6 Important Things Nobody Tells You About Grad School
Summer! The courses are complete, the exams are over, and the students emerge from educational cocoons to blink in the harsh light of the real world. Many dive straight back under the downy duvet of postgraduate education, and every single one of them is reading this, because screwing around on the Internet is what postgraduates do instead of ever leaving the building.
The Internet is full of postgraduate "advice" from bitter ex-students warning people to stay out of graduate school, because they still haven't learned that whining and spending all their time online was their problem in the first place. Some advice about advice, or advice-squared: If someone tells you what they wish they would have done, listen. If they only tell you things they wouldn't have done, ignore them, because they've confused regret with wisdom. When someone fantasizes about having achieved less in life instead of figuring out how to make things better, that's more of a review of the life than the problem. Even when they're right about the problem, they're the wrong person to help you solve it.
I love my two and a half postgraduate degrees in physics because, like all loving relationships, they're still part of me, and it's the one I didn't finish that taught me the most. Mathematically speaking, I have (2+i) postgrads: the last part made things complex and didn't end up real, but it added to the magnitude of what I learned. It's also what sent me off at an unreal angle into another career.
Now I'm paid to learn about science and apply that knowledge to light sabers, and I have enough qualifications to be called "Master-Master," but not enough money to actually make anyone do so. If you're considering or already in postgrad work ...
Look for a Job
I don't care if you have a position researching the effects of your genitals on a willing group of test subjects. Look for a job.
I'm not telling you to get a job instead of studying. Society only exists because brains can learn, but academia is the only part of society that acts like it. Politics, business, and warfare all just play with the toys learning gave them, because arguing, greed, and violence are the childish parts of the species. Learning is how humanity grows up.
Extended education is an excellent way to pursue a passion for knowledge. Unfortunately, some students use it as a bunker to hide from the current employment climate.
You don't search for jobs to escape from postgraduate school. You search for jobs so that you don't feel like you have to. I've known dozens of students who felt trapped by their programs, but had less knowledge of the outside world than a post-nuclear vault dweller. And you'll eventually hate a prison cell even when it has an unlimited Internet connection. Knowing about the jobs you could take reminds you that learning for a living is a choice you made, and why you made it.
Remember That Research Is the Point of Everything
Academia is where the human race remembers what brains are actually for. Learning is the only reason we're in charge of the planet instead of hiding from tigers, but it's been corralled in universities and made to beg for funding, despite being responsible for all wealth in the first place.
The human brain is designed to learn, always and forever. That's why baseball statistics is a hobby instead of an emergency anesthetic. The whole point of humanity's extended childhood is to learn and improve its abilities. With academia, that becomes nanotechnology, the Mars missions, and cures for disease. Without education, it's people who can recite the element matrices of all 649 Pokemon, as if being a human tape recorder was a worthwhile thing to do with a life.
It's why so many people overanalyze TV shows, us included. Deep down we know we need to learn and think. But thanks to catastrophic flaws in modern society, every day more people are taught about new brands of toothpaste than about scientific discoveries.
Care About the Subject
If you're doing a research degree in something you don't care about, what the hell are you doing. Notice how the sheer gravity of that question has compressed the question mark into a period because there is no possible answer. Entering a postgraduate degree means declaring that you will become the world authority on something. Only a tiny bit of a specific section of a sub-discipline of something, but you will know that bit better than everyone else who has ever lived. Because nobody knew it until you did. You're pledging to permanently expand the sphere of human knowledge by choosing a direction, learning right up to the bounds of understanding, then head-butting them further out with what's in your skull.
This is not something you can clock into like a day job. If you're prepared to work 20-hour days on something you hate, great! Go get paid for doing that! Universities will let you sign up for a subject without passion because that's how they get highly skilled technical laborers for sub-mininum wage. Ph.D. students work longer hours than submarine nuclear reactors, and under greater pressure. You are dedicating at least half a decade of the most capable part of your life to becoming the master of something. Act like it.
Ph.D.s are where education reveals its true form: not teaching people what we already know, but learning how to learn what we don't. Research is taking on the previously incomprehensible machinery of the universe with 1.4 kilograms of yougoo. It's a lot of work. It's how we build the future. It's why the title of science fiction's most brilliant person is "Doctor." Not "CEO," or "President," or "Major," but "Doctor," because he knows to find and solve new problems by being intelligent at them.
You are a grown-up, and the very first part of being a grown-up is that nobody will tell you. They shouldn't have to, you're a grown-up.
If you act like an obedient schoolchild, scrabbling every hour to complete every assignment you're given to try to get the best marks, most professors will totally let you. Turning grad students into Morlocks is how you get allegedly smart people to volunteer for slave labor.
This is an imago of adulthood: mature enough to resolve fiendishly difficult research problems, but doing it only because grown-ups told you to. Accepting that academic research means years of inhuman hours at low pay is a parody of the idea of intelligence. The whole point of defending a thesis is learning how to argue with more experienced people about how right you are. You need to start that early. Pick a good project, only take tasks that will help your work or situation, and stand your ground about taking the time to have a life outside the lab. I've seen labs where the professor arrives at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning just to check that everyone is there, then leaves to have his own day, while ringing at random to make sure nobody learned from him. Fast food joints don't pull nonsense like that. And pay almost as much.
But that's because postgrads are all about learning. Lesson 1: You will have to put up with precisely as much shit as you're prepared to. (This lesson applies to every subject, and the real world, too.)
Teach and Tutor
Some students resent the requirement to teach tutorials as part of their funding package, because that's not a funding package, that's another way for the university to get cheap workers. But just like the rest of your student life, it's actually training. You're learning how to explain things to people who don't understand it. The only skill more vital for scientists is the ability to look cool in a lab coat.
We're overturning the stereotype of scientists as shy communication misfires, but it became a stereotype for a reason. It's still true of some students. And they still need to learn how to deal with people. It doesn't matter if you're studying artificial intelligence in drone bodies: Until you get those researchobots finished, people who can communicate with others will still do better in every field. And when you do get them finished, charismatic public speakers will become even more important, standing with one foot on a burning drone to urge the human resistance to seize the time machine.
Research is all about communicating results to other people. More importantly, funding is about communicating results to people who don't even care about them, or you, and already have 20 labs who've made great cases for 10 labs' worth of money. Teaching is also a great way to boost your student income immediately. Teaching assigned classes only scrapes a few dollars, but pre-exam grinds are a seasonal harvest of pure cash.
Strongly Consider Your Job
You know how you looked for a job at the start? Never stop doing that. Your CV should be updated more often than your haircut. It's not just a parachute, it's a focus for your future. It reminds you that you're actively choosing to learn instead of making money, so you'd better learn as hard as you can. You're in an educational bonus level, a mind-expanding environment unparalleled in all of history. There has never been a better time to fill your mind, or more exciting projects to apply it to.
You'll have an urge to stop checking the job situation because the real world is scary. But just hiding gives the real world time to go find a baseball bat. If you're not planning on coming out of your Ph.D. with a newly invented Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator, you'd have been better off coming out swinging while it was still unarmed. Looking for work may be a soul-corroding exercise in self-abasement, but hiding from it only gives the problem time to drink water and store up barrels of that acidic piss called "lack of experience." Going postgraduate because your degree can't find you a job is like diving because you can't fix your submarine.
If you spend four years doing the bare minimum, becoming the master of finding free coffee and doughnuts in meetings, then those are exactly what you'll bring to the working world. Coffee and doughnuts. To the people who got a job back when you went postgraduate.
Academia can be the greatest place in existence. You've swapped the real world for a chance to learn what you love, always, using your brain instead of beating it to death against bar codes and spreadsheets and sales reports and all the other jobs that only exist because robots aren't quite good or cheap enough yet. But if you don't take that learning seriously, you've swapped the world for nothing.
The better option is to keep learning. A proper degree will help you get a job, but a Ph.D. is how you say "No thanks, I love this stuff." There is no feeling like filling your mind with intelligence you love. Most people don't get to do that. Most people have to train their brain to endure the hours until they get to think about things they like, but they're so tired that those things become Breaking Bad and unconsciousness. Research lets you turn your soul into a fascination engine, consuming the output of human intelligence, living and breathing the very pinnacle of human progress. Then reaching out to push it a little bit further.
For more college advice, check out 7 Tips for Not Screwing Up College, Should You Go to College? and The 7 Dumbest Things Students Do When Cramming for Exams.