Why grad school is hard

10 December 2012

My cohort of PhD students at the UC San Diego Cognitive Science department started with nine members and only two of us finished. This isn't an indictment of the department or those who left or moved. The department is great and so was my cohort. It's because grad school is hard. Most students figure it's hard, but going in it's not obvious why.

If you're going to grad school you're a great student. Great students impress a small group of people (professors and TAs) through competition with a medium group of people (other students) while doing mostly derivative work. To succeed in grad school you need to impress a large group of people (those in your field, at least) through competition with that same large group while doing novel work. This is a sharp distinction and the skills that led you to grad school won't ensure your success there.

So most graduate students experience a crisis of confidence. Can I do novel work that impresses my peers?

This crisis can then be compounded by pragmatic challenges:

  • You might want to make more money. If you're in a reputable grad program you should be getting paid, but usually not much. Some of your peers that didn't go to grad school are making a lot of money.

  • You might not get along with your advisor. It's a relationship that needs to work well for five years, normally entered into after one meeting in person. Also, your best interests (e.g., finishing) may not match your advisor's (e.g., having skilled grad students in the lab).

  • Your research might not pan out. An experiment fails, you lose some data, or you get scooped.

  • Even if you finish, getting a tenure-track faculty job directly is rare. Usually you'll spend several years as a postdoc, which is also no guarantee of a good job.

In combination with any of these pragmatic factors, a crisis of confidence can cause you to leave. You don't want to spend five years of your life chasing uncertain prospects with a real chance of failure — especially when you're used to success.


Originally published at the Ost blog

Joshua Lewis is a cofounder of Ost with Galen Wolfe-Pauly. He received a PhD in Cognitive Science at UC San Diego in 2011. Both his academic and entrepreneurial pursuits help folks to better interact with their data.