It’s Not the PhD That’s the Problem

Noah Smith has an interesting post, “If you get a PhD, get an economics PhD.” While I agree with most of it, I think he is wrong about biology PhDs when he writes:

Lab science PhDs. These include biology, chemistry, neuroscience, electrical engineering, etc. These are PhDs you do because you’re either a suicidal fool or an incomprehensible sociopath. They mainly involve utterly brutal hours slaving away in a laboratory on someone else’s project for your entire late 20s, followed by years of postdoc hell for your early 30s, with a low percentage chance of a tenure-track faculty position. To find out what these PhD programs are like, read this blog post. If you are considering getting a lab science PhD, please immediately hit yourself in the face with a brick. Now you know what it’s like.

While there are some labs where students are treated as cheap labor from the get-go, the problem is that many biology PhDs actually enjoy graduate school–many of us did have considerable intellectual freedom. I liked it, and in many cases, it’s a rather nurturing environment. Grad school isn’t the problem–it’s the trajectory after graduate school that’s problematic. In sense, this makes things worse: undergraduates typically talk to graduate students, many of whom are pretty happy. What they need to do is talk to the post-docs, but that usually doesn’t happen (and when it does, post-docs often won’t give you the honest skinny). The job insecurity and relatively low incomes compared to economics PhDs in your late 20s and 30s are pretty lousy.

Though your mileage may vary.

Related: Here’s a somewhat different view of econ PhDs.

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8 Responses to It’s Not the PhD That’s the Problem

  1. I’ve heard rumors of labs where the PhDs actually have intellectual freedom, good support and a reasonable amount of work expected (reasonable being very relative). I have also heard rumors about unicorns and compassionate Republicans.

    I have yet to see this sort of lab or to personally meet someone with this experience. If anyone wishes to report such a positive working environment lab I’m sure those PIs would be flooded with eager PhD candidate wanna be’s.

    Still Bitter years later….

    • Jonathan says:

      @BotE that actually sounds a lot like the lab I did my PhD in at Imperial. I didn’t work many weekends and was still out the door in less than 3.5 years.

    • Noah Smith says:

      I’ve heard rumors of labs where the PhDs actually have intellectual freedom, good support and a reasonable amount of work expected (reasonable being very relative). I have also heard rumors about unicorns and compassionate Republicans.


  2. coloncancercommunity says:

    Labs appear to be contentious places no matter what. Over time I put significant time in four labs. Each one was a pressure cooker rife with conflicts and competition. Each one was different. The type of pressure varied. Each had good and bad points. It was a matter of picking your poison. Bottom line, the system is hopelessly abusive for all concerned – and these days that includes the PI. They are in the grant and funding pressure cooker and all that pressure naturally trickles down to the grad students, post-docs and even the technical staff.

  3. Noah Smith says:

    Mike, I love you, but I can’t let you do this to our nation’s intelligent young people. I must save them!

    Here’s how I see it:

    Bio: Decently high possibility of a slave-driving advisor.
    Econ: Very low possibility of a slave-driving advisor.

    Bio: Difficult, arduous, risky process required to switch advisors.
    Econ: Easy and nearly costless advisor-switching.

    Bio: Work schedule often set by advisor.
    Econ: Work schedule set by self.

    Bio: Research project topic often dependent on lab funding and resources.
    Econ: Research project topic almost never dependent on funding and resources.

    Bio: Can’t choose coworkers.
    Econ: Can choose coworkers.

    Bio: Must publish to graduate.
    Econ: Need not publish in order to graduate.

    And yes, these are *in addition* to the job market and employability issues that go dramatically in econ’s favor.

    What are the advantages of bio as opposed to econ? Let’s see.

    Bio: More socially acceptable, regarded as more “useful” by the general public.
    Econ: Often looked down on by the public.

    Bio: Reasonably balanced gender ratio.
    Econ: Skewed towards men.

    Bio: Less racism and sexism.
    Econ: More racism and sexism.

    Bio: Need not teach to get funding.
    Econ: Must teach to get funding.

    So bio has a few advantages, but overall, from what I’ve seen it is definitely the life choice equivalent of hitting yourself in the face with a brick.

  4. I’m a chemistry PhD outta Stony Brook University in NY. I did my degree in 4.5 years. In 2008, when I graduated after doing work for JACS on photophysics, I got three fairly solid offers. The average for chem is 5 to 7, depending on if you have to start your project over or not. The chem department at SBU is pretty well known for getting kids good jobs in chemical industry.

    A lot of the present situation facing newly minted STEM PhDs has to do with grade inflation in USA STEM degrees. (For more see my essay: Stelling (2013) How to turn USA science degrees into science careers. PeerJ PrePrints 1:e3 , there’s a flowchart at the end if you want to skip my rant, heh. For this scheme to work, though, we in the USA need to think about setting up research only, permafunded institutes. More on that in my comment on the Rock Talk NIH funding blog:

    I started out in bio, but switched to chem ’cause (a) I wanted to learn quantum and (b) the classes were way less crowded. Just got back from a staff scientist position in Germany where I did brain tumor diagnostics (see: if you’re curious about the methods I developed with my lovely students. Man I love these German Diplom kids, they know how to work!)

    Talking to the postdocs is a good idea, just be warned that a lot of them are reallllly grumpy right now. -Allison (@DrStelling)

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