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Life (?) as a PhD Student

The New York Times on Oct 3 had an article about the miseries of being a graduate student, and how universities were trying to shorten the time taken to get a PhD. I thought I would quote from the beginning of Chapter 2: Dog Years in my book:

If you didn’t mind wasting the best years of your youth, graduate student life at Columbia was paradise. Once you got over the first two hurdles – passing the Ph. D. qualifying exams and obtaining a research advisor – no-one seemed to give a damn about what happened to you. Being a graduate student was not a bad sinecure. They just kept funneling you a small but livable stipend and hoped you stayed out of their way. I spent seven Biblically-lean years in the physics department. One friend spent ten. We both got out alive.

Some didn’t. It wasn’t long before we had all heard the legend about the graduate student who’d shot his Ph.D advisor. Several years ago I read a New York Times article about two gradu¬ate students who committed suicide while studying in the Harvard laboratory of Nobel Prize win¬ner Prof. E. J. Corey. In a subsequent letter to the Sunday New York Times Magazine of December 20, 1998, Linda Logdberg of Upper Nyack, N.Y. wrote in to comment on life as graduate student:

“”…Perhaps even more now than then, graduate education is an extended adolescence during which highly intelligent young people see their world shrink to fit the dimensions of their advisor’s laboratory… With their identities bound to the outcome of the thesis project, graduate students are socialized to view other options (teaching, industry, even changing to another type of work altogether) with contempt. Wanting a decent wage and meaningful work that occuupies, say, only 50 hours per week are considered signs of selling out.””

It’s an accurate description. We went into science for the love of it and thought nothing else was half as good. Some failed the Ph.D. qualifying exam and left at the end of one year. Others passed the exam and then gave up before getting a thesis advisor. Many threw in the towel mid- thesis. The remainder struggled through and went on to a life of itinerant post-doctoral research. Few of us had an easy time. Ms Logdberg is especially accurate in acknowledging the undeclared self-hatred we felt in looking down on those of our friends who, like failed novitiates in a nunnery, shamefacedly transferred their efforts to less ambitious endeavors. Shame is Pride’s cloke, I read in Blake’s Proverbs of Hell, and understood exactly what he meant. But that was later.

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