Grad School?

by eggman1 min read27th Feb 201230 comments

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Note: I don't have a trust fund. Even though I said I did in the last post. Apparently I misunderstood what that was, and I just have RESPs to cover my undergrad. Please take that into account.

Building on my last post, I've concluded to pursue either a major or a double major in one or two of the following areas for my undergraduate degree:

  1. Economics;
  2. Computer Science;
  3. Cognitive Science/Psychology/Behavioural Neuroscience;
  4. Mathematics/Statistcs;
  5. Biotechonology;
  6. Engineering. Engineering would be another 5 years for me and I don't know what the job prospects are like. Is it worth it? I may also possibly do a minor in philosphy/mathematics/physics.

Grad school appeals to me. Current considerations are in neuroeconomics or some other neuroscience, economics, or some hard science (still undecided). The only graduate degree in the humanities I would pursue would be in Philosophy or in Philosophy of Science. Professional programs that I might consider going into are medicine (least likely), M.B.A., Law, healthcare (e.g., physiotherapy/OT; nursing practitioner, etc.), teaching (preferred but unlikely).

Foreseeable problems with grad work:

1) It takes a long time to publish in peer-reviewed journals in academia Instead, if I really turn out to be some sort of prodigy, I will have a greater intellectual and ethical impact by just becoming a better rationalist and publishing well-written and well-researched blog posts, like SIAI, FHI, and Overcoming Bias do. And then making some fat cash on the side and donating it to the most effective causes. Which career for me would lead to this I don't know.

2) 80,000 hours pointed out in one blog post (I forget which one) that grad or professional schooling can be more time/effort/work than it's worth. This would be especially true if I'm saddled with debt and cannot find employment with high remuneration.

3) The potential jobs that I would pursue could be outsourced, or have humans being replaced by robots/computers. This would make all that extra school a waste of time, obviously.

4) Having a graduate degree somehow makes my resume look less attractive than just having an undergrad. I don't understand the rationale behind this phenomenon, but I've heard it exists in some fields.

Do you have any recommendations/advice? Specifically:

What is a waste of time? What is a great use of my time?

What kinds of university programs (in which countries) will play me for a sucker?

Which professional fields aren't worth pursuing, considering that the jobs will be lost to computers/robots inside of 20 years?

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It's important to consider marginal costs rather than strictly absolute costs. For example, perhaps the question shouldn't be

What is a waste of time? What is a great use of my time?

but should rather be

What is a waste of time relative to what I would otherwise be doing with that three-to-six year chunk of time? What is a great use of my time?

When I got my B.S. it seemed pretty obvious that my options were either to get a job doing something I knew I wouldn't enjoy or to go to grad school and continue learning and doing vigorous intellectual work. In grad school I was lucky enough to fall in love with my research area. Grad school was the right choice for me because there was pretty much nothing better I could have realistically been doing with that period of time.

I think when people talk about grad school they are really talking about one of (roughly) four distinct things.

1) "Engineering" grad school: A graduate degree in engineering of almost any kind will probably pay off in spades. You will get promoted faster and you will get paid more.

2) "Hard science" grad school: In the modern world, a Physics B.S. qualifies you to go to grad school. A Physics PhD. qualifies you to be a physicist. Replace "physics" with any other science and this pretty much holds true.

3) "Soft science" grad school: Generally speaking, this sounds like a poor life choice if your goals include financial and career stability.

4) "Professional degree" grad school: e.g. med school or law school. It seems like these fields saturated with competition but plenty of people still manage to make a living good here. I don't personally know any young doctors and the young lawyers I know, even those from top law schools, are not doing very well.

So, you really want either (1) or (2), but bear in mind that neither of these options guarantees that you will have a free hand in your own research until you are maybe 40 years old and have established yourself as a researcher. You can always choose to be an iconoclast, but remember that the problems that interest you are not necessarily going to be the problems that people will pay you to solve.

In answer to your enumerated questions:

1) There's nothing to stop you from publishing well-written and well-researched blog posts and publishing your most important findings in peer-reviewed academic journals where they will have a high impact and be taken seriously.

2) As my advisor always said, "It's not the intercept, it's the slope." Having a graduate degree makes available career opportunities which would otherwise not have appeared. This fact is difficult to quantify.

3) All our jobs will be replaced by computers on a long enough timeline, so pick something that at least interests you.

4) Answered tadrinth. To some degree, when you get a graduate degree, you disqualify yourself from certain jobs. For example, if you get an engineering PhD, no one will hire you as an entry-level grunt engineer anymore, because you are overqualified.

2) "Hard science" grad school: In the modern world, a Physics B.S. qualifies you to go to grad school. A Physics PhD. qualifies you to be a physicist. Replace "physics" with any other science and this pretty much holds true.

3) "Soft science" grad school: Generally speaking, this sounds like a poor life choice if your goals include financial and career stability.

Note that for the purposes of the information being presented here, economics qualifies as a "Hard science."

Does neuroscience or cognitive psychology qualify as a hard science? I'm not interested in "soft" psychology. In neuroscience research, is there jobs that pay >$40k/annum? Is the field hyper-competitive? I would like to know because this is my primary interest.

I am currently in my second year as a grad student, focusing in theoretical/computational neuroscience. Here are my observations on the matter:

1) Neuroscience is a hard science, but as in many things, there’s a continuum. The computational folk are at the hardest part, while the fMRI researchers are considered the softest. In general, the larger the structure you study, the softer it is. Exceptions exist, and within the field there are controversies as to how solid some of the theoretical frameworks are for even the most rigorous parts of the profession.

2) My own observations on average time spent on the job is about 50 hours a week, with some fairly extreme flexibility. Almost all my work is reading and programming, so most days I don’t have to I don’t even have to come in (I do, but that’s because I’m more productive in an office). People on the biology side of things do not have quite that flexibility. If you take human subjects, particularly hospital patients instead of college students, then your life will revolve around them.

3) My program has no requirement to TA, which is a huge time suck. I’m unsure how prevalent TAing is in neuroscience. My general impression is that the better your program, the less likely you are to have to do it. Similarly, if you go to a primarily graduate university, you will spend less time teaching. If you can find a program that lets you avoid that, then do so. Being a TA seems to be the leading cause of misery in grad school.

4) Currently, my pay is $29K/year as a grad student, and post doc pay tends to be in the $40Ks. Full professorship pay (at least in computational) is >80K. As to how likely a full professorship is, see my comments on job prospects. Obviously, location is going to make a difference. My stipend means I live very well in Houston. If I studied at NYU, which has a comparable stipend, I would effectively be much poorer.

5) If all you want is $40K/year, then you’ll be fine. You can be an eternal post-doc and manage that. That being said, I suspect you will revise your estimates up. It can be really hard to see your friends getting other professional degrees with the same or less work and raking in substantially more than you. It’s also hard knowing that you can quit at any time and make substantially more money within a year or two of education. As much as it sucks, knowing about opportunity costs can really dampen your enjoyment of life. You have to resist that, but it takes effort. To keep up with the engineering/M.D./business Joneses, you have to advance in the ranks.

6) High level job prospects in academia: Yeah, you know this isn’t great. Neuroscience fairs better than most sciences because there is so much low hanging fruit, but still, you’re facing an uphill battle. You have to be fully willing to move around until your 40s, possibly to other countries. Many signs point to a decrease in governmental funding and an increase in competition. Business is not picking up the slack. Tenure is going away. I’m aiming for this, and my heavy computational focus has better odds than most, but I have backup plans.

7) High level job prospects outside academia: Better than academia, but depends a lot on how fast the field progresses. You’ll reach your prime around 15 years from now. Neural prosthetics might (that’s a big might) come online by that time and be a big industry. Some types of neural enhancements will hit the market within 30 years, so it could be very profitable if you position yourself right. Integrated computer chips based on neural architectures are beginning to be mass-produced now, so knowledge of existing and highly functional architectures (brains) might make you very valuable. You will become very knowledgeable about people, decision making, and modeling if you do the theoretical branch, so I don’t see much difficulty spinning that into business and stock consulting, especially if grab an MBA. Medical equipment design is always lucrative. Medical consulting is a possibility. Also, the better the industry outside of academia, the easier academia gets (more funding/ less competition)

8) Neuroscience is cool. Don’t underestimate how nice it is to have people want to talk to you about your subject of study. Being an engineer, mathematician, physicist, etc. can really suck sometimes. Subjects like that are really difficult if not impossible to get people interested in. I mention neuroscience in passing, and a huge number of people are interested in what I do. You do have to put up with stupid comments (“What if like your brain is a particle and a wave and collapses the universe, man?”), but I’ve done physics. Socially, dealing with stupidity is easier than obscurity. Economics might be similar, but because of its relationship to politics, it breaches the mindkiller zone and I suspect it would be much less fun to talk about.

I'll answer any other specific questions you might have too.

[Edited for clarity]

I don't really know. I know about econ because I'm doing a joint PhD in it and statistics. One useful consideration is whether there's a large non-academic job market for the field. This pushes the salaries of academics up and makes the academic market less competitive, all else equal, because of the outside option.

One additional point - I think it has been made above, but it is good to emphasize: If you want to do any biological science at a high level, focus on hard subjects in undergrad. It's still difficult to learn organic chem or neuroanatomy in grad school, but it's much more difficult to add mathematical skills to your repertoire if you're doing time consuming wet lab work in grad school. Mathematics/Engineering/Physics will get you into better schools, and bio programs will be happy to have you. Every time I talked to a professor, they became much more interested me when they learned of my physics background.

My own history is majoring in physics, psychology, and philosophy. Neuroscience fell out of that for me. If you really want neuroscience, and a head start will really help with a career, then I would suggest a similar undergrad course - some hard field paired with psychology or neuroscience. Make friends with a professor in the softer field, and do lab work there. That will look good on the resume, and it will let you know if you actually like the day to day work. The softer field also helps with point 8 below, which I wish I knew earlier in college.

Given your mention of RESPs, I assume you're in Canada (confirmed after reading your past post).

You might wish to add to your undergraduate major possibilities the possibility of the UWO Richard Ivey business program, which has excellent graduate placement for Canadian finance consulting, and management jobs. You can transfer from UBC in your third year (applying during your second, regardless of what you majored in at UBC) if you have strong grades and extracurriculars, and take an accounting pre-requisite class, among other things. It's an easily missed but unusually valuable option for Canadians with the right interests.

Regarding the financial prospects of some of the options you mentioned: engineers tend to settle in the high five figures, to very low six figures unless they become entrepreneurs. There are some issues with age discrimination, cognitive decline, and unemployment. Doctors earn more in discounted terms, with basically full employment and more flexibility, but at the cost of a long time as a student and resident. Law has a wide distribution: the upper end of lawyers can out-earn doctors, but a great mass do worse. Finance, for those who can do it and enjoy it, looks better financially than most anything else, even doing well against entrepreneurship in the tails (there are more finance billionaires than tech billionaires), while dominating in the central range.

As others have said, it's a terrible move to get a PhD unless you are going to be working in academia or some field where it is strongly required, but if you have good reason to focus there it may be a pre-requisite.

Outsourcing and automation have ways of nibbling at many fields, I wouldn't take that as a huge differential consideration.

SIAI, FHI, and Overcoming Bias do.

FHI does publish its work in academic journals. It's an academic institute at a university. It's true Robin puts most of his output on his blog.

If you're strong at math, I would tend to push for math/statistics/computer science over biotech and especially cognitive science. Even in the soft areas, people with hard backgrounds tend to do better, and the hard areas have more flexibility (math people can go to psych programs and get good industry jobs, psych/cogsci undergrads can't get into hard science grad programs and are less competitive in the job market). You can learn the results in the psych literature later, but you'll do much better with solid quant and technical skills, as opposed to scrambling for remedial hard skills after a soft undergrad.

Other considerations depend on facts about you, your aptitudes, and your interest. Feel free to contact me via the PM system to set up a counseling session.

Law has a wide distribution: the upper end of lawyers can out-earn doctors, but a great mass do worse.

Do you mean that amogst all law specializations, the "great mass" do worse, even in the more lucrative specializations, because the profession is so competitive and only partners in firms are making the big money? Or do you just mean that many lawyers end up in or choose specializations that are less lucrative in the first place? An interest in pursuing law would come out my interest to make money at it and I have the skills to become succesful in the profession. I wouldn't necessarily feel the need to make as much as a doctor, but if my income would be no greater by what I studied in law school, then I would just choose not to attend in the first place.

I mean that there is segmentation in the market: lawyers in large firms (and some boutiques) serving large corporate clients tend to make much more than other lawyers. I will be posting more on the legal market on 80,000 hours.

Having a graduate degree somehow makes my resume look less attractive than just having an undergrad.

In many cases you have to pay PhDs more. If you can find someone who can do the work who doesn't have a PhD, you save money by hiring them. In many fields, there is much more need for people to do Masters level work than to do PhD level work, so there are more jobs available at the Masters level.

grad or professional schooling can be more time/effort/work than it's worth.

A PhD in biology in the program I mastered out of involves working anywhere from 50-80 hours a week, takes 5-6 years, and typically pays around $30k a year at best. If you could have instead made $50k at a real job, graduate school has an opportunity cost of $100-120k.

Graduate school is bad for you. Most of my friends are in graduate school and they are noticeably less happy and more crazy than they would be otherwise; one friend is going gray at 27 from stress. I was chronically depressed almost the entire time I was in graduate school, and it only went away when I graduated.

One of my fellow teaching assistants last semester was a first year graduate student, taking two graduate level core curriculum classes, trying to start up his research, and also trying to be a teaching assistant for biostatistics when he had never taken any statistics. Both of my fellow teaching assistants this semester are just getting Masters, but they're both taking two classes, TAing biostatistics, and trying to finish their Masters theses.

Do undergraduate research first before making any decisions about graduate school. PhD programs are almost entirely research. You take some classes at the beginning, which weeds out the idiots, and then the entire rest of the program is research. If you don't thoroughly enjoy research, you will hate graduate school.

My standard advice is to not do a PhD unless you have to (because the career you want requires one).

As far as I know, there is no law (in the US or Canada) that requires you to mention your graduate degrees on your resume. It isn't fraud, it is merely incomplete (like every resume is necessarily). For instance, I attended various community colleges while in high school, but only list the university I graduated from on my resume.

A six-year gap in your resumé will look funny.

If you go straight from undergrad to a PhD program, you won't have a Masters on record, which means you'd have to drop all the way down to applying for bachelor's level positions.

Plus which, if you're not going to leverage the PhD, why would you spend an extra four years of hard work and low pay to get it? Just get a Masters instead.

In a lot of fields having a Masters without a PhD signals that you couldn't handle the demands of getting your PhD, and is worse then not having a Masters at all. Or, as they say "If at first you don't succeed, cover up all evidence that you tried".

Does that include biology? If so, I will be rather annoyed that no one warned me.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

I polled three Ph. D. biology students and they had mixed opinions.

I'm in a PhD program and this is a bit worse, but similar to my own experience, however, there's significant variation along the personality axis. If you're the calm and collected low stress type, then grad school probably won't affect you nearly as much.

To reinforce tadrinth's comment: even if a PhD were to offer to work for a BS salary, employers would have to ask why. Is it because the PhD knows their work quality is that far below their peers? Is it because they just want a job to "tide them over" while they search for a better paying offer elsewhere?

On an unrelated note:

When planning for the future you need to consider stupid central planners as carefully as smart computers/robots. PhD employment rates have seemed happily immune to the present economic troubles, but the next round of trouble is going to come when government budgets revert toward equilibrium, and that process may be particularly hard on jobs which closely depend on government funding.

What are your goals? What does the life you want to build for yourself look like? You need to answer these questions, at least approximately, before you can make any reasonable decision about your education. Some things to think about:

  • How important is money (beyond basic living expenses) to you?

  • How important is independence and autonomy?

  • Is discovering the secrets of the universe your deepest desire?

  • Are you one of those people who gets a rush from finding a clever solution to a difficult problem? (In computer science we call this an "algorasm"...)

  • Do you prefer solving problems that can be attacked with science and mathematics or those that require understanding what makes other people tick?

  • Are long work hours OK if the work is interesting, or do you want a 40-hour workweek?

  • Do a spouse and children figure into your vision for your life?

In other words, you need to think about your own utility function... and how that might evolve as you grow older. My suggestion is to try to put together a set of objectives that you could call your life goals, and then use this both to evaluate your education options and to suggest new options.

I would also recommend reading something like Smart Choices. If you decide you want to follow the process described in that book, I'd be glad to help you work through the steps.

Unfortunately, your formatting is a bit screwy, probably LW is a little inconsistent and articles don't use the same markdown format as comments, instead, they use a WYSIWYG rich text editor.

I think you can fix this if you copy-paste the text of your article from the editor into a markdown converter and then put the generated text back into the editor over the top of your original text (so you should keep a copy, just in case this doesn't work).

To pick a yet smaller nit, "renumeration" should be "remuneration."

Or, you know, just fix it manually. It'll probably be quicker, there aren't that many mistakes.

[-][anonymous]9y 6

Just copy this text directly. It will literally take you four clicks. I'll remove this comment when you're done editing. I recently started using this as a workaround for the vanishing spaces bug.

Edit: The article has now been fixed.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

2) 80,000 hours pointed out in one blog post (I forget which one) that grad or professional schooling can be more time/effort/work than it's worth. This would be especially true if I'm saddled with debt and cannot find employment with high renumeration.

Don't get a PhD unless you're fully funded, not only for the obvious financial reason, but also because if the department isn't willing to fund you, then it's a sign that they aren't that interested you as a student and they're less likely to devote resources to you to further your professional development. Not only that, but professors want to work with the best students in their department and the best students are, invariably, the ones with full funding.

None of this applies to terminal master's programs - as far as I know getting funding in a master's program is pretty rare. This is typically the case in both statistics and econ.

I'd like to emphasize this. I've heard the same from many in my computer science department: if you aren't accepted with funding, then the department doesn't really want you. Now, this is only really true in those fields that have access to frequent grants, but these are essentially the fields you listed minus philosophy.

If you are already thinking of grad school in economics it would be a bad idea to do economics as an undergrad major. Math or Physics would be superior choices for entry to a graduate programme. Engineering might be better and is at least equivalent. Modern economics is a branch of applied mathematics, even the thoroughly diseased discipline of macroeconomics. Computer Science would be equivalent to Mathematics or Physics in terms of graduate school entry chances provided you do some heavy proof-based courses. For maximum chances of entry do real analysis. For more targeted advice on econ grad school look here but especially here. To get into a good grad school in either Computer Science or Economics you practically have to do undergraduate research and preferably publish something. CS advice, writing an economics paper advice. If you did any quantitative major and wanted to burnish your cv for econ grad school you could go here though the only hardcore courses are in statistics (of which econometrics is a specialised subset).

If the broad field of medicine appeals to you you should seriously consider studying in Europe where medicine and physiotherapy are undergraduate degrees and they're almost free compared to studying in North America. In mainland Europe medicine in Germany takes six years. I can't remember how long it takes in France. In Ireland and the UK it is either a five or six year degree depending on the university, though some universities do not accept North Americans except as second entry students (you do the undergrad degree with the 17 or 18 year olds but must have an undergrad already. ) Note that entry is very competitive and you would either need to already be reasonably fluent in the language of instruction or willing to devote at least three months and conservatively six to full time study of said language if you are not already near fluent. Physiotherapy is a four year undergrad degree in Britain and Ireland and last I checked you qualify to practice in the USA; I don't know about Canada.

If law appeals to you as an area of study then most, possibly all Irish and UK undergrad law degrees (three or four years) qualify you to take the New York bar exam; I don't know if any Canadian provinces accept it, most US states don't.

The problem with going to medical school in Europe from where I am in education right now is that I don't think my grades are good enough. I've always been good at school, but not always as motivated as other people, so the average for my high school marks and first year university marks is between 80 and 90 pecent. Also, could you post some links for the cost of med school in Europe?

There are joint majors in Economics and Mathematics, or Economics and Statistics, at my university, which are the ones I would pursue if I choose economics as a major, fyi.

Given the variation between marking standards across countries and even universities in the same country I can't really judge but between 80 and 90 percent sounds pretty damned good to me. It would not hurt to apply though it would take time. The cost of attending a public university in Germany varies between 500 euro a semester and nothing. The best information I could find on French med school costs from behind the Great Firewall in two minutes is this.

My vague recollection is that entry into the first cycle of French medical studies is non-competitive; it's the exams at the end of first year you'd need to worry about. For more info see here

If you're not sure which of those fields you prefer, a physics undergraduate is a gateway to all of them. I did physics and then ended up getting really interested in biology, and am working on a PhD in bioengineering. Physics teaches you to tackle hard problems with mathematics- a skill that can be applied to any intellectual pursuit.

PhD students in science and engineering are generally paid, so it's not a huge financial burden. It's not a waste of time either, if you choose the right professor you'll be free to work on whatever you think is interesting and important.

Publishing is not as time consuming as you think, and it's much more helpful to the scientific community and your career than blog posts. Good peer reviewed publications will almost guarantee you support to keep working on whatever you think is worth working on.

If you do good work in science but put it just on blogs, it will likely get lost where other scientists will never learn from your work and build on it, and you will be seen as unproductive and will lose your academic career. This could change in the future, but that's how it is now. Many scientists will assume that you didn't publish it because it had glaring flaws preventing it from passing peer review, and therefore isn't even worth reading.

The most important part of an undergraduate degree is doing research. If you don't do any research as an undergrad, you will have a hard time getting into a PhD program, and you'll also have no reason to believe you'd like it, or succeed in it.

While having a B.S. in physics will likely be sufficient to enter all those graduate fields, it doesn't (as was stated above somewhere) qualify you for a whole lot outside of applying to graduate programs--or impressing people in fields of mostly liberal arts majors. So be absolutely sure you are comfortable with going directly into a gradate program after college. There are very few "cool" jobs you can get with just the bachelors. Out of my graduating physics class, all but one went on to graduate programs. That one individual took a job doing something for a patent office.