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Which Grad Students Are the Most Miserable? 332

Hugh Pickens writes writes "Jessica Palmer has an interesting post about the miseries of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] graduate students and makes the case that of all grad programs, those in biology are particularly miserable. One basic problem stems from too many biology Ph.D.s and not enough funding, leading to an immensely cutthroat environment that is psychologically damaging to boot. But the main problem is that most of the skills you learn in biology, especially biomedical sciences are only useful in the biomedical sciences and that most grad students don't learn enough 'generalist' skills, such as high level math or serious programming skills, to have other career alternatives if academia doesn't work out. 'A decade ago, sequencing was a Ph.D. activity, or at least, an activity supervised very closely by a Ph.D.,' writes Mike the Mad Biologist."
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Which Grad Students Are the Most Miserable?

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  • by Jack Malmostoso ( 899729 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @08:26AM (#35731530)
    I feel very strongly about this.
    Throughout my career (I have a PhD in Chemistry) I found the preparation in maths of Biology majors absolutely abysmal.
    Fact is, the way I understand it, biology (and medicine, for that matter), is not an exact science and individuating a direct cause effect is close to impossible.
    It all relies on statistics, and showing that a certain treatment has a higher probability of causing a certain beneficial effect (or reducing a side effect).
    Then why in the world don't medical doctors and biology majors receive a STRONG education in math and statistics? Is it because the large majority of them are women, thus the whole "ooohh math is hard, there Barbie, go back to the kitchen" comes into play?
    I find this a shame, it makes me dispute every finding in medical and biology science.

    For further information, see Ben Goldacre's work.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @08:37AM (#35731628)

    I did mine in physics, the wife in Biochem. The real issue I saw with the biology program is that you were unable to publish or graduate with a null result. You do a valid experiment, which could have shown something, but it turns out biology simply doesn't work that way, and so your experiment simply confirms what is currently known and shows nothing particularly new (but done in a new way, so it could have.) Sorry, you don't graduate. So people seem to either fake it (here is a 2 sigma result, might be valid, will need more study, yay I graduate) or they flush out, and in either way nowhere does the result get published so the same experiment will get done 10 more times other places. There seems to be not as much respect for the scientific process, only respect for novel results, which results in bad science and bad scientists.

  • by rolfwind ( 528248 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @09:12AM (#35731916)

    I think the real story is how the advanced education system is utterly failing America. It's a giant, expensive colossus that suck young people into debt and then, when they do get out, many of them don't even go into the profession they trained for. This all smacks to me of a racket. Now, after 12+ (add kindergarten) of education, the college industry sold this country into the premise that you aren't good enough to work a decent job. That you need at least 4+ years at an expensive school that may or may not even tangentially train you for your eventual profession, to even break into the workforce. It reminds me of the DeBeers diamond racket and how they attack the (American) consumer with psychological ads until the general public builds up an emotional and mental picture, wholly inaccurate, of the meaning, rarity, and value of diamonds wholly self-serving to that industry.

    The college industry is the same. It's fine for some professions, and liberal arts may be grand for some people to pursue. But now it's branching everywhere. They even convinced cooks in some places to take forms of college and for a ton of money and with mostly theory and a lot less practical experience. Truthfully, I like the German system much better. For many hands on jobs there, you get an apprenticeship, you take a few weeks of classes (theory) each "semester" and then more weeks of practical on-the-job training. You don't pay, you get paid (a small amount, maybe room and board).

    I think it would be way better for most people to get some work after high school and find out what they like doing, and be offered by their employers training courses that can eventually be credited towards a degree (if we really stay addicted to this paper fetish).

    But with Khan Academy showing education doesn't need to be exclusive, labor intensive on part of the teacher, or expensive, why do I have a feeling that we'll keep throwing kids into college right after high school, at ever increasing prices, for a dubious return when they get an iota of real-world experience and decide they'd much rather do something else?

  • by macraig ( 621737 ) <mark@a@craig.gmail@com> on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @09:16AM (#35731956)

    Seriously, though, Jessica seems to be living in a well-insulated bubble and doesn't seem to realize that competition is burgeoning everywhere, in every occupation; even janitors are miserable. This small planet is now crowded with SEVEN BILLION self-serving mouths with attached gonads... and thanks to said gonads this dynamic will only get worse (until the agriculture system implodes). Of course those who aren't at the pinnacle of the economic food chain would be less miserable if those at the top weren't quite so effective at concentrating natural resources and wealth. Part of the misery is because we're overdue for another revolt to kick the money-changers outta the temples and topple those dancing with their flags at the top of the hill. From a strictly Darwinian point of view, though, the competition serves a valuable purpose, thinning the herd and favoring those with the best sets of mutations.

    So, do we choose to compete with each other in the best Darwinian tradition, and be miserable doing it, or do we cooperate Borg-like to benefit the whole species? We seem to be evolving slowly toward the latter, but not fast enough to stem the misery.

  • by mhackarbie ( 593426 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @09:32AM (#35732136) Homepage Journal

    I got a PhD in biochemistry 7 years ago. I'm now back in IT working as a sysadmin. If I didn't have that previous computer experience, I would be doing day labor right now. I am not kidding.

  • by raddan ( 519638 ) * on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @09:33AM (#35732152)
    I second this, but I am not a biology grad-- I'm a CompSci grad. My undergraduate statistics courses were laughably easy, and in both cases, the profs mysteriously liked to do powerpoints in the DARK. The first class was at 7:30AM. The second at 6:00PM. Not good for retention.

    When I came to grad school, I was suddenly thrown into very advanced mathematics. It was assumed that I knew things like graphical models, differential equations, and mathematical logic. I did not. I am now spending my evenings correcting these deficits.

    If I had any advice for future grad students, in any science or technology field, it is this: spend a year after your undergrad time just preparing for graduate school. Study advanced math. Take the time to focus on doing well on the GRE. Get some lab experience if you can. Get some practical experience if you can. I put myself through my undergrad while working full time, and my schedule needed to be coordinated with my wife's career, so I did not have the luxury of doing this. But you should. You really should.

    That said, even the most prepared grad student will feel unprepared when they get here. I don't know a single person who feels they have adequate knowledge. My friends who were mathematics majors bemoan the fact that their programming skills are so poor (and tell me that I am fortunate to have been a lifelong programmer), but I envy their exposure to things like abstract algebra, advanced statistics, and formal proofs. Having to devise and stick to a plan of self-education is the name of the game. I'm glad that I realized this from the start, but grad school is not easy, and only you can educate yourself.
  • by sandytaru ( 1158959 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @09:37AM (#35732204) Journal
    The glut of new buildings on the local campus always bothers me. It's a boom and bust cycle. "We have money lets invest it in new facilities." Three years later, the state budget panics and strips funding for schools by 60 million. School cannot afford to operated, so hikes tuition. Suddenly, that 15 million new research facility is looked upon by the students with a great deal of resentment, and the school cannot actually afford any faculty members to put into it. Probably the most embarassing thing I've seen was at the UC Berkeley campus, in a 4 story math building. A sign on the elevator said, "Elevator repairs have been delayed due to budget restrictions." When one of the top research universities in the entire planet can't afford to fix an elevator, we've got serious problems with our priorities.
  • by ShakaUVM ( 157947 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @09:50AM (#35732388) Homepage Journal

    >>Computers have become the universal tool, but no one is able to explore their capabilities, recent graduates are like illiterate peasants in a library.

    To be fair, betting on ignorance is always a safe bet, no matter what subject or area of our society you're talking about. Nobody** knows history, math, computer programming, religion, physics, etc. at a very good level these days.

    That said, there's a lot of smart people in every field. Some of the best math people I met were bioengineering professors at UCSD, at least or especially in their areas of expertise. I was fortunate enough to be partnered on my master's thesis project with an AMES guy who was a pretty decent programmer and had a good knowledge of math, but unfortunately the AMES program at the time (early 2000s) was still using FORTRAN. So we had fun getting our code to interoperate, but at least he was competent enough that if I told him how I was formatting my output, he'd have it all read in and analyzed by the next day.

    By contrast, two of the stupidest people I've ever had to work with were at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. It was at the time of the internet boom, so they were having trouble finding competent programmers, so they hired these biology PhDs instead. Their sum output of work in the two years I spent there was half-constructing a web page (that didn't work) and a lot of snarky emails to my professor about how I should be using whatever trendy thing they'd read about somewhere. Because I wasn't using XML or whatever internally in our project, you know, that was the only reason they couldn't get any work done.


  • by Skuto ( 171945 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @09:53AM (#35732418) Homepage

    Very rarely do they understand what they are doing, they just throw some numbers into SPSS and hope the right answer comes out. Today's xkcd seems appropriate: http://xkcd.com/882/ [xkcd.com]

    They probably do know what they're doing: getting publishable results. They're just optimizing their situation. Who cares if it's just wrong (because of lack of multiple-test adjustment)? They're encouraged to publish (i.e. get past peer review), not to be right.

    The conclusions are worthless? Well, I never had the impression much people in academia cared. In the fields I'm familiar with, most of the published improvements are good for the trashcan. There ain't a good enough feedback loop between publishing useful results and getting funding, I guess.

  • by donscarletti ( 569232 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @10:21AM (#35732738)

    My 53 year old uncle is a senior professor (or whatever they call a full professor in North America) in geotechnical engineering. I've heard him lament how kids these days don't know how to do programming, since there are so many pre-made tools that ALMOST do what you need. Amazing to hear a white haired old chap complaining about my generation and its poor computer literacy, usually that is the one exception that they give us credit for. Apparently his PhD students all come running to him to do basic programming for them. Programming of course is on his IBM monstrosity that cost $100K and who's only practical difference from a high-end Xeon is that it runs a visually identical version of AIX and runs an input-compatible version of his Fortran 70 compiler and graphics package as he used in "the good old days"... turns out that old people are just like that.

    As a professional 3d game engine programmer with multiple published titles, it is a little bit embarrassing when he is going on about the Delauny triangulation algorithm he hacked up back in '95 or whenever and I suddenly realise it's better than what I used a few weeks ago with the benefit of the Internet, at that point I just agree and pretend that I use a similar algorithm all the time. Main point of contention is when he interrupts my anecdotes about writing in c with some disparaging remarks about recursion and how I should use an array as a stack in a for loop to make program flow clear or some archaic bollocks, God help me if he ever sees what I do with python.

    Problem is, you force an scientist or engineer to use FORTRAN or MATLAB and you will get code written with hate. He may make good calculation or publish useful papers in his field, but he'll end up a cranky old bastard complaining about how PGPLOT does not look like it did on the faculty mainframe in '87, that is about as un-hacker as they come. Matlab is obviously designed by someone who hates computers and FORTRAN was designed BEFORE the compiler was invented, meaning it was never meant to be used as what we would call a programming language. Engineers/Scientists love this stuff just to be rude to us, because every successfully executed program written in this spaghetti is a huge fuck-you to 40 years of software research.

  • by flappinbooger ( 574405 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @10:36AM (#35732922) Homepage

    If you believe that people should get a real job instead of an education then you've got a country of predominantly labourers and factory line workers. A dangerous route to take in a time when low skilled jobs can get outsourced to somewhere cheaper very easily.

    If a person has a 4 year Bachelors degree in Engineering, for example, and their job gets outsourced, can't find work in a down economy, never learned any other marketable skills, etc etc etc - Wouldn't people in that boat have been better off becoming a Plumber? How about an Electrician? Carpenter? Mechanic?

    I tell you what, engineering, science, manufacturing, all those things can to some extent be outsourced to other countries - and have done, but... If someone's toilet is overflowing and they can't stop the geyser of crap - No-one from India is going to come by and fix it for them. At $65 to show up, $75 per hour, don't you think that the licensed plumber with 20 years experience and a good reputation sleeps soundly at night? Academia might look down on a lowly plumber - but who is more often desperately needed?

    The traditional trades cannot be outsourced, even some of the new ones - You might get your router and switch from China, but they don't install it and configure it for you - A hands-on networking guy is also a "Trade" that can command high hourly rates and cannot be outsourced either.

  • by supercrisp ( 936036 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @10:39AM (#35732946)
    Dozens of applicants for professorships? I've applied for teaching/generalist English professorships in the last year for which there have been 500-800 applicants. No kidding. Those are extreme cases, but most searches, even in specialist areas, are netting at least 150 applications. I think that, right now, any humanities field is a bad bet. In my current department, we've lost about 4 tenure-track lines, and we're having a hard time gaining them back, and these are core areas: early modern British lit, composition, and ESL. It's worse for art history, especially given the teaching expectations. And then the people in German and other languages are seeing entire programs of study wiped out of existence. I don't want to play "who's more miserable?" because there's enough misery going around for everyone to get a share. But the humanities are really suffering for employment now because of the trend toward nontenured, lower-paying teaching roles and the fact that most programs don't have external funding. Whether that equates to more misery or not, I don't know. But it's tough, almost impossible, to get a job paying a living wage, and I don't advise pursuing graduate study in the humanities at this time.

Can anyone remember when the times were not hard, and money not scarce?