Grad School Survival Guide

While most doctoral programs have some sort of orientation, the focus on such mat

April 8, 2010

While most doctoral programs have some sort of orientation, the focus on such matters as required courses, time to degree and dissertation goals may diminish opportunities to consider really important matters -- such as how to wander into a colloquium at which food is served, timing your entrance so you don't need to listen to the talk.

Adam Ruben wants to help. His Surviving Your Stupid Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School is just out from Random House and offers advice -- tongue in cheek but with plenty of truth -- for those who want a doctorate. Ruben earned his Ph.D. in molecular biology from Johns Hopkins University in 2008, so the material comes from his personal experience -- although the attitude comes from his moonlighting as a stand-up comic. He covers everything from selecting professors to work with to figuring out when you need to finish up already (the latter in a chapter appropriate for the Passover season, "Let My Pupil Go.")

There are more professorial types to avoid, in Ruben's world, than to cling to. You want to watch out for the "jet setter" (she's "giving the keynote address at a different conference every week" and so doesn't believe in such duties as "hand-holding" or "clarifying" or "anything"); the "deaf optimist" ("Bad news about your research? Say no more, No, really -- say no more, because she won't hear it."); or "the founder" (the longest serving faculty member in the department... "think Strom Thurmond meets George Burns, but without the racism or the entertainment... well, maybe a little racism.")

Other sections cover important ways to answer questions, such as the passive-aggressive answer that "implies the question was poorly worded." And there are graduate student recipes, such as "Roasted Undergraduate on a Spit" (to fantasize about), "Macaroni and Tears" (to eat) and "Bribery Brownies" (to serve your committee members). Ruben also focuses on the importance of getting out of grad school by actually finishing a dissertation, and he discusses the difficulties of satisfying committee members -- who want their work cited, want certain ideas explored and so forth, without regard to the original concept. (Ruben reads that section in a podcast that can be found here.)

In many ways, Ruben would not seem destined to write a book mocking the grad school experience. He finished in seven years. He never had to live on the lower stipends and higher job anxiety of humanities students. He's gainfully employed (in the business world, not academe). Ruben was involved in graduate student government at Hopkins, and he heard many stories there from those outside the sciences, who, he said, generally had it much worse than he did. And while many of the examples in the book come from the lab, many others are from his friends.

In an interview, Ruben said that he didn't want to be seen as disparaging graduate school or academic life, but wanted to use his humor so that people went in with eyes open about the many realities and absurdities of academic life. He faults himself for not thinking more critically about his decision to apply to a doctoral program. "It seemed like the path to take if you are good at school," he said. "Whatever the highest degree is, I always knew I wanted it."

When he started his graduate program, he thought he might want to become a professor, but he ruled that out as time passed. Ruben said he's more practical than many academics, and he was less interested than others in "research for the sake of curiosity" than in studies that would yield a specific good. He said he noticed many scientists focusing on the potential application of an idea only when they were writing grant proposals, where such information is sought.

The book came about when he was asked to submit a proposal for National Lampoon, for which he has done some humor writing. That outfit didn't really like the idea -- "they want the drunk frat boy demographic, and they don't go to grad school," he said. But the proposal got him started on a path toward finding an agent and a publisher.

While Ruben made different choices than did most of his fellow grad students, and he pokes fun at their lives (and their tormentors), he does want it known that they work incredibly hard -- and deserve to be treated better. Of the grad student ethos, he said in the interview: "You are overworked and underpaid and you can't move on with your life, and you can't imagine it any other way."


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