Ode to the Graduate Student

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The Qualifying Exam.

This phrase might mean nothing to you, but if you went to graduate school, odds are it means a lot more than nothing: nightmarish flashbacks, or fond memories of a certain committee member.

It can be a stressful time for a graduate student, absorbing every morsel of information about your thesis project that you possibly can, striving to become a truly independent scientist, and finally attempting, with merely thirty PowerPoint slides and two-hours time, to convince not only your research advisor, but a committee of incredibly intelligent, experienced, and thoughtful scientists that you are indeed worthy to enter the elite world of the PhD.

While I was in the height of preparing for my qualifying exam, Nature magazine kindly informed me that I might be wasting my time with the whole “PhD thing,” and that the title is not nearly as elite as it once was. The articles discussed the future of the PhD degree in America, stating the hard fact that there are far too many PhDs, and far too few jobs meriting the degree. 

This is scary news for students who didn’t quite understand the odds of obtaining an academic position when they entered graduate school.  But didn’t you go to graduate school because you’re passionate about immunology, or anthropology, or music theory?  Because you wanted to learn more about the field you love?

As it turns out, going to graduate school may have been a slightly riskier decision than we realized. But, people with dreams of an acting career move to Hollywood all the time, and they know there are gazillions of starving actors living in Hollywood already.But they go, at least I hope they go, because they love acting: that is their dream. And a few lucky people catch a break, and make it big. Maybe heading down the PhD track is more like moving to Hollywood than we’d care to admit.

But some of us just weren’t aware of the odds… and so we should thank Nature magazine for putting the reality of the PhD situation in printed form. Perhaps publicly acknowledging that getting a PhD isn’t a surefire way to your dream job, or loads of money, will help ensure than only students with specific goals that truly require a PhD will choose this more risky path. But, for those of us who are already working toward our PhD, let’s try to remember the passion that drove us to graduate study in the first place, and fight becoming too cynical and jaded throughout the whole process.

Graduate school is a competitive place to be, but we shouldn’t let that stop us from enjoying the ride.  While the chances of landing your dream job, be it an academic position or otherwise, may seem daunting, at the very least you’ll come away with a brain full of knowledge, the ability to synthesize complex information, critical thinking skills, and a strong work ethic. And remember, a few hard-working and lucky people do make it big. So why couldn’t it be you?

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