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What’s wrong with grad school?

09/15/2009

I recently looked at my meticulously charted iCal schedule, which includes classes, colloquia, meetings, study sessions, exercise, etc. Yes, it’s a little sickening (and looks like a lego sculpture), but what I took away this time was that, in order to get in the *minimum* 20 hours of research per week that I’m paid to do, I would have to work during every block of “free” time until about 7 p.m. every night. There’s a little leeway if I don’t eat lunch, and as a friend pointed out, no, this doesn’t include weekends.

However, the above schedule does not include homework, which I predominantly do on weekends. It also does not factor in the now glaringly obvious fact that the expected amount of research isn’t REALLY what’s expected; it’s the minimum, and if I really want to get anywhere, I’ll need to do considerably more.

Why are grad students expected to work constantly? Is this such a tough question to ask? Does asking it make me lazy or a whiner?

The system, it seems to me, is desperately broken. My office mate comes in before I do every morning – 8 or 8:30 – and doesn’t leave until 7 or 8 every night. And why shouldn’t he? He enjoys his research; he’s single, living with a bunch of other male grad students who also live at their desks. (He also has two – yes, TWO – federally-funded fellowships.) I, however, am married. I enjoy my husband. I enjoy knitting on the couch and watching Star Trek in the evenings, and for some reason, I thought it wasn’t ridiculous to expect that I could do that and still be a successful grad student (if not the most successful – I have no fellowships). To be fair, this semester is especially bad for me, but I don’t see that grad school will suddenly become like a day job after advancing to candidacy.

The system is designed to get people like my office mate into faculty jobs, doing research full time. That’s fine with me; there should be a rewarding destination for hard-working, single-minded, science-loving people. What I don’t like is that there is no niche for the other folks, primarily women, who love science and CAN do it full time – but maybe only the 40-hours-per-week type of full time, rather than 70. Why is a 40-hour commitment seen as half-hearted? Are we just supposed to love our research SO MUCH that we can’t wait to sit in a cubicle and stare at IDL code until we forget what our loved ones’ faces (and the sun) look like?

There’s no way that I can see to excel at science professionally, writing papers and attending conferences and whatnot, without seriously, single-mindedly devoting your life to that pursuit for some substantial amount of time (say, 10 to 15 years). Why? Why is this OK with so many people? How do I change this? Do I become a fringe scientist, doing outreach or writing articles or making policy? (Although admittedly, the last might be more time-consuming than science itself.) Do I continue, as I have been since my classes started, to spend 12 hours per day at the office and forget any hope of having a home life that starts at 5 p.m.? Is that really sustainable or reasonable?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. joe permalink
    08/03/2010 12:51 pm

    I don’t understand this statement: “What I don’t like is that there is no niche for the other folks, primarily women, who love science and CAN do it full time – but maybe only the 40-hours-per-week type of full time, rather than 70.” Namely, why is this an attack on women? Why play the gender card? I think all the arguments you’ve made in your post are equally applicable to male grad students (disclaimer: I’m a married male grad student).

    I agree with everything you’ve mentioned in your post other than the gender thing. I also think that you can’t expect that everyone works 40 hours per week. Many people in industry work much more than 40 hours per week, that’s part of how they get ahead. Some people are prohibited from working more than 40 hours per week, good for them.

    I don’t think anyone has ever been given a guarantee that life would be fair…

    • Julia permalink*
      09/17/2010 10:39 am

      Joe, you make a valid point that unrealistic work expectations are deterimental and unfair to both men and women. This is true! But in general, women are more likely to shoulder burdens that make this much harder (household, childcare, other family concerns) or, I might argue, are less likely to accept this setup (through socialization or whatever) and leave science. On a case by case basis, there are always exceptions to these rules, but when you step back and examine the larger picture, both men and women have these expectations placed upon them but overall, more women are likely to be driven out of science than men because of it.

      Furthermore, please don’t call it “the gender card.” We are discussing legitimate issues in society that touch our lives, and you are trivializing our experiences by using terminology that brings up images of playing crooked games. Please check your privilege at the door next time.

  2. Plasma Dan permalink
    09/16/2009 10:15 am

    Seems that the American labor movement at the turn of the last century had no impact on graduate students.

    The 70+ hours per week works for some people, but it’s getting old for me. Would much rather have a well-rounded life. Perhaps after quals in 5 months…

    It’s a cold-comfort to see that I’m not the only one staring at IDL code all day.

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