Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What a timely survey

Nature Jobs posted an article last week that summarizes the results of a survey conducted on graduate students in the sciences about their satisfaction with graduate school. Here are some of the more interesting points:
  1. 78.8% of first year PhD students responded that they were "very" or "quite" likely to continue on to a university research position after graduate school.  In comparison 62% of fifth years answered the same.
  2. Competition is the biggest factor in steering students away from academic careers.
  3. 44.6% of students thought about post-school career options before entering graduate school.
  4. 71.6% of European-based students reported that they were somewhat or very satisfied with their overall graduate school experience, compared to just 57.1% in the US and 62.3% in Japan.
This last point is interesting because I recently had a discussion about it with my advisor (who is Romanian). He claims that the reason for the significant difference between US and European students concerning the level of satisfaction with  their graduate studies is the perception of education in the two cultures. Education is held in high esteem in many European countries and professors carry a highly-valued social status.

In contrast, scientific jobs often carry a certain stigma with them in the US. Amusingly, I had a travel buddy--an engineer for an aerospace company--once explain to me what lengths he went to to hide the fact that he studied engineering when hitting on girls in college.

I'm not certain that being an intellectual is a turn-off, however. Consider the tech industry (Google, etc.) and the fairly well-received social status that its employees enjoy despite their aptitude for computers and technology. The real substance here is that they also enjoy good incomes and a stable job. So, the point is that intelligence is not socially undesirable; rather, it's that a good career and income is more highly valued.

The survey's findings seem to corroborate my recent conclusions about life as a graduate student. I must admit that I'm a little jealous of my engineer friends who went to work immediately after school. They're making much more money, have more free time, and are generally moving forward with their lives at a comfortable pace. And since we came from the same educational background, it's sometimes demoralizing to consider where I'm at with my life and find that I'm lagging them in these respects due to my role as a graduate student.

But I'll be damned if a job in industry can elicit the same oh-so-sweet feeling when an experiment works, the results fit neatly within the model, and one little mystery of nature finds itself tamed by my own cognitive exertions that is rewarded by a career in science.