Unprepared for grad school?

When Leah*, a fifth-year graduate student in the Chemistry Department, decided to go to graduate school, she expected it would be a more intense version of her experience majoring in chemistry at a small liberal arts college.

But after only a few semesters at Yale, she realized graduate school was not what she had anticipated.

Graduate students in science and engineering often face unexpected increases in the amount and intensity of time they are expected to spend at the lab.
Courtesy ofRyanMurelli
Graduate students in science and engineering often face unexpected increases in the amount and intensity of time they are expected to spend at the lab.

“I expected it to be broad,” she said. “Not that I wanted to take art history, but [I thought] that the classes would throw out great philosophical problems and talk about how the … chemist tackles these problems of chemistry as a whole. And that was a big lie.”

Leah is just one of 17 science graduate students interviewed who said their graduate experiences do not fit the picture they envisioned as undergraduates. Indeed, at a time when more science and engineering students are looking to graduate school as temporary shelter from the economic storm, almost all those interviewed said they believe graduate students going into science arrive misinformed about the realities of research. The challenging transition, they said, has influenced many of their peers’ — and in some cases, their own — decisions to continue scientific research after graduation.

Eight professors and administrators in the sciences, however, had a different perspective: Both the disconnect between undergraduate and graduate education and the tendency for graduate students to abandon an academic career are normal across graduate programs, they said.

In fact, the decision to abandon an academic career during graduate school is a common enough — five years after graduation, approximately 47 percent of Yale science graduates were employed in nonacademic fields, according to data from the Yale Graduate School Web site. But this attrition from academia should not be seen as a shortcoming of the graduate school experience, said Steve Girvin, the deputy provost of science and technology.

“It’s clear that the majority of people that get a Ph.D. in some field are not going into academics,” he said. “If that were true, then each faculty member would only need one grad student in their entire career [to replace them].”

Jon Butler, the dean of the Graduate School added that the time students spend in graduate school is not lost even if they forgo dreams of academic careers, since they often continue to use science in industry, law, business and other nontraditional fields.

“They employ their science in new ways — ways they probably didn’t imagine when they were in graduate school,” Butler said.


In interviews, six professors agreed that preparation for graduate school begins while students are still undergraduates, and identified research and graduate-level classes as the most useful ways for undergraduates to prepare for successful graduate school experiences.

“Spending time in the lab is absolutely the best way to get a real sense for what graduate school is like,” said Michael Crair, the director of graduate studies in the Deparment of Neurobiology.

Research as an undergraduate helps equip students for graduate school by providing interaction with graduate students, one-on-one mentoring with a professor and material for a stronger application, the professors said.

Exposure to the graduate student world gives undergraduates an “extremely clear view of what graduate school is like,” said Michael Koelle, the director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. He added that beyond overseeing undergraduates’ independent research projects, mentors often guide their students through the graduate school application and selection process.

Students with a research background also have an advantage in the competitive application process to graduate programs, said Melinda Smith, the ecology and evolutionary biology DUS. The physics DGS Simon Mochrie pointed out that successful undergraduate research often prompts professors to write stronger letters of recommendation.

Outside the laboratory, Yale graduate school hopefuls can also prepare by taking graduate-level courses during their undergraduate career.

“Again, they are mixed with grad students in these courses,” Koelle said. “[They] are exposed in these courses to the level of critical thinking and independence that would be expected of them as first-year grad students.”


But all 17 graduate students interviewed, all of whom had at least some degree of research experience before coming to Yale, said while research is good preparation for graduate school, many facets of the science graduate school experience cannot be replicated at the undergraduate level.

Students agreed spending time in the lab was the most important factor behind their choice to enter graduate school, but a majority said their undergraduate research experiences only helped them become acquainted with day-to-day lab work and did not prepare them for the strenuous experience of graduate-level research.

“The expectations are much higher of a graduate student,” said Peter Jordan GRD ’13, a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry. “You might like to spend 20 hours a week working in a lab, but that doesn’t mean you’ll like to spend 70 hours.”

Leah* said enthusiasm for science alone cannot guarantee success at the graduate level. The structure of undergraduate research programs — typically nine or 10-week summer stints — gives students a superficial taste for research, but shields them from the lulls.

“Research is 99 percent failure,” she said. “The structured programs set them up to succeed. That’s not what research is like as a grad student.”

Still, Andrew Zhang GRD ’13, a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry, said the undergraduate-graduate divide did not come as a surprise to him. There is a necessary and expected difference between the two: College aims to give students a broad education, while graduate school aims to impart specialized knowledge, he said.


The difference between research at the undergraduate and graduate level, many students said, can be stark enough that a small number of graduate students leave graduate school short of earning their degree. At Yale, 25 percent of graduate students in the sciences and engineering leave before earning their doctorate degrees, according to Graduate School data. (Butler said peer institutions often do not disclose similar statistics, making it difficult to put Yale’s attrition rate into context.)

A larger subset of students said they will continue on the track towards earning their doctorate degrees, but intend to leave their field thereafter.

Leah* said she will take away the skills she has gained in graduate school — such as interpersonal interactions, teamwork and working under pressure or with difficult personalities — and apply them to a new field of study, which she has yet to decide on. She has learned that science is not the field for her.

“I don’t want to work with scientists — I don’t want to be involved with science,” she said. “It is extremely unappealing.”

Girvin emphasized that deciding partway through graduate school to abandon an academic career is a common event, adding that as a student, he had been certain of his professional goals.

But after having graduated with his physics doctorate degree and having been rejected from every academic institution to which he applied, Girvin ended up at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a government agency that regulates the measuring standards used in science and technology — not exactly a teaching position.

“I thought, ‘It’s a disaster!’, but it turned out to be great for me,” Girvin said. “Any kind of scientific training is highly valued in the business and nonprofit world because of the [scientist’s] ability to analyze, recognize and solve problems.”

Speaking from personal experience and second-hand observation, Girvin and Butler said science graduates’ movement away from academia is an expected trend — and, in fact, often a beneficial process of self-discovery.

“After all,” Butler quipped, “It isn’t as if they go into the cookie business!”

*Name has been changed to protect the individual’s privacy. The student did not want to disclose her name out of fear that her comments would hurt her academic prospects.


  • Wasted on the young

    "And that was a big lie.”

    That you told yourself. Grad school is professional training--primarily for a profession where long-term job security is hard to come by. Few, if any, are well-advised to go directly from college to grad school. The experience bears even less relation to college than high school does to college. Go do something in the world for 2-4 years first. You'll be much better suited to the challenges you'll face in a PhD program.

  • Anonymous

    It seems to me that those who are surprised by the graduate school experience have no one to blame for it but themselves.
    Most graduate programs in the US include detailed online description of the requirements, coursework, etc, etc. Not to mention, all the information you can get from the professors and older colleagues if you are already majoring in the field, etc…I honestly don't know how you can be unaware of the fact that graduate school will pose new challenges for you.
    The question is whether the students who are surprised were mislead or was it just that they haven't done enough research about the nature of the graduate program.

    According to the students "many facets of the science graduate school experience cannot be replicated at the undergraduate level." So? I guess that's why it's called "graduate school".

    As far as "Leah's" dissatisfaction is concerned, well, she says it all herslef: "She has learned that science is not the field for her." Precisely. If you are deeply unhappy in a field, that usually means that it wasn't the field for you in the first place. Good luck with whatever else you want to pursue!

  • Former grad student

    The biggest difference between undergraduate research and graduate level research is control.

    As an undergraduate, you can control your future by working hard in your classes and spending the appropriate amount of time in the lab. You will graduate as long as you do the tasks requested, regardless of the ultimate outcome of your research project.

    As a graduate student, you have far less control of your future. You are ultimately judged by whether you successfully complete your project. Sadly, even the best ideas can fail after years of hard work. Moreover, factors such as funding, completing labs and equipment availability also play a critical role in whether a research project comes to fruition. Ultimately, hard work and intelligence alone are not enough, and for many people this can be difficult to accept.

    On a personal note, I did manage to complete my PhD at Yale. I am now no longer involved in science or research in any way. My only regret is not leaving science sooner.

  • prepared grad student

    What a dumb article -- of course grad school is going to be different and more challenging than undergrad! Earning a PhD is not supposed to be easy, and it's not something that should be entered into lightly. People who are passionate about their research WANT to put the time and effort into it -- if you're not sure if that's for you, then don't go straight to grad school from undergrad. And if you were too naive to see it coming, then at least stop whining and learn to appreciate the amazing opportunities you have here that you never had as an undergrad…

  • full metal alchemist

    I can't believe that someone would expect not to specialize in a particular field in graduate school… At some point in all careers you have to specialize….

    You even notice this when you visit chemistry department websites… Under research interests for professors it doesn't say "yes" or "omgScienceLOL!"… it says something very specific like "solid state nmr of proteins" or something. Graduate school clearly was not for "Leah", it is just unfortunate that it took her/him 5 years to realize it. Ironically, she should have done "research" into graduate school in the first place.

  • Anonymous

    Grad school lab hours can be a breeze compared with what some postdocs have to live with.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with this article. Many undergraduates have protected, happy lab experiences and go into graduate school unaware of the complexities of the politics and the big role that luck plays. For me, I had a nightmare research experience as an undergraduate at Yale, which convinced me not to go straight into graduate school, but to try something else for a few years, and enter graduate school later when I am more prepared to face the sharks. Thanks for the great article!

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