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November 21st, 2011:

Yes you’re exceptional, but so is everyone else at this level

Another perspective on why people continue to line up for grad school despite the extremely long odds against success:

Graduate students are, almost by definition, atypical students as undergraduates. In most cases, the types of people who enroll in graduate work were exceptionally bright, hardworking undergraduate students. As exceptional undergraduates, the people who eventually go on to graduate studies probably get very good at disregarding warnings. When, as an undergraduate, an instructor issued routine warnings to the class, the grad-school-bound student might have gotten very used to ignoring the sorts of admonitions that pervade the undergraduate experience: “My bibliographies are always perfect, and I turn everything in on time, so this warning to make sure that my APA formatting is correct and to have my paper turned in by Monday is nothing to worry about.”

By the time they arrive at graduate school, and even if they are years removed from their undergraduate education, most grad students have been conditioned to see themselves as an exception, and as exceptional. So, when they begin to hear warnings about the realities of the job market in graduate school, the old conditioning kicks in, and the old thinking, so trustworthy before, also kicks in: “This doesn’t apply to me. My intelligence and hard work will see me through, just as they always have.” The problem, of course, is that not everyone can actually be the exception. People will be disappointed, their studies abandoned, their dreams unfulfilled, their future paths unclear.

What is so impossible for many graduate students to understand is that everybody in their cohort is just as smart and hardworking as they themselves are. At the graduate level, the smarts and diligence that once set students apart from their undergraduate peers will no longer set them apart, but merely allow them to keep up. It is almost impossible for many beginning graduate students to grasp that having above average intelligence and an unimpeachable work ethic will mean only that they are average graduate students. That’s quite a shock to some people.

The whole article is definitely worth a read. I can only speak to myself — and I’ve never been good about getting papers handed in on time — but aside from that I could definitely relate to the mindset described here.

Dropout Rates in Academia (In Perspective)

A few weeks ago I was reading an article which claimed before the recession seven times as many PhDs were awarded in the biological sciences as there were openings in tenure track positions. Of course in between finishing grad school comes years of post-doc work, but in the end PhDs in must equal PhDs out.

So assuming every PhD graduate wants to be a professor (probably not true) that means even after making it past admissions committees and qualifying exams and thesis defenses, these newly minted PhDs face an 86% washout rate in their quest for a faculty position.

Eighty-seven percent. Let’s put that in context. These are the numbers I turned up with some quick googling:

  • Roughly 10% of marine recruits drop out during basic training
  • Roughly 55% of people going through the training to become army rangers drop out
  • In an average year 70% of the people who start training to be Navy Seals (the folks they sent in when they finally found Osama bin Laden) don’t make it to the end.
  • To actually find a training regime with a higher dropout rate than the road from PhD to Professor I had to go to the wikipedia page of the Pararescue Jumpers — the guys who jump out of the rescue helicopters into enemy territory to rescue the wounded. Their washout rate in 90%.
Now there are all sorts of reasons these numbers aren’t comparable. I think they do a good job of driving home just how long the odds against success are in academia. And this is all based on numbers from before the recessions.
So that’s why I’m lying awake after midnight tonight. How about you?