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?