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Why is grad school so hardcore?

  1. Sep 24, 2011 #1
    I'm doing chemistry undergrad research right now, and I'm pretty shocked at the hours that grad students are required to work. A lot of the groups I have seen require 6 days a week of work with 10 hour plus days, they come in on every holiday but like Thanksgiving and maybe like a few days at Christmas, and they have to come in extra on Sundays sometimes as well.

    I don't get why graduate school is different than any other job. What, they give you a degree at the end of it and so all of the sudden they can make you work 60+ hour weeks for half of minimum wage with no overtime? It just seems like the whole graduate school complex is built on exploitation of cheap labor, but you can't do anything about it because in order to progress in science you need a PhD. And from what I've heard, the better the school, the more time you have to put in every week.

    I can't think of justification for these practices. Sure, the more you work the faster you get out, but shouldn't they pay you more if you are working more? Everyone just accepts the whole "zomg it's grad school suck it up, this is special" and moves on without questioning anything.

  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 24, 2011 #2
    So that only the hardcore get graduate degrees? I dunno, it sure seems like they are trying to kill me sometimes though.
  4. Sep 24, 2011 #3
    They have 108 hours off a week?? Slackers.
  5. Sep 24, 2011 #4
    This seems to be pretty common. It depends on your research adviser, though. There are some professors at my school who give their students a month off every year and don't expect them to be at school more than 40-50 hours, most weeks. You still may be required to do a bit of work from home. These are typically the professors who study theory or computation. If you are doing experimental work, you can almost be sure that you will work the number of hours you listed.

    You have to keep in mind that you are getting your tuition paid by your research adviser, out of their grant money, in addition to your stipend. This has a pretty huge value. I am studying at a private university, so the tuition alone is over $40000 a year. That's a pretty big chunk of change. Also, a lot of times you get a something of a raise when you start research versus being a TA. Combining this with a stipend of ~$24000/year, you're looking at about $64000 in total benefits. Does that sound like a more reasonable compensation?

    I don't think people move on without questioning anything. In general, graduate students are passionate about what they are studying and understand the heavy workload when they enter. I know I did. The fact that I am getting paid to do something I love is pretty awesome in my book. I may make less and work more than if I were doing some coding for about $40000. I would also be much more miserable doing that. Personally, as long as I can pay rent, feed myself, feed my dog, and afford some beer, I am happy - and I certainly can on my little stipend. Not to sound harsh, but if you're overly concerned about your hourly wage, graduate school may not be for you.
  6. Sep 24, 2011 #5


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    My university didn't expect me to work 60 hour weeks as a grad student, just like my current college doesn't expect me to work 60 hour weeks as a professor. That's just what it takes to get the job done. The people who only worked those 20 hours they were being paid, or even 40, took longer to graduate and didn't have as much to show for it - they didn't get the jobs they wanted. Science is a competitive field. You need to be willing to devote all your time to it, and even love doing so, or you're not going to get anywhere, because there are many other people willing to do that instead and jobs aren't easy to get.
  7. Sep 24, 2011 #6


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    One question I have is whether the numbers the original poster is giving us are based on data or anecdotal graduate student testimony.

    I don't doubt at all that there are graduate students who work as much as is claimed or even more - particularly in crunch times (leading up to a candidacy exam, finishing the thesis, preparing a conference abstract, etc). But you also don't have to look too hard to find graduate students who saunter into the office at 10:00 am, spend an hour surfing the internet, do a little bit of work, take a 2 hour lunch and then leave by 04:00 pm.
  8. Sep 25, 2011 #7
    Grad school is hardcore because there aren't many jobs in science, and there is a large crowd of people that want to work in it. When you have a glut of labor, people are willing to work excessive hours at low pay for the "privilege" of having any job at all.

    Working 60-80 hours a week for several years, keeping your head down and focusing on research to the exclusion of every other aspect of your life is the ONLY way to get a ticket to the postdoc lottery. Keeping those hours up, etc is the only way to get a ticket to the second postdoc lottery, which is in turn the only way to get a ticket to the professor lottery.

    The real question is- why do people keep going into science? You spend a decade on education and the median career length is less than 6 years. For immigrants the answer is easy (ask them, the answer is usually "a visa"). For everyone else (who number fewer and fewer) its some combination of idealism and bad advice given by highschool and undergraduate teachers.
  9. Sep 25, 2011 #8
    Graduate school is just the start. What is also fun is after you graduate, get a 'real' job, and also put in many extra hours per week. Oh, and you're also a salaried employee so you don't get extra pay either. Sure, your take home salary is more (hopefully!) but that doesn't mean you enjoy it.
  10. Sep 25, 2011 #9
    Wow the last two comments made me feel great about my life. Now I understand why I live 3 hours away from my girlfriend so that I can work at least 12 hours a day so I can get a job that sucks.
  11. Sep 25, 2011 #10
    No kidding. Those comments have kind of ruined my day.

    I just moved 1700 miles from home. I knew that job prospects as a professor were bleak, but I was under the impression that industry jobs with a physics Ph.D. weren't that bad.
  12. Sep 25, 2011 #11
    So the average physics graduate doesn't even get a single month or two off from the year? I would also imagine that the workload is different for theorists, or for people in mathematics grad school. Why would someone like a string theorist, who doesn't have to do experiments nor spend his time writing code, need to have a 12 hour work day?

    And the last few posts have been depressing...
  13. Sep 25, 2011 #12
    Great... reading some of these posts just made my day that much worse :frown:
  14. Sep 25, 2011 #13
    It is more than just grad school - it's academia in general. Part of the point probably is that they want you to be put through that style of program so that when you come out of it and apply to academic jobs as they must hope you will, you will be ready to be a productive researcher.

    Remember - in academia, you aren't producing what can be immediately sold - you are producing stuff that could become invaluable in the future; thus, they only need a few of the brightest AND most productive.
  15. Sep 25, 2011 #14
    Haha, you're welcome! Now when you land a job that doesn't require too many extra long hours, you'll be relieved right?

    Back to the topic of graduate school though. As with many things, you get out what you put in. For some things you don't need to work extra hours in a week. In some cases you'll find you will willingly work those hours and ENJOY it because you enjoy the work.
  16. Sep 26, 2011 #15
    It's important to break down what it means to spend, say, 60 hours a week in lab. It doesn't necessarily mean 60 hours a week at the bench/instrument.

    Depending on the advisor and group culture, you might be in one of those groups where you have an individual/small sub-group meeting weekly with your advisor, a weekly group meeting involving the entire lab, a journal club/lit lunch, and your advisor strongly encourages you to go to one or two seminars a week. You might also end up being guilted into attending the occasional monthly "supergroup" meeting, student-run seminar series, or group meeting of a collaborator in another department, for example.

    There's also the time you spend reading critical papers in your field, processing/analyzing/organizing your data, planning experiments, and fixing things that have catastrophically failed since the last time you used it.

    There's also the time you might spend having to wait as part of an experiment - I used to do fairly extensive temperature-dependent studies during my graduate work in (bio)physical chemistry. I spent my fair share of time waiting for my instruments to equilibrate at a new temperature before starting in on things. And when I was doing protein production and purification, well, I was a slave to my bacteria (who even on a fast day would give me enough time to catch six hours of sleep without too much difficulty). But that was only after I figured all of those conditions out.

    As noted above, deadlines of varying sorts - publication, grant submission, and so on - will almost assuredly kick up the number of hours you work. But they will usually peak and then drop off after said deadline. Until the next deadline, of course.

    More specifically, in chemistry, I've anecdotally noticed a correlation that the synthetic chemists tend to work the crazier hours. Physical chemists and other non-synthetic chemists (aka people more interested in, say, mechanistic organic/inorganic or analytical) tend to work more sustainable schedules (50 or so hours a week, plus/minus barring deadline crunches). I want to say that theorists have the least demanding schedules, but I know that my theorist friends would say that they just have the most flexible schedules since they're not tied to a lab. ;)

    As a postdoc, I've noticed that while I will come in on the weekend, it's almost inevitably meant to maximize my efficiency. If I can come in for two hours on Sunday, let's say, I can set things up such that my week starts off on a Monday and I won't have to do anything that following weekend at all (outside of maybe some writing or reading to prepare for a meeting that following week).

    Most of the physics grad students I knew were experimentalists, and worked fairly similar hours to mine. One observation I can confirm is that if you are the sort to need very in-demand research facilities (e.g., synchrotron x-ray sources or neutron sources), the time leading up to your allotted beamtime and the time at said facility are extremely busy. I tried my hand at SANS a while back, and I spent the month and a half prior to that beamtime preparing sample and establishing sample conditions for SANS, and the weekend at the neutron source was quite busy.
  17. Sep 26, 2011 #16
    If anyone here can seriously say their job 'sucks', regardless of the hours or pay, then you probably shouldn't have gone into science in the first place. You guys get to advance human knowledge, much like I get to advance human ingenuity. If the world was such that aerospace engineers had to pay in order to do their jobs (rather than receive pay), I'd still sign up for it. Anyone here who can't say the same about their chosen profession is probably in it for the wrong reasons.
  18. Sep 26, 2011 #17
    Then don't go to graduate school. :-) :-) :-)

    The reason that they work people so hard for so little money is because they can find people willing to do this. One factor to consider is that graduate school is one of the few ways that you can easily legally enter the United States, so that lots of people are willing to work long and hard hours to get out of whatever country they were in.

    One thing that you should be aware of it that your typical high technology job has you put in 60 hour weeks with no overtime. The only thing that is different is the salaries.

    Yup. If you don't like it, don't go to graduate school. :-) :-) :-)

    Personally, I got a good deal, but YMMV. I'm an intellectual masochist when it comes to things sorts of things, and there are enough "masochistic suckers" like me to keep the system going.

    Not everyone. A lot of people (most people in fact) would prefer to do something with their lives other than being academic serfs for close to a decade. However, if you do go into graduate school, you should know what you are in for.
  19. Sep 26, 2011 #18
    Honestly, I think that is the best part of life. Working long hours, experimenting, thinking, etc..., on stuff you want to do and like to do in life. If you don't like putting in that type of work for that, then you probably don't like it as much as other people. It definitely beats working a menial drone-based job filing reports for a comparable salary to the benefits plus stipend you get from research.
  20. Sep 26, 2011 #19
    And then you have crazy masochists like me that leave to system in order to work at a job in which you have to be at the office 60-80 hours a week so that we can make enough money to keep spending 60-80 hours a week doing science until we are dead.

    I think it's cool.

    Most people don't. There is a reason why the US graduates 100x more MBA's than physics Ph.D.'s each year. One problem with graduate school is that it's a totalizing experience. When you are in a situation where your entire live revolves around a university, it's not obvious that most people's lives don't.

    The other thing is that in most countries intellectuals are held in higher regard than in the United States. In my family, being a sharp physicist is like being a star football player in West Texas.

    For me it goes a lot deeper. I was going over some old letters from my father and it was obvious that he wanted me to get a Ph.D. in something because he couldn't. When I talked to my uncle it turns out that he wanted a Ph.D. because *his* father was in some sort of conflict with someone he knew in the 1920's. His rival was able to send his kids to Japan for education, so my grandfather felt the need to make sure that his son did something better.

    Tracing back even further, it all started in 1644 when a general at the Great Wall switched sides and opened the gates to invading horsemen. Stuff happens. Three hundred years later, I get my Ph.D.
  21. Sep 26, 2011 #20

    One thing that helped me a lot is cynicism. People that you do not personally know don't care about you. The system doesn't care about you. The purpose of the academic system is to grind you up and spit you out, and no one cares what happens to you once you get spit out. That's why you have to care what happens to you once you get out.

    Not true.

    A university cannot survive without a ton of people doing grunt work. Much of research is just grunt work. Also even the parts that aren't grunt work need to be funded, so the university needs a ton of people to teach low level classes because that brings in the $$$$ to pay the salaries of tenured faculty.

    One way of seeing this is by looking at other fields within academia. The way that the graduate school system works in physics is *vastly* different from the way that it works in business, or the way that it works in education, or the way that it works in petroleum engineering.
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