Don’t Go to Grad School. No, Really.

Attending graduate school was quite possibly one of the worst decisions of my life.

You could argue that because at least one good thing of consequence happened, it was worth it. Or that everything happens for a reason. Or, more asinine yet, that some supreme being found it necessary for my own well-being that I be miserable for what were supposed to be the best years of my life.

I had great time as an undergrad- I made lots of friends, found out who I really was, and even though I had some really awful times, (suicidal thoughts and depression are no joke,) I definitely consider it a good decision and a great experience. The awful things I experienced were not a direct result of attending college; they were feelings that were bound to pop up at some point in my life, and it’s just unfortunate that it had to happen at all. Having had such a positive experience in college, and with encouragement from my professors, graduate school seemed like the obvious choice.

There are some things that may have been unique to me, and others may not have or have had the same experience. I chose to study a hard science, I ended up hating the city I lived in, and I found the staff at my particular university of choice to be singularly ignorant. However, reading other grad-school related posts online suggests that my experience was far from unique.

I knew going in that I would basically be paid enough to survive, and nothing more. I was even deemed well-qualified enough to receive a special scholarship which let me earn just a bit more than my peers. My issue was not with life outside of school, but within. I understand that research can be brutal, but no job or education is worth what I went through.

Despite researching different schools and advisers, my first adviser was an absolutely horrible person. Let me emphasize that again: not only was he a terrible research mentor, he was and is the foulest person I have ever had the misfortune of interacting with. There are very few people to whom I wish ill, but he is definitely someone who deserves to have something bad happen to him. (NOTE: This is not a threat! I have no intention of causing harm to anyone. I’m just saying that I wouldn’t be sad if something bad did happen.) This guy was extremely manipulative and verbally abusive. Towards the end of my time in his research group, I would come home crying every single day. He would never tell you what he wanted you to do, but he’d make sure to tell you that what you were doing was stupid, worthless, etc. As a first year graduate student, you don’t know what is expected. Are you supposed to meet with your adviser on a monthly basis? Weekly? Daily? How much does he expect to do with you in the lab? Are you really just working mainly with one of the older grad students? Without any mentorship, you are screwed. And that’s what happened to me, despite my due diligence in trying to find the best group in which I could succeed. This guy would even expect me to take home research samples and store them temporarily in my home fridge. He demanded that I move closer to the lab, (which is actually another violation of research ethics) and claimed that I wasn’t dedicating enough time to research. Even though I spent holidays toiling away, stayed late into the day/night, it apparently wasn’t good enough. He assigned a post-doc to teach me some computer coding, and I was actually really excited to learn about it. Unfortunately the post-doc’s idea of “teaching” consisted of her leaving me with a computer screen blinking code, refusing to answer any questions. There’s something to be said for working things out on your own, but giving someone a gigantic code and telling them to go figure it out when they’ve had no coding experience is just ignorant. My adviser, of course, decided that I wasn’t learning it because I was lazy. I took one of his classes and he verbally berated all of us for not understanding the material. (Apparently when an entire class consistently does not understand the material, it’s still not the instructor’s fault. He made no attempts to alter his teaching or explain things in a different manner. He was, in short, a terrible teacher too.) I asked a question about why the research he did was relevant, and rather than calmly answering me or directing me towards papers which could provide the answers, he took it as a personal insult. (To this day, I still can’t explain what use his research is. Even speaking with peers, we haven’t been able to figure out any good use for it.) If you have an answer as to why your research is good stuff, you shouldn’t be personally offended.

After 2-3 years of this kind of abuse, he actually wrote a really negative review full of lies about me (lies which he probably believed.) That I was lazy, stupid, etc. I confronted him on it, and he actually baited me to lose my temper! I attempted to walk away, and even then he demanded that I not leave. I have zero regrets about yelling at him and telling him what an asshole he was. In fact, I think I would regret it if I hadn’t. He deserved that verbal lashing and more. He even tried to make me apologize a few days later, and got pissed when I flat out refused to do so. His arrogance was astounding.

I later found out that throughout the rest of my graduate career, this guy thought so much of himself that he tried to get me kicked out of the program. Thankfully, the program director wasn’t having any of it. I was passing all of my classes with A’s and a sprinkling of B’s (with that one exception that was a B-; toughest class I’ve ever had!) In short, I was a good student, doing what I was supposed to do, with this guy was the only person who ever had a complaint against me. His behavior was abhorrent, and I nearly quit graduate school then. However, I believed some advice that one of my beloved undergrad professors had given me: if you stick around long enough, they’ll let you graduate eventually. The message was that if you work long enough, you’ll get it. This is probably true, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth it.

I moved on to a new adviser who was much better at mentoring and whose research was much more applicable to the real world. Once again, however, I ran into road blocks. You see, it turns out that my project was based on one of his previous graduate’s. Nothing new there. However, my research in trying to replicate that previous experiment proved that she had fabricated the data. Considering that my adviser had already graduated this student with a PhD, had several papers published with her, and still employed her in the lab, his best option was to throw me under the bus and stick with the older student. Why rescind publications because of what I had done? That would be an embarrassment for him. And he couldn’t keep her employed if he admitted that she had lied in her research. And would they take away her PhD too? There was too much as stake to follow the truth. Instead, it was much easier to say that I wasn’t making progress due to my own shortcomings. I literally spent days in the lab, sleeping in the grad student common room rather than going home. My peers were mystified- how could I be working so much and be called inadequate when there were clearly other students who barely showed up to work, yet their advisers never complained about them, pushed them along, or told them to shape up?

Lest you think that I really am a lazy, stupid person who doesn’t try hard, let me remind you that the school saw fit to grant me a scholarship due to my undergraduate grades and research experiences. This wasn’t something I was taking lightly. I poured everything I had into grad school, and I eventually had to cut my losses. After 5 years of misery and no hope of graduating within another full year, I’d had enough. The human brain has this tendency to believe that we should stick with something after we’ve put a lot of effort in. For example, you’ve waited in line for the roller coaster for 2 hours already; you can’t leave now! Even if there IS another 2 hour wait, to leave would mean that you wasted those two hours. In reality, your “sunk costs” (as explained in this article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-science-success/201102/how-cut-your-losses-when-it-s-not-working) or the effort you’ve already put in doesn’t mean you should keep suffering. The above article is admittedly a blog post, but note the research study that is cited. For me, I was unable to endure over a year of additional torture. The research project that I presented as my thesis for my MS was, in my own opinion and the opinion of many of my peers, better than some of the PhD graduates’. One of them didn’t even have her defense ready on time and had to reschedule. Theoretically, this means you blew it and you don’t get a second chance. Instead, she got that second chance. Even then, her finished project sucked (because she was one of those students who never showed up to do research.) Better to be lucky than good.

In the end, I was on an additional anti-depressant, an anti-anxiety prescription, and I had been diagnosed with a weird autoimmune disease. It is my firm belief that the current version of graduate school- all work, all the time, with no rest, no vacations (that includes school holidays like winter break!), abusive mentors who answer to no one- is a cause of mental health disorders in the students who attend graduate school, and the level of stress induced by this model contributes to the presentation of autoimmune diseases. I understand that this sounds far-fetched; how can stress lead to an autoimmune disease? But the number of students in my cohort who acquired autoimmune diseases was astounding (and I’m not talking STDs here.) Celiacs, Sjogrens, and more, our department was a petri dish of autoimmune afflictions- all of which were acquired during our time as graduate students. (This is something I plan to study in more detail on my own, with more than just anecdotal evidence.)

With this model of molding scientists by pushing them to unhealthy limits, it’s no wonder politicians are lamenting about the nation’s lack of scientists. We’re still human beings! Becoming a successful scientist should not mean that you have to sacrifice happiness. I loved studying science in undergraduate, even though it was extremely hard. I found the challenge rewarding. Why did that change? In graduate school, the stakes were too high and the standards too rigid. Your performance directly affects how much money your adviser gets, and most advisers are quick to exert their power over you to their benefit. (Slave labor, anyone?) Expectations were unachievable. Yet everyone is totally fine with the concept that students are to “soldier on” through the misery until a panel of 3-5 PhDs decide (rather arbitrarily) that you’ve done enough, and now you can say that you have a PhD too.

It is not worth it. I repeat, IT IS NOT WORTH IT. No one should be subjected to this kind of treatment when the goal can be achieved in a more humane manner. For example, our school went to the length of hiring us for 364 days of the year, leaving us unemployed for one single day, just so that they wouldn’t have to offer any of the benefits of a “real” job. And everyone is so busy covering their own research ass that the concept of forming or sustaining a union is unfathomable. You barely have time to sleep or eat, how can you expect to fight for your rights too? You can barely pay rent, and now you’re paying back student loans too. But you’re not allowed to hold a second job due to restrictions that your university has placed on your contract. Somehow all of this is supposed to be worth it. It is dehumanizing and unacceptable. Years of pain and agony for a piece of paper that makes society believe that you’re smart. I won’t lie, I still wish I had my PhD. I am extremely bitter that I was given such a lousy experience, but my experience is not unique. The system needs to change. People IN the system know that it needs to change. But no one, including myself, knows how to do this. In all honesty, it’s up to each individual mentor to act ethically. This was not my experience, but I do know of at least one mentor who was reasonable. And he publishes many papers, graduates many students; he is, by all standards, a successful research scientist. An yet he still manages to graduate intelligent students without demoting them to subhuman level.

Don’t go to graduate school. It is a waste of your life. If this post prevents at least one person from attending grad school… well, I’d like to say that it made my experience worth it. But nothing is worth what I went through.

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