What do I want to do when I grow up?

I don’t usually use this forum for work-related stuff, but I put a thread up on Twitter this morning about education, especially PhD education, and it has the kind of geopolitical feel that made me want to echo it, and maybe expand it a little, here. The road to a PhD has always been hard. Mine was considered relatively short, at five years, but it wasn’t easy and it was full of stories of faculty members making me feel like shit, and just generally feeling like shit, but also full of stories of feeling incredibly fulfilled and accomplished. If you spend any time the side of Twitter where academics roam, especially graduate students, you might wonder why anybody would ever even try to get a PhD. How is this geopolitical? Because I think its roots are in classic America-good-and-others-bad propaganda.

When I was younger, messages about how wonderful America was, and how awful places like Russia and China were, filled the air. Stories of people lining up for hours to get a roll of toilet paper, because the government controlled everything (odd that right around this time a year ago, plenty of Americans would have lined up for days to get a case of toilet paper). And, relevant for what I’m thinking about today: stories of young children getting tested so the government could figure out what skills they could develop and decide for them what careers they would have. Small child shows math aptitude, he gets assigned to become an accountant and his entire life becomes about becoming an accountant. Another shows promise at running fast, so he gets assigned to be a professional athlete and is forced to train for the rest of his life. I have no idea if there’s even a thread of reality to any of these stories, and at this point it doesn’t matter if the stories were true at all or not, because the part that matters most is that the stories were used to make a strong contrast between those dictatorships, and the wonderful freedom of the land of opportunity, America. Here, you can be whatever you want to be if you work hard enough for it. It sounds great. I’m not saying it doesn’t. But that freedom often came with the appearance of endless possibilities for life. We ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, and we get answers like fireman, policeman, rock star, baseball player, doctor, lawyer, or (in my house) veterinarian.

Taking the budding veterinarian as an example, why would my daughter say she wants to become a veterinarian? Because she loves animals and she’s been taught that we should follow what we love and find a career doing what we love or being around things we love. It’s not terrible advice, mostly. But what if somebody is interested in lots of things, or what if somebody isn’t interested in anything that makes sense as a career? A love of baseball isn’t enough to become a professional baseball player. A love of food isn’t enough to become a professional chef and restaurant owner.

But in my day job as a professor, I can’t begin to count the number of students with whom I have a conversation just like this:

Me: What are you thinking about doing after you graduate?
Student: I’m not really sure. I think neuroscience is cool, so I might go to graduate school for neuroscience.
Me: What kind of job do you want?
Student: I don’t know, something with science maybe.

To be clear, I’m not saying that this is a doomed path. Plenty of us (I’m included) decided to go to graduate school because we liked something that we saw or experienced and wanted more of it, even if we had no idea where it might lead. The challenge of making a decision of what job we might want was far too daunting, and if we’re raised in a culture where school is the norm, it seems obvious to delay that decision by just staying in school for longer. I vividly remember wanting to be a student forever, and part of the appeal of going to graduate school was that it was a way to do that, and get paid for it. But that’s probably not the way we should encourage people to make decisions about their futures.

But I think I’m getting a little ahead of myself, so I’m going to take a step back and unroll the twitter stuff that inspired this post. It all started with a tweet that showed up in my timeline. I don’t know this person, I don’t follow him, and I can’t remember which person I follow replied or retweeted or liked it in the first place, but I nevertheless saw this:

In case this goes away, the tweet is from somebody named Elliot Miles and it reads: “Did anyone actually enjoy their PhD? Do non-toxic research environments even exist?”

I know academia is imperfect, but I’ve been really saddened lately by the negativity on Twitter when it comes to being a trainee. Yes, there are problems, and yes, we should work to make things better, but at the same time, it’s not forced labor and nobody is making you get a graduate degree. People chose to be in graduate school and can chose to leave. But I tried to be positive and retweeted with this comment:

But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that there’s something more pervasive that’s at hand here. More than anything, for me, it comes back to all the stuff I wrote about above. Why are people actually in graduate school? Just for something to do? We get a lot of pressure to give graduate students advice about careers outside of academia, but shouldn’t they know what career they want BEFORE deciding what to do in graduate school? So I started a thread:

The basic idea in this thread is that we’re doing it wrong. Instead of asking kids what they like (and by “kids” I mean young adults who are in college), we should ask them when kind of job they think they want. Instead of exploring their interests and suggesting graduate programs based on things they like, we should be exploring the kinds of jobs and careers that they think they might like, and suggest graduate programs that position them best for those options.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that people can’t change their minds, and there are plenty of graduate degrees that prepare people for many different jobs, but, as I laid out in the thread, we routinely talk about graduate school, especially PhD programs as “marathons.” As somebody who has completed graduate school and run marathons, I think it’s actually a pretty good analogy, and I also think we should treat the graduate school marathon a whole lot more like we treat actual marathons.

Most importantly, when we run marathons, we know where the finish line is. We might not always make it, but we know where it is. In an organized marathon, we check the map first, and we make plans for getting home after. Why would we ever start the graduate school marathon without knowing what’s at the finish line?

I think we need to do better. I think if we make sure that people have goals in mind in graduate school, the struggle will feel like it has a purpose. I think the programs and the students in the programs will benefit from that. I know that won’t make it a perfect system, but I think it will make it a lot better…especially for the students.

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