Wednesday, May 18, 2016

On endorsing grad school to students

It's exam time, and seniors are about to leave the college. By now most of them have firm plans for next year: some have secured a job (usually as a research  assistant or technician in a lab), some will do a post-bac to finish their pre-med curriculum. We generally encourage students to take a gap year between college and applying to grad schools or med schools, as it seems to make lots of sense: they don't ruin their last semester in college by traveling to interviews, they get a chance to taste some "adult life" before plunging back to school. Try to work 9 to 5 before you commit to another giant educational project. Maybe you will like it, maybe you will not - either way it will give you a better point of reference.

What I find a bit hard about this whole fledgling stage is the grad school discussions, as they never feel comfortable. Students don't typically realize that the job situation is relatively abysmal, so it's probably my job to scare them. At the same time, it feels like many of them are strong enough, and actually have a good chance of succeeding in this game. Should I encourage them? Or should I scare them? What about students who seem to "default" to grad school, even though they are not that strong? Or what about those who suffer from impostor syndrome (or at least behaved really insecure for last 2 years, despite being brilliant)? How does gender and race play into it?

I have no idea how to even handle it. I guess that's another reason why I feel so strongly about recommending a gap year between college and grad school: it feels better, because it reduces responsibility. You know what, dear student of mine, don't make a decision now (while I'm kind of semi-responsible for it), but take a year off (forget about me), and then you'll be able to decide (and it won't be my fault anymore if you regret your decision later). Is it what I am doing? It feels like there's a hint of it actually.

But it doesn't seem a good solution, does it?

One good thing I can do is to maintain and foster connections with alums that followed different careers. For every weeping postdoc on the web there's at least one depressed and burned-out medical student, and a couple of office workers who claim to be "dead inside". If we, the faculty, show that life after college is multifaceted, in both good and bad, hopefully it will help our students to make good decisions.

1 comment:

  1. This is what I tell my graduate students: being able to eat and pay rent comes first, love of science second. I think that people who want to but don't end up getting a job in science tend to romanticize it. It is a great job, but it's not the best job in the world, it can suck tremendously (but also be great), and no matter how great it has its bad sides, not the least of which is that you don't really get to choose where you live and you are paid OK but nowhere near to what people in corporate America with significantly less education can make.

    Taking too much time off makes one's technical skills go rusty (it's definitely true in math-based fields), so while a little time off is not bad, too much time off makes it hard to get back to the classroom mode. I know many people who have come back after a stint in industry, and they all struggled with coursework initially because they had forgotten so much from undergrad...