Oh Grad School.
November 22, 2013
For my first ever blog for a graduate student journal I wanted to avoid complaining about grad school. I failed at this. I did however; attempt to constructively break down what it is about graduate school that makes people complain so much.
Some people have a great experience in graduate school. Some people have a terrible experience in graduate school. But I feel it is safe to assume that most people have very frustrating times in graduate school. Why is this? There are probably many contributing factors. Is it the true nature of research to be frustrating? I think partly, but we should be somewhat prepared for that. Is it because we are at the bottom of a learning curve? Perhaps this plays a factor, but it is my experience that the frustrations only get worse as we progress in our graduate degree, and not better.
I understand that the graduate experience should be stressful, I understand that it should be challenging and I understand that it should be a lot of work. I should preface this with the fact that I don’t encounter many graduate students. Working in a department of diverse research interests and in a small lab makes my sample pool small. But I feel that from those I meet I find many of them who want to bash their head against a wall. Again, this could be a symptom localized to my department or to my interpretation, but let’s assume it’s not.
I feel one major contributor to this feeling of wanting to bash one’s head against a wall is isolation. The process of lab research can be completely alienating. It is the nature of a thesis project to be extremely specific. So it is entirely possible that other people in your program or even other people in your lab don’t understand what you are going through. Your supervisor is often too busy to deal with the day-to-day details of lab work, or often has been out of the lab for long enough that they have lost touch with current techniques. When people can’t relate to your specific problems, nor provide constructive solutions this can sometimes cause frustration (in the case of people like me). Friends and families often can’t be as supportive as they would like, because they lack the specific understanding on the bizarre nature of grad school. This is compounded for the many people that move far away from their support system to pursue their research.
Some degree of this is universal to all jobs, however the inability to converse with coworkers on the specific nature of your project can make one irritable (or maybe I never progressed beyond the “no one gets me” stage of adolescence). I feel that for “real jobs” it is less common for individuals to be working in isolation and there is more collaboration in groups. But I could be wrong. Having never had a “real job” (part-time office and fast food employment don’t count) this could just be a case of the grass is greener, which I’m sure is a contributing factor. However, I feel some improved outlets for communication could remedy these situations. Perhaps if lab meetings were always used to constructively critique individual projects there wouldn’t be so many complaints that they are a waste of time. Which brings me to my next point.
The second major factor I can identify that contributes to the complaints about grad school is that supervisors are not trained nor evaluated on their ability to supervise. At least to my knowledge. Some of them are very good at it.
Unfortunately some of them are very bad at it. A great researcher does not a great supervisor make. Why is this assumed? I feel that the quality of graduate student produced by an institution is a measurement of the quality of that institution. So why then would an institution not introduce a method to ensure that these supervisors are receiving quality training? I do not believe that we become better researchers by figuring it out ourselves. That may be my opinion but I think it’s a waste of time. Other institutions and businesses put a great deal of money and effort into training people, and training people how to train other people. Is this a development in the past 50 years that has managed to bypass graduate student education? I feel like I am missing something. Supervisors have individual styles of work and management. I suppose it is the responsibility of the student to investigate what these are prior to signing on for a 5 year PhD, but at the beginning of my graduate career I had no idea what I was getting into, and didn’t know what or who to ask or even what information I was seeking. Five years or even two years, is a serious chunk of time and has the potential to impact your life greatly. It can make or break your career in the competitive field of modern research, or more importantly colour your attitude towards research as a whole. I would think it would be in the interest of the institution, the student and the supervisor to have a standardised procedure or statute of expectations for the management of graduate students.
Having read this I’m no longer confident that the issues I have identified in “grad school” cannot be universally applied to “people in research” which is very broad and probably not worth whining about. But I do feel it is worth mentioning in the event there are other graduate students out there who have felt this way and questioned these things.
I can say that having (almost) completed a PhD in grad school, and living to tell the tale about it I feel I have gained significant skills in the areas you would predict (critical thinking, problem solving, project management, etc) but also in areas I would not have predicted (conflict management, interpersonal dynamics, creative semantics). I guess you can sum it up by saying that every graduate experience is unique and that is both the beauty and the horror of it.