Built on Facts

Graduate School vs. Work

One of my fellow ScienceBloggers, ScienceWoman, has made a few waves by saying the following:

I am against accommodating our full-time worker, part-time graduate student students by moving a significant number of our classes to evening hours. There I said it. I don’t want to make life easier for someone who is working very hard to get through her education while supporting herself in full-time employment.

She allows that this sounds harsh, but gives some good reasons for her opinion as a professor of -ology. (She doesn’t say which science, but presumably we can eliminate the physical sciences as most of them don’t end in -ology) What struck me was how not harsh it sounded to me. I didn’t even realize it was supposed to be harsh until she said so, and I wonder if this is just a cultural difference between physics departments and -ology departments.

In my department we’re not allowed to hold an external job, full stop. You live on your TA/RA salary with the understanding that if you have the time for a job you’re probably not devoting enough time to your physics. I’d say this is reasonable – a TA position probably eats 15 hours a week, classes and homework another 20+ hours, and even part-time research easily brings the total into the full-time job range. Now though the wording of the policy is pretty rigid, in practice there’s some flexibility if you have permission from your advisor. The department also doesn’t care if you happen to make some money in your free time, as long as it’s not a job as such. for instance I do make a little trickle of extra simoleons thorough this blog.

So if you’re an undergrad considering graduate school in physics, you should be aware that you’re not going to be able to get a Ph.D. by going to school at night and working elsewhere during the day. You should think of graduate school as a job in and of itself, because that’s what it is – almost along the old-style model of the apprenticeship. It’s not a high-paying one either. But you won’t be starving either. Considering that you get to be on the cutting edge of one of the most amazing sciences, I’d say it’s easily worth it.

Comments

  1. #1 D. C. Sessions
    September 14, 2009

    I’ll second that — it’s pretty much a binary decision. Once you’ve got the BS, you have to choose between grad school or going out into the “working” world. Although theoretically possible to go back afterwards, but IME almost nobody ever does.

    Bitch of a thing to ask someone who’s only 20-ish but them’s the breaks. Don’t look back.

  2. #2 dWj
    September 14, 2009

    I’ve transitioned from physics to a field in which it is more common that people will want to get a graduate degree to promote a career outside of academia. At the same time, I transitioned from a program that had no room for part-time students to one that does almost all of its classes in the evening to accommodate them. I’m a full-time student, and I plan to do research, most likely in academia; if there were demand for graduate degrees in physics from employers outside of research, it would make sense to me for physics programs (some, not necessarily all) to be more accommodative of part-time students.

  3. #3 becca
    September 14, 2009

    So you have permission from your department for blogging? Or did you just assume it’s ok (since it’s obviously not formal employment, but more akin to low-level freelance writing)?

  4. #4 Blaine
    September 14, 2009

    This has got to be the most frustrating thing EVAR!!!

    Seriously, I love physics. I have dreamed of physics and research since I was probably about 10 years old. I made one bad decision; I could have gone to school, but I went in the military first. Of course, I thought, hey…let the government help pay for school. Now my life’s dream is lost to me. Why?

    I have tried…for the last 14 years I have tried to go to school, work, and feed my kids. But, you know…it’s pretty obvious that physics doesn’t want me. So, adios.

    Sorry if this sounds pathetic, but I just had two conversions about going back to school; one with my wife (who is supportive) and my boss.

  5. #5 hoozit
    September 14, 2009

    She doesn’t say which science, but presumably we can eliminate the physical sciences as most of them don’t end in -ology…I wonder if this is just a cultural difference between physics departments and -ology departments.

    What a baffling and superficial distinction. I do feel like there’s a definite distinction between the hard sciences (quantum electrology and whatnot) and the soft sciences (socioliterary philosophy, etc.).

    But -ology? Is there such a cultural difference between geolog… oops, that’s a physical science… between climatolo… oops, again… cosmol… no… let’s see… chemists and biologists, for example? I don’t think I have any stereotypes to separate the two. I’m curious what yours are.

  6. #6 Grant Goodyear
    September 14, 2009

    I would tend to agree with Matt, when the topic is a PhD student in physics or chemistry. In both of those tracks, the coursework+research load is considerably more than full-time.

    However, a non-negligible fraction of graduate students are in Masters, not PhD, programs, where the primary requirement is coursework. For those students, it is not at all unreasonable to expect that an advance degree could be obtained while working a full-time job.

  7. #7 Winawer
    September 14, 2009

    This is why I tutor. I make $30 / hr. teaching intro and intermediate stats to undergrads having trouble. The money is uncertain (sometimes I have more students than I can handle, while at other times I go through dry patches), but in general it’s more than enough bridge the gap.

  8. #8 TheDude
    September 14, 2009

    I would bet Computer Science is a field where you can get a lot of full time workers in graduate school. That would certainly be my description if I went back to school.

    Anyway, if there are people in the professional world who are interested in graduate degrees, the Uni may heed economic choice and accommodate them. Maybe that’s likewise harsh.

  9. #9 Joshua Zelinsky
    September 14, 2009

    Yeah, I’m in math and here the situation is very close to how Matt lays it out. I’m not aware of an explicit policy at my university against holding down a separate job, but I have trouble imagining someone serious trying to do so. There are definitely people who supplement their income especially by tutoring. But that’s basically it.

    On a related note: A friend now keeps all her electronics that require charging in her office so that they don’t go to her electric bill for her apartment.

  10. #10 Uncle Al
    September 14, 2009

    Heteronormatism problematizes homosocial othering. The Officially Sad will be given everything for which you have worked by simple confiscation less user fees. Social advocacy demands their metastatic appetites be satisfied.

    If you earned it you do not deserve it. Handicapped parking for everybody (else)!

  11. #11 Former grad student
    September 14, 2009

    In principle, I agree with Matt about separation of grad school and job, but unfortunately I also was the exception for a few years. When I started my Masters in math (thesis, not coursework driven), I was full-time at it, but about 10 months into it, my second child came along and my better half convinced me that part-time Masters and full-time employment was the way to go. I did, and (surprise, surprise), my thesis went on hold for 2 1/2 years while working.

    I did finish and defend my thesis, but it required a lot of understanding from my supervisor. He was very good about it, and I’m sure there were times when he’d rather not have agreed to me coming back and finishing. I always appreciated that he was supportive during that time of my life, since the number of balls that I was juggling always seemed to be more than I could handle at the time.

    Now, many years later, I’ve been wondering about going back and getting my PhD. I think the only way this would ever happen is if I planned to take several years off work to at least get it started, with (at most) a few extra hours of work per week in the meantime.

    Unfortunately, I think this means that I will never get my PhD, despite an ability to do it, just purely through the finances. I know it is just a serious pain in the butt to the administration for older students who are also working, but I’d also be very appreciative of an institution that is willing to try to come to some accommodations with a few of their hard-working students who are trying to make financial ends meet.

  12. #12 Matt Springer
    September 14, 2009

    #5: I’m not trying to invent a stereotype, I’m just saying that her particular science is probably not physics/math/chemistry given the name and tendency of students to be full-time employed outside the lab. There’s other physical sciences that could qualify, of course. But my guess is something broadly in the category of life sciences involving fieldwork (her profile picture is muddy boots in an outdoor environment)

    #2: You might consider the master’s degree route. That is compatible with full-time outside employment (assuming you can finagle the work schedule around class time). #11′s point explores some of the difficulties with this route, but it might not be insurmountable. I do think that kind of circumstance deserves some consideration and it would be better if departments could have better plans for students or potential students coming from that direction. In fact, my one main divergence with ScienceWoman’s point (which unfortunately I didn’t address in the post) is that the situation is probably unduly harsh for students not coming in straight from undergrad. In some ways it can’t be helped, but in others I’m sure it could be improved.

    #3: When I started blogging, there was no money involved – actually with hosting it was slightly in the red. Once ScienceBlogs picked me up, I figured since the amount of effort required hadn’t changed, the extra few bucks (emphasis on the few!) wouldn’t change matters either. As it is though, my advisor and several other people in the department both know about the blog and are very supportive of it.

  13. #13 Paul Murray
    September 14, 2009

    @8 TheDude: “I would bet Computer Science is a field where you can get a lot of full time workers in graduate school.”

    Computer science is a field where you don’t need a qualification at all. Well, if you can swing it. I finagled a job programming in C in ’86, and since them have gotten jobs based on my experience.

    More and more, I am convinced that everyday computing is a trade (ie: a craft you make a living at). You come onto someone’s site, find out what they want, and build a thing – a working artifact. A website. A payroll system. Whatever.

    Computer science is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. If academia wants it’s prestige back, it should divest itself of vocational training, or make a very, very clear distinction. A medical doctor or a computer programmer ought not hold a bachelorate – they are not educated in that sense.

    If they were, religious cults would not be so full of bright professionals.

  14. #14 Janne
    September 14, 2009

    Well, “Geology” comes to mind; doesn’t get much more physical than that. Could be a graduate school of “Topology” too, of course.

    Anyway, I find this a bit weird – it’s really not the departments business what you do outside. As long as you’re handling your duties and not doing something in ethical conflict to graduate school they have no reason to care. You could spend weekends working as a scat porn star and they still have no business poking their noses into it (as it were). Imagine the uproar if another, “normal” employer tried a blanket ban on working a second job because it may make you not work enough unpaid overtime with them?

    In Sweden it is explicitly possible to get a PhD and never attend graduate school. Basically, what you do is write your thesis and get it provisionally approved. Then you show that you have the course credit or the equivalent knowledge (perhaps you work as a professional in the field already) and get that approved by the university. You may have to take some classes to fulfil this. Then you get enrolled for one single day as a graduate student, during which day you defend your thesis just like anybody else.

    This actually happens, about once or twice a year. Usually it’s a retired professional that spends ten of fifteen years delving deeply into some area they find fascinating and end up becoming expert on it. And in practice they often hang around the department for years anyway, attending seminars and so on (they are often open to the public).

    It’s mostly in the arts of course, but it does happen in the sciences too. One well-known such thesis at my university was the definite treatise on the manufacture and use of eccentric and non-circular cogwheels as a means of process regulation. It was written by a mechanical engineer that’d been puttering about with the subject for decades. The whole thing was of course completely obsoleted by microprocessors long before, but he didn’t mind. He just found the idea of non-circular cogwheels insanely cool. And the thesis is apparently quite popular among mechanical engineers as it is a tour de force of the subject, useless or not.

    @Paul, don’t confuse “computer science” the vocation with “computer science” the branch of applied mathematics. Programming isn’t doing computer science any more than installing ventilation ducts is doing fluid dynamics.

  15. #15 VMCM
    September 15, 2009

    Well honestly, ScienceWoman does not come across as harsh, but simply whiny (like her tag states). And I am sorry to point out that your stance is tad ignorant.

    I will assume Matt, that you are a couple of years into your degree program. You are finishing up your course work, getting ready to (or have already) crushed your comps, and are getting into the swing of your research project.

    You have spent a great deal of your available time studying hard, because contrary to how others in the department may put on, you actually do have to spend a lot of time studying this stuff in order to understand it. (And by the way, so do your classmates even if they say they only studied an hour for the Quantum II midterm)
    Most of your remaining hours are used in grading sets for your TA stipend, or simply plugging away in the lab. So yes, you have a full time work load.

    Then you move on to your thesis work. Now, the cold hard truth is that the majority of graduate students spend a great deal of their day tripping over their own ****’s simply trying to figure out what they need to do in their research. They are not efficient.

    What takes a graduate student a day to figure out, his professor or a good post doc can do in an hour.
    But, this is fine, as it is part of the learning process. You slug through this phase, get more competent, and just as you get to the point where this stuff gets easier, it is time to graduate.

    This is the standard grad student track.

    Now, let’s say you had to leave graduate school for whatever (insert sob story, valid or not) and go out and work. I will assume that you are lucky and get your in passing masters.

    You find out that grad student life was comparatively easy, in that as a grad student you were directed, and the only time table on your productivity was how much effort you wanted to expend, and how much your adviser let you get away with.

    In the working world you have to get results and get stuff working, on time, no excuses.
    You become a PI on an NSF grant, and are expected to do real research, and beg for the money to do the research. Add to this all the side projects, the meetings, travel, and directing a team.
    You also realize that the requirement of doing new, cutting edge work did not end with your thesis.

    After a couple of years of this you realize that the work you do now could have served as a thesis for some graduate student. That, *gasp* the graduate degree is not the end, but a small beginning if you want to be a scientist.

    So what if all this happens to you and after a few years you decide to go back to school. You may want to do this for personal reasons, such as the gnawing pain of what could have been, or for professional reasons. The reason does not matter in this gedanken.

    However, you do not wish to be a starving student, as you have a wife and perhaps a kid on the way and let’s face it, you like having money.
    You talk not only your boss, but a faculty member at a university campus, and the department itself to allow you to pursue a PhD, while maintaining a full time job and getting full funding from your employer.

    You wow all these people with your plan, they accept it and off you go.
    All is great in life! You have years of experience in getting things done in a crunch, more maturity and experience in doing physics (or science) and experience in getting funding and papers done.

    You have knocked out all the core courses in your earlier grad life, so now you take courses for your own enlightenment, to help you in your research rather than to fill out a check sheet.
    You are a lean mean physics machine. And you are efficient.

    Then, some whiny snot nosed wet behind the ears pre-candidate wants to complain about how this is unfair. They pontificate on how one must be poor in order to really deserve the knowledge they will gain in an “apprenticeship”.

    Tell me that you would not roll your eyes. Would you not be irked by that person’s lack of imagination in realizing that not everybody follows the same path in their academic life, or even in life?

    Well, since I am following the path I outlined as a “what if”, I am terribly pissed off when I hear students whine about this very thing. How can a “non-traditional” path to a PhD be any more of a burden on departmental resources than the 9th year grad student who never will graduate but instead suckles on the departments TA teat year after year?

    You are not the only one to complain and spout off in a holier than thou attitude (save the arrogance for bashing non-scientists, such as engineers).
    But your post really broke the straw.

    It was disheartening to see you deviate from your mostly
    rational discourse to a position based on ignorance, flawed assumptions, and perhaps of sour grapes.

    However, keep up the otherwise entertaining and informative blog. ;)

  16. #16 H.Claus
    September 15, 2009

    In Belgium/dutch speaking part we have 4 universities, two big ones (Gent & Leuven) and 2 smaller ones (Antwerpen & Brussels). The smaller ones are offering for some disciplines an evening program to obtain your BSc & MSc, by giving the courses they give during the day at double speed. I followed this for Law School (I’m in my final year now – just a thesis to write is left) and I really appreciate this initiative. Otherwise you’re locked up in one speciality for the rest of your life, which is no fun (I’m an engineer in electronics & automation)

  17. #17 Eric Lund
    September 15, 2009

    In my department we’re not allowed to hold an external job, full stop. You live on your TA/RA salary with the understanding that if you have the time for a job you’re probably not devoting enough time to your physics.

    This is because being a TA or an RA *is* a job, and a condition of keeping the job is that you don’t seek routine external employment. It would be possible to go to grad school and pay tuition (or have your employer pay it for you) while holding down a full-time job. This is not a common arrangement in physics, and perhaps your department doesn’t accept (or doesn’t have any demand for) such students, but it does happen, and it is much more common in other fields such as engineering and geosciences.

    ScienceWoman has been known to attend American Geophysical Union meetings, and she has made references to field work. While some of what’s under the broad AGU umbrella is biological, most of it is physical science, and some of that (hydrology being the most obvious but not the only possibility) involves muddy boots. I assume that she refers to her field as “-ology” and her employer as “Mystery U.” because, among other reasons, she wishes to remain pseudonymous.

  18. #18 clayton
    September 15, 2009

    Matt, your argument amounts to this is how it is, so this is how it should be. It’s insufficient support for the status quo to merely mention that it is the status quo.

    The model of academic training that you support only fits one small class of potential scholars: those who realize early on, at least in their undergraduate years, that they wish to pursue a career in a given academic field. It all but rules out most others, including those who discover down the line that their best fit or passion is for academic work.

    At very least, it’s extremely difficult for someone who has traveled down life’s path a bit, collecting debts, families, and other responsibilities along the way, to drop everything and enter full-time Ph.D work and try to support a family on a $15000 RA/TA stipend.

    It’s not just the potential scholar who loses; the fields miss out on the contributions from scholars who took less traditional paths. Not many businesses survive by limiting the talent pool from which they draw team members. Why would we assume that academic fields wouldn’t suffer as well?

  19. #19 Gerry Rising
    September 15, 2009

    One thing that I do not find in this discussion is the amount of remuneration. In my university the stipends for TAs in the sciences is about double those for students in the humanities. If the stipends were the same, I would agree wholeheartedly as I believe that students who work, even as undergraduates, get too little from their college program.

  20. #20 felixmab
    September 15, 2009

    atheists caused 911 – treat them accordingly

    you have forfeit your life

    http://www.sotoman.info/freethinking/index.php?topic=1198.0

  21. #21 Lora
    September 15, 2009

    You live on your TA/RA salary with the understanding that if you have the time for a job you’re probably not devoting enough time to your physics.

    Um, what if your job IS physics? What if you have a MS and you work for MegaTech Inc., and your job entails doing PhD-level work, and MegaTech agrees that you can use research performed in their labs for your thesis work, with your adviser basically collaborating?

    This is the arrangement my employer makes with their grad student employees: They will give you a reasonably flexible schedule to attend classes. You can use your cutting-edge work, the likes of which academia can’t really afford, as your thesis–our research fits well with several of the local academics’ interests. They will pay for your classes and books. They will give your university a little extra money, in the form of scholarships and lecture-ships, and they will happily loan out their own PhDs to give seminars and the occasional short course. They will do training on basic techniques, so you don’t waste your academic adviser’s reagents. They also provide training on how to be a good lecturer when you do your TA rotation.

    In return, they expect the university to have a certain number of courses at times convenient for working students, say, 7:45am – 9:30am, or mayhap 3pm-5pm. You know, times that someone might come to work late or leave early without a major schedule disruption.

    If a university had to pay for the services our part-time grad students provide, and the access to equipment and so on, plus the usual costs of benefits, stipend, etc., they’d be in the hole to the tune of $50,000/year/student, at a minimum. Instead, they are making money from us. Which do you imagine is more endearing to, say, a department chairperson?

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