Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A note/request on the "I Quit Graduate School in Chemistry" from Prof. Tehshik Yoon

An e-mail from someone I respect, Professor Tehshik Yoon, on this project: 
CJ and I exchanged a couple tweets of the other day, in which I expressed a bit of ambivalence about his #IQuitGradSchool project. Tweets, of course, are a terrible way to capture complicated feelings, so CJ reached out and offered me the opportunity to explain what I meant in a guest entry on his blog. 
So first of all, let me say that I essentially like the project.  What I like most about it is the same thing I like in general about chemistry blogs and Twitter and so on: I think it’s valuable whenever we speak openly and honestly about our experiences in graduate school.  Everybody struggles through the difficult transition from undergrad to grad school, and I think it helps us all feel less bad about it when we realize that this is true. 
In the stories that CJ has posted so far, I like the fact that so many respondents say they’ve landed in good places after leaving grad school, professionally and personally. And I think that’s a really important thing to acknowledge: leaving the PhD track is sometimes a good decision.  An MS is not some mere consolation prize, and it would be a mistake to consider it a personal failure. 
On the other hand, it’s also true that leaving graduate school is not the right decision in every case.  It would be great to get a little balance in the stories that are getting told here. 
So I’d really like to hear some success stories as well.  Tell me about times that the system worked: folks who had a hard time in grad school but ended up in good places; mentors who did the right thing by their students; stories of women, minorities, and LGBT students being supported by the field.
I set out on this project to learn from people who left graduate school and that's what I feel I've been doing by blogging about this. I still have at least 4 or 5 stories yet to edit and I plan on writing more about what I've learned.

I like Prof. Yoon's suggestion that I solicit stories from people who feel they succeeded in graduate school in chemistry, especially those who feel they overcame a barrier. I am committed to hearing from (and telling my readers about) as many stories of graduate school in chemistry as people want to tell. Thanks to Prof. Yoon for the suggestion. 

68 comments:

  1. What I've seen as the biggest benefit of this project is its giving a voice to a hitherto invisible demographic. When I started graduate school I was surprised at the (relatively) high attrition rate and also the complete lack of information on those who left besides, "oh yeah, X left because Y," or "I haven't seen Z lately..." I agree that leaving graduate school is not always the right choice, however we get bombarded with stories from those who stayed as they usually postdoc/stay affiliated with academia for longer. To make an informed choice we need to know what can happen if we choose to leave.

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  2. Yeah, and it's about time we saw some more lottery winners on the news as well. That's balance…err, I mean survivor bias. Prospective grad students are already inundated with the STEM propaganda from before they even get to college, so they all enter into it thinking they're awesome and they will be sought after for their much-needed science skills (there's a shortage of tech workers don't you know, and my undergrad adviser says I'm super kewl). So I don't think we need to hype the winners in the name of "balance". I don't think my cohort was unusual in that fewer than half of us actually stuck it out to the PhD.

    Academics will always consider someone who landed any job after a terrible grad school experience as a success, ignoring opportunity costs and lost earning potential and lowered self esteem and confidence. In other words, someone smart and dedicated enough to get into grad school in the sciences is fit enough for survival in the real world - It must have been academia that did that for them, right? It's like me taking credit for my ex's success after she broke up with me on account of all the mental abuse. She's with a really good guy now, so I must have really taught her something. Academics have it backwards, they take productive, energetic and motivated people and use them up and exploit them in the grad school pyramid scheme.

    "So I’d really like to hear some success stories as well… stories of women, minorities, and LGBT students being supported by the field." Yeah, women and minorities in the sciences are never hyped up these days. Academia just doesn't care about diversity…pffffft…schrfffff… HA HA HA HA HA! Sorry, I really tried to say that with a straight face. As far as LGBT, if the trend continues and that counts as a diversity, get ready for the unemployed masses to go full Klinger (M*A*S*H) and put a new spin on the term "gay for pay".

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  3. I think the operating assumption is that people will finish grad school, and if they don't, that there must be something wrong with them - hence there are lots more stories of people who got through grad school and did well than of those who didn't get through grad school (and did well, or not). In stories of people have gotten through grad school and done well, there is generally no expectation of a balancing story, and so I am not sure that it is legitimate to expect one here. In addition, the stories of people who left don't have the implication that leaving grad school is the only option - they don't imply that they are the reality and getting through grad school is the fantasy, but the same has not been generally true of stories of success.

    I think that there are lots of people for whom grad school is good, whether they get through or not. However, the mismatch of the job market and the people being trained in grad schools (in particular, the numbers of people needed and provided) means that expectations are being established for grad students that have no basis in reality. Even for those that get through grad school, there may be no opportunity to do what they were trained to do. The stories of people leaving grad school confront these problems at an earlier stage, and seem to be a spot where what people are told and what actually happens do not correspond. I suspect those frustrations may be more general than simply with those who left grad school, and seem to rarely, if ever, find expression.

    I think that balance in the grad school experience ought to start earlier, with an honest look at what people do in grad school, how it works, and what the likely prospects are for jobs and happiness when you leave. I think these issues are rarely confronted, because either people don't know about them or because they don't matter to the people who do (either from overgeneralization of successful experiences or because research requires a constant stream of people to work or something else). I don't think the expectation of honesty ought to fall solely on those who cite bad experiences.

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  4. There seems to be an opportunity here for stories of those who completed the PhD but, to whatever extent, regret their path. Not all success stories are worth duplicating.

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    1. "Not all success stories are worth duplicating." <--- Too true...

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  5. i would share my 'i stayed in grad school and it worked out' story...but i had no support from my advisor and I received my phd with little help from the system. honestly, i think my advisor just threw the degree at me to get rid of me. sorry prof Yoon. the system sucks. as a female grad student, i was subjected to hazing, to blatantly sexist remarks, acts...the advisor wouldn't care what people did, as long as they published. he ignored each and every bit of drama...each and every complaint...each and every problem. i ended up squeaking out just enough work to justify that degree and then i ran for the hills. i wouldn't repeat the experience even if you put a gun to my head. what a shit show.

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    1. Interested in talking more? E-mail me at chemjobber@gmail.com

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    2. I would, but do you know how many people read your blog? :) I'd get labeled in a heartbeat! and my advisor is NOT a small name.

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    3. Heh, not as many people as you'd think. I would collaborate with you to make sure that it was as obscured as we could make it -- I try pretty hard.

      Either way, if you just want to talk to *just* me about your experiences, I'd like to hear them. chemjobber@gmail.com

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  6. While I think that the opportunity to provide other options for students who are struggling that allow them to get PhDs is important, this criticism seems sort of empty to me. This series of posts attempts to provide some counterbalance to the dominant narrative in academia, which values getting a degree and pushing through the program over mental health in many instances. Asking to balance these stories with "success stories" misses the point.

    Also, the use of the phrase "success stories" seems to reinforce the dominant narrative, in which leaving grad school is often considered failure.

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    1. I don't think that's the case. I think that hearing stories about completing a PhD and stories about completing a masters are both important. Grad students should hear both as it will help them weigh their decision. I've been tempted to leave in the past for research and non-research reasons, but the career I want really requires a PhD. I've decided it's worth it. My PhD has been been long and at times demoralizing, but I think I've made the right choice for me in staying and completing it.

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  7. I don't usually promote my own blog on other blogs I comment on but I've written a series of 3 articles on whether a chemistry PhD is a good idea or not. I consider myself one of the "successes"' in that I had, on balance, very good experiences in grad school and in my career so far. Yet there are still so many drawbacks to the whole process that the industry (mainly academia and the ACS) like to pretend don't exist. ChemJobber has seen these so I hope he won't mind me posting the link here? (This is part 3, the links to parts 1 & 2 are in the first paragraph).

    http://rnrchemist.blogspot.com/2015/02/to-phd-or-not-to-phd-part-3.html?m=1


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  8. "stories of women"

    I am a woman who left grad school because her advisor was emotionally abusive. Come to think of it - most people in his male-dominated group had a low EQ.

    What, Professor Yoon? My story has declined the number of applications you got for your graduate school?!?!?!? Interesting. Maybe academia will have to make due with less people until they learn how to act more nicely. In the meantime, my salary potential will remain crippled despite the fact that I am outperforming most PhDs in my company. If someone is dumb and lazy, but happens to complete a PhD, are they a "success story"?

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  9. Ditto "stories of women".

    I'm a woman who got her Ph.D in 1990, who had a neutral (neither good nor bad) experience in grad school. Yet it still boggles my mind that 25 year later, it is still considered something non-ordinary for a woman to get her Ph.D and not have a bad experience, on top of the other negatives everyone experiences just getting through grad school. Is this how things still are?

    At least Prof. Yoon seems to somewhat acknowledge that this can still be an issue even today.

    "mentors who did the right thing by their students"
    I'd like to read one of these stories. Even in my neutral experience in school, I knew of only one professor who cared about his students' difficulties in the lab, and who cared if the students were learning anything or not. Other professors (mine included) just wanted the lab work done.

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    1. Ah, then you will love this story from Evans lab: Dave has been always looking after his students.The way he let his most dull and unmotivated senior student to earn his PhD was to ask him to take over a project, a project from people who just left the group (a bright undergrad and a summer intern) and who happened to produce JACS-worthy and not-yet-published results. So the guy got publications, got to write his thesis and he graduated. But since Dave Evans knew that this guy was scientifically inert, he insisted that this student would not pursue career in research. So the guy, with his fresh degree, went straight to work for a hedge fund. Well, couple years later, the people Broad Institute at Harvard were looking for a CEO of their biotech startup and guess who got the job... So you see, it was win-win, no science got harmed in the process. Everyone got publications.

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    2. I'm a woman and got my PhD in 1994. I had a wonderful experience in grad school, which I attribute to the school and advisor being a good fit for me personally.. Some of my classmates, both male and female, had completely different experiences, though. I didn't notice much sexism during grad school/postdoc, but did encounter a lot more when I looked for faculty positions and at the startup where I worked for many years. Now I'm back in academics as a senior staff scientist.
      It boggles my mind to read stories about the sexism in some labs nowadays. Although I think things are getting better overall, I feel like some groups and subdisciplines are worse than they used to be.

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  10. I was talking to a postdoc in my lab today, and had the thought that I just wanted to interview a load of postdocs to ask how they got through the whole PhD trial. Then, I realized this is pretty close to your MO here. So, I'd really like to see this from a "how the f*** do you actually do this" point of view.

    Will anyone give me odds that Anonymous Commenter (Comment #2) is straight...?

    By the way CJ, your blog has been eating some of my comments recently. I click 'publish', and have to rewrite them...

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    1. Ugh, I am really sorry, re: commenting eating. Cut and paste before submitting?

      (What platform are you on?)

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    2. Not your fault! I'm trying to remember to cut and paste. (Ironically, I just forgot, and am typing this for the second time.)

      Latest Chrome update/two different OS's. Once I typed a 'name/URL' comment, clicked 'publish' and it previewed it with my Google Account info as username! Given the content, I'm glad it didn't go ahead and publish it...

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  11. Survivor bias has been mentioned here, and there's another kind that gets overlooked - most of the people who had awful experiences like mine end up leaving the field, so their stories are never told. I heard rumors of a girl in my group several years before me who had a nervous breakdown and refused to leave her apartment (sounded a bit like E's story) - I wish I knew her name so I could Google her and see where she is now, but it's very likely that she's now out of science and not reading this blog.

    Opportunity costs have been brought up too. I'm in a good place now, but I really wish I could have a mulligan on my 20's. The loss of self-confidence was harmful both professionally and personally, and easily outweighed any benefit I received by deepening my knowledge of chemistry.

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  12. When I first read Prof. Yoon's comment, I felt a bit disheartened and it reinforced for me the idea that leaving grad school made me a failure. I can say I was a good student and researcher - I had a strong work ethic because I came to grad school from industry and felt that I had to work hard, get a PhD and attain autonomy in my work through that process. I just found the management of my lab to be so horrible that I ultimately felt that my mental health would be compromised if I stayed.
    Other people stayed despite their grievances with my adviser and they're on track to graduate. Some of them are admittedly quite incompetent and still inexperienced when it comes to the enormous variety of skills required for industry. Does that make them success stories in Prof. Yoon's eyes?

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    1. Yikes! I'm really sorry. I tried to say exactly the opposite in my note. So let me be clear here: I in no way think that a Master's degree is a failure. I left my first research group with a master's degree (for a number of complex reasons, the largest of which being some health issues in my family), so considering the choice to leave a PhD program a failure would be hypocritical on my part. You and I are part of a reasonably large minority (~30%) of incoming doctoral students in chemistry who terminate their programs early for whatever reason.

      Yours is one of several posts that asks what I mean by a "success story". And no, I don't think anyone would consider an ill-prepared PhD to be a success. But I think it's an even bigger tragedy when talented graduate students leave science because (a) they feel alone and unsupported by the community; (b) they have to deal with the all-too-common racist/sexist/homophobic attitudes, of which there's a great example earlier in the comments to this entry; (c) they don't see successful role models who come from backgrounds similar to them.

      As a community, academic chemists worry about the "leaky pipeline" quite a lot, particularly when we recognize that women and minorities are leaving graduate programs at higher rates than average. The cynical view that PIs just want to grow a cheap labor pool is just not reasonable; grad programs receive many more applications than they can admit, so it's not like it's important to grow the overall size of the applicant pool. There are, unfortunately, too many PIs who are giant dickheads like it sounds like your advisor was, who do not take their roles as mentors seriously. But there are also PIs who are acknowledged as being very good mentors and who think deeply about how to create a supportive environment. I thought that Jacobsen did a really great job of this when I was a postdoc in his group, and I think it's really good to note how many of the newest successful young female chemistry professors are products of his group (Reisman, Doyle, White, Balskus, Schindler, Lebel, Watson, Jarvo, and so on). I've also seen instances of really great, thoughtful mentorship from interacting with people like Bergman, Bertozzi, Gellman, Sanford, Stoltz, and Grubbs over the years. Finally, I'll briefly pitch the Cottrell Scholars, a group of young PIs who are selected on the basis of their commitment to the educational and mentoring aspects of their jobs. So they're out there, even if I don't have a good sense of what the proportion of good to bad PIs might be.

      I think there are a couple of outcomes I'd like to see from this exercise. First of all, I'd like there to be some sense of what best practices are in mentorship. Most of you, whether you have a PhD or not, will end up in positions of authority in your careers at some point, and you will have to learn to be mentors. Let's talk about how to do that well! That seems like an important goal to me. More importantly, I really want grad students who are in bad situations like yours was to know that there are multiple ways out, from changing groups, to changing schools, to developing mentor relationships with people outside of your lab, to seeking conflict resolution from an ombsbuds office, or to leaving the doctorate track upon realizing that it's not right for you. All of these options are available, and I want to talk about more of them than just "leave" or "suffer".

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    2. Original poster here.

      Thanks for the reply Prof. Yoon. Having met you and one of your students, I do understand and see that you're invested in fostering a good mentorship environment. I have met some of the professors you mentioned too and I also felt that their students had good working relationships with them.

      Sadly, I didn't end up in one of those groups and I did go through the processes you suggested in order to change advisers. I was met with a lot of politics and it ended up in me having to go because there was no other option. In line with what you were saying, there had been too many applicants to the program, which led to too many acceptances. Students were scrambling to find an adviser that would take them, even if they didn't feel like they fit in with the group.

      I was in the midst of all this, trying to change groups when no one had an empty spot. It was also frustrating having to navigate the politics while dealing with my mental anxieties and not wishing to disclose my medical status directly to professors. Any sort of group-changing that happens is always very hush-hush, as though it's shameful for the department. I wish it hadn't been that way and that I could have persevered and gotten a doctorate. Unfortunately, the way I saw it in my department, people skills trumps hard work and dedication to research.

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  13. People are being a bit overcritical when it comes to Yoon's working. If you enter grad school with the goal of getting a PhD and you don't, then you "failed" to get your PhD. That doesn't make you a failure in life, or in your education. Reading most of the comments on this blog (not just this post) in a vacuum would lead one to assume that the majority of people across the country have horrible grad school experiences, and I don't think thats the case. I'd actually say that on blogs such as this one, there is a "non-survivor" bias. Most people who are out there happily working as researchers or professors simply don't comment on chemistry blogs.

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    1. Nice try, Prof. Yoon.

      Actually, I think if the attrition rate is so high ( as has been shown here before http://chemjobber.blogspot.com/2012/11/how-many-1st-year-grad-students-will.html ) then I it might be the graduate program that is failing, and not so much the students. Use 'em up and spit 'em out - that's their motto (in Latin). As a few people have pointed out here, the PhD system doesn't really select against mediocrity. I made it to the end and I was far from the brightest. In fact, intelligent and introspective people who think the kind of deep thoughts we need more of in academia seem to be more prone to self-doubt and depression that leads to dropping out. Meanwhile, us clods who are blissfully unaware of our own limits continue on knowing how awesome we are and criticism from the PI just bounces off or flies right over our heads.

      I'd love to see a scientific poll on how ex-grad students really feel about their time in grad school.

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    2. *raises hand*

      I'd tend to disagree with you actually. As I commented above, I'm quite happy in my career as a PhD chemist. I had good experiences with great advisors in both grad school and my postdoc. That being said, I was still witness to many of the problems in the way the field educates and produces scientists, both as an observer and as close friends with several people (in other groups) who had absolute nightmare experiences. So it's definitely valuable to give those stories a platform. Also, know what I now know given that I've been a working stiff for almost a decade after my postdoc, I'm still ambivalent about whether it's a good idea for someone to go into the field. Just because I and others have had good experiences doesn't mean that there still aren't problems that should be discussed and exposed.

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    3. Ha! I'll sign with my own name, thanks.

      Many programs do self-assessments periodically in which we ask how ex-grads feel about their time in grad school. I'll try to go find our data, but we do reasonably well by both our master's and PhD students. Obviously, we would love to do better. But the sense that the system is fundamentally broken is not supported by data.

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    4. (My comment was in response to Anonymous at 12:33pm, not the one after. So no one gets confused!)

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    5. ""non-survivor" bias"

      (slow clap)

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  14. Quick follow up before I have to run: We did our most recent survey of grad alumni in Spring 2014. 63% of respondents said that they were either "satisfied" or "very satisfied' with their graduate experience; 3% reported being "dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied". The mean was 4.29 on a 1-to-5 scale.

    I think these numbers reflect what I've been trying to argue. There are those who are not being served well by graduate school, and we need to do better in either mentoring them or finding an easier path off of the PhD track. But I don't think the data support the contention that graduate school is fundamentally broken.

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    1. Alumni = graduates, right?

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    2. One more question - was the survey anonymous, and if so, were those taking it confident that it truly was? I would expect the mean to be pretty close to 5 out of 5 if people weren't 100% sure it wouldn't get back to their advisor.

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    3. Finding out how happy/satisfied people are in other career paths would provide some needed context. How happy are doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. I doubt you'd find any field where 100% of the workforce is happy, but what would a realistic target number be and how close is chemistry to that target? It's tough to tell from anecdotes, particularly if they're only from one or two points of that aforementioned 1-to-5 scale.

      Granted, even if 99% of chemists were to be overwhelmingly happy with their educational choices and profession, that number would be meaningless to that remaining 1%.

      Overall, this has been an interesting discussion to follow. Both Prof. Yoon and his detractors have brought up some excellent points. I think that he is right in that we should recognize positive instances of mentorship. All too often, it seems like the most decorated researchers are also the most horrid assholes. Pointing out successful researchers who do right by their students would both reward these mentors and help direct incoming students to more positive situations and success stories.

      The other commentators are correct in that graduate school isn't a good idea for everyone, and I don't think that anyone is claiming that. If you don't have a strong aptitude for chemistry, don't go for the Ph.D. I can't think any changes that you could make to a graduate program that would fix that. Likewise, I don't think that any PI benefits from having an unmotivated student. The wrong set of hands can waste an awful lot of time and money, and both of those resources are in increasingly short supply.

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    4. KT: Good questions. This was a survey of former graduate students. We did surveys of current grads at the same time and got similar results (4.10 satisfaction). I can't say for sure that the survey was anonymous, as I wasn't involved in the measurement and I don't have access to the original instrument. But surveys of this sort are performed on a routine basis here; best practices would call for an anonymous survey. There is also plenty of critical feedback in the narrative response section of the survey, so I don't believe people were holding back.

      TIC: Yeah, I don't know how relevant a comparison to other fields would be. On the one hand, I occasionally look at a blog about the legal profession that my college roommate writes (it's called Above the Law in case you're interested), and many of the concerns expressed by law students and young lawyers are strikingly similar to the sorts of comments you find on chemistry blogs: the job market sucks, the profession suffers from rampant sexism, the management is corrupt and/or inept. On the other hand, let's say that we were to carefully measure career satisfaction across many different professions and find that chemistry was a bit better than average. Would that excuse us from trying to improve circumstances in our field?

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    5. I adamantly do not agree that chemistry suffers from rampant sexism. In fact, I would argue the opposite. In medicinal chemistry, my previous profession before I got downsized, I would argue that old white guys get in the back of the line. I have personally seen women with much less qualifications get jobs and promotions ahead of men. Simple supply and demand. Despite a pristine record of papers/patent and years of experience in med chem, I could not get a med chem interview to save my life. I changed professions out of the need to eat.

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    6. It seems that rather than ever seeking true equality or fair treatment for all, we end up with pendulum swings in attempts to right the wrongs of the past.

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  15. "especially those who feel they overcame a barrier."

    It would be really amazing to get a story from someone who did their undergrad in a different major, such as Chemical Engineering, and experienced, struggled, and ultimately succeeded in getting their Chemistry graduate degree/PhD. Is it possible to do such a leap?

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    1. Oh sure. My first grad student was a ChemE major. She kicked ass!

      I don't feel good about talking about specifics about her grad career in public without her permission, so if you want more details, please feel free to email me.

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    2. That's awesome to hear! I'm a junior undergrad ChemE at the moment, and I'd love to do my graduate degree in not-ChemE, and perhaps in Chemistry. Not certain that I will even do a grad degree because I don't think I'm mentally/physically strong enough, but it's nice to know it's possible!
      Thanks! I might take you up on the offer of email, if that's okay, after my finals have ended!

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    3. Hey Anon, this is "Z" from one of the previous entries. I also entered a Chemistry program with a BS in ChemE. I'd be happy to talk to you through e-mail, maybe try asking CJ if he can pass my e-mail address along to you, or let him know that he can pass yours on to me. Good luck on finals :-) (I imagine you've got exams in what, transport phenomena and separations?)

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    4. Reporting success getting a Chem. Ph.D. after a M.Sc. ChemEng. I didn't notice any real barriers so the story isn't amazing, either. Both sides of chemistry were what I was interested in and I continue to use the entire breath of my background.

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  16. Will all due respect Prof. Yoon, the current graduate education system is a farce. You have what, 10-15 students? I bet your department alone could swallow up every single new job posted in 2014. Tenure-track organic faculty are self-serving sociopaths- the current and future job market DOES NOT EXIST. You are putting people though a very difficult period, with decades of 'worseness' to follow. While you personally have no control over admissions, until you and all of your peers force admissions committees to set real and honest quotas, you are part of the problem. Far too may of my peers just hit the 10+ yrs of experience wall, and then found out what lies after yet another round of layoffs.......

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    1. I wouldn't call faculty generating students for a field that no longer really exists sociopaths. They are just in denial. And what can they do? Their most important task is to do the jobs necessary enough to support their own families. Whether it creates individuals with good job prospects is further down the list, and few will end their careers and starve their families because if the PhD's they created are not happening to get good jobs and a viable career.

      My graduate advisor had pretty much what I think is the standard attitude about the tens of students he has graduated with PhD's, which was: I provide the opportunity and training (the later of which he really didnt, I was self trained) and the rest is up to you. Other than writing nice letters of recommendation to his PhD's and placing one in good academic position in the school he is at (he really liked this girl personally), he though nothing more. The science, and not personal fates, were more interesting to him.

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    2. I agree with NMH. That seems to be the general attitude of professors. Once the degree is handed to their students, they have no further interest in them. It's become cliche that a research group's web page always has >50% of their alums listed without a current employer. (The others usually only have their first jobs listed.)

      Having said that, there are some sociopaths out there who fully know their students' long-term prospects are bad and getting worse.

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    3. I think a possible example to consider could be Paul Bracher at St. Louis University (Chem Bark). He seems like a great guy. Probably will give a good damn of the people that will work for him. Some of his ideas may actually work. I would not think at all he is a sociopath...last guy I would expect.

      But lets be real; he needs Chem graduate students and post-docs to get things done. What are the chances of being a grad student or a post-doc at a third or fourth tier institution that he is in ever getting a decent job? It is possible, but not nearly as likely as someone at faculty in Boston.

      Lot a great young faculty out there, like him. But he is forced by circumstances to use cheap labor that will have few good options. Not really his fault. It is a problem with the way the system is set up.

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    5. [sorry... couldn't stand the typos in the first draft]

      I am of two minds as to how to address this.

      One is to acknowledge that the pharmaceutical employment landscape has changed substantially, and that hiring is likely to remain volatile. This is the new reality, and many graduate programs (ours included) are responding by creating stronger job placement resources, better training for critical non-technical skills, improving networking resources, and increasing access to information about non-technical career paths for PhD scientists.

      But I think it's also productive to examine the assertion that PhD programs are dramatically overproducing PhDs. Alumni of Wisconsin's graduate program report the following employment patterns: 33% industry, 6% government, 10% postdoc, 36% other academic, and 10% non-chemistry-related. 5% of respondents reported being "not currently employed." We didn't break down this last data point further, but the narrative responses suggest that this value includes retirees and partners of single-income family earners as well as current job seekers. Again, I hesitate to generalize our program broadly across the entire national picture, but I note that these values are all pretty consistent with the ACS national employment survey data.

      What I hope you can take away from this analysis is that (1) chemistry graduate programs are both aware of and responding to changes in the employment landscape, but that (2) the claim that chemistry PhD programs are dramatically overproducing PhDs is not really supportable by empirical data.

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    6. First, I want to thank you, Professor Yoon, for usefully engaging in this comment thread.

      I think it'd be great if you went back to your data set (which sounds like it's not too large) and see if there was a difference in outcome between those who responded and those who did not.

      The unemployment rate for ACS members for the 2014 Salary Survey was 2.9% (surveyed in March 2014.) I think that's within the error bars, but you likely have more industrially-oriented members.

      Also, for what years of graduates was this survey done? If you're including retirees in this survey, how useful is this data to our thread/your program?

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    7. My view on this diverges quite a bit from the norm...let me start with a question: Is graduate school in chemistry a vocational program? IMO the PhD is primarily a pursuit of knowledge, a chance to hit an interesting problem hard and expand our understanding into the unknown. Employment prospects has traditionally/previously been a fringe benefit to the study of organic chemistry, but I would not even come close to saying that it is the purpose of the degree. Even if there were no jobs at all I could not, in good conscience, turn away a student who was genuinely interested in research and qualified to carry it out. Again, this might be anathema to many here but I think that chemistry graduate school should be approached as a chance to investigate something that you're passionate about (and without taking on debt, no less) and NOT as a ticket to a high paying job (but that would be nice, obviously).

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    8. What? Graduates from a top-ten chemistry program have a low overall unemployment level, even within chemistry? What exciting news!

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    9. "Even if there were no jobs at all I could not, in good conscience, turn away a student who was genuinely interested in research and qualified to carry it out. " This is absurd. And what's more how long do you think people would remain interested if there were no jobs?

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    10. I would have to agree with Bad Wolf. I realize that these are the only numbers you can really discuss with any degree of confidence, TPY, but Wisconsin has a strong and highly selective graduate program that will skew the results more towards the successes. There are about 200 graduate chemistry programs in the U.S.; what do the numbers look like for, say, number 100? The ACS numbers will certainly not include people who've given up on the field entirely, so I'd be hesitant to trust these.

      In an earlier comment, TPY mentioned some steps that Wisconsin was taking towards addressing the, uh, new economy. This may be better suited for its own column, but these practices may be worth sharing.

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    11. Fair enough. Survey data like these should always be read through a critical lens, and your critique is a reasonable one. I offered the Wisconsin numbers to address the question of whether PhDs were being massively overproduced. They aren't at our place, and my understanding is that such long-term planning reviews are commonly done in most departments. So the community has the tools to course-correct if we are indeed vastly over-producing PhDs. However, I am aware of no non-anecdotal data that support the contention that we are.

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    12. Thanks to Prof. Yoon for the feedback and Iron Chemist for the clarification. I am not as down on the absolute numbers as many here but the mid- to lower-quartile departments really are the terra incognita of employment figures, and the place where you'll really see opportunity costs incommensurate with opportunity. Top students and top schools? Probably still a good deal, honestly.

      Could/Should smaller departments be streamlined or even closed? Didn't that happen in Britain? I think the top one or two departments (eg Berkeley and Harvard) alone produce sufficient academics to staff most R1 openings, but to meet industry and other academic needs ... ?

      (It is nice to see a professor take a real interest in such things, but this is weighed against institutional inertia and one or two generations of influential older chemists who... don't.)

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  17. It seems like every faculty member that comes and posts here, with the exception of the Fe-Chemist, ends up shilling for his/her program. It kind of depresses me to know how difficult is to get the truth, and these faculty could be the next ones lobbying congress for more easily gotten VISA's in the name of supporting STEM jobs (that dont exist), when all they want is cheap, motivated labor for their academic labs. There is PhRMA, why not AcaPhDMA ?

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    1. First: guilty as charged! I am happy to continue to say good things about Wisconsin. It's a great place, and I'm a generally pretty upbeat sort of person, so saying nice things about my department comes naturally to me. However, if you would like, I am also super happy to chatter merrily about my other favorite grad programs. Ask me about Minnesota!

      Second, I feel the need to correct the impression that graduate students are cheap labor. They're really not. After accounting for tuition, postdocs don't cost that much more in grant dollars (about 20% more at our place), and they have the added benefit of coming to your lab fully trained, and likely with a new skill set that adds richness to the techniques available for your research. If the only thing I cared about was advancing my nefarious research agenda, surely I would employ an army of postdocs, rather than investing years of effort in getting 20-year-olds with little-to-no research experience up to speed on modern synthetic chemistry. The fact is that PIs work with grad students because they enjoy training grad students. Whether they're adept mentors or not is a separate question, and one very much worth exploring. But your caricature of American graduate education as being solely for the benefit of mustache-twirling sociopathic PIs doesn't really withstand scrutiny. Plus, I tried to grow a mustache once. Really not a good look for me.

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  18. I think the issue is the truly massive asymmetry of information. A 22-year old 'kid' has not the slightest clue what lies ahead during or after their PhD, which greatly benefits faculty.

    And out of curiosity, what was the response rate for your survey? I'd assume 99% of the underemployed would not respond, so much like the (total joke) ACS survey the numbers not very representative.

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    1. Exactly. The naïveté of a recent graduate in chemistry can prevent them from making a sound decision.

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    2. Here is a request for Prof Yoon and CJ, see if you can get Chem. Profs to discuss how much they really Care about the employment prospects and mental health of their grad students. Anonymously of course, as I imagine most of them would not respond or be honest otherwise. That said, I would not expect most of them to be honest in an anonymous forum either. So, maybe it would be a fruitless endeavor. Nevermind.

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  19. I know this is N=1 and ages ago, but I think the concern for a student's mental health comes through quite clearly:

    http://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/29/magazine/lethal-chemistry-at-harvard.html

    The fact that Harvard dismantled all of the new policies after just a few short years tells you everything you need to know. Moreover I know of multiple profs who idolize and mold themselves into being as much like EJ as possible....

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    1. I know grad school is difficult and support often isn't available for students, but I don't think it's been established that graduate students are more prone than the population at large for suicide. Framing the issue more broadly (i.e. mental health care should be regarded as a standard part of health insurance) might be better.

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  20. My first advisor's mantra to grad students was "don't think, just do" and he got tenure. He would also routinely (daily) yell at us in lab, say demeaning things about other grad students in the group (they were crap, worthless, weren't going to pass quals). this was brought to the attention of the department by a fellow grad student in the group. The only thing the department did was see that this student was pressured out of the program. I am sure there are great mentors out there, but for every good one there seems to be a sociopath who doesn't care about anyone but himself.

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  21. Matt - somewhat recent industrial chemist PhD guyFebruary 22, 2015 at 9:14 AM

    Multi-part response here:
    My impression is that on the whole, the job markets for chemist is kind of mediocre. Vastly generalizing here, but people that tend to go to the best schools do fine, as do the people who are highly talented even at low ranked schools. However, people that are less than exceptional have more trouble (unless they have great other skills such as social skills), and people that are less efficient at social BS have a harder time even in they have excellent technical skills (sometimes this trait pops up a lot in advanced technical degrees).

    My conclusion is that there is definitely not a huge need for PhD chemists as schools sometimes seem to emphasize. There perhaps is a slight surplus of chemists, and getting a new job is always a lengthy involved process. For every job opening, there are tons and tons of qualified applicants. But, at athe same time there is a not a massive surplus; talented chem PhD and those from good schools tend to be doing ok. I think if there were more of a surplus, then even the top candidates would routinely be report job problems. Of course, my opinion on who isn't and is exceptional is subjective, as is everyones.

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  22. Matt - somewhat recent industrial chemist PhD guyFebruary 22, 2015 at 9:15 AM

    In reflection on the past, what my personal experience COMPLETELY lacked was undergraduate advising that was effective/practical. Although I had an excellent idea what graduate school was going to be like, I had ZERO idea what the job market would be like, nor did I even think about it. My undergrad advisor, although otherwise a great advisor, never talked to me about the job market and what type of possibilities there were.

    I am at a point now where I realize three things:
    1. Overall, the type of career (non-academic) that you get as a chemistry PhD can be replicated by other careers that dont' require a graduate degree, pay higher, and give much more diverse job prospects.
    2. The biggest benefit to the chemistry PhD is not what is written on paper, but what it does to your mind. Only (or in most cases) the PhD chemist can do exceptional research in chemistry. I have seen chem engineers and non-PhDs try to do similar caliber work, and the results are less than impressive. This is not surprising; people that specialize and a specific area are best at what they specialize in.
    3. In terms of current chemistry professors/advisors in graduate schools across the US: there are a mix of 'good' and 'bad professors. It's not all the doom and gloom that some people on this thread report; terrible profs that only treat their student as a pair of hand, and don't care about training the student or helping them get a job. There are a healthy number of profs that are kind, practical, and helpful educators. At the same time, most of the graduate school horror stories are rooted in reality, and a disappointing number of professors still take advantage of graduate students. This number should be reduced (I believe), but there are plenty of options out there should you try to avoid this path.

    The long story short is that people should only go for a chemistry PhD if they truly love chemistry, and they need to be practically advised BEFORE going to graduate school.

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    1. I think "truly love" are doing too much work there. I suggest an additional "truly are good at."

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    2. Matt - somewhat recent industrial chemist PhD guyFebruary 22, 2015 at 3:34 PM

      I would agree, truly love and truly are good at, both.

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  23. " Tell me about times that the system worked"

    Your adviser’s pedigree counts.

    http://100rsns.blogspot.com/2011/03/52-your-advisers-pedigree-counts.html

    Your pedigree counts.

    http://100rsns.blogspot.com/2010/09/3-your-pedigree-counts.html

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  24. Apologies for the late reply and for using anonymous (I usually like to identify myself).

    A few brief comments from a person with some experience in UW's department. I hope that this helps shed some light on their satisfaction data collection practices.

    I "left" UW-Madison with a MS in chemistry. I had an exit interview, but the interviewer forgot about his appointment with me, came late, and didn't write anything down. I have no idea whether it was anonymous, but I knew the interviewer so I definitely did not feel that it was.

    I have not been contacted by the department since the exit interview.

    I would love to provide more information, but I still feel uncomfortable criticizing the chemistry department.

    For the record, my grad school experience at UW was probably average judging by this blog. I just want to make sure that people don't think that UW's 'data' actually expresses what grad students think. Grad students are under so much pressure that even when they are assured anonymity, they probably won't criticize the department until they have been out of it for several years. Also, most of them have not worked in a professional setting, so all they know is what they have seen in their research group.

    Final thought: This blog is a great place for people who are considering 'quitting' to find that they are not alone. The #IQuitGradSchool helps put their experiences in perspective.

    Ok sorry, the comments were not so brief now that I have finished writing.

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