lili's musings

why do older grad students become bitter?

The other day, a new grad student asked me this question. It brought me back to my own first year.

When I entered grad school, I noticed that the older grad students just seemed... oddly bitter? The 6th years were living in a different world from us 1st years. Some of them would joke about it, some would deflect when asked, and some students we only heard about. I always wondered what made them so. Does their love for science slowly leave as they pass their time here? Will I become that way?? How do I avoid that?

Well, it has been 5.5 years since entered grad school, so I feel I can answer that now.

Rest assured, most of us still really love science. We're fascinated by what we study. It's why we came here and we stayed on so many years. For me, if anything, I have become more and more fascinated by how animals coordinate their limbs. I love thinking about it and talking about it. I do still feel lucky to get the chance to work in neuroscience full time.

No, it's not the science really. So what is it? I think there are a few potential reasons.


So let's start with an obvious one: we're not paid well. A "good" STEM PhD student stipend in the US is about $35k. Note that many schools pay below this. In a city, about 2/3 of that goes to rent and food and other living expenses. Many students have college loans they are paying off with the remaining 1/3. You can save some, but in the grand scheme of things it's really not much money, especially in an area where a "cheap" condo goes for $1M. By the time you're in your 6th year, many of your college friends who did not do a PhD have mostly settled to nicer jobs and are living a proper life with their salary.

I've had a different kind of PhD and have been contributing to a startup throughout my whole time here. In my 3rd year, I started actually getting paid from the startup, which added about $20k to my total salary. I didn't realize how much of a that difference that would make! I stopped counting every dollar I spent on groceries or going out. I could afford a car. I could rent a better space. Life became so much nicer.

The low pay may be bearable for a few years, especially out of college or post-bac where you don't really know anything else, but it really gets to you long-term.


Another aspect that is obvious in retrospect is that life.. just continues to happen. Whether you like it or not, in 5 years you will be... 5 years older. You might get married or break up. Perhaps your close friend will turn out to be bipolar and you'll visit them in the mental health ward each year for a few years. Suddenly you have a different group of friends. You may even end up working a lot and not have much friends. There's really no way to pause the rest of your life.

In so many ways, I've changed as a person. Throughout the past 5 years, I've had numerous realizations about myself, from my ethical views to my gender to my cultural identity and really a lot more. The world itself has changed and, as a result, so has my place within it.

The problem with grad school is that, if you want a degree, when you leave is not fully up to you. Some of it is up to the whims of science and some to your committee. You may need to move on for the sake of your life, but your experiments aren't working and the committee says you need one more paper to graduate. It's really hard to balance this, especially combined with the lack of money.

career options

Only 15% of postdocs end up being tenure-track faculty. Let that sink in. No really. It can take a few years to really come to terms with this statistic. A few years in, we all started thinking about alternative careers. It's not that we didn't want to be professors, but instead we all had to grasp with the reality that we likely won't be.

The alternative career options are confusing to navigate. There are actually plenty of jobs in industry, but few in your specialized subfield. You have to confront the fact that you may not get to do your science forever. It hurts.

What about postdocs? They're okay, but they're not permanent either. Most postdocs end up transitioning into a different role after a couple years. A few (well 15%) end up as professors. Some become research scientists. The rest end up going to industry after all.


So, academia is a strange world. The currency in academia is not, as you might at first believe, good science. Rather, it is prestige. Prestigious schools to go to, prestigious journals to publish in, prestigious conferences to present at, and so on. If you want grant money, you have to play the game.

I do believe that, at their root, many scientists hold an appreciation for the beauty of the world and want to convey it honestly in their work. I count myself lucky to have worked with many such scientists. Nevertheless, the specter of prestige still haunts these ivory towers. Peer review processes become drawn out to publish in prestigious publications. Some people can be quite snobby about their research subfield. For instance, I've seen many macaque neuroscientists dismiss the importance of fly or even human neuroscience.

It can be quite disillusioning to realize how much prestige factors above beauty and accuracy now. A lot of critical infrastructure gets ignored, as it will not bring prestige and therefore will not help with grant money. Papers are judged for impact. But what is impact if not prestige cleverly disguised? Throughout interactions, people often get judged for prestige.

The whole system of academia has these wonky incentives and that can really make us bitter about academia.

applications of science

The last one is perhaps more abstract, but nonetheless quite real and has been hitting me more than once over the past couple months.

Essentially, when we discover something, the result is generally neutral ethically. However, the application can go either way. Therefore, are we enabling negative applications? If we didn't pour our love into understanding how insects move, would killer insect robots still be real? For a more recent example, are we helping build the next AI?

Once a fellow grad student asked at lunch, "do you ever wonder if maybe the world would be better off if we didn't make any discoveries?" In my darkest moments, I do wonder...

Still, personally I'm excited about the potential good that my work could do. Besides, uncovering the mysteries of nature does tend to showcase nature's beauty. I hope this beauty can inspire us to see the world as it is, rather than through the chains that we impose upon ourselves.

#academia #science