Things I Could Live Without: Grad School Edition

Congratulations (to me)! I successfully finished my first year of grad school, for varying degrees of "successfully." There were some bumps and bruises and a t-butyllithium fire I'm not terribly proud of, but I managed to scrape by relatively unscathed. Physically, anyway. My ego, on the other hand, has taken a complete 180° and is currently jettisoning off somewhere in between Bittersville and Total Loser Station. (While my chemistry knowledge ego might be waning, at least my capacity for metaphor still remains. I'm in the wrong field, I swear.) But now that I have officially finished one year, I feel I have gained enough insight to make some humble suggestions for the good people of the university to make future generations' first year of graduate school less shitty. The following should be eliminated.

Half of the Undergraduate Student Population. There are over 30,000 undergraduates at this school. Please remove half of them. At this point, I don't really care if they're the smart ones or the dumb ones.

Donut Class. I believe some explanation is in order here. Here at our prestigious department, the prestigious wingnuts of the prestigious organic division felt that the graduate students, in order to preserve the prestige of the department, needed a little something extra in their schooling. That "little something" turned into a Saturday morning class that organic graduate students take the spring of their first year, known as "donut class" for the sweet pastries we receive as a result of us having to take a class on fucking Saturday morning. That's shitty enough as it is. What's shittier is the content of the class. Every lecture was essentially an hour-long propagandafest on the myriad of services the department had to offer; it was the kind of crap you listened to if you went on ANY prospective weekend. Same shit. We had one worthwhile lecture on No-D NMR, and that was it. It was essentially a class to get our asses up on Saturday morning for no good goddamned reason, and any PI who's worth a shit would make clear his or her recommendation for working on Saturdays. I can buy my own donuts, thank you. (Also, only the organic graduate students have to take this class.)

Summer Pay. Our stipend is for eleven months, because we're not supposed to get paid in August. Cause, you know, that's fair, cause we don't work in August. Yeah. So instead of not getting paid in August, our summer pay is prorated down. Instead of just divvying up our paychecks equally among twelve months, cause nono, that'd be too easy.

The Tradition of Suffering. Well, I had to go through a lot of bullshit and I turned out great! So you should too. It's good for you, and you'll thank me later. Fuck you. It's this kind of attitude that plagues an education system that is quite flawed in its treatment of pupils. To the higher-ups, we are seen as worker bees, students and professional colleagues simultaneously. That is a recipe for disaster. But little changes from it, because only the people who succeed in the system- professors- are allowed to change it. As long as graduate school is relegated to this unreality in which the people unable to escape feel the need to perpetuate this attitude of self-sacrifice as a virtue, the tradition of suffering will continue. Working seventy hours a week for 51 weeks a year isn't good for anyone, period. So why perpetuate it? Because the powers that be don't know any better. They did fine in it- so can you! One prof here told his group this year, "It's not fair. But it's grad school." That's like Bush telling the American people, "Yeah, I stole the 2000 election. It's not fair. But it's the Electoral College." And, I mean, it changes people. For the worse. We've all seen normal, happy people crumble under the occasionally Promethean pressures of graduate school, but there's another, far more annoying consequence. It turns a lot of other people into complete pricks. I suppose there is something Zen about running ten thousand columns in the course of four years; it transforms insecurity into scathing arrogance, without ever seeing the happy medium of humble self-confidence. To be fair, there are plenty of normal people who are easy to deal with here. It's the other ones that make this place seem unreal, though.

Elimination of these burdens/annoyances will result in... who the fuck am I kidding, it's an exercise in futility, this is. Maybe the problem is within, anyway. Maybe I simply don't have the tolerance for pain necessary to receive a PhD. If I did, I wouldn't be complaining about it on a blog, which will probably get back to bite me in the ass. Is getting a PhD worth the trouble? That's a rhetorical question, by the way. Lord knows most grad students I know have lost the capacity to recognize those. I haven't decided yet whether it is worth the trouble, and I appreciate other blogs' honesty in asking this question as well.

Most of us, being the intelligent people that we are, recognize that a lot of the hoops one has to jump through in grad school are bullshit. However, how does one act as a source for change? Do we not owe it to ourselves to identify and try to eliminate bullshit when we see it? The answer appears to be an overwhelming "no," and the Tradition of Suffering, thus, continues. I think part of it is that for many, trying to take a proactive stance in the quality of graduate education /= working in the lab, and people who do it are relegated to "lazy shit" status. And so, the people who were most successful in the system plagued with bullshit, the professors, take it over and do what they will with it, and nothing ever changes. It's kind of disgusting, when you think about it.


Ψ*Ψ said...

My, you make the future look bright, don't you? At least I am too hardheaded to be effectively dissuaded. (I'll miss my current group, though, where people don't seem to run more than 10-20 columns in the course of 4-5 years.)
30,000 undergrads...isn't that, like, over half the population of the city?

sam said...

Keep you chin up, Excimer: End of first year sucks. So does beginning of second. And just wait till the third-year slump. Fourth year is painful. And fifth year is scary. But by the sixth year, you're so sick of everything that the let you go before you explode.

No, just kidding. I'm only a third year. So only the first three statements are true.

I complain a lot, but I think I actually sorta like grad school. And I like to complain.

ElwoodCity said...

Wow, and your boss is a relatively good one. You are right, that there are a lot of things that don't have to be the way they are. Either you act as a sleeper agent, trying to masquerade your way in, to change the system from the inside, or you get out. I wish I had something deeper or more encouraging for you. What do you want the degree for, anyway?

David Eaton said...

Well, I had to go through a lot of bullshit and I turned out great! So you should too. It's good for you, and you'll thank me later. Fuck you.

Couldn't agree more. I lived through it, it sucked, and I am unconvinced that the suckage helped the process at all. On the other hand, because of the construction of human beings, it might be impossible to fix.

I used to bitch to my boss that academia had a sort of pseudo-monastic feel to it, that all had to be sacrificed when one entered the chemical monastary. The chemo-monastic rule determines what is right and good and acceptable. Work is foremost, and thoughts of the gain one gets from the work, sort of base, and contemptuous.

Looking at some of Carl Djerassi's work, I think it goes deeper than that. He claims that science is more a tribal culture (though one might argue that monasticism is a subset of this, but I digress). I hear a lot of post hoc justifications for the shit one takes in grad school, and a lot of derision for Djerassi.

The derision might be because Djerassi is one of us, and his analysis is fond yet not flattering. And I don't think that scientists as scientists are all that good at looking at their own culture and customs- something like fish taking water for granted applies- while the application of art helps illuminate it. It makes people uncomfortable to recognize irrationality in themselves, and probably tenfold for scientists.

If you read Djerassi's analysis (his fiction isn't half-bad) it fits the data pretty well. A big part of grad school is the scientific equivalent of tribal scarring, or perhaps more generously, a vision quest; absurd, but meaningful as an initiation ritual.

The tribalism can be further deconstructed. I think a lot of the 'justifications' for grad school misery arise because our primitive brain enforces the tribal culture, while our cerebral cortex feels compelled to make up reasons why it is necessary and justified. We can't face the fact that 'jumping you in' is something we feel compelled to do, even when we recognize its barbarity.

The best thing- our memories fade, and lie to us, and apply a sentimental overspray to our past. Once you get the PhD, you will, in spite of what you think right now, remember it fondly.

Welcome to the tribe.

Anonymous said...

maybe you should have gone to grad school in california

John said...

The year's not up until you're past the summer. It's the summer that makes you feel part of the community (UIUC, right?) and not just a student.

Anonymous said...

Hallelujah, brother! Your points are dead on, and you aren't the only one to go from a happy humble-confident protoscientist to a shell of your former self. It sucks. I left with a masters (after passing my Orals) and it was the best decision I've ever made, both personally and careerwise. Synthesis is fun and all, but there's a hell of a lot more out there.

milkshake said...

Excimer, are you at Virginia Tech?

Liberal Arts Chemist said...

Back in the '80s there was a movie called "The Karate Kid" where a boy that wants to learn Karate was forced to pointlessly scrub tiles, paint fences and shine cars. The tension and the frustration rise to unbearable levels until the moment of physical and intellectual synthesis occurs and the point of the mindless exercise is revealed. At its best ... that is what graduate school is supposed to be like. If you don't like it, commit yourself to changing it, but make sure that the products of your new system are committed, disciplined scientists first and not happy, empowered persons with a sense of personal importance. I am not suggesting that is what you were hoping for in graduate school but that seems to be the trade-off that was accepted in the school system and it is only a matter of time before "consumer driven education" gets to graduate school.

It's funny how amazing stories of how awful one's supervisor or graduate program are instantly propagate a plethora of response stories that for some reason don't make a person feel any better. It always reminds me of the Monty Pyton skit "The Three Yorkshiremen". I won't tell you that you will feel better with time or that the system will grow on you but the challenge is still there ... get through it and make it better.

Excimer said...

Well put. I will have to look into Djerassi's work a little more. I was vaguely familiar of his non-birth control work but not familiar with what you mentioned.

Not cool, man.

I think a lot of what David mentioned can also be deconstructed for Mr. Miyagi's pedagogical style. However, Miyagi has the advantage of knowing that his own style has been tried and true for quite a while and trains both the body and mind independent of result. The same cannot be said of grad school, which is results-oriented. The kid eventually learned the virtues of wax on, wax off. Donut class has no deeper significance to it. Of this I am quite certain.

milkshake said...

it is just you mentioned that you would like to see half of the undergads at your uni gone - and that you won't care which one...
I rather dislike crowds; when stuck amongst an unruly noisome bunch I strongly wish for some crowd-control device, to clear my path through.

Maybe - would you consider transferring to another school? You know, even if you had to change the chemistry field - wouldn't it be worth your nerves, to get a nice adviser and reasonably laid back environment, minimum coursework and no undergrads at all, nice semi-tropical weather with hurricanes, - you know what I mean?

buyproduct said...

You get paid 11 months out of the year! I only get paid for 9 months out of the year. LucKy!

Paul said...

FWIW, they're moving in the right direction in terms of eliminating pointless exercises like cumes. I think the reason for doing this is not because students disliked them, but because the profs hated writing them and finding postdocs to grade them. Kind of a win-win-win situation.

Ψ*Ψ said...

Hey, your adviser isn't the problem in the first place, right? Everything I've heard you say about him has been really really nice.
I blame shitty weather in the Midwest. And donut class. Saturdays in the lab? Fine. Saturday MORNINGS in the lab? Hell no! Those are sacred and reserved for sleep. (I'd be pretty much set if I could work nocturnal hours without being the only person in the lab.)

Derek Lowe said...

I didn't care for grad school much at all, and decided eventually that I was going to devote myself to getting out of it (with a PhD) at the first opportunity, in order to get on with life elsewhere.

You might find the experience of one of my friends interesting. After he'd been out for two or three years, he came back to the campus for some sort of seminar get-together. It was the first time he'd been back. Looking at the faculty members around him, he told me that he thought: "Geez. You people are still here. You have nowhere else to go. I can't believe that I used to be scared of you. . ."

Anonymous said...

I was once in your shoes myself (I quit UIUC with a master's a few years ago) and my only regret is I didn't do it sooner. I stuck out grad school a lot longer than I should have because I dreaded telling my family and undergrad profs that I was quitting. I also thought that if I worked really hard, maybe I could impress my advisor and put an end to the constant verbal beat-downs. If you sign up for some classes this fall and get a coursework master's, you can get out with your sanity intact and avoid ending up like me. I've been out for over 3 years and still have nightmares about getting hollered at by my advisor.

If you quit, you can get a good job in a location of your choosing and have time to hang out with your friends and enjoy the rest of your 20's. You might be able to get a better job with a Ph.D., but if you were smart and hard-working enough to get into UIUC, you should be able to get promoted into a Ph.D.-level job with some experience.

taitauwai said...

Boss EXPECTs us to be working in the lab on Saturday, like the usual weekdays. If you don't come, you better make sure you work from 6.30am till 11pm on weekdays.
I have no comment. But seriously, I almost tell him to f*ck off. I have a life outside the lab and right now, I wouldn't fight him. But I asked him why? Don't you value the quality of work/results rather than the quantity/length of time spend in the lab?
People need to see you often, so that you will "look" and give them impression of being hardworking.

David Eaton said...

One problem with my earlier PoMo analysis, at least wrt time spent in the lab- there really is virtue in just putting in a lot of hours in research. It is difficult to give it "quality time" because one never knows what will work, or what will be important.

God, how I wish research were a perfectly rational process. But it is not. Momentum is not more important than planning, but it is equally important, so putting in crazy hours is important to the effort while one is learning. With experience, the raw effort necessary to maintain momentum can be somewhat reduced (in my experience, R and D in industry is generally 9-5 with pretty high expectations of productivity).

So long hours in the lab is not bullshit. Donut Saturdays have a larger projection onto the bullshit axis.

Kyle Finchsigmate said...

alright goddamn it. back to blogging. Vacation is over.

medchemgirl said...

I know exactly where you go. I did my undergraduate there and heard lots of "wonderful" things about the donut class among many of their other complaints. I was one of those 30,000+ undergrads who loved O-chem and wasn't yet jaded about doing research. So even with all of it's faults I love your graduate institution.

waitingforguffman said...

Hey, sorry for the late comment, but I just found your blog via Derek's . . .

Part of me wants to tell you suck it up and deal with it, but in fact I agree with you on just about all points. Except the Saturday morning donut club. Back in the day (1986), we didn't even get donuts. But we did get fabulous quotes (my favorite was from Bill Pirkle: "Flash chromatography is to real chromatography like masturbation is to sex."). But no donuts. And that coffee job on the corner was part of Trino's.

The problem, I fear, is that I really didn't hate graduate school, overall. Oh, there were days, and even the odd week or two, where I hated something, and I blamed graduate school, or my advisor, or my hood. But, overall, I wouldn't change very much of my graduate school experience.
And I worked for someone most would consider one of the hard-asses of the department (group meetings until 1 in the morning, anyone?). Forgive me, but I thrived on that shit.

It was the intense learning -- not just of facts and figures and name reactions, but of HOW TO GO ABOUT DEVELOPING MY OWN RESEARCH IDEAS, convincing someone else to allow me to pursue them, and reducing them to practice -- that simply is nearly impossible to get anywhere but graduate school. Industry? Forget it. Not gonna happen.

Should the graduate school experience be better? Well, probably. But there are a ton of professors who, like me, did not HATE graduate school, but LOVED it. And convincing them that a change is needed is pretty difficult. I'm a decade and a half removed from it, and still miss many aspects of that time. Sick, isn't it?

If I had met a professor who's attitude was "I had to do it, so you do to", I'd think that individual a prick and run the other way. But, honestly, I worked for guys who loved what they were doing, and couldn't understand why anyone would view graduate school as a chore.

And I see smattered comments about "if you're good enough, you can get the same job with an MS". Uh, yeah, right. Think about it: take two equally intelligent and driven individuals, one with a Ph.D., one without, who is going farther (or is it further? Whatever). It's an easy answer. And it has NOTHING to do with some "Ph.D.-old-boy-you-scratch-my-back-I'll-kiss-your-butt" network.

Yes, yes, yes, I'd much rather have a really bright and eager MS over an average burnt-out Ph.D. any day of the week and twice on Sunday. But you didn't go to UIUC to become an average or mediocre Ph.D., did you?

If you DID, well, then, get the master's and go make some dough.