Things I’ve learned in grad school

Ohh, the places you’ll go. Or in my case, come back to. I got my bachelor’s degree from Michigan Tech in 2005, left for a few years to get my master’s in Montana, and then came back. Why? Because I love the UP. I am stoked about my advisor’s research. and I want to pursue a career in academia.

Getting your doctorate isn’t always just lab work and classes, at least not in engineering. It is a lot more than that. I’d like to think, at least for some, its really a coming of age tale. “When I was getting my PhD, I did all sorts of things that really made me grow as a person…”

Of course, I haven’t received my doctorate yet. But while all this is still fresh in my brain (somedays my brain is more fresh than others), I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned over the last X-number of years.

Unemployment vs. Graduate Stipends; 8/21/2009

Graduate school is a time in life where your earnings far outweigh the incredible things you do. Wait, scratch that! It’s the complete opposite. Unless you have some awesome fellowship like NSF GRFP or go to a university sponsored with IGERT funding (or have an endowed advisor that can give you lots-o-money), you can make enough … to scrape by. And even with a fellowship like that, $30,000 a year in some places isn’t a whole lot of money to get by (San Francisco has a cost of living 53% greater than Minneapolis [1]).

On the flip side, some schools have fairly high graduate student stipends (graduate students at Harvard make an average of $31,700/year and Princeton sits at $29,300 [2]). At Michigan Tech (my school), the minimum graduate student stipend for someone with their master’s degree (and after passing all qualifying exams and their proposal defense) is a little under $19,000 [3]. By any stretch of the imagination, <$20K a year is not really living in the comfort zone, which is why it always amazes me that some graduate students can juggle having a family, and having kids, and getting their PhD. My friend Matt, a fellow grad student with me, just had his first child this year. Kudos to him, and those of you out there that are so gifted to be able to balance life, work, and family. That being said, I supplement my income with student loans that help me have more breathing room (and help me enjoy some things away from school as well, including sports and healthy food).

Anyway, I digress: having no money– that is a definite downside to grad school. Why downgrade to making less than 20K a year when you know (at least as an engineer) you could get a job that pays $50,000 right out of the gate? I know as an undergrad, at least when I was a freshman/sophomore, I was looking forward to getting my degree and getting an engineering job. That’s what I was told: engineering degree = lots of money. Seems logical to choose such a profession. But I changed my mind. All of a sudden, it wasn’t all about the money anymore. When I told my dad (as a senior undergrad) that I wanted to go to grad school, he couldn’t figure out why. Spend more money on school, and for why exactly? Logical questions that needed answers.

OK, so you don’t make any money. In a similar train of thought: It’s interesting to analyze the type of people that come to grad school. Some are very ambitious, hoping to seek an advanced degree in order to advance their field of study, to teach others what they know, or to do better for their family. Some come to grad school because there just isn’t anything else to do. Take the following comic for example:

Piled Higher and Deeper: Enrollment vs Unemployment Rate, 10/1/08

Yes, I know. It’s a comic. But its based on actual data from the National Science Foundation and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The comic strip- Piled Higher and Deeper, is written by Jorge Cham, a mechanical engineer turned instructor who now travels and writes comics and helps others with low self esteem (ahem) grad students come to terms with the triumphs and tribulations of grad school. Interestingly enough, I am seeing more folks changing gears and going from industry back into academia, especially around the time of the economic fall out. It’s more difficult, because the graduate student pool is expanding, to secure graduate funding and support such as research and teaching assistantships. I suppose it comes down to ‘what else are we going to do’ but go back to school, when the job market is tough and employers are looking more and more for higher-ed employees. Anyway, it’s interesting. I’ll leave it at that.

Piled Higher and Deeper: Core Principles in Research 10/12/09

Graduate student life is not all that bad. Seriously. It’s one of only a few times in life where you can make-your-own-schedule, kind of. Some advisors require their students to stick to a 9-5 schedule, but for the most part it is generally accepted that, so long as you can get the work done, you can come and go when you please. Depending on culture, teaching responsibilities, and social life, I have seen other grad students come and go from my building at all hours of the day. Yes, there have been times when I have been there at practically all hours of the day (including the 8am-3am shift, or the 4am run to check on an experiment). As an undergrad, I had never pulled an ‘all nighter.’ But as a graduate student, things are different.  I mean, my life depends on these experiments. I literally have gone to bed at 9pm, set my alarm for 1am, and went back into work.

As a grad student, I’ve received tests back without grades on them. I’ve learned how to say “I don’t know” as eloquently as possible (I’m sure you’ve heard: “That’s an excellent question and its something we should consider for future investigations“- right?). I’ve learned how to bull..logna my way through a difficult question or two.

I am also learning new stuff every day, whether it pertains directly to my research or not. I’ve learned the ins and outs of all sorts of things, from optimizing quantitative PCR to getting a facility up and running. I’m learning that some situations are less fair than others, and that it’s not really worth arguing or getting upset over (and to just get the job done). Sometimes, all I want to say is: “That is not my job.” Sometimes, I do say that. Quietly and to myself (or my cat). Because even if it isn’t your job, it’s probably something that needs to get done in order to do your job, so it really could be your job, so just do it and shut up. I usually end up stepping back and saying; “That is my job. Being a grad student means anything could be your job.” Need something machined? Learn how to use a mill. Need to figure out your statistical power? Find a stats book. No one is going to hold your hand, at least- no one should have to. Because in reality, being a graduate student means being a sponge, soaking in all that you can for the limited amount of time you have. Being independent. Learning how to be a primary investigator, with the guidance and advising of your P.I., of course.

In the end, I am grateful for being given the opportunity to learn and follow and interact. I’ve taken some really cool courses. I have sat in on some really interesting talks. I have attended conferences where faculty from all over the world would stop and chat with me about my research. In a world so big, you learn in grad school just how tightly-knit any one area of science really is. I get excited when I find a journal paper that touches on my research hypotheses, and I am critical about the research I review. And I don’t care that I will have over $30K in loans to repay when I am done with school (the longer you’re in school, the longer the time period before you have to pay them back! OK, maybe don’t follow my lead on that one…)

Piled Higher and Deeper: Brain on a Stick, 1/26/09

Thanks to Piled Higher and Deeper for letting me share their comics in this post! For more hilarity (and some learning experiences), check out PhD Comics here.

1. Cost of Living calculator:
2., See what employees are saying. Online search database for company salaries, reviews, and interviews.
3. Michigan Technological University, Minimum Stipend Levels


5 thoughts on “Things I’ve learned in grad school

  1. Great post! My husband has an engineering degree from the U of Illinois and went straight for the job – fortunately one he absolutely loves as as design engineer at Caterpillar. I went a bit in the other direction – I have a Leisure Studies degree from U of Illinois and went to grad school for an MA in Therapeutic Recreation. Try telling your parents as a college sophomore, you’re going to transfer from Accounting to Leisure let alone going for a graduate degree in it!

    My only grad school regret was not taking more advantage of the wonderfully flexible schedule I had. I did take slightly more in student loans one year to buy my first road bike!

    Love the PhD comic. Even though I’m out of school, I still subscribe and get a kick out of it!

  2. Nice post!
    I still crave my college days for all the learning, and the flexible schedule; I don’t miss seeing my debt grow though. I seriously considered staying in school for graduate studies and have almost gone back a couple of times as I am very much a sponge for learning. (yes, I’m a true nerd and get almost giddy when I have an opportunity to really learn something new I am interested in) One of these days I will go back; though probably not for more engineering; thinking law for my graduate.
    In the mean time, I’ve luckily been able to find situations out of school that have allowed me the learning and growing experiences that I crave. The high tech storage industry (development of new hard drives, tape drives, servers, etc) is very much r&d driven giving it a university feel in many areas. Startup companies are just crazy for the amount of learning potential as everything is your job beyond your “specialty”. The parallels between graduate research and the industries I’ve been in are almost scary as to how similar they are – lots of learning potential, insane hours, getting out of it what you put in, etc.
    The only extra scary part of a startup is unless you are lucky, there is no adviser for you to reference; but just as in grad school, you may go broke while having the opportunity to learn.

  3. Really interesting article. I had no idea that doctoral or other graduate students earned stipends – I’m guessing that you have to do some teaching to earn that? Either way, the perks you describe regarding schedule and autonomy are very real. I earned my MBA while juggling a full-time career, a wife, and 3 children. No fun, but at the end of the day, rewarding. In lots of regards, I’m really envious…

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