Choose Wisely, Young Scientist

Make Sure a PhD Is Right for You

I can tell when someone is about to quit their PhD program.

Before the student even opens their mouth, the shoulders are slumped. When research, advisers or dissertations are mentioned, a defeated sigh escapes their lips and their eyes betray a unique world-weariness that comes from being stuck in a windowless lab day after day. The student has probably read the entirety of that lone cultural touchstone of doctoral angst, PhD Comics.

I recognize these things because I have seen more friends drop out of their PhD studies than have finished. In five years of graduate education, I can rattle off the names and majors of people I know who by leaving their PhD programs did the hardest thing they had ever done in their young lives.

Including me.

I left three years of a engineering doctoral program almost as long ago.

In this open house season when influxes of potential graduate students fly cross-country to be feted and lured on the department dime, it is the one salient fact no one talks about — doctoral student attrition rate across all schools, majors and demographics is at least 40%.

There’s a hidden push-pull behind failing to graduate over 4 out of 10 PhD students. The first clue behind how strongly research exerts a demand-pull on the available science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) undergraduates is the simple fact that nearly all science and engineering doctoral programs fully fund their students through research. Such an arrangement is the exception for the humanities PhD students who must scrounge for funding.

The dirty little secret of science and engineering departments is simply that professors need students more than students need them. Research money flows down the pipeline and ever more scientists and engineers are required to perform research. And more often than not, when research needs to get done, it is a post-doc or a doctoral student that does it. Because when was the last time you saw your professor adjusting the focus on your lens or handling that pipette?

But like high-tech companies, university departments in the US are having trouble finding homegrown, American science and engineering talent to fulfill their research needs. A frightening anecdote to highlight how dire the situation is: if a top 10 doctoral engineering program several years ago had accepted all of its domestic applicants, it still would not have been able to field a full class of students. This has raised the regularly trumpeted fear that the US will “lose ground” in science and technology by failing to graduate enough scientists and engineers.

The competition between the waves of foreign applicants and the few American science and engineering undergraduates has resulted in official government policy to promote domestic science and engineering. This is done through blunt instruments like massive funds for research grants and fellowships targeted toward domestic students.

Government, business, and academia (what has been described as the “Military-Industrial-University complex”) have combined to champion science and engineering education in order to lure those with newly-minted bachelor of science degrees. The results have been an overpromotion of STEM education and highly effective — on average, scientists and engineering graduate students are the youngest and typically the largest graduate populations on campuses.

All well and good for the young American science and engineering undergraduate passionate about research and hellbent on doing it for the rest of his of her life. But what about the “average” graduate student that is unsure? How should such a college graduate decide with the incentives that universities and governments wave in their face?

There are several things that few PhD students realize when they enter, information that might otherwise deter many from choosing one of the biggest career decisions anyone will make.

First, your job market actually shrinks. It is very unlikely that a newly-minted PhD will be working in exactly the same field or topic as their dissertation. Why would a private sector firm hire you, a PhD who’s been stuck in academia for half a decade, when someone with 0-2 years of experience could probably do the work equally well and for less expected salary? It is an uneconomic decision to get a PhD — with the same years of market-level salary and experience, you would be much further along any private-sector career path than if you had stuck with a doctoral program.

Second, the skill set you pick up is extremely limited. Yes, you will be a purveyor of “critical thinking” and be able to break down and tackle complex tasks and ideas, similar to what a liberal arts education purportedly provides. But in the end you will have extremely narrow knowledge about arcane mathematical formulas and laboratory equipment. You will have little experience working in the teams that most of the real business world works in because, with few exceptions, graduate research is a lonely endeavor towards that singularly individual accomplishment, the dissertation defense.

Third, think about how passionate you are about your schoolwork and your major. I don’t care if you’re the most gung-ho undergrad, madly in love with the material the professor chalks up. After five or more years researching the same topic, you will be sick of your dissertation. You will hate it. You will never want to touch it again. The process of passing quals, finding an adviser and spending untold hours working on experiments or simulations will beat down the wide-eyed and bushy-tailed without remorse.

In the end, if you are in the vast majority of college graduates in science and engineering, a PhD program is simply not right for you. If you think that a PhD is just “a good thing to have” or that it signifies that you are intelligent, think again. Doctorate degrees are rewards for tenacity and stamina and, like any other organization, programs have their fair share of the not-so-smart. The worst reason to go into a PhD program is for the perceived prestige that it lofts on you. Those that have been through the process know better.

Three years after I initially left graduate school, my former cohort and labmates have all graduated with their PhDs and fled to postdoc stints. I’m back in graduate school, a masters student in areas that I have more passion for. When I first got to MIT, I met an engineering doctoral student that I hadn’t seen in a long time. He was an undergraduate in my lab when I was a doctoral student and now, in a twist of fate, he’s the PhD student and I’m the masters student.

Some would say that I have taken a step down. I have certainly taken an inefficient and haphazard career path. But I’ve learned more about the field I want to be in than if I had tried to make it a side project of my graduate student responsibilities. I feel sorry for most PhD students, being locked in place for years on end, stuck in bunny suits in clean rooms or plopped in front of interminable computer simulations. To be honest, I feel like most PhD students have been tricked into a life they didn’t know they were going to lead.

Of course there do exist the happy ones, graduate students who can’t imagine doing anything else in the world. They bound into lab on Friday nights to check on their culture or their chip, unflustered by the odd time and driven by visions of best paper prizes. They can’t imagine doing something in twenty years that does not require a doctorate degree.

If you’re this person, this screed is not for you — you already know you’re going to be a professor. And if you plan on going to a PhD program, make sure you’re that kind of graduate student.

Gary Shu is a student in the Technology and Policy Program and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. He used to study electrical engineering.