The Changing Face of the Graduate Student

As many of you may already be aware, one of the defining characteristics of a graduate student is his/her innate ability to locate free food. I, too, possess such clairvoyant abilities. Often, munching on free food comes under the guise of conversing with a guest speaker visiting the department. Lately, I’ve noticed a general trend about our guest speakers at these free food fests. When asked about their graduate school life…..they all seem to have loved it!!! Every time they were asked about grad school, their faces lit up reminiscing about late nights at the lab, drinking beer, talking about which conference they were going to attend this year, debating whether a recent Nature publication was worthy, etc.  This observation made me wonder how different today’s graduate student is from his/her predecessors.  Just a few moments of reflection already made me realize that the majority of the students in my department are married women, and many of them have children. Also, none of us hang around the lab in the wee hours of the night drinking beer and talking science.  So what has changed?

1. Women Dominate

According to the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, more women have been enrolling in post-baccalaureate programs than men ever since 1988. By 2009, 59% of graduate students were female, and this trend is projected to continue at least for the next decade. So, maybe one of the reasons why we don’t see grad students frolicking around in the corridors is because more of us are women, and many of us are married and have children. At least in my personal experience, this seems to be true.

2. It Takes Longer to Graduate

According to “Ph.D. Completion and Attrition: Analysis of Baseline Program Data from the Ph.D. Completion Project” a study published by the Council of Graduate Schools in December 2007, overall only a small percentage of life science students graduate when they reached their third, fourth or fifth year of grad school (4.2%, 9.4%, and 21.7% respectively). In contrast, the completion rates were dramatically higher for students in their sixth year of grad school onward.

With graduation nowhere in the near future, it is easy to imagine how many of us can get frustrated in our careers and maybe even lose some of the enthusiasm that we started out with. With 6-10 years to complete a degree and several more years of post-doctoral experience requirements, it is getting harder and harder for graduate students today to envision a successful and lucrative career for themselves. And I believe this is another reason why the grad students of today are so different from students 10-15 years ago.

3. Teaching Loads and Loans Add More Stress

According to data released by the Council of Graduate Schools in 2009, teaching assistantships dramatically increase the duration of the PhD program. With a TA position, there is added responsibility for teaching and grading on top of the laboratory responsibilities that a graduate student already has.  This may also be a contributing factor to the plight of an average grad student today. Furthermore, the same study revealed that about 37% of Life Sciences students had to take out additional loans in order to support themselves while in school.

What do you think?  Do you feel like your graduate school experience is different than that of your supervisor, or other older colleagues?


  1. Jode Plank on March 14, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    In addition to everything you have said here, I think there could be a couple of additional things at play. One is simply the fact that we all tend to look in the rearview mirror with rose-colored glasses on. The problems in the past have probably all been resolved (and their emotional impact diminishes with time), while the problems of today have not been, leaving us with a longing for a time when the problems of today didn’t exist. It is easy then to romanticise the past.

    The other issue is that I think the graduate students (and postdocs) of the present face a more uncertain future than the same population did 20 years ago. I know an unfortunate amount of time and energy in my lab goes into worrying about what the future holds. Now the odds of getting an assistant professorship at a top school are much slimmer than my PI faced. Good positions at a company are much harder to get today than they were 10 years ago. The reality today is that a student or postdoc should feel lucky to even have two options of employment (and location) once they move beyond the stipend, and that creates a fair amount of stress that I don’t think the older professors dealt with at the same point in their careers.

    • Yevgeniy Grigoryev on March 15, 2012 at 3:58 pm

      Great post, Farida. Jode brings up some very interesting points. It is important to realize that the the experiences of PhDs from 20 or 30 years ago were very different from what we are facing now. For one, Academia was one of the main objectives for the majority of PhDs 20-30 years back. Now it only can accommodate 20-30 % of all PhD graduates. There seems to be a lot more uncertainty in terms of career path for the current PhDs. Nowadays people face post-docs (note: multiple pot-docs!) that could last as long, if not longer, as the time it took to get the PhD degree.

      I am sure once you have move past that point and have that tenure, you can happily reminisce about the days of yore when one was a graduate student earning their stripes. However, the current PhDs can have a hard time relating to such experiences because we are still in the crucible.

  2. Elena Bibikova on March 14, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    Good article! I think another way that grad school has changed since old times has a lot to do with technology, both good and bad. On one hand, my PI jokes about how we now have a commercial kit for nearly everything that used to be done by hand in the past. At the same time, the methods used in lab have become more complex. Whereas before one could publish a paper with a few well-crafted IPs and Western Blots, now publications usually require multiple complex methods, in vivo data, clinical samples, etc. Much time in grad school is devoted to learning the technical aspects of the experiments, rather than using a small set of techniques to creatively solve a problem.

  3. bioburt on March 14, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    It still boggles my mind that more and more people go for the PhD even with the daunting statistics about completion time, post-doc duration, low salaries and low employment prospects. What keeps you guys going?

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