spending the rest of his life sucking the Government’s cock or whoring yourself out for funding so you can do some sub-par research, don’t even bother.  Take your Bachelor’s and find a job.

Why do I recommend not to go to grad school and to go for employment?  Because I fell into the trap of going to grad school to “expand my knowledge”.  By that I mean go to a decently ranked school, work for someone with some clout in the industry, publish a paper or two, graduate with the PhD, and go into industry to make a fucking bunch of money.  Basically, I went in order to make more money in the long run.  Reality didn’t live up to my plan though.  I got fed up with academia, being poor, miserable and took a Master’s to get out.

For disclosure, I have a Bachelor’s of Science in Chemistry from SUNY at Buffalo and a Master’s of Science in Organometallic/Inorganic Chemistry from UNC-Chapel Hill.

Now for the reasons why you should stay the fuck away from grad school in chemistry:

1.  You’re essentially a Slave

Do you love 60+ hour weeks?  Working the weekends?  Having a domineering/micromanaging adviser that holds your future in his/her hands?  Having to please said boss by being productive in your research project?  Beating you head on the wall when your reactions go to shit?  Then this is for you!

2.  The pay (stipend) is awful

Follows from #1.  My Teaching Assistant then Research Assistant stipend while I was in grad school amounted to $1750 per month (thank God they didn’t take out FICA).  I was paid on the first of the month and by the second, 3/4 (or more) of said money would be used on Rent, Utilities, Internet, Car Insurance and my Credit Card payment.  Usually I’d have about $300 for groceries (NC has a 2% food tax), gas (if I needed it) and money for going out drinking (usually less than $50).  Many times by the end of the month, my checking account would get down to less than $10.  Needless to say, I ate a lot of chili, pasta and ramen noodles and I shopped for groceries at Target.  So unless you’re extremely frugal and pinch pennies like no tomorrow, don’t even think about saving.

3.  The time needed to graduate is increasing

Before I went, most Chemistry departments would have a 4 year PhD and that was the norm.  For some reason this has now changed to 5 years, with the first year for classes followed by 4 years of research.  Europe for the most part still grants PhD’s in 3 years, but I’ve heard that is trending upward.  More bodies at the hood for longer.  This also follows from #1.

4.  Abolition of the Master’s Degree as a main track (only PhD programs)

This also follows from #1.  Professors need bodies in the lab to publish and get grants (so they can publish more, see the cycle?).  So instead of only getting 2-3 years out of someone before they leave with a Master’s, you get 5-6 years of labor.  Don’t believe me?  Go look at a few of the big names in the game and let me know if you see the words “Master’s Program” anywhere.  A Master’s degree is also derided as the “consolation prize” for those who take too long to finish a PhD.

5.  The classes are a joke

Note:  This is based on my own experience at UNC, and may not be applicable to places were the professors actually teach/care about more than research. 

The classes are graded on a High Pass/Pass/Low Pass/Fail scale.  From what I heard from higher year grad students, you have to try really, really hard in order to get a Low Pass or a Fail.  A Low Pass would drop you into the Master’s track and a Fail, I think, would put you on some sort of academic probation.  A good portion of the people in my year usually got Passes on their classes, regardless of how they did on the exams.

For example, about midway through the semester one of the two professors in my Mechanisms class said, “If the combined scores of your past two exams is below x, you should be worried.”  My sum was below x, and I did pass the course, along with everyone else (people did High Pass, but they were the crazy Orgo nerds).

Another thing that happened was the combining of the Inorganic (which I was in) and Orgo kids into a few combined classes (which dumbed down the Inorganic side for the benefit of the Orgo kids).  So instead of having a full-semester of advanced Inorganic/Organometallic Chemistry, I got a half semester of Organic Spectroscopy and a half semester rehash of second semester Junior Year Inorganic (electron counting, OxAdd/RedEl reactions, basic catalytic cycles), since as the professor jokingly put it, “The organics can’t count higher than 8!”  It was a waste of a semester

If you haven’t guessed by now, this one also follows from #1.

6.  Pedigree matters

So you got a PhD from Okay-Sizedlower ranked State School and you’re applying for jobs or professorships.  Good luck trying to beat out the guy that has an Ivy or top-10 school big name professor PhD.

Fucking parochialism.

7.  Grad School +

Another trend in recent years is the changing of an optional Post-Doc into “strongly recommended/required”.  They want you to “expand your knowledge” with other groups and bosses in order to “know what it feels like to direct your own research project, just like if you were a professor”.  This follows again from #1, since Post-Docs are expected to work even harder than grad students, since they know better.  Oh and the pay isn’t that much better.

8.  Over-specialization

You spent 5+ years researching some project with your boss, and you got your PhD.  However, you come to find out that the knowledge you’ve gained is almost completely useless in the working world.  So basically, all you can be is a professor, just like your boss.  This is pretty specific to a lot of the Biology graduate degrees.


I could go on and on, but I really don’t.  It’s depressing.

Initially, I really wanted that PhD.  However, getting a year into the program, a nice Cost/Benefit analysis and about a month and a half of day/night deliberation made me change my mind.  I graduated in May 2008, and I was damn lucky to find a job in my field that following October (I am not working in a lab anymore).  The economy took a dump and the chemical industry went into the shitter (where for the most part it still is).  If I didn’t get my current job, I’d be in the Army right now, most likely getting back from or going to Afghanistan.

TL;DR version

Do you want a life?  Do you want to have hobbies/outside interests?  Do you want to meet people who aren’t social retards?  Do you want to have a social life?  Would you rather not have to enter the workforce at the young ages of 31-33?  Would you like to not have to put off doing things due to lack of disposable income?

If you’ve answered “YES” to any of these questions; DON’T go to graduate school in the sciences.

Unless you want to be a professor, which in that case, may God have mercy on your soul.


7 thoughts on “Grad School is a Crock

  1. I actually do love teaching. I teach college comp (have an MA only, and don’t care to put up with the BS of the “terminal” degree in a humanities department), and dearly love taking students who hate/are terrified of writing coming into my class, and teaching them that it really isn’t as hard as past teachers have made it out to be. I *wanted* to teach–and I teach for free: it’s the grading they’re paying me a pittance to do.

    I also planned my income as being supplementary to my husband’s, and that the job would give me enough flexibility and time to raise kids, and be home with them most of the time.

    That said, my two years in MA studies were the worst of my life. I hated every second of dealing with the faculty, and hated every second of feeling cheated because I didn’t feel challenged by the material.

  2. Don’t knock the Army. I turned down a PhD place to join the Royal Navy. Left before Gulf War II though.

    • It’s not worthless per se, some disciplines do have a glut (organic specifically). Finding the school that will only let you take a Master’s will be the difficult part.

      My advise is to get a Master’s in Analytical chemistry, it seems like every job posting I’ve looked at the past few months have been looking for analytical chemists.

      Good luck with your decision.

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