Tell me about the Doctoral Quest

Of late, I’ve had a nagging curiosity concerning those who undergo the perilous journey in search of the ancient and powerful PhD, or even those who know or even have a vague familiarity with those who have sought one.

What was grad school/were your doctoral studies like? Did pondering the number of years you’d be spending on schooling ever drive you crazy? What kind of hoops did you have to jump through? How stressful was your thesis or oral dissertations? What was your schedule like? Was a job even possible? How much of a minimalist did you have to become to get by?

And, after you’ve earned a doctorate…

What kind of employment was open to you? How difficult was it/would it have been to get a job teaching at the college level? What kind of research opportunities do you have? What kind of demand is there for people with your education? And, finally, are you happy with what you do?

Please quench my curiosity, Dopers.

Grad school was both stimulating and frustrating–the other students I met were amazing and inspiring, and it was a real blessing to get to know them. Many faculty were inspiring, too, but the politics and such drove me batty at times. When I started, the number of years required wasn’t daunting, because I didn’t want to be doing anything else. It was an adjustment, however, to go from being a productive person who was a valued member of a work team to being a student who sat in class and just absorbed stuff. It felt selfish, and somewhat indulgent, and also useless. And one of my friends found it queer to go from managing huge accounts to having to go to the secretary for clearance to buy a box of paperclips. My dissertation was stressful because there were so many steps and so much work–and often the things that took the most work ultimately got the least attention in the final document. It was also hard because before I finished I’d acquired a husband, child, dog, job, and mortgage. I started to see the dissertation as an annoying roadblock to getting on with my life, rather than a challenging capstone of my graduate education.

My schedule was hard. When I was doing coursework, it took me a lot of hours to keep up with the reading. I was only working 12 hours a week for my assistantship, thank goodness. Later I got used to the workload and could work more. Once coursework was done, I had a lot more time to work. A job was certainly possible. And necessary. I wasn’t too poor at any time, but I had a good fellowship and also family help.

I am an exception. I decided, during grad school, that I did not want to be a faculty member. I saw no female faculty members who I considered role models. Sure, I admired their accomplishments, but I did not want their lives. I wanted more balance. However, had I wanted to, I think I would have had success finding a faculty job. I had an advisor who made sure I got published, and our program is top-ranked. Graudates are in demand (I’m in higher education–there are less than 100 graduate programs in the country where faculty could teach; others do into research or administration positions). My classmates who wanted to teach are at great places.

I already had the job I knew I wanted to stay on in, so once I got my PhD I didn’t have to embark on a job search. THANK GOD. I’d hate to be dealing with both at once. I don’t need a PhD to do my job (only one of my officemates holds one) but it’s a nice credential and I know it raises my credibility among faculty with whom I sometimes work.

I am very happy with what I do–which is institutional research. If the state or federal government needs to know something about our university, we provide it. We also provide research, data, and information to the provost and others in the administration.

So, as with much of life, if you like what you’re doing, you’re set. Awesome. :slight_smile:

Oh, one more monkey in the wrench: How long does it take to pay back those student loans?

Try to get a position as a Teaching Assistant. I got to go to school for free and was even given a $500/month stipdend just to hold some calsses, give some lectures and grade some papers.

Well, I’m just past exams / beginning the dissertation, so I can’t comment on some of your questions, but here goes. I’m working on a PhD in English in a very teaching-heavy department, so these answers won’t apply to every school or subject.

Reasonably enjoyable – I like what I’m doing, and the atmosphere in my department is pretty laid-back and supportive. (Partly because said department has no resources worth competing over, but hey, you can’t have everything.)

Since my sole ambition in life is to avoid having a nine-to-five office job for as long as possible, I think those years are all to the good. Pondering the fact that, at twenty-six, I have a fairly settled life and I’ve lived in the same town since graduating from college does drive me crazy sometimes. I wish I’d had the courage to take a year or two off and do something completely different after college.

MA exams (second year, first semester) – Not too bad.

MA thesis (second year, second semester) – Also not too bad; basically, a revised and expanded term paper from a seminar. Some people (perfectionists, mostly) do get bogged down with the thesis.

PhD writtens and orals (fifth year, first semester) – Damn stressful, and totally irrelevant to anything I wanted to work on or cared about. More hazing than anything else, I suspect.

PhD prospectus (fifth year, second semester) – Can’t comment on the defense, since I haven’t scheduled it yet. The preliminary research is OK; at least, it’s a topic I do care about, which is refreshing after Exam Hell.

Proficiency in two foreign languages, plus Old English – Not a big deal for me, since I like languages. Torture for some people.

I’m at a large public university, which means much of the teaching is done by grad students – usually three classes a year, in my department. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a fellowship, most of your time is eaten up by class prep and grading. Some people do manage to juggle a second job on top of their teaching fellowship, but I don’t know how they do it. Working in the summer is definitely possible, and most people do.

Pay and benefits for TF-ships are decent at my school – $5,000 per section, medical insurance, and free tuition (except fees). The downside is that it’s a HUGE workload – freshman comp students write a paper a week for much of the semester, which means you get to grade forty-four papers a week if you teact two classes. As with much in life, the more of a minimalist you are, the better.

Beware: long saga unfolding below…

I graduated from college with a degree in biochemistry and worked as a technician for two years afterward in a rather prestigous lab. I went on to grad school to get a Ph.D. mostly out of love for science- I wanted to learn more and hone my skills as a scientist and maybe leave some positive mark upon this world through my research.

At the outset I didn’t give much thought to what I would do after I got the degree- getting through the program was enough of an goal unto itself. I was extremely fortunate to find myself in a graduate program at a well-regarded school with one of the best advisors one could have. Our lab was like a family, very supportive of one another in the good times and bad. (God, I miss them!). My advisor was a busy woman: department chief, instructor, journal editor and mother to young kids of her own (as opposed to her “kids” in the lab). But, she always made time to help out her grad students and post-docs. She put me on a project that was nearly guaranteed to succeed…in retrospect it almost seemed too easy; I ran into very few technical problems that were not quickly overcome. I finished my degree in only five years. Five years may seem long, but the average for our department was six to seven.

There were several hoops to jump through: A year and a half of classwork, rotations in three different labs the first year, a written qualifying exam at the end of the first year, an oral qualifying exam before your third year, a “midterm” lecture about a year before finishing, a written dissertation and a final oral dissertation defense lecture. Additionally, my advisor had me present my work at least a couple of times a year at departmental seminars and professional meetings. Possibly the greatest stress I ever went though in my life was when I presented my work at an international meeting attended by all of the world’s experts in my specific topic of study. Somehow, I managed to survive that experience. There was a method to my advisors’ madness in making us present our work so often: when I wrote and defended my thesis it was nearly a piece of cake…which was good because my mind was preoccuied by a pregnant wife and the birth of our first child.

As far as my work schedule in grad school: I was driven to finish as quickly as possible, so working 10-12 hours a day, 6-7 days a week was norm. Fortunately, my advisor was flexible enough that she didn’t mind if I didn’t come in until noon if she knew I was in the lab late the night before. As long as I was making progress, she didn’t seem to care. I was also fortunate to have an understanding wife that didn’t mind my weird schedule, either.

I didn’t have to pay one cent towards earning my degree, my tuition and a stipend was paid through a NIH training grant. The stipend was small but my wife worked a “real” job so we lived a comfortable, albeit low-frills, life.
So, I now had a Ph.D. Now what? Oh yeah! I have to do a post-doctoral internship…one more hoop that one must jump through before becoming a “real” scientist. Here’s where things turned sour for me. I went from being in a supportive environment with a sympathetic advisor to a hostile, depressed hell of a lab where the boss (note, I didn’t say “advisor”) treated his post-docs like nothing more than well-trained technicians. Being a mentor was not on his list of skills: demeaning, belittling and stealing credit for other’s ideas was. If you look up the term “deadwood” in a dictionary of academic slang, you’d see this guy’s picture. Additionally, I was now a father- I couldn’t bear the guilt of working the same hours I did in grad school, I didn’t want to miss out watching my kid grow up. But, the boss demanded those long hours of us. Finally, the stipend from my post-doctoral training grant absolutely sucked…it was not enough to help support a family of three in the city we were living and my boss refused to adequately supplement it to a more reasonable level. After putting up with this situation for nearly three years, I was sinking into a deep depression and I had to get out, and fast. Unfortunately, the job market for Ph.D.s in the biological sciences was extremely thin at that time. Colleagues with more experience and better credentials than I were spending years trying to find something even remotely resembling a step upward, forget about finding a tenure-track position at a university.

My salvation came about though some volunteer work I had been doing as a grad student and as a post-doc. I was involved in programs that invited high schoolers into science labs and I spent some time in high schools doing demonstrations and judging science fairs. It just suddenly struck me one day: I liked hanging out with these kids and I enjoy talking and thinking about science almost as much as I do doing it…why not do both a become a high school science teacher?! So, that’s where I am now, and I have NO regrets. Every day, I’m making a positive contribution to society and sharing a great gift with others. My work schedule allows me to spend lots of time with my family (summers off, woohoo!) and get this: my salary doubled when I went from post-doc-dom to teacherhood. Plus, I now have tenure and with the high demand for science teachers, my job is nearly recession-proof. Unfortunately, many of my friends from grad school have had to settle for non-tenure track jobs in academia (making not much more $ than I) and a couple have recently been let go due to state budget cuts.

You also asked about teaching at the college level. I have been doing some guest lecturing at the collegiate level and more opportunities in that direction are opening up for me. It makes for a nice supplement to my income and it’s fun to explore some topics in greater depth than I could with the high school kids.

Some advice:
Much of what happens to you through this process is dependent upon those you associate yourself with. Be very picky when it comes to choosing a mentor and a school. Ask very pointed questions of those that work with your prospective mentor about how they are treated. I was lucky with my grad-school advisor. My post-doc mentor was proof that a big name working at an important place doesn’t always equal success.

Be prepared to put a “real” life on hold for a while. It’s no surprise that scientists (and for that matter most professionals in any field with advanced degrees) marry later and have kids later than most other folks in society. As I found, it’s hard to juggle a family life and build a career like this at the same time.

If you go into the sciences, be prepared for this dichotomy: the higher up the ladder you go, the less time you spend actually “doing” science and the more time you spend being an administrator and writing grants. I have a low tolerance for admin B.S. but I also like being in charge of things, a combination that’s hard to reconcile if you want to run your own lab. As a HS teacher, the admin stuff is tolerable and when that classroom door closes and the bell rings, I’m the master of ceremonies!

The course work part ended up being a lot more fun than I thought it would. There weren’t enough courses in my area (medieval lit.), so I ended up branching out into a couple of areas that I hadn’t planned on studying. This pushed me, though, which was good, and made my exams that much easier.

Not at first, but toward the end of the dissertation is sure did! Never-ending choruses of “Aren’t you DONE yet?” didn’t help matters any.

Lots: coursework, research tools (French and Latin), quals, proposal, dissertation, defense. And filing several petitions for time extension along the way! Only the quals really felt like a “hoop,” though, as everything else seemed to be useful and integral to being able to profess some sort of mastery of your field.

Not very; the oral especially felt like a formality only and was thus very low-key.

What, for the program as a whole? I finished coursework in a very timely manner, bogged down in prepping for quals (had to do a lot of reading in fields that I’ll never use again, like 20th century lit.), and fell apart in the dissertation. I needed an advisor who would really crack the whip with me. I didn’t get it, and being lazy, the dissertation ended up taking 5 years (!!!) to write.

Certainly! I was teaching a number of classes all along the way.

Not very; I kept my dissertation topic fairly broad without too much squawking from my committee.

Meaning full-time, tenure-track work in my field? Almost none! Last fall, there were 23 openings in all of the US. Each got c. 300 applicants. I majored in English, so you figure the odds.

Despite what I said it above, not very. That is, if you don’t mind being part-time. And temporary. And paid about half of what the full-timers make for teaching the same course. And teaching the grunt courses. And working without a contract. And being fired at a moment’s notice. And getting Friday night calls along the lines of “Classes start Monday. Can you teach ________?”

Pretty much limited to Winter and Summer breaks; but English isn’t a hot-bed of research in the way that the sciences are.

Not much. We’re a dime a dozen.

Despite the fact that most of the above sounds like it was written by Eeyore, yes. What other job would pay me to read and discuss some of my favorite stories?

Hope you found something useful in all of that palaver.

stochastic, I loved your story. I consider that quite a happy ending. And your students are lucky.

Politics? Ack, it’s inescapable! What kind of bunk did you have to wade through due to politicking?

If you could, please tell me a bit more about the assistantships/fellowships. Sounds a bit like ROTC to me, what with the tuition and stipend :wink:

What did getting a PhD do to change your job security and salary?

And, let’s keep things interesting: Any notable/humorous/embarassing stories concerning your higher studies?

Fortunately, none. Mine wasn’t a heavily politicized department. Sometimes it was worth it to go to a small school.

Per my post above, nothing. My employment is still inconsistent from quarter to quarter, and my pay certainly hasn’t gone up.

“Humorous” as in “laugh or you’ll cry”? Showing up for my defense and being told “Gee, sorry, we decided NOT to accept your dissertation after all. Go back and write some more.”

“Humorous” as in [NELSON] HA HA! [/NELSON]? Are you kidding? That’s the whole grad student life. Ostensibly grown people voluntarily living in poverty, working “jobs” that are little better than indentured servitude, all for the benefit of students most of whom could not give a damn? What’s not to laugh at!

When I started my doctorate I heard the story of a guy who took seven years to get his. I thought “if it takes me that long, I’ll kill myself.”

It took me ten.
One thing I didn’t find out until later was that my first thesis advisor took seven years to get his, and swore that no student of his would get a degree in less time. I ended up transferring to another school anmd practically starting from scratch.

This sort of thing tends to give you vast insecurity. In principle, grad school is a time of great personal and academic freedom, and you can try all sorts of things. In practice, I always felt like I had a Sword of Damocles hanging over my head – what if, after nine years’ work I still didn’t get my degree? (Just for the record, I now know people who spent even longer, and didn’t get their degrees. They survived the experience.)
As far as student loans, I was able to get teaching or research assistanceships (as suggested by others above).
It does feel damned good to walk out of your oral final and hear that you’ve passed. Ten years is too long to live with a weight over your head.

OK; I’m in too. First, a statement up-front: The answers to some of your questions, in a general sense, depend on the area of study. For example, employment opportunities for PhDs would vary widely depending on whether you’re talking about a degree in History, say, or Chemical Engineering. My field is Mechanical Engineering, which I suspect is a more employable field than most.

Well, I tried to approach grad school as an opportunity to improve my skills: researching, teaching, writing papers, giving presentations, (eventually) mentoring younger students, etc. So, in a self-satisfaction way, it was pretty rewarding. I think, though, as stochastic alluded to, that the amount of enjoyment you get out of the studies is a function of how well you get along with your advisor.

The purpose of getting a PhD is to learn to be a researcher; it takes time to develop those skills. A good student will realize that, and a good advisor will recognize when the right time is to let the student go. Hoops to jump through are there, but really aren’t substantial in the context of a 4- or 5-year stint in school. And, writing my dissertation wasn’t stressful so much as long. I knew I could do it, it just took a lot of work.

In engineering, at least, it’s pretty standard for all PhD-track students to have a research assistantship or teaching assistantship. In fact, it’s pretty hard to be an engineering grad and not get your schooling paid for. In my case, a teaching assistantship involved assisting a faculty member in teaching: grading exams, holding office hours, advising students…basically everything except lecturing. (I understand, in many places, some TAs will actually teach classes, though.) A research assistantship involved working on research that was sponsored by an outside agency: in my case, the Army, primarily. TAs and RAs were officially expected to spend 50% time (20 hrs per week) on their assistantship, in return for which they received a tuition waiver, stipend, and benefits (although you often spend more than 20 hours). In my case, the stipend wasn’t huge, but was enough to support my wife and I in a very no-frills fashion. (Again, I understand that this isn’t the case everywhere: some institutions give their assistants almost nothing to live on.)

Also, note that these “assistantships” are really an opportunity for the PhD student to learn skills, either in teaching or in research. That’s good on the resume. If you’re a little lucky, too, the research you conduct as an RA will be similar to the research you’re conducting for your dissertation. Then, some or all of the research findings from your RAship find their way into the dissertation.

For a long while, I was planning on being a faculty member. For various reasons, I decided not to, but not before I had received one job offer and was one of two finalists for another.

Landing a faculty job is really a matter of who you know. If you realize this up-front, and have an advisor with contacts, you can get introduced to lots of people during your PhD career. By the time graduation rolls around, some of these people will have openings in their departments. I sent in six applications. Landing two interviews is probably pretty good, but I’m sure it was because I had extensive contact with department members before I sent in an application. A typical ME faculty opening will receive probably 500-1000 applications (yes; I typed that right), even at relatively small institutions, so there has to be something distinguishing about the candidate to be realistically considered. I imagine other fields might have an even higher number of applications.

Anyway, I wound up working in a place where we do R&D work on advanced engines and powertrains. This isn’t really the field that I got my PhD in, but I’m using the same general research and technical skills. In my case, I was interested in my PhD field (smart material actuators, if you care) not for the field itself, but because it was applicable to a lot of other fields, and the basic science behind it was a broad cross-section of engineering. Since I’m still using that broad cross-section of engineering science, I’m pretty satisfied.

Finally, one bad thing about an engineering PhD is that you really narrow the jobs that you’re “qualified” for. I’m probably paid more now than I would have been without a PhD, but it’s not much, especially considering that I “lost” four-1/2 years of experience. However, I’m certainly on a more technical track (as opposed to managerial), which I like.

I have a Ph. D. in physics. I look back wistfully on those 6 years; I really enjoyed myself. Never during those 6 years did I think, “My God will this never end!” Unlike stochastic, I never attempted to become a professor as my wife and I started to have children by the bushel. She is older than me and was facing biological reality.

In physics, it is standard to hold a TA or and RA requiring about 20 hours a week of work. I enjoyed teaching, and I think I was good at it, and often think I should have found a post at a small, liberal arts school. However, that road doesn’t pay well, and small schools would get 200+ qualified applicants! :open_mouth:

Instead, I took jobs outside of my speciality and have devolved into a programmer. It pays well, and I can afford to give my children opportunities that I never could take. (My dad was a professor, and made less than my mom.) I like to think my career decision is one reason I have such notably happy children. I also can afford to ski and pursue other expensive hobbies. I don’t see where my degree directly helped my professional career, but I don’t regret the lost income. I regret not being able to be a physicist.

Politics can arise when, say, two people on your dissertation committee don’t like each other or have very differing opinions about methods. They may give you conflicting suggestion for changes, mostly the thwart the other person. I was lucky in that the two people on my dissertation committee who regularly butt heads worked this out long ago. When my advisor is the chair, she wins. When he is the chair, he wins. Honestly, this is exactly how she explained it to me. I have no idea what they do when they are both on a committee but neither is the chair. Ideally, a good chair will see it as his or her job to keep you from getting buffetted around by politics.

That said, even though I had a good chair, I found her difficult. She tended to say things that felt very belittling to me. She didn’t seem to understand the concept of a rough draft–anything that was rough was “bad writing” and she’d say “You forgot everything you ever knew about research.” Uh, thanks. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. She also made comments about my weight, my clothes, my hair. It got real old.

I also had a member who tends to throw up last-minute hoops. I didn’t know he was known for this until after I passed. (Afterwards, your committee members will tell you all kinds of things about each other). At my pre-oral, he insisted he seeanother draft before signing the form okaying my defense. Normally, everyone would go ahead and sign the form, knowing that my hardass chair would NEVER let me go ahead and put the final signature on there until I showed her a draft that reflected everyone’s comments. But this guy wouldn’t go for that this time. So I had to print four new copies and run them all over campus. Then he proceeded to go out of town and not read the new draft I gave him, sending me into a panic and requiring me to track him down via phone at a conference to beg for his okay to let his secretary sign for him so I could meet the paperwork deadline. He was just being difficult, presumably because he felt it made him a better gatekeeper to the world of PhDs. He did something similar to another student, who ended up making several 180-mile round trips to see if he had yet picked up the draft she had fed-exed to him. He had insisted she get it there, then it sat there on his porch for a week while he was out of town and she bit her nails and freaked out.

You’ve gotten a number of very thoughtful replies to your OP. There’s nothing much to add to their comments. As PhD’s are wont to do, however, I’m going to tell you what I think is important when people start considering a doctoral quest, rather than answering your questions directly.

  1. Decide what you want to do. What you really want to do. What you really really want to do. Be specific. You’ll likely be doing this for the rest of your life…

  2. Now, Google to find the schools that have the best programs in that area and the professors who are the most respected in that area.

  3. Narrow your list, if possible, and call the professors on your list. Arrange to visit the school for a day. Talk to the professors, but also talk to the grad students. Grad students love to talk and to procrastinate; they also love to gossip. This way you’ll learn if Professor X has a reputation of bullying her students or stringing them along.

Don’t rule out schools that are not in your state, particularly state schools. If you are accepted and get an assistantship, you can qualify for in-state tuition if you meet a minimum number of requirements such getting a drivers license, voter registration card, and proof of address. Programs vary, but RA’s can expect to make $12 - $15k in the sciences at state schools. With my wife’s support, we made it through with no student loans.

  1. If everything checks out to your satisfaction, ask to work for that particular professor and then apply to the program. This should make your application process much easier, and at state schools, make getting a research assistantship or teaching assistantship much easier.

Politics has been referred to. Academic politics are so brutal because the stakes are so low. There’s very little money to argue about, so it usually comes down to personal pride and opinions about science.

One way to minimize the politics and to improve your chances of getting a good job rather quickly is to work for a professor who is one of the foremost experts in his/her field. Committee members usually don’t argue with such people. Hiring committees are generally thrilled to get a candidate who worked for Dr. Famous. In short: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

BTW: My PhD is in U.S. forest policy from a large southern land grant university. I defended in May of 1999. My post-doc fell through in a budget crisis. Luckily, I had applied to other jobs and landed my position in November of 1999 (I temped to make ends meet). I do applied research at present, but also teach at a nationally-respected university in New Orleans so that if I ever find the perfect academic job advertisement I’ll have teaching experience to put on the CV. And yes, I did work under a Dr. Famous. I wouldn’t be where I am today without doing that.

No major funny things happened during my grad school days - - it was just a long slog that required a significant amount of perseverance.

Good luck.