The journey through a PhD program: perspective from a recent graduate

A PhD program is unlike any other kind of schooling in its unique ability to reliably and robustly crush the spirit from all who participate long enough. As a graduate student, you are dragged down into the darkest corners of your mind and forced to confront the very worst feelings about yourself, some of which you never knew you were even capable of. By its nature, it is a debilitating, deflating endeavor. I’d like to describe the graduate school trajectory in the following paragraphs.

To do this, I first need to explain how biomedical science PhD programs work, as I’ve come across a lot of misconceptions from people who haven’t had the “pleasure” of embarking on a journey toward a PhD. When I’ve told non-scientist friends of mine that a PhD program can last for upwards of 7 years, they usually respond with, “Wow, I couldn’t even do four years of classes. I don’t see how anyone could survive seven!” In truth, PhD programs rarely have more than one year of actual classes — the rest of the 7 years is spent in a lab running experiments, writing grants, attending seminars, and engaging with the larger scientific community. Basically, our full-time job is to do research and the “schooling” aspect of graduate education is focused on learning how to think like a rigorous scientist. At this level of schooling, classroom teaching is essentially worthless; most of our knowledge is gained from reading scientific literature, attending journal clubs, and going to conferences.

Another reaction I’ve heard is, “You must be in debt after all those years of school.” Most PhD programs in the United States provide annual stipends for all graduate students enrolled in the program, and none of the tuition is paid out-of-pocket by the students themselves (it is usually paid either by the school, program, or lab). The stipend amount varies by university, but the base amount is never higher than the low $30,000 range. Keep in mind that graduate students often work very long hours through both weekdays and sometimes weekends, which means the financial compensation is not very high. For reference, in comparison against a minimum wage of $15 in California, graduate students in my program would be making less than minimum wage if they worked a >40 hour work week (which routinely happens). Of course, this is still considered schooling so maybe it’s not expected that we be paid at very high levels.

Finally, none of us know when we’re actually graduating. Unlike other forms of schooling, there are no goalposts for us to mark along the way other than “Finish your PhD”. (Years? What are those?) And in many science-based careers, a PhD is almost tangential to the other, more important form of academic currency — academic publications. Thus, while finishing a PhD is something, it also doesn’t mark an end of the road since most graduates still stay in lab to finish the paper submission process.

So we aren’t taking classes for 7 years, and we aren’t going into massive debt from tuition costs. Life seems good! Why, then, am I claiming that a PhD program is so rough? Let me explain.

You start out in a PhD program thinking that you are intelligent on some level. You have a high degree of tenacity and a decent work ethic, since working in a lab has taught you these are required traits. You are eager and ambitious to 1. pioneer the next big idea, 2. publish that Nature/Science/Cell paper(s) and/or 3. start your journey on your Nobel prize. Many of you start out with careers in academic science in your mind, despite hearing “rumors” that this may not be an easy road. Many of you also believe that, since the average graduation time for a PhD is 6.5 years, you of course will (somehow) all be the ones falling on the lower end of the curve. Most importantly, you are excited!

This is what an incoming class of graduate students usually sounds like.

But, as the years go by, things start to change. You drift apart from your classmates — once your closest friends during the first year of grad school — because each of you are stuck in your own separate labs slaving away behind a scope or culturing hood. You become isolated from your scientific support group that you “grew up” with. Your science takes up your entire waking and sleeping life (and will continue to do so). In lab, your project is your island, where no one can truly help you. Sure, you can ask around for ideas and suggestions from others, but it all boils down to you. Not your lab mates, not your professor, not your friends or family. It is you and only you who understands your project and your data. You who makes decisions. When experiments fail to produce results, you believe this must be on you; what other reason could there be? And it is scary.

Okay, that just means you have to plan your experiments carefully. All it takes is to be smart, rational, and have good hands, and you’ll make progress. That’s what science is about, right? Sadly, theory and practice are very far apart. A favorite example of explaining the scientific process is that if you cross a black and white mouse, in theory you expect to see a litter of grey mice. In practice, when you make this cross you get a litter with a mouse that’s green, a mouse that has three ears, a mouse that only has two legs, and a blind mouse. Now figure out what happened! During graduate school, that sense of intelligence you started out with is ground to dust when you see experiment after experiment after experiment failing for no discernible reason (you swear you used the right serum in your medium; you swear you’ve tested this antibody before). This is a shock to individuals who are accustomed to soaking in scientific concepts with ease. You slowly come to believe that, in fact, this must mean you are an incompetent idiot and you know absolutely nothing about anything. Even worse, that these failures are a reflection of your worth as a scientist. Good-bye, self-confidence.

Oftentimes, resentment builds, both justifiably and unjustifiably. Why does your professor have to take a month of vacation right before you want to schedule a committee meeting (committee meetings are hoops that PhD students need to jump through to graduate), yet doesn’t see why doing twenty experiments in a week is not possible? Why do your lab mates ask you to do everything for them when you have endless experiments for your own project you have yet to get to? How can your classmates seem like they’re holding it together after all these years when you’re falling apart? Your years in the program bleed into one another because there are absolutely no milestones to mark along this journey after the first year. Every year is filled with the exact same thing, ad nauseum. There is nothing concrete for you to latch onto, only the nebulous goal of “graduating” and whatever that might entail.

All of these thoughts would feel less terrible given the younger, brighter, idealistic version of you that started the PhD program. But after years of being mentally battered through your experiences in graduate school, life starts feeling stacked against you. You become numb to failure and develop coping mechanisms to survive. The years spent in the lab are a sunk cost and leaving now with nothing would be a failure; you’ve been academically raised to be tenacious with a strong work ethic and to not accept failure. You are utterly, completely trapped.

The years of failed experiments go by, almost unnoticed by your professor. “4th year? 5th year? 7th year? Wait what year are you again?” They have bigger things to worry about, like applying for funding opportunities to keep their lab running until the next grant cycle. “Just get your experiments to work. My grant depends on your data. You’re a 6th year graduate student (I think), you should be able to figure these things out by yourself.” This conversation then reminds you: you’re a 6th year already?! Time flies. And you’re a 6th year with still no real data, which means…no real chance of graduating any time in the near future. In fact, you have absolutely no idea when you will actually graduate. This uncertainty weighs on you every second you are stuck in lab.

Finally in the middle of your 7th year, you have enough data to be published in a paper. Great! Even though you struggled through those 7 years, it was worth it if this gets published in a high-impact, splashy publication in one of the big journals. Surely, the scientific community would be able to recognize the amount of hard work and scientific thought it took to obtain this data. So you submit it to Nature. Rejected, citing “This just isn’t that new or interesting”. You submit it to Cell Stem Cell. Rejected, for the same reasons. You then keep submitting down the impact factor list; with each rejection, your self-esteem and self-worth decreases exponentially. 7 years of your life, and all it achieved was multiple 300-word rejection letters. Maybe they’re all right: you just aren’t cut out to be a scientist.

Even though your paper is stuck in submission hell, it’s still technically enough data for you to graduate with your PhD. So you start looking for answers to the question, “What are my career prospects once I graduate?” If you did want to stay in academic research and work as a postdoctoral research associate, you would make a whopping $42,000 a year after your 7 years of school. Those dreams you started out with of being a professor can only really ever be dreams, as you realize it’s the top 0.1% of scientists that even get interviews for these positions. You also see your professor’s lifestyle of constant stress due to living grant to grant and think that it’s the exact opposite of everything you want for your life. On the other side of the research community, most biotech companies don’t hire anyone without a published paper (company policy). Fine. You hate lab work anyways. Touching a pipette again in this lifetime would be too soon. So you think about what you’ve learned in graduate school that can be applied to other fields. Well, do businesses care that you know the suite of nuclei that make up the amgydala? Do consulting firms care that you can dissect a brain out of a mouse in less than 3 minutes? Then it hits you: your graduate education that, by design, prioritized lab work has prepared you for a career in…well…lab work. And your PhD degree itself doesn’t have a demand like a JD or MD; to be honest, you have very little transferable knowledge about anything that could help companies make money outside of working at a bench. Welcome to your future.

This is what a PhD program feels like. People perceive that graduating with a PhD is like reaching the finish line of a marathon. There’s sweat and aches, but smiles all around in a picture-worthy finish. Instead, graduating is like crawling with one arm for a mile, gasping to reach a finish line that constantly moves. When the finish line is finally crossed, it feels more like sweet release than a victory. Years of built up contempt, dissatisfaction, anguish, and disappointment are all partially relieved but not fully released. By the end of graduate school, you’re drained. You’ve spent 7 years beating yourself up and being beaten up by other people. For some of us, this is literally 25% of our entire post-natal lives that’s spent in graduate school. That’s a very, very long time. Maybe the statistic of 47% of graduate students suffering from depression doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.

(I should point out, I am not trying to compete with other educational programs for “Worst Schooling Lifestyle” awards. No one should want to win that award. This is meant to explain the mental challenge of graduate education, and contrast certain aspects of it with other forms of schooling.)

The uncertainty throughout graduate school and career prospects beyond is what separates PhD programs from all other forms of schooling. In medical school, in law school, in masters programs, in pretty much every other kind of schooling available, there is a set of defined criteria and a general timeline for graduating from a program, usually 2–4 years. In PhD programs, the requirements for graduating are not defined and completely variable from person to person, and the time spent in a program can run anywhere from 4–10 years. The kicker? You have no real idea when you graduate until maybe half a year before you actually do. Other educational programs offer a standard career path. But the “standard” career path of academic science after graduating is essentially non-existent for most graduates. It is therefore not surprising that many PhD graduates are leaving the lab and science completely to pursue other careers, or that 48% of all graduates don’t have immediate employment plans lined up. Everyone’s been told the strategies for success. Go to school, take exams, get good grades, network — the future falls into place after that. During a PhD program, you can’t plan your future because so much of your life hinges on complete unknowns that drag on for years.

The years of stress and anxiety from the pressure to perform, constant uncertainty, daily failures, and failure to meet your own expectations, result in a highly toxic mental environment. One hallmark of depression in animal models is learned helplessness, or behavioral despair. In a PhD program, learned helplessness is not common, it’s expected. Because all of your experiments fail, you learn to expect an experiment to fail more so than expecting it to work. Because your work gets rejected from journals time and time again, you learn that no matter how good your data is, it is still beholden to the whims of editors and nameless reviewers. Because you see the uncertainty and difficulty in pursuing careers in academic science, you learn that it’s essentially pointless to even try going down that path. But listen: these are all intrinsic properties of practicing science! Graduate school is actually teaching you to despair. Nothing you do will ever be good enough, so why bother?

After reading all of this, why would anyone ever go to graduate school? The truth is, most incoming students don’t fully understand the extent of this pressure until having to experience it themselves. It’s not their fault: they’ve never been put in a situation that tests their resilience to this extent. And to be perfectly fair to the endeavor of science…it’s not all bad. It truly is an intellectually rewarding experience at times. No one else in the entire universe knows as much about the particular thing you are working on other than yourself. Not the Nobel prize winners, or bigwigs, or even your own professor knows as much about this as you. And this is a great feeling! Sometimes, it even feels good to work in science. (Sometimes).

For incoming graduate students, this was not (entirely) intended to scare you off of your chosen path. Far from it: it is to let you know that when you are struggling to find motivation to continue because you feel everything is going wrong, this is normal. This is an intrinsic property of the process. One of my faculty advisers has even told me: “You are supposed to suffer in graduate school, because that is how you learn about science.” You are not the only one to feel this way; graduate students before you, and graduate students after you, and graduate students with you feel this way about their lives. Remember this. You are never alone in this pursuit, and your struggles in the pursuit of science are in no way a reflection of your worth as a human being. Find your classmates, because they will understand. Find the optimistic post-docs still hanging on to their dreams and ask them about their experiences. Find the faculty members who remember the hell that was graduate school. Find them and talk with them, because they’ll be more than happy to trade horror stories. And you’ll feel, hopefully, a little better about your life in knowing that this is just a passing moment. There is light at the end, no matter how faint or distant it may seem in your Xth year of graduate school.

(I should also note that I had what I’d consider a relatively good grad school experience: I absolutely love and respect my professor who has always supported me, I have never had to worry about funding issues, and I’ve worked with the best lab mates. Yet still, grad school crushed my spirit.)

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