Is grad school doing what you love?

Many people place a special value on “doing what you love”. Should you become a corporate tool, or a real-life scientist? “You should do what you love” is the reply. And it’s a reply that is detached from any real cost-benefit analysis. Like, maybe you only sorta love being a real scientist, and maybe you don’t love the working conditions of a scientist, and maybe the salary of a corporate tool is so much higher that it enables you to do other things that you love. But you can’t make a snappy motto out of such considerations.

The problem with “doing what you love” is that it doesn’t come for free. If academic institutions need a certain number of grad students,* then they need to provide incentives for just enough people to apply. “Doing what you love” is one incentive, and it takes the place of other incentives that academic institutions could have offered instead. In other words, they don’t need to pay you well, or treat you well. However much grad students are willing to tolerate in order to do what they love–that’s how much they end up having to tolerate.

*I’m only talking about Ph.D. students and not Masters students. I’ve never heard anyone describe a Masters degree as doing what you love.

In economic terms, we can speak of the “marginal” grad student (a concept similar to the “swing voter”). For the marginal grad student, the expected costs and benefits are exactly equal, such that the decision to go to grad school could go either way. It may be that the marginal grad student thinks they would love being a scientist, but this is exactly offset by the costs. So for some people, grad school may be a good deal. But the deciding factor is not merely whether you love grad school, it’s whether you’d love it more than the marginal grad student.

Beyond that, I think even the marginal grad student is getting a bad deal. The marginal grad student expects they would love grad school, but ends up loving it less than they predicted.

One thing that screws with people’s initial expectations is that academic research is not much like undergraduate work. In undergraduate physics, you use a lot of math to solve closed-ended problems with well-defined solutions. In physics research, you might think, the problems are more open-ended, that’s all. But even this is wrong. Most time is spent not solving problems at all, but rather reading and writing. To the extent you do solve problems, they tend to be much less glamorous than you might imagine. There are problems like, “Why won’t this instrument work?” and “How could I persuade anybody that this mess of an experiment says anything useful?”

People’s expectations are also informed by popularizations of science. Physics popularizations tend to emphasize and glamorize cosmology and particle physics, while ignoring the biggest field of physics, condensed matter. As a result, most physics grad students start out wanting to do theoretical cosmology and particle physics. There’s a predictable shift towards experiment, towards condensed matter and other lesser-known fields. Students discover that there’s too much competition, or that the field they wanted to study wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Graduate admissions regularly take this shift into account when considering applications.

Another issue is that academic institutions are trying to sell you something, and will naturally overstate its value. One thing that particularly bugs me, is that when I started, everyone said a Ph.D. takes 5 years. You can look it up, and find that these fine places of learning and knowledge are blatantly lying. In the US, 7 years is more typical, depending on your field. (It can be very different in other countries.)

Finally, grad school can leave you somewhat trapped. A lot of the value of grad school comes from the degree you get at the end. So if you find that it didn’t meet your expectations, you either have to go along with it, or give up the promise of a degree.

I’m talking about physics, but I think the mismatch of expectations and reality occurs in many fields. If you have any relevant personal experiences, tell us about it in the comments!

When people say “Do what you love”, I believe that it means that we should not just consider the remunerative benefits of a job, but also the fuzzier benefits, such as our happiness while working on the job. After all, money can’t buy happiness, or it’s less effective than people generally believe. The problem is that people widely expect to love grad school, but grad school generally does not meet expectations. And in the mean time, the high expectations drive down not just salaries, but also drive down fuzzier benefits like work conditions.

Put it this way. When you accept a relatively low-paying job because you think the job will make you happier, that is a form of buying happiness. As with most attempts to buy happiness, grad school is less effective than people generally believe.

This is part of my series on why grad school sucks. Disclaimer: None of this series should be taken as a reflection of my personal experience with grad school, even when I use myself in rhetorical examples. Some of it is based on personal experience but some of it is based on other people’s experiences, news articles, and speculation.


  1. says

    I’ve never heard anyone describe a Masters degree as doing what you love.

    Now you have. I’m a Master’s student, and I love what I do, both the coursework and the TA work. If they weren’t forcing me to graduate to get a real job, I would do it forever.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Physics popularizations tend to emphasize and glamorize cosmology and particle physics, while ignoring the biggest field of physics, condensed matter. As a result, most physics grad students start out wanting to do theoretical cosmology and particle physics.

    Do you have data, or even anecdotes, to support this, or are you guessing? It certainly wasn’t my path. My attraction to particle physics (and cosmology to a lesser extent) was down to my undergraduate exposure to the subjects. There was a beauty and simplicity which showed through even then (certainly by end of second year), and more so as progressed. I suspect that if I were starting out now, exposure to modern pop-sci would have an off-putting effect.

  3. says

    @Rob Grigjanis,
    The fact that students initially want to do cosmology and particle physics is common wisdom at our university at least. But as to why that is, I can only speculate. I think pop-physics is a better explanation than prior coursework, because I don’t think most physics undergraduates even take particle physics or cosmology, and I don’t think those courses are systematically more appealing to students. I took a particle physics course as an undergrad, and it was a big turn-off for me.

  4. Alan J says

    Since you asked, my experience in psychology/cognitive science was pretty much the same. I wanted to get a Ph.D. in psychology because I loved thinking and reading about big questions like how the mind works and what is consciousness. When you go grad school, you are surrounded by smart people who are also interested in talking about big questions like these, which is great. But reading and talking about big questions doesn’t actually get you a Ph.D. So I agree that getting a Ph.D. isn’t usually the same thing as “doing what you love.”

    Like you, I became pretty disillusioned with grad school by my third or fourth year. Unlike you, I ultimately stayed in academia and chose to focus more on teaching, which I have found more rewarding.

    I have sometimes wondered, though, if I might have been just as happy if I never went to grad school and just pursued my interest in cognitive science as a hobby. But I can’t help thinking if I had done that I would always regret that I didn’t follow my true passion. It seems like a bit of a catch-22.

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