What’s in It for Me?

Many undergraduate chemistry majors will at some time in their careers be faced with the question of whether to get a Ph.D. Reasons for considering this question range from a desire for a higher salary (starting Ph.D.s are paid twice what corresponding B.S. chemists are paid), hope for an academic position (about 25% of all Ph.D.s are at academic institutions), or even for personal reasons. In my case, I was more or less programmed from kindergarten to get a chemistry Ph.D. My father had one, and family urging combined with the push for more science majors after the 1958 Soviet launch of Sputnik really left little room for disagreement. Of course, I had seen, too, the benefits of working in the chemical enterprise, because my father had a very good research position in a small town. He worked in polymer chemistry applied to the development of synthetic textile-fiber products. Our family lived a nice life.

When I enrolled in graduate school in the late 1960s, my classmates and I believed we should choose a major adviser who was in tune with our desire to learn chemistry as a means of having a good middle-class career. We thought that a major adviser would be perhaps not a friend, but at least a mentor, in providing us entry to companies that based their products on science and technology. The adviser would help in the assessment of our talents, guide us in our decision on what chemical subdiscipline would best suit our capabilities, and ultimately shepherd us into the club of Ph.D. chemists.

Safe to say, we were rapidly disabused of that point of view.

Graduate school became for us what it is for many who attend: an overwhelming series of hurdles to be jumped in an effort to avoid failure. There were entrance examinations, 300- and 400-level courses, cumulative exams, and ultimately proposal defenses. Our class of 25 steadily dwindled as individuals left, and slowly those of us who remained began to examine our chosen chemical destiny.

One day, after studying an especially obscure organic reaction mechanism, several of us were sitting around after class with our instructor, who was then an associate professor. I asked if the chemistry department had considered offering graduate students the opportunity to take classes not necessarily in the department but that would be applicable to our future life in the scientific world. Perhaps a polymer course from the chemical engineering department, a finance course or two from the business school, or even an introduction to legal theory for those of us who might want to consider a patent-law career.

The professor answered, “What’s in it for me?”

It was a revelatory moment, for suddenly it was clear that graduate school wasn’t about students at all. It was about professors.

While my graduate-school revelatory experience may have been breathtakingly direct, I suspect it is as true today as it was in the 1970s: what most graduate students study is what is best for their advisers. So my advice to anyone considering a Ph.D. program: first, choose your adviser carefully, and second, recognize that much of the knowledge and skills you will need in your employment will have to be learned on the job or through continuing education programs throughout your career. And wake up to the reality of what Ph.D. degrees really are—a testament to graduate students’ perseverance, not their intellect.

This article was written by Jim Ryan, Ph.D. retired consultant and former Assistant Director of the ACS Continuing Education program. Originally published in the Chemistry magazine, Spring 2007.

7 Responses to What’s in It for Me?

  1. Christin Palombo says:

    Dear Jim,

    Have any graduate research professors replied to this article? If so, what were their reactions? Further, if this is still true today, what are we going to do about it?

    Thanks, Christin

  2. Steve C says:

    I cannot agree more fully with Dr Ryan. I have seen so many advisors hold onto their students long past their “due date” because they are productive. What motivation does a tenured professor have to let their students go? They get no kudos when they go to a top tier school or company! The same is true in industry when some people want to advance, but they are too valuable in their job to be allowed to move. Eventually these people move…to other firms.

    During my PhD I attempted to take a couple of Science Ed classes, classes held once a week in the evening no less. You would have thought my so-called advisor had been told all her funding had been cut with the reaction she gave me. Her comments ranged from “detracting from my research” to telling me that I “should be in the lab in the evenings” (apparently 4 days a week plus weekends wasn’t enough). All this despite her knowing that my goal (then) was to teach and do a bit of research at a college that offered a chemistry masters. I chose to go into industry, as at least I would be better paid for the hoops I would have to jump through.

    Finally, a PhD might be a measure of our perseverance (or degree of masochism). I have to say looking back I hated my PhD, from my darling advisor to having to take pointless classes in quantum that had no relevance to my thesis (or anything since) because they needed bodies. But you know what it did teach me? How to think and apply the scientific method in a rigorous way, apply it to whatever was needed at the time and how to learn quickly enough that I could be competent in an area.

  3. MW says:

    Why didn’t anyone post something like this before I got to my fifth year of grad school? I thought school was about learning, not about making the person above me more money; I thought that was business. When did the idealic days of advancing your knowledge turn into greed in the “academic industry”?

  4. MJ says:

    I disagree about the idea that graduate school is less about intellect and more about perseverance. Graduate school is your opportunity to expand your mind in an academic institution and take full advantage of all of the resources it has to offer. This mind expansion is not just for science in general, but for reality. There is a degree of politics involved in everything, and believing that science lets you bypass strategic thinking about the future or letting your professor abuse your rigorous work ethic then YOU are intellectually partly to blame. This is understandable though because choosing a mentor, the most important stage of a graduate students career, is often a point in which freshly minted BS/BA students are ill-prepared to make. Even if you make a mistake though, most mistakes can still be rectified. A degree of true intellect can be broadly construed as correcting mistakes as they are made, either by modifying your research thesis or by standing up for your rights and making others aware of your dissatisfaction.

    Usually all your prof wants is something to publish to make him/her self look good. You will not look good unless he/she looks great. If success does not trickle down to you, you made a mistake, and need to correct it.

  5. RA Marine says:

    Professors abuse, not all of them but some. Thanks God there are graduate commitees that check your advance and help you realize when enough is enough.

  6. FRH says:

    The author of this comment, MJ is obviously university faculty. S/he neglects the “realpolitik”, namely that research active faculty will conscientiously take advantage of the optimism and naivety of those who chose to undertake doctoral studies. The next step in graduate student psychosis is becoming anxiously to please the advisor on the belief that s/he will make or break the grad student’s career. The majority of faculty advisors chose to ignore these misconceptions, exploit them, and take a “laisse-faire” approach to assisting the grad student after they have matriculated.

  7. Sam says:

    Could the default font size in the comments section be increased to at least 10?

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