“Don’t do it” was the response of a 4th-year graduate student when asked by one of my fellow recruits what advice she had about grad school. We were mingling with current PhD students at Harvard’s recruitment weekend, trying our hardest to look like we knew what we were talking about. I excused this woman’s bitter words as coming from someone who obviously didn’t have my genuine curiosity and passion for science. Surely, I would never feel this way.
Indeed, now a G4 myself at Harvard, I probably wouldn’t tell anyone not to go to grad school, but not because I am any less disillusioned with science than this woman. I wouldn’t start my PhD over from the beginning for anything less than several million dollars. However, if I could jump back and talk my pre-PhD self out of going to graduate school, I wouldn’t. After all, I am a different person because I have spent the last four years of my life working my ass off, getting paid barely a living wage, and spinning my wheels on an impossible project, as my frustration, discontentment and cynicism grow like bacteria in a flask. Actually, aside from my saturated culture of negativity, I think I’m a better person for the struggle. The question always is whether I would be an even better person had I chosen to forego graduate school and get a respectable job with a 401K. Dwelling on where I’d be if I’d picked a different door in this choose-your-own-adventure life is a futile task though. This was the door I chose, and I’ll cling to whatever measly reasons I can come up with as to why it was a good idea. If you too are one who ignored all the warnings and decided to go to grad school, perhaps one of the following justifications will help you come to terms with your decision:
1) Sometimes it’s necessary to pick a direction (any direction) and move.
Maybe I would have been happier had I chosen a different direction when I decided to return to school for science. As it is, however, science got me out of managing coffee shops and eventually into Harvard. Now I’m on my way to somewhere. Maybe even somewhere I want to go.
2) The long way around isn’t necessarily the worst way.
I chose to pursue science over creative writing. Now, however, as I near the end of my PhD, I’m apparently approaching the same fork in the road: writing? science? both? After four years of graduate school, the thought that it was all a waste would lead anyone to find the nearest window and jump. To avoid falling into that dark place where PhD candidate souls go to die, I imagine that I’m actually ascending a (very) long flight of winding stairs. When I reach the next floor, although the landscape appears the same, as a writer with an advanced degree in science, there will be many more open doors than there were on the level below. Moreover, on the way up, I’m discovering some of the doors I don’t want to choose. As my advisor reassures me, although not publishable, negative results can make up at least one chapter of a thesis.
3) A PhD is training for life.
There are times when I’m absolutely certain I will run as far away from science as possible when I graduate. It’s during these times that I stop thinking that I’m getting a PhD in biochemistry. Rather, I imagine that I’m getting a PhD in life. In addition to learning how to run a Western blot, my PhD is teaching me how to think meticulously about a problem, find creative solutions, observe the world, read critically, write persuasively, communicate clearly, and most importantly, how to persevere through failure after failure. Invariably, whether I am a stay-at-home Mom, a writer, or the president of the United States, I will need those skills.
Who knows what doors you’ll find on the next landing and what you’ll learn along the way? Have faith. Keep climbing. Still, on the way up, I’d recommend staying away from the windows.
[Maze photo via Shutterstock]