Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Go to graduate school

This could be the worst piece of advice you will get from this blog, because there is ample evidence these days that obtaining a graduate degree won’t get you a job (or not the kind you thought ). But I’m going to take the opposite tack, and tell you why attending grad school is not the worst idea you’ve ever had.

In 2003, I graduated with my BS in Environmental Systems/Earth Sciences from the University of California San Diego—a brand-new science major at a wonderful school. But I still felt totally stupid. Sure, I could derive equations. I had memorized all of the geological time periods. I knew what an anticline was, where to find siliceous ooze in the ocean, and that isotopes are powerful scientific tools. But did I feel like I could contribute intellectually to the world, as an environmental scientist? Not really.

While I did have some practical training in labs as an undergraduate, these were mostly (low) paid positions where I followed instructions, did repetitive, tedious operations (“now, attach together 10,000 of these tiny paired pieces of metal”), and didn’t have any involvement in looking at the results of the experiments. If this was the kind of work I could look forward to the rest of my career, I was not interested.

Of course, I had kind of always assumed I would get a PhD, for two reasons:

Have lots of containers, will travel for science.
1. I wanted people to take me seriously. As an environmentally-conscious and fiery kid (I am Italian and Irish, after all), I would get into heated debates with adults about why their choices were ruining the world for my generation. Of course no one listened to me, but I reasoned that once I was Dr. Carilli everyone would lend and ear (though the White House has yet to ring me for earth-fixing advice, for some reason).

2. My mom has a PhD, and she is awesome.

So, I applied and got into graduate school at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. After a year of pfaffing around and changing advisors and topics, I finally settled on a project that I was passionate about: applying my undergraduate background training in geochemistry, climate change, and oceanography to reconstruct the recent history of human impacts on the Mesoamerican Reef.

Within the first two years, I learned the majority of what I found to be the most useful parts of my graduate education. I probably should have just run away with a Master’s at that point, but I’m stubborn, and in the end I’m glad I stuck it out. While I may not end up in a job that actually utilizes my PhD (or any job at all—maybe I’ll end up a gentlewoman scientist and overly qualified mother), here are the parts of graduate school I am most grateful for, and why I think graduate education—even without a prized academic position at the end of it—is still worthwhile (major side note here—I am specifically talking about advanced science degrees, which include a stipend for living expenses and where enrollment fees are covered. In this economic climate, paying for a graduate degree is probably very risky):

1. I learned how to think critically.
I can still remember the gut-wrenching embarrassment during my first lab meeting with my tiny lab—myself, my advisor Richard Norris, and my co-graduate student Flavia Nunes. After discussing the findings of a paper we had all read, Dick asked me for my critique of the work. It had never occurred to me that I was supposed to be reading with a skeptical view of the claims the paper made; I had just taken it at face-value, like most of my undergraduate reading (The earth revolves around the sun: fact to memorize. End of story).

While there may have been classes I took as an undergrad that purported to teach critical thinking, for me it was ineffective. Maybe I wasn’t mature enough. Maybe no one had ever asked me what I thought about the strengths and weaknesses of a piece of scientific knowledge. It took many more months (years?) for me to get a handle on this, but our weekly lab meetings and small seminar classes were extremely useful to me for learning how to actually think.

Inadvertent grad school benefit: Devising more exciting ways to use luggage
2. I learned how to conceptualize, plan, and carry out actual science.
It’s one thing to say that I wanted to save the world by doing science. It’s completely another thing to know how to take the requisite baby steps forward to do that. What, exactly to focus on? Where I the world to collect samples? How many samples to collect? How to preserve them, how to prepare them for analysis, how to design the laboratory work? Then, how to interpret the data, especially when the answers aren’t readily apparent? How to place your tiny piece of work in context of the larger body of Science that other people have completed? How to build on your work to answer the next question that arises? None of these things can be learned in a typical classroom.
This is a scanning-electron-microscope picture of a piece of coral skeleton, from a failed project (of which I've had several). I liked being able to pursue projects that failed in grad school without fear of destroying my career.
3. I learned how to communicate about science.
At least, I like to think so. Giving talks and posters at conferences, lab meetings, and teaching, writing grant proposals and manuscripts for publication were all excellent ways to learn different styles of communication (aside from just arguing ineffectively with the guy in line at the bank about climate change, for example).

Over the entire six years of my PhD program, I also got to know some amazing people (those are links to just a few of them--I could go on forever there). I love watching their careers develop, and thinking of ways we can continue to collaborate together to create positive change for the oceans.

Grad school bonus: Instant nerdly friends/future unemployed people to have coffee with!
There are a lot of very bad reasons to go to graduate school, but also some good ones—becoming a potentially more effective scientist and/or citizen of the world, even though you almost certainly won’t continue on in academia because there are no jobs and no grant money. Despite an uncertain future, graduate school can, maybe possibly, be a good investment of your time.

My biggest regret is not listening more seriously to my advisor when he suggested alternative careers, coupled with not thinking seriously about what jobs (including those in academia) actually exist, or where my particular skills would best fit. Now, as the end of my postdoc looms, I am scrambling to find these alternatives, in case all of my various applications for academic positions are ineffective (which, given the odds, is likely). At least I always have those old cake-decorating and surf-instruction skills to fall back on.

1 comment:

  1. Note -- I can't think of the best way to rephrase, but when I say "overly qualified mother" I don't mean that I have any actual qualifications, aside from 15 mos of on-the-job training, and this very worthwhile profession (mothering). All of you mothers with degrees in early childhood development and related skills make me very jealous.