To cap off my series on why grad school sucks, I’d like to talk about some of the things I did, after all, like about the experience. This will be more personally focused, and may describe aspects of grad school that other people would miss out on, or dislike.
I can read papers
I started out this series by talking about how physics talks are really bad. Even now after finishing a PhD, I find that most talks are still incomprehensible. In contrast, I feel pretty good about my improved ability to read papers.
Note, the best way to understand more physics presentations, is to understand when a presentation is best skipped, and it’s the same way with papers. A lot of skill in reading technical papers comes from knowing when to skip a paper, or when to skip large sections of it. But also, as I got further in my Ph.D., there were fewer sections that I needed to skip, and I could return to old papers and understand them better. Some of my most satisfying experiences were going beyond mere reading, being able to critique papers in detail.
This ability extends beyond my own field of study, to other fields of physics, and to other disciplines entirely. I’ve mentioned before, I’ve read scholarly papers in math, psychology, sociology, gender studies, and law. Of course, some disciplines are more difficult than others.
It’s too bad that the flexible hours in academia make them impossible to regulate, which means that on average people work 50-60 hours just to stay competitive. But the flexibility itself? It’s a plus. It’s nice to be able to come into work whenever I want, and take off days whenever I need to. I also had some flexibility in setting my overall pace.
There’s a difference between flexible hours and irregular hours. Some experiments had me working late at night for three days straight, and others had me working 24 hours straight. It’s not entirely accurate to call this “flexible” because I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. I’d work for three days straight because that’s how long a dewar of helium would last; I’d work for 24 hours straight, because that was how long we’d have access to a synchrotron light source. Irregular hours aren’t fun, but thankfully I didn’t have to do it very often. That’s because…
I didn’t do much lab work
Speaking of false expectations of grad school, I initially expected I would spend a lot of time working in a lab. I did not. And thank gods for that. Lab work was some of the most soul-crushing work I had to do. It wasn’t just irregular hours, it was manual labor, it was constantly debugging problems, it was having to throw out large amounts of work due to silly problems, it was long periods of tedium punctuated by sleep-deprived desperation.
But thankfully, I didn’t have to do much of it. I found my niche with data analysis, which I like much better. And even more time was occupied by writing. Of course, this depends a lot on one’s field of study, and particular project.
Socializing with educated people
To be honest, I didn’t socialize too heavily with other physics grad students. Some of them just talk about their work a lot, which isn’t very fun. But even without socializing with people in my immediate department, educated people tend to gravitate to one another. I think this will remain true long after grad school. I don’t want to generalize too much or be elitist about it, but lets say there are some benefits to well-educated social circles. We tend to understand things about each other, and about the world.
Not least among the educated people I have met, is my robot boyfriend–now fiancé. He went to law school and has some things to say about why law school sucks, but he’s not the one blogging here.
Diversity and inclusion
This needs some caveats, as it obviously depends not only on the institution, but also one’s personal identities. In general, academia has a lot of problems with diversity, particularly with respect to gender and certain ethnic groups (i.e. Black and Latinx, but not Asian). The number of black women physicists is shockingly low, so I can’t imagine that people with that background are pleased with the present level of diversity.
But as a queer Asian man, I can’t really speak to that experience. I can only say that for me, at my institution, I was happy. There are a lot of queer physicists, and we had institutional support as well. I expect that my next job will be a step downwards in terms of diversity.
I also appreciate that we had a lot of international diversity. I feel that I am a better person for having heard so many perspectives from people from outside the US, and I feel I understand my own identity much better because of it.
A broad understanding
A Ph.D. student definitely does not gain a broad understanding of human knowledge. Far from it. Instead, they gain a very deep understanding of a very narrow topic, because that is the only way to contribute new things to human knowledge. Unless they continue in academia, it is unlikely that they will ever do work related to that specific topic ever again. Even people who continue in academia often shift topics.
And yet, in a way, a Ph.D. has given me a broad understanding of human knowledge after all. I learned what it’s like to truly understand a topic, through and through. I know what it feels like, and I know what it takes to get there. I know that nearly everything I blog about casually is something I don’t truly understand. And that’s okay because I also know I don’t have the time to understand it all, no one does. And if I want to understand things just a little better, I know how to get there.
To current and former grad students, what do you or did you like about grad school?