Wednesday, April 22, 2015

If I were an undegraduate student now, would I try for a PhD?

Timing is everything. Forty years ago, when I first started to consider going to graduate school, in a field I didn't study much as an undergraduate, I didn't think the decision that odd.  I really didn't know what I wanted to do with my life.  So trying something that was a gamble, certainly, but seemed a possible good fit was about as much as I could hope for.  I was a math guy but didn't think I could hack graduate school in math.  I had a social science interest but never considered going to grad school in political science, which was my unofficial minor.  Economics seemed a reasonable mixture of those two interests.  I didn't think at all about what would happen end of pipe, what sort of job I'd get, whether I'd be happy in that, whether I could support myself let alone a family.  All I asked was whether I could get into being a graduate student.  And the story I told myself, once I got into Northwestern and accepted their offer, was not to make any decision on that until after the first quarter concluded.  Since I got a fellowship, if I dropped out after that to try something else, which many of my classmates ultimately did, I wouldn't have out of pocket expenses to recoup.  That was the full extent of the thinking --- then.

How would such decision making go today for me, if I were the same sort of student now.  I ask this, in part, to try to make sense of the article linked below.  By doing so I also hope to make overt other considerations that should matter in doing studies such as the one at Berkeley.  The other part that motivates the question is how the rise in reliance of adjuncts for instruction would impact this decision.  It is probably impossible to now be as naive about career prospects as I was back then.  Would having more information about career prospects block the PhD path, because it would seem too dismal up front?

I was only 21 when starting graduate school, single and with no dependents.  Many of my cohort were older.  Some were already married.  One already had a kid.  Several were international students, studying in the U.S. for the first time.   For this part, I'm going to assume age-wise that I'd be in the same situation.  Also, I want to note that the world looks quite different as a first-year grad student than it does in the third or fourth year.   Here's how this matters.

While I did look for apartments in Evanston where I'd have one or more roommates, I ultimately opted for a one bedroom in Rogers Park that I'd have to myself.  While this was a no frills place, it was a step up in the quality of housing that I had in undergrad school.  The best part of life at 509 Wykcoff in Ithaca as an undergrad were the people who lived there.  I had a great time with many of them.  What I had in common with them was where we lived, not what we studied.  I lost that when going to grad school, but I was going to lose that no matter what else I did as long as I left Ithaca.  In terms of the physical quality of the place, particularly the sharing of bathroom facilities, it really was no great shakes.  I didn't have more lofty expectations at the time.  I bought crappy furniture.  That was okay.  After a couple of years I started to wake up with my back hurting.  I regretted having such a poor mattress.  That got to me after a while.  By the time I was writing my dissertation, I was kind of fed up with living like a pauper.  A reasonable argument might have been made at the time that I spend an extra year at NU to write a bang up thesis and have an even better job market.  But I didn't consider that because of the low income path as a grad student.  By then I wanted a real job.

So where in the trajectory are these student surveys being delivered?   First year doctoral students are apt to answer quite differently from more advanced doctoral students.  Then, as I recast myself into the present, I wonder if my expectations for housing/quality of life outside of school would be different now and if being driven by more materialistic concerns if that would steer me to finding a job rather than go to grad school.

Next, let me talk about the intellectual quality of life, both the schoolwork itself and the social life.  Graduate school was much more intense than undergraduate and required a much greater personal commitment, or so was my experience back then.  It turns out that I was ready for that; it was something that fit me pretty well.  What I missed, however, was having friends who were not studying what I was studying.  I didn't really want to narrow in the non-school part of life, which there was little of during the first year, especially the first quarter, but which grew more important over time.  Living by myself may have been a mistake in this regard.  Who knows?  What I wonder now is whether one can get more diversity in social life if outside academia, or if somebody who is on the shy side as I was, would tend to find friends at work, but not elsewhere.  In any event, this narrowness can contribute to a depression.

The last bit I want to consider is whether the subject matter itself might seem a betrayal from one's expectations or if it fully captivates the mind.  At the time I went to graduate school, and perhaps for the next ten years thereafter, economic theory was in its heyday and as I was trained as a theorist I found it quite captivating.  Twenty years after I started graduate school I began to become disillusioned with the theory - it really didn't say much unless you made some arbitrary assumptions up front to get more specific conclusions.  That plus the rise of computing has made empirical economics much more valued.  But even there, economists are pretty much stuck with the data they can get.  The can't perform experiments in situ.  There is a branch of economics that does perform experiments, frequently with college students as subjects, but these are classroom as laboratory type of experiments only.  If I had more skepticism about the discipline itself in advance of attending grad school, would that have encouraged me to not go for a PhD?

These sort of hypothetical questions don't have right answers.  I should add here that I don't see some alternative path that is obviously better.  I can envision a public service project in lieu of a stint in the Peace Corps as a possible alternative, the one I have in mind now is to author online interactive content for K-12 to be made freely available to schools and students, and that might engage me and help me mature some so I could better answer the question of what to do next.  Maybe watching The Graduate a couple of times would help or just the bit that produced the answer, "plastics."  In retrospect, we didn't have such good answers back then.  Why is it that we assumed otherwise? 

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