Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Where Should YOU go to Grad School? A Guide

So, you've come here because you read the Lost in Transcription Guide to Whether or Not YOU Should go to Graduate School, and, at the end of having read said guide, you (YOU) concluded that yes, you (YOU) would give grad school a whirl.

Now you're looking down the barrel of grad school applications and trying to decide where to apply.

Or maybe you're looking down the much happier barrel of multiple grad school acceptances and trying to decide where to go.

[Already decided? Jump to this guide on how to do grad school like a boss!]

Well, luckily for you, Lost in Transcription is here for you with

The Lost in Transcription Guide to Where YOU Should go to Graduate School

Okay, let's start with the disclaimer. This guide will be most directly relevant to people looking at grad schools in the US and in the sciences. However, many of the considerations will be at least partly applicable more broadly.

Consideration 1: Reputation

In academia, just as in a pre-Joan-Jett Main-Street America, reputation matters. But what reputation, exactly? Is it your university, your department, or your advisor? And how much does it matter?

Look, in an ideal world, your prospects after grad school would be determined by the quality of your work. And yes, that is the most important thing. But the fact is, when you apply for a postdoc or a job, the people who are going to be reading your CV and your lovingly crafted research description are mind-bogglingly busy. They are also all flagrant (if sometimes closeted) Bayesians. They are going to look at where you went to school and who your advisor was, and they are going to construct a mental picture of you.

Yes, it sucks. And it is a bunch of crap. But the reality is that most academics, in addition to being overly busy, are ridiculously status conscious. So, while this shouldn't be your primary consideration, it should probably factor in. As unfair as people's biases and preconceptions (sometimes) are, you want to do what you can to be on the right side of them.

Of course, what I am calling "reputation" here is going to be at least reasonably well correlated with "quality," which is a perfectly legitimate consideration. If you go to a higher quality program, you will tend to have smarter colleagues, better classes, and a broader and more interesting set of advisors and projects to chose among. Unless you have a seriously unhealthy big-fish-in-small-pond fetish, you're going to want to be surrounded by the highest-quality people and resources you can find. You'll be more challenged to push yourself, and you'll learn more.

But let's get back to the question of which aspect of quality/reputation you should focus on. For undergraduates, the most important consideration is the reputation of the school as a whole. For postdocs, it is probably the reputation of the individual advisor. As a graduate student, both of those matter, but the most important reputation by far is that of the department.

If you go to a top-notch department at a university that is otherwise known primarily for its binge drinking, you're golden. We have a collective societal ranking of the prestige of various universities that is fairly well reflected in things like the US News and World Reports rankings. Most people have a sense (rightly or wrongly) that Stanford outranks Lehigh, and that Michigan outranks UNLV when it comes to academics. But in the world of grad school and beyond, those rankings, the ones we all know, really don't matter that much.

Every field will have its own ranking of schools and departments, and it is this ranking that will shape your experience and job prospects. For example, it is fairly common for large state universities to have a few "flagship" departments where they focus a lot of resources. These departments are every bit as good as the best departments at the most prestigious universities.

That is, don't go to Harvard just because it's Harvard. (And don't go to Yale just because you didn't get into Harvard -- Snap!) The prestigious universities are prestigious not because their good departments are better than the good departments elsewhere. They are prestigious because they have a larger number of good departments. But in grad school, you're really going to be in one department. If you're a molecular biologist, the presence of Nobel Memorial Prize winning economists on campus is not going to impact you much.

The only place where having gone to a prestigious school (as opposed to a quality department) is going to help you is in name dropping at cocktail parties. However, there is a much easier way to impress people at cocktail parties: don't be the jackass who is always telling everyone where they went to school.

You can easily find rankings of various departments online, and this is worth doing, just to get a sense of the lay of the land. You can also look up the faculty in the corresponding department at a few different colleges and universities. See where they went to grad school. If you have a strong sense of where you want to wind up, focus on that sort of place. For example, if you think that you would really like to teach at a small liberal-arts college, look up faculty at small liberal-arts colleges.

Most importantly, ask around. Make appointments with professors and ask them for a list of good departments. Ask your TAs. If you know someone who knows someone, ask them to put you in touch. I know it might feel like you are imposing on their time, but you're really not. Academics love ranking things, and they love love love passing judgement. Asking an academic to rank the departments in their field is like asking a normal person to judge a wet t-shirt contest. So don't be shy.

The final thing, though, is to make sure you don't take the details of those rankings too seriously. At the end of your research, you want to have a sense of what schools have quality departments, but there will be no legitimate sense in which the number three department on your list is objectively and quantifiably better than the number six department. Your goal should be to assemble an unordered list of "good" places. Then, if you are accepted into more than one of them, let these other considerations guide you.

Consideration 2: Your Advisor

This is important. Graduate school, and academia more generally, is built on this weird feudal system that more closely resembles the medieval system of guilds than anything else. Your advisor will hold tremendous sway over your life during graduate school, and over your career trajectory when you finish.

Why are we covering this here, though? We're supposed to be picking a school not an advisor.

Well, depending on your field, as well as on the school you wind up at, the two choices might go together. At some places, you may be accepted by the department, and then have the opportunity to get to know various faculty members before committing to one. In some cases, though, you will be accepted directly to work with a specific advisor, or at least provisionally, so that it would require a bit of effort to change.

Either way, it's an important part of the decision process.

The game here is not to find the best possible advisor. The game here is primarily one of "Do No Harm." There are a lot of advisors who are going to be good enough. And the fact is, you are not going to spend nearly as much time with your advisor as you probably think you are.

There are a few advisorial archetypes that you particularly want to avoid. Note that these are not mutually exclusive.

1. The Narcissist
This is a remarkably common personality type among academics. In many fields, particularly in the sciences, the "productivity" of senior researchers is actually measured by the productivity of the people who are working under them. In a lot of experimental sciences, in particular, faculty members write papers and grants and manage lab personnel, but may not have been engaged in hands-on research themselves for years.

That means that your advisor's success is tied up with your success. Fundamentally, this is a good thing, as you are both pulling in the same direction. At some point, though, your interests and your advisor's interests will begin to diverge. It is at this point that, if your advisor is a narcissist, you are totally screwed.

If your career is not prestigious enough, the narcissistic advisor will be pissed off because you have embarrassed them. If you are successful, well, at some point, you are going to become one of your advisor's competitors. Either way, they are going to turn on you.

The key to rooting these people out is to ask them about their former students. Ideally, you want the advisor who comes off like the proud grandma or grandpa when they're talking about their fledged advisees. Do they seem to talk about them as if they were people? Or do they seem more like statistics and trophies?

2. The Best Friend
Now, on its surface, this seems like someone you should want as an advisor, right? It is also the sort of advisor that everyone thinks they want to be. The problem is, the vast majority of us need an advisor who is willing to hold our feet to the fire a little bit. Grad school will probably be the most unstructured thing you have done in your life. Most people struggle a bit with learning the tricks of motivation, focus, and self control that are required to make good academic progress. While you're trying to learn these things, you don't want an advisor who is all, "What? You're spending this week at home in your pajamas watching TV? Just like last week? That's cool. See you whenever."

You need an advisor who has enough authority and emotional distance from their students that they can say, "You know what, you need to do this over. At this point, it's just not good enough." Yes, it totally sucks to have someone tell you that, especially when that person is your boss. But the thing that sucks even more is when no one ever tells you that, and you wind up being completely unemployable because you never learned how to do rigorous, high-quality work.

3. The Slave Driver
This is the flip side of the best friend, of course. You really do want an advisor who will push you, but not one who will be controlling and abusive. One thing to look for is a distinction between quality and quantity.

Some groups have a culture where students and postdocs feel they need to be seen in the lab. They will work in the lab on Saturday in the hopes that their advisor comes in and sees how industrious they are being. You hear some professors talking about wanting to be able to look at their lab at 10 pm on a Friday and see all the lights on. If students are trying to hide their hobbies from their advisor, out of a fear that having other interests will make them look lazy, this is a bad advisor.

4. The Pre-Retiree
Some time in their careers, most academics reach a point where they're just, like, "Fuck it." For some people this happens the day after they get tenure. (NB: These people are in the minority, but are well on their way to ruining tenure for everyone else.) For most people, it happens much later though, and within a few years they go emeritus. The trick is not going to work with someone who is still in that window between intellectual retirement and actual retirement.

This is especially dangerous in the case of famous, well respected senior researchers. The idea of working with a living legend can be incredibly attractive. But if they have lost interest in their research, then they are going to be shutting down their group, if they have not already begun to do so. They won't be taking more students, so your life will get lonelier and lonelier. Also, there's this dangerous path where you wind up abandoning your own research and editing their memoirs.

5. The Letch
This, I think, is much less of a problem than it used to be, but it is certainly still there. Most universities now have sufficient protections in place that if you have trouble with sexual harassment, you can probably find a fair amount of support. Also, I think that our culture has evolved enough that most of your fellow students will also tend to be supportive. But none of that is going to make a harassment situation not horrible. And if the harassment is from your advisor? Well, best case scenario, you probably wind up switching advisors, and maybe losing a year or two. Basically, avoid at all costs.

How to avoid this, though. Basically, you want to rely on the rumor mill. That doesn't mean that you have to take every rumor about every professor at face value. But you should absolutely not fall for the old, "You shouldn't spread rumors. Nothing was ever proven. It's so unfair to sully his name." bullshit.

Talk to grad students who have been around the department for a few years. Talk especially to students in other groups. Ideally, talk to them at some sort of social event where there is alcohol involved. Grad students actually love to gossip.

Of course, it is possible that there will be a story out there, and that a particular faculty member will have been accused of something, but will, in fact, be blameless. If you hear a specific story, ask around some more. If there's another side, someone will probably give it to you. If no one in the department offers any sort of defense of the professor, that does not necessarily mean they're guilty. But it does mean that no one likes them enough to defend them, which is a data point in its own right.

If there is more than one story, run.

And before you start quoting some "innocent until proven guilty" nonsense, recall that choosing to work with a different PhD advisor is not the same thing as putting someone in prison. You have every right to err on the side of caution.

So those are a few of the advisors you don't want to work with, but what are the positive traits that you can look for in an advisor?

1. Are their students happy?
And by this, I don't mean rolling-into-the-lab-at-noon-still-drunk happy. I mean, are they optimistic and enthusiastic about their projects? The ideal lab will have people who are eagerly working long hours, not because they are scared of their advisor, but because they can't wait to get the results of their experiments. Part of this is going to be driven by the mix of students and postdocs who happen to be there, but part of it will be a reflection of the advisor's managerial style. If you can find a lab like this, jump at the chance to join it.

2. Do you connect?
It is not as simple as there being good advisors and bad advisors. A lot of it is about a match between you and them. Are you snarky and sarcastic? Don't go with a super-earnest advisor, no matter how much everyone talks about how nice they are. Are you thin-skinned? Don't go with the gruff professor, even if they do have a heart of gold.

3. Do they have a plan?
A good thing to ask a potential advisor is how they imagine your grad career being structured. The details of their answer are not necessarily that important. There are many paths to a successful PhD. However, if they don't have any ideas, that should raise a red flag.

4. Where do their students go?
With the exception of very new faculty, you can look at a potential advisor's track record. What have their students gone on to do? Remember, there is no one right answer here. If all of their students go on to be professors at major research universities, that's great -- so long as you are sure that you want to go on to be a professor at a major research university. It might also mean that if you decide you want to go into science writing, you're going to catch hell.

In my view, the ideal track record would have a majority of people who have gone on to successful, traditional academic careers, but also people who have gone on to do other things. Perhaps most important, though, is how the advisor talks about their non-traditional students. Do they seem ashamed and embarrassed? If so, that's maybe a problem. Even if you think you want a traditional career right now, who knows what you'll think in five years. Make sure you find an advisor who will support whatever path you choose to follow.

Consideration 3: Your Project

This seems really important, right? I mean, what you actually work on for your PhD has got to be one of the most critical considerations, right?


Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

This might actually be the least important consideration. Sure, you can factor it in if you want, but you should rank it somewhere below the quality of the linoleum in the hallways.

Remember that thing that people say about undergraduate education, that what you're really doing is "learning how to learn"? Well, grad school is sort of like that. The most important thing you do in grad school is learn how to be a researcher.

When you break it down, doing independent research actually takes a lot of different skills. You learn how to read up on a topic, teaching yourself what the state of the art is. You learn how to identify an interesting open question. You learn how to pose that question (or some aspect of that question) in a way that you can answer it in a reasonable amount of time. You learn to actually do the research. You learn how to write about your research clearly. You learn how to speak about it clearly. You learn how to respond to challenges and criticisms, both in person and in writing. You learn how to identify when a project is a dead end. You learn how to salvage what you can and apply it to the next question.

The thing is, of all of those skills, "doing the research" is the only one that is specific to your particular project. Everything else in the list will transfer over, even if you completely change fields.

Let's say grad school takes an average of about six years. It is typically the case that 90% of the stuff that goes into your thesis will be things you do in the last year and a half. That's because most of what you're learning is how to be a researcher. Once you get that down, you do a little research, write it up, and graduate.

So what happens if you finish your PhD and decide that you want to work on something different? Well, you change. In fact, lots and lots of people make big shifts in what they work on when they do a postdoc. Obviously, if you switch fields, you're going to have to spend some time learning the new one. The thing is, while it took you four years to learn what you did about your field in grad school, once you've finished, you'll be able to accomplish the same thing in a new field in like six months. In part, you will have developed an intuition for how to zero in on the relevant information in the literature. In part, you will have learned how to stop yourself from playing Halo when you're supposed to be reading papers.

The point is this: Maybe you have strong opinions about what you want to research. That's cool. But the fact is, you know almost nothing. Most likely, this thing you want to research is one of a very small number of things you've been exposed to.

Maybe you had a positive experience working in a insect biomechanics lab for a semester. Or maybe you had a really hot TA in a your evolution class, and he/she works on insect biomechanics. And now you think that insect biomechanics is the most important topic in biology, and that working on it is your life's calling.

I want to offer you an alternative explanation. What you have actually learned about yourself is that you can get excited about academic research. In all likelihood, you would have had a similar response to any number of topics. So keep your mind open. Find a program that makes you happy, and one day you will be the hot TA.

If, after finishing your PhD in yeast senescence, you still think that insect biomechanics is the bees' knees (see what I did there?), go do a postdoc in it. You might even find that some of the things you learned about yeast give you an interesting new perspective on the insect biomechanics problem.

Consideration 4: Location

Unless you completely ignore consideration number 2, you are not going to spend all of your time working in your advisor's salt mines. Don't get me wrong. Graduate school tends to be pretty all-consuming. And there are some people who seem perfectly happy with spending basically all of their time at the lab (or the library, or the steam room, or whatever).

Personally, though, I'm a fan of a more process-based perspective. Remember, grad school is not just five (or seven, or nine) years on your way to a stressful career, it is five years of your life. If you have outside interests that you love, I think it would be a mistake not to take those into consideration.

If you love skiing, and there is a good program in your field in Colorado or Utah, that is a perfectly legitimate consideration. If you can be happy on the weekends, it will help to carry you though the dark time in your fourth year when you realize that your entire thesis has been built on a faulty assumption. (Yes, this will happen. Just think of it as the Kobayashi Maru part of your PhD training.)

The thing that I would discourage you from, though, is a vague sense of regional loyalty. You know, like where you've always lived on the West Coast, so you're only going to apply to West Coast schools.

All you're really doing here is limiting your own experience. Also, if you are aiming towards an academic career, you're probably going to have to learn to be flexible in where you're willing to live (unless you wind up going Ronin). The academic job market is a national one. In fact, it is increasingly becoming an international one. For many people, the possibility of traveling to and living in a variety of places is one of the appeals of the academic lifestyle. If that is really not attractive to you, think carefully before you commit to this path.

Of course, maybe you have other constraints and considerations that have you anchored to a particular location (like maybe an ailing parent). Obviously, in this case, you should go wherever works, and put all your effort into choosing a good advisor.

Consideration 5: Your Peers

This is easily, in my opinion, the most important factor to consider. Yes, you're going to be doing your own independent research. Yes, you're going to be taking classes from the faculty. Yes, you're going to receive at least some mentorship from your advisor. But whatever you learn in those contexts is going to pale in comparison to what you learn from other graduate students and postdocs.

There are the more senior members of your group, who are actually going to teach you things. If they are nice, and smart, and engaged, you are going to learn a lot more.

There are the other students who come in with your cohort. You are going to spend hundreds and hundreds of hours with these people. You are going to take exams with them. You are going to practice giving talks in front of each other. You are going to drink beer with them (wine if you're in the humanities). You're going to play poker with them. It's reasonably likely that you're going to wind up getting married to one of them. It's even more likely that some of them are going to get embarrassingly drunk at your wedding.

Thirty years from now, these are the people you're going to be connected to via whatever replaces the thing that replaces Facebook.

Of course, you won't be able to pick exactly who your peers are. But a lot of programs have some sort of interview visits or recruiting visits. If you have this sort of opportunity, take it. And don't just look at the program and the faculty. Also look at the other interviewees/recruits. Are there people here with whom you could imagine forging lifelong friendships? If you can't imagine it, maybe this won't be the place for you.


So, young Gradawan, imbued you now have been with all the wisdom required to choose the right graduate program for YOU! Be sure to write in to let me know how it works out!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The NY Jets Almost Make Me Want to Watch Football

So, I've never really been a big Football fan ("American Football" for our international readers). But, as a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, if I were to start following Football, I've found my team in the New York Jets.

Check out this awesome play from this week's Jets game. Jets QB Mark Sanchez tries to carry the ball up the middle, but runs smack into the rear end of one of his offensive linemen, who then falls over backwards and winds up sitting on him. During the collision, Sanchez fumbles the ball, which is returned for a Patriots touchdown.

The official story seems to be that Sanchez was sliding. I've watched this several times, and it really looks more like he was just not paying attention to where he was going. It's like watching pee-wee league, but with 250-pound toddlers (i.e., awesome).

Here's the GIF version of the money shot from Deadspin. I could watch this all day long.

All. Day. Long.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Two new characters at Darwin Eats Cake

So, if you're a regular reader of Darwin Eats Cake, you'll already know that two new characters have been introduced to the strip: R A Fisher's Pipe and J B S Haldane's Moustache.

If you're not a regular reader, you should be, because it will make me happy (and it is, after all, the holiday season), and also because Robert Gonzales once called it "my [meaning Robert's] new favorite webcomic" over at io9.

For those of you who are not population geneticists, or at least evolutionary biologists, Fisher and Haldane are two of the major figures of the "modern synthesis" in evolution in the first part of the twentieth century. This was basically the integration of the Mendelian idea of the gene with the Darwinian idea of gradual change via natural selection. Fisher, in addition, created a whole lot of modern statistics, which have found applications far outside of evolutionary biology.

R. A. Fisher smoking his pipe. Not a euphemism.
J. B. S. Haldane, um, I guess, having his mustache. Note the lack of "o" in the American spelling of mustache.
Fisher loved himself a good smoke. In fact, late in his life, he publicly challenged research purporting to show a causal link between smoking and lung cancer. Oops.

Haldane once chased my former officemate and his mother down the street in a rainstorm in Calcutta to offer them an umbrella.

These two anecdotes provide all the information you need to accurately reconstruct the political views of each.

Fisher passed away in 1962, and Haldane in 1964. Fortunately, one of the most salient features of each was preserved in a jar for posterity. And now, half a century later, the two have reunited to bring you their genetically inspired comedy stylings.

Here's what you've missed so far:

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Monday, November 19, 2012

Do Heart Transplants Cause Lesbian Bestiality? We Investigate!

So, this video is straight-up awesome, as is the song, which was the inspiration for the video. Over at Boing Boing, they have an interview with songstress Kim Boekbinder, artist Molly Crabapple, and animator Jim Batt, who collaborated to put this thing together. The interview also features behind-the-scenes photos, which give a sense of the scale of the project. The figures look to be maybe six inches tall, while the paper-craft buildings are maybe three-feet tall.

If they're smart, they'll auction off the set, for which someone would certainly pay 10 kajillion dollars.

Speaking as a biologist, I should note for the record that I am unaware of any replicated, double-blind studies showing a statistically significant association between organ transplants and having steamy lesbian pirate sex with cats.

Update: I just went and checked out the dedicated website (, which has a series of blog entries following the project from its beginnings in May 2010 to July 2012. Awesome.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Should YOU Go to Grad School? A Guide

So, it's that time of year again, when thousands of college seniors emerge briefly from their beer-bong haze long enough to ask themselves, "What the hell am I going to do next year?" At times like this, for many of you, your thoughts may turn to graduate school, and to the question of whether or not you should go there. Some of you are imagining grad school as an opportunity to continue doing whatever you've been doing for the past four years. Some of you are imagining a path to riches paved with scholarly articles on the mating habits of the Brazilian Wandering Spider. Some of you are all, "I don't know, I guess it's a thing to do."

If you clicked on this post, then you're probably feeling torn about whether or not grad school is right for you. I'm going to say that the answer is probably yes. But that's because I loved grad school. Also, according to my wife, I have poor Theory-of-Mind skills, so I have a hard time picturing that you would not, also, love grad school. But it is just possible that you might not.

So perhaps a more detailed analysis is in order.

Well, here is a comprehensive guide to whether or not YOU should go to graduate school:

[Note: if you're already in grad school, check out this guide to making grad school AWESOME]

The Lost In Transcription Guide to Whether or Not YOU Should Go to Graduate School

Consideration 1: Lifetime Earnings

Okay, the first thing you might want to consider is your lifetime earnings potential. On the one hand, earning an advanced degree is correlated with higher salaries. On the other hand, you'll spend the next several years earning only a small salary, or even going into debt, depending on your field (and lifestyle). Furthermore, if you get started on a money-earning career now, you'll have that many more years of seniority. How do these things balance out?

Well, if you're eagerly looking to this paragraph for detailed economic analysis of the effect of having a PhD on your lifetime earnings, then the answer to whether or not you should go to grad school is an easy one: You should not go to grad school.

If your primary consideration looking forward is monetary, this is not the right path for you. Yes, most PhDs are able to earn a very comfortable living, certainly substantially higher than most jobs. However, most of these PhD careers require long hours and a willingness to move thousands of miles for a job. If you have the intelligence and work ethic and commitment to make a go of a PhD-type career, but your primary consideration is monetary, then there are other, better paths for you. Go work for a consulting firm, or start working your way up the financial analyst ladder. If you want more school, go to a professional school (e.g., Business, Law, or Medical). These will also lead to careers with long hours, but your earnings upside is much greater, as is the degree to which you will be able to tailor your career to other considerations, like living close to / far from your in-laws. Or, if you're really set on grad school, at least consider engineering, where you can go off and make a bundle of money working for a defense contractor.

If lifetime earnings potential is at the top of your list of considerations, do not, under any circumstances, enter a graduate program where the best-case-scenario outcome has you teaching Medieval German History to a bunch of bored premeds fulfilling a distribution requirement.

Consideration 2: Your Deathbed

Previously, writing about work-life balance, I quoted someone (whose name I could not remember) who said something like this:
You know, I don't think anyone has ever been lying on their deathbed and said, 'Boy, I wish I had published just one more paper.'
While I think that this statement is a reasonable prediction for most people on their deathbeds, it is not entirely universal. I remember one time at a dinner I was seated next to Daniel Aaron (an Emeritus Professor of English at Harvard). At one point he said that he was beginning to reread Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (a.k.a., In Search of Lost Time) in the original French, because he wanted to make sure that he read the whole thing one more time before he died. (He would have been about 92 at the time. He is still alive, at 100, so I assume he accomplished it. He probably also got to rewatch all twenty seasons of Law & Order on DVD.)

Does this story resonate with you? Imagine that you have just learned there is an asteroid heading towards earth, and you have thirty-six hours to live. Would you rush to grab your Greek edition of The Republic? Would you see if you could crack that one really hard problem from this week's problem set?

If you answered yes to the you-appropriate analog of these questions, then you have your answer: You should go to grad school.

Take out loans if you have to. Sell plasma. Live the life of the mind. Die a happy pauper. Stop reading this. Go.

But what about the rest of us?

Okay, most people won't fit into either of the two easy cases above. For the remainder here, I'm going to assume that you're smart and a little bit dorky, or, you know, "academically oriented." You can picture becoming a professor, or working at a national laboratory, but you can also picture not becoming either of these things. I'm going to assume that you enjoy classes and reading and research projects and such. If these assumptions are wrong, well then no, you should not go to grad school. But you're probably not even reading this.

Okay, moving on.

Basically, my short answer is sure, why not. Particularly if you can go to grad school for free, with some sort of stipend, then yes, give grad school a shot, but keep your options open. Be ready to bail, and remember that you don't have to go right away.

Let's unpack this.

Consideration 3: Can You Go for Free?

I know we already said that you should not go to grad school if money was your primary consideration. But even if it is not primary, for most people it is at least a consideration. This is a place where there is huge variation among fields and among universities. If you're in the sciences, there tend to be a lot of opportunities to go to grad school in such a way that your tuition is paid for, and you will, in fact, receive some sort of a stipend. If you get a fellowship from the NSF or NIH, this might be on the order of $30,000 a year. If not, you might be looking at more like $15,000 a year.

Now, that's not a ton of money, but $15,000 is about what you would be making if were working a full-time job at minimum wage. And, with a little ingenuity, you can stretch those dollars pretty far. At many universities, there will be opportunities for subsidized on-campus housing if you're willing to hold undergrads' hair while they vomit. If not, you can probably find some other grad students to share housing with. Also, you will quickly learn which seminar series provide free food.

Depending on where you are, you may have to do some teaching, grading, etc. as part of your stipend package. If you're in the social sciences or humanities, this is more likely, and the teaching load might be heavy.

Here's the thing, though. Taking classes, teaching undergrads, and grading papers is going to be a more varied and interesting job than most things you could be doing for minimum wage. Let's say that you wind up teaching (or grading for) a couple of classes each semester, all while taking classes of your own and trying to do your own research. Does working at Starbucks sound better or worse than that to you? This will give you your answer as to whether or not to go to grad school. The fact is, the job you're facing down as a grad student is a lot like the job you're looking at having for the next forty years. If that's not appealing, get out now.

But what about something where you have to pay out of pocket. Honestly, I would be skeptical. I mean, if you come from money, fine. Otherwise, the only way this makes sense is if you already learned that you should attend grad school after reading consideration 2, above. In which case, I already told you to quit reading. Get out of here!

Consideration 4: Take a Process-Oriented View

A lot of people, when they think about grad school, focus on the long-term goal: the faculty job, or the pharmaceutical-company job, or the government-agency job, or whatever. In general, goal-oriented behavior is a good thing, and your capacity to pursue long-term goals is probably one of the reasons why you're in a position to consider grad school in the first place.

But remember what Aerosmith said: "Life's a journey, not a destination." Someone else probably said that, too, but whatever.

Let's say you're in your early twenties. Using ballpark numbers, you might spend the next five years in grad school, and maybe another three, or five, or eight as a postdoc, depending on your field. Let's say you retire between sixty-five and seventy.

That's forty-five years of working, ten of which will be training for your career. That's not the majority, but it's a huge fraction, and you should make an effort to be happy, not just working towards something that you think will make you happy.

Here's the good news. Grad school can actually be a lot of fun. You're surrounded by smart people. It's like college, but without the jocks and the frat boys and all the other assholes who used to call you Poindexter. You'll make lifelong friends among your grad school cohort. You'll hang out together and watch reality television and play poker and volleyball and drink beer.

This, of course, depends in part on your choice of field, school, and advisor. That's a topic for a different post, however. The point is that grad school, when well chosen, can be a great time. Even if you wind up with a shitty advisor, the students will often bond together over the shared trauma. But what if grad school sounds appealing, except that you hate having a great time? Well, if you're not confident in your ability to choose an advisor who will make you completely miserable, consider Chemistry.

Consideration 5: You Don't Have to Stay

You're reading this because you're not sure if you would like grad school. Here's the thing. Going to grad school is a good way to find out if you'll like grad school. Grad school is quite a bit different from undergrad, but it is, in some ways, not that different from what you would be doing after finishing grad school. It also gives you opportunities to see close up what postdocs and professors do (or close-ish, anyway).

So, one thing you can do is start grad school. If it's not working out for you, leave. Many PhD programs have some sort of a terminal masters degree. In some cases, you actually earn the masters in the normal course of pursuing the PhD. In others, the masters is awarded if you pass your exams, but drop out before doing your dissertation. Either way, that means that after a couple of years, if you decide this isn't for you, you won't leave empty handed. The people in your field and in your lab will tell you that the masters degree is a sign of failure, and within the academic community of that field, it is. But here's the thing, if you're leaving that academic field, who cares! People outside in the rest of the world will recognize your masters degree for what it is, an indication that you went out and gained a whole lot of knowledge about something.

Alternatively, you can leave your grad program and join another one. I started off in a PhD program in Biochemistry. After two years, I changed fields, schools, and cities, because after that time I had a much better sense of what I wanted to get out of school.

So if you think you might like grad school, give it a go, but keep the escape hatch in mind. This sounds easy now, but may not seem so easy later. There is a lot of myopia in grad-school culture, and a lot of echo-chamber nonsense. People tend to get tunnel vision, and buy into the idea that there is one true, golden path for success. If you start to stray off of that path (like by thinking about leaving with a masters), everyone will try to discourage you: your advisor, senior grad students and postdocs. They might even stage an intervention.

Just remind yourself that Stockholm is not only the place where they give out the Nobel prizes, it is also the name of a syndrome.

Consideration 6: You Don't Have to Go Right Now

Consideration 5 was really sort of an argument for jumping into grad school if you are leaning that way. But what about if you're leaning the other way? Here's the other thing to keep in mind: grad school will still be there next year. Probably even the year after that. Have you always wanted to spend a summer working on a fishing boat? Go for it. Did you want to backpack across Asia? That sounds exhausting to me, but, hey, why not!

You meet a remarkable number of twenty-two year olds who feel an enormous pressure to get their careers started. I just want to shake them and say, "What the hell? You're twenty two!" Let's say you take five years off before starting grad school, and then follow the standard career path. Most of it will be exactly the same, except that, instead of being a Full Professor somewhere for twenty years before retiring, you'll be a Full Professor there for fifteen years before retiring. No one cares, even you.

Recall again, that if you really are that desperate to publish five more papers in your life, you should already have stopped reading and started applying.

There are also ways to sort of hedge your bets. Like, apply to work as a lab technician in a lab in some country you've always wanted to visit. I did this before grad school. The country was the United States, which is sort of lame, but I'm sure you could do better. If you're in the humanities, apply to be whatever the equivalent of a lab technician is in your particular field. Unless the equivalent is "prostitute." Don't do that.


So, now that you've read through the entire Lost In Transcription Guide to Whether or Not YOU Should Go to Graduate School, you know whether or not to go. Still not sure? Perhaps you didn't read carefully enough. If you've read this guide three times, and are still not sure, send fifty dollars, and I will refund half your money.

For those of you who have decided on grad school, check back here for the Lost In Transcription guide to choosing a graduate school program and advisor. (UPDATE: It's HERE!)

For those of you who have decided against it, check back here for instructions on how I like my coffee.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Achievement Unlocked: 501c3 Status!

So, this is reposted from the Ronin Blog:

Greetings to all from the Ronin Institute. We’ve got some good news here. The IRS has officially approved our application for tax-exempt status as a publicly funded 501c3 nonprofit organization!

What does that mean? Well, most importantly, it means that you can now donate to the Ronin Institute to support independent scholarship, and your donation should be tax deductible. Or, as they say on nonprofit websites, “tax deductible to the full extent allowed by law,” which is sort of a funny thing to say. I mean, if you gave a donation to me, personally, it would be “tax deductible to the full extent allowed by law.” It’s just that, in the case of giving money to me, the full extent allowed by law would be zero.

Here, though, your donation is tax deductible in the same way that that donations to the United Way or the Red Cross are. That is, donations to the Ronin Institute should be unambiguously tax deductible, but if there is any question in your mind about your particular circumstances, you should consult with a tax attorney.

So, if you (or your foundation, or your employer) are looking for some things to donate to before the end of the year, here we are! If you believe in reinventing academia, here we are! If you want to help to support some really high quality independent scholarship, here we are! Now hop on over to the Donation page!

If you have questions about the Institute, or would like to direct your donation towards a specific program or project, contact us at

To the future!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Windows 95 Tips

So, here's one of many awesome things that I am behind the curve on, thanks to the hurricane . . . erm, "superstorm" that knocked out our power for more than a week, and our internet access for a week beyond that. It's a tumblr of Windows 95 tips. Here are a few of samples to entice you:

Rough Day for Liberal Tigers Fans

So, remember how there was this election? And how there was this guy Nate Silver who said that Obama was going to win the election? But the all the conservatives everywhere were like "Nuh-uh!" because they weren't going to just listen to some "blogger" who was using his "math" and "statistics" to pursue his gay agenda of using mind control to hand over the United States over to the one-world government and forcibly relocating all of the suburbanites? I mean, what about the conventional wisdom of Peggy Noonan's friends?

Remember how he then became the darling of everyone on the left, who were all able to embrace his analyses while patting themselves on the back for being reality based? Because, in this case, reality did, in fact have a liberal bias that was, in fact, more extreme than that of the liberal-bias machine of the Main Stream Media. (Someone should come up with a clever, dismissive name for them, maybe "Lame Stream Media"! Ooh, I like that!)

Remember how part of you wondered what would have happened if the statistical analyses of Nate Silver (or the equally awesome – but much funnier – Sam Wang) had pointed towards a Romney victory? Would conservatives have embraced the hard-nosed, numbers-based approach? Would liberals have set up hysterical unskewing sites?

Well, here's our chance to find out.

We need to collect together all the people who were Obama supporters and Nate Silver fans, and who are also Detroit Tigers fans. We then need to see what they have to say about the column that Silver wrote yesterday.

In it, Silver lays out, with his typical clarity, the case that Miguel Cabrera does not deserve to be the American League MVP, despite his being the first triple-crown winner since the debut of Laugh-In. Rather, on purely statistical grounds, the MVP should go to Mike Trout of the California Angels Anaheim Angels Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Purely based on his performance as a batter, Trout provided greater added value to his team than Cabrera did to his. Beyond that, Trout was a huge asset both as a fielder and as a baserunner. Cabrera, by contrast, provided a net negative contribution to his team in fielding and baserunning.

Really, the only argument in Cabrera's favor is that he won the triple crown. The triple crown! That's a real achievement, and he should be rewarded for it. But should he be rewarded with the MVP? Or should that go to the most valuable player? If we apply the conventional meanings of the words "most," "valuable," and "player," the MVP should go to Trout.

Maybe we could come up with something else to honor Cabrera's extraordinary accomplishment in earning the triple crown. How about, I don't know, the triple crown? (Last three words said extra loud, slack-jawed, and condescendingly.)

I'm just saying. If you spent October laughing at Karl Rove and Dick Morris (and who didn't, really), but think that Cabrera should win the MVP, you're not a realist. You're a partisan who happens to have been on the right side of reality in the election, but who is now on the wrong side of reality in baseball.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Florida Man Commits Suicide over Election

So, if you want to feel better about all the Texans in your Facebook feed who are threatening secession in the wake of Barack Obama's reelection, here's something even stupider. The stupider thing comes from Florida, naturally. Henry Hamilton, a 64-year-old resident of Key West, apparently committed suicide on November 8, after claiming that "if Barack gets re-elected, I'm not going to be around." Empty prescription bottles for Xanax and Seroquel (for the treatment of schizophrenia) were found in the condo Hamilton shared with his partner, Michael Cossey.

The report in the Miami Herald raises a few questions:

First, the article says that Hamilton was the "owner of Tropical Tan on Duval Street." Who the hell lives in Key West, Florida, and goes to a tanning salon.

Second, Hamilton wrote "Fuck Obama!" on his will before killing himself. Does anyone know if this entails a legal obligation on his partner to have sex with the president?

Third, why do articles like this one always end with lines like this: "President Obama, a Democrat, defeated Republican challenger Mitt Romney to win a second four-year term"? Why not "A 'prescription' is a document created by a medical professional that gives a patient access to a controlled substance, typically for therapeutic or palliative use"?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

LiL DEBBiE's "Michelle Obama" will bring back your election hangover

So, of all the things you can do to celebrate Barack Obama's reelection, here is unquestionably the worst: watch the video of the song "Michelle Obama" by LiL DEBBiE, best known for being the girl with no rhythm in the Kreayshawn "Gucci Gucci" video.

The song also features the lyrical stylings of RiFF RAFF. No, sadly, that's not the leader of the Catillac Cats, it's just another Southern California rapper with questionable capitalization skills and parents (Bill and Melinda RAFF, I assume) who are questioning the wisdom of having named their son "RiFF."

The one sliver of good news is that the lyric is "Presidential tint," and not "Presidential tits," which is how you heard it.

Also, I like to imagine that LiL and RiFF cut an alternative track that would have been released in the event of a Romney victory. I'm thinking instead of "Presidential tint, Michelle Obama / Frozen femurs in the freezer, Jeffrey Dahmer," the line would have been "Presidential tint, Ann Romney / Egg salad in the deli case, and salami." What do you think?