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“Choose Wisely, Young Scientist” Was On Target

Gary, I wholeheartedly agree with you, specifically concerning the three main disadvantages of obtaining a PhD (narrow job market, esoteric skill set, drain on passion). I was interested by the statistics regarding America’s loss of domestic applicants and what specific steps Obama and his new administration have done to build-up its STEM research focus. (The recent reversal of Bush’ restrictive stem cell research policy is a good sign.)

It would be an interesting comparison to see how other nations of highly regarded academic sensibility fare when it comes to an international graduate student population and what they have to done to either hinder or encourage a wide range of international perspectives.

If there is one thing America should be proud of, it is the diversity of the student population. Sure, one could argue that those international students may end up taking jobs from their domestic peers or that international students will leave for their home country without contributing to the American society, but despite the lowering demographic of American graduate students, America is still the land of opportunity!

I am currently in a PhD program at one of the top chemical engineering schools in the nation, but I am jumping ship come 5 p.m., May 22 (haha try and find me) commencement with a Masters (2 years in, I might as well finish with some degree). I went to graduate school for the wrong reason, something I thought you might have expounded upon: I went because I did not know if I wanted to go into the workforce yet. My internships with large corporations was quite boring, but paid well. I idealized the very desire to learn for the sake of learning in a nurturing environment.

Nope, I found only highly ambitious advisers, who are quite accomplished and knowledgeable, refusing others to see their humane side. I found overwhelming pressure to present not just results, but good results. Independent research and social networking became true antipodes. Even though one can usually work at whatever hour he pleases, the work day doesn’t end at 5 p.m. After heartache and toil and disappointments, I lost all my motivation, and I came to understand graduate school was not what I expected. Obviously, my experience is unique and not everyone will see what I saw.

My advice to the prospective PhD students: choose what will make you happy now, not what might make you happy later. Just like the time-value of money, happiness now is worth more than happiness later.

Naturally, there’s usually an exception to the rule…

Mark Twain said it quite well: “I’ve never let school interfere with my education.”

Joseph Tingsanchali

University of California at Berkeley

M.S. in Chemical Engineering, 2009