A Fate Worse Than Graduate School

Graduate school is gaining a reputation as an incubator for anxiety and depression.

This uplifting message is the first line in an article that appears in the Review section of The Chronicle of Higher Education for 20 February 2009. The story, by one Piper Fogg, goes on to claim a roughly five-fold greater incidence of anxiety and depressive disorders in graduate students relative to the general population, mopes over several gloomy illustrative anecdotes, and forecasts doom for the intellectual future of these Untied States if the situation does not improve, as the “best and brightest” quit academe for greener career and lifestyle pastures.

Of course, your friendly neighborhood Amoeba had a reaction to this piece.

“Is gaining a reputation? Where the hell has this foggy piper been for the last thirty-five years?!?

For it has been at least that long since the bottom fell out of the future for graduate students in the US, at least for one in most of the sciences.

In the 1960s, as the Cold War raged and the superpowers raced for supremacy in everything from ice hockey to ICBMs, a talented graduate student could expect to spend maybe 4-6 years in graduate school, usually on a teaching or research assistantship that paid tuition costs and a little left over for food and shelter (clothing optional), and then could pretty much count on stepping straight into an assistant professorship at a college or university. If one performed well in research, perhaps that university would be a well-known one, one that would provide a laboratory with a reasonable amount of space and equipment. That equipped laboratory would provide the newly-minted professional scientist with a leg up on getting the grant (note singular) that would provide supplies and funds for the next five years of research – leading up to the all-important tenure decision.

This prospect, and the gung-ho promotion of science in the culture of the time, drove a host of would-be scientists into the graduate-school mill during the 1970s. My hand’s up.

Just in time for the train to come to a crashing halt.

The graduates of the 1960s all got tenure, making their jobs unavailable to the market. New jobs, in the post-Vietnam, post-Arab Oil Embargo national malaise that was the United States of America during the Carter Administration, were not forthcoming. Inflation ate at scholarships and stipends, whose values rose, if at all, at rates less than the prices of tuition and groceries. I was one of the luckier ones with a full 5-year teaching-assistant stipend, and I still carried golf bags on weekends in order to pay for Ramen noodles, and rode on dark city streets from home to work to home on a dark bicycle; lights were beyond the budget.

(I only learned much later about the grad-student colleagues who were from wealthy-enough families that they could invest in houses while they were studying, and sell them at major profits as prices rose from inflation and market pressures. It was just as well that I didn’t know. I believe that there is a real prospect of academia in all its forms becoming, once again, the exclusive domain of the wealthy and their sycophants. All humanity should rage, rage against the dying of this light.)

For the graduating student of 1980, the prospect of moving from graduate school into an academic or industrial job that paid a living wage, maybe, had vanished. For the newly-minted Ph.D. who persisted in this exalted self-flagellation, the only option was the post-doctoral fellowship. One, two, three, four, five years of work at slave wages and minimal if any benefits in the laboratory of a senior scientist, funded by one of the (now) three or four grants that the senior scientist (who was likely to be working 80-hour weeks if Holy Tenure had not yet been achieved) needed to keep a laboratory alive.

It should have been (and indeed was) clear to anyone with even a smattering of economics that entering into the “academic scientist” career track had ceased to be economically rational. The cost in time and wages lost through (now) 5-10 years of graduate school plus 2-6 years of postdoctoral appointments far exceeded what could possibly be recovered in post-education salaries, even if the 5-6-year period of 80-hour weeks as an assistant professor led to tenure, promotion, and status as a teacher (unlikely), researcher (better), or administrator (only bona fide financial option).

Yet still we came. Fueled perhaps by idealism, or a sense of place – and goaded on by a system that desperately needed (and needs) the slave labor of graduate students and postdocs. Especially as the all-important grants slowly dwindled and, while they are not yet dead, their vital signs are worrisome. Career technicians, who need living wages and benefits, are gone from all but the largest research concerns; they are unaffordable.

The wonder is not that so many graduate students are anxious and depressed, faced as they are with the intensity of their daily pressures and the insanity of their economic prospects. The wonder is that so many are not. The greater wonder is that there are any at all. Except perhaps in China, where privation is doctrinal – and the research enterprise is now the equal of the American one, and at a fraction of the cost.

In my career as an independent scientist (from 1984), I have had exactly one Ph.D. student. And that one was an older person whose job and career was as secure as job and career prospects can be in a capitalistic society. Partly, that result has been due to circumstances. But partly, it’s been the result of principle. I found, and find, that to subject a fellow human being to graduate school and its sequels, as they now are, is nothing short of immoral.

Memo to Piper Fogg, The Chronicle of Higher Education. When my friends and I found ourselves confronted with a dire situation, either happening to one of us or being faced by our acquaintances elsewhere, we would refer to the feared outcome of the situation as a fate worse than graduate school.

That was in 1975.

Nothing has changed.

  O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2009 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions expressed are mine, as a private citizen.


  1. You know, I’ve debate going back to get my Master’s degree… and hearing things like this just help make up my mind I don’t really want to do it. 🙂

  2. Brooke, teaching and nursing are two fields in which the cost of the education being demanded far outweighs the salary rewards for completing the programs.

    Calculate how much the program costs directly, and then add in the cost of the wages lost if you had merely stayed at your job rather than quitting or going part-time to study. Then ask how many years it would take to recoup those losses at the salary you’re likely to earn on the completion of the degree.

    If the answer is “never”, don’t do it.

    Of course, “The Man” sells teachers and nurses on the “intangibles” (public service and all that) to keep people coming into a business that currently makes little economic sense to enter. It seems to work. Shame, that.

  3. Your advice was appreciated. And right on the money. (Pun fully intended.) Another reason I’m not going ahead with it is because I’ve seen in nursing the higher the degree, the further you get from bedside patient care… and that’s not what I want. I imagine in teaching the higher the degree the further you get from actual classroom/student time.

  4. […] Britney was not as fortunate as Sherrie. She was unable to score a teaching assistantship at any university, so she remained at the University of Hawai‘i where she could, for the next eight years, pay in-state tuition of $10,000 a year for her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. She never told either of her sisters where she got the tuition money, not to mention food, clothing, and shelter, but both of them got “Britney” spam in their electronic mailboxes that worried them sick. Between the demands of her studies and those of her means of support, whatever it was, Britney was more diligent and worked more hours than her sister on the mainland, and managed to graduate from the UH in eight years without even once being sent to Queen’s Medical Center on suspicion of a breakdown. […]

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