Hello, all! This is part of a letter sent to the entire grad student body in a high-tier astronomy PhD program only a few weeks ago. It's taken the Web by storm (in a very negative way), and I wanted to know your opinions--specifically, from those who have been through more than one year of grad school. I've bolded parts that concern me most.
The Academic Program Committee just completed its review of the grads. Below is a letter summarizing that review, some information for graduate students, and the concerns that you expressed in your department evaluations.
In general, we are pleased with how our students are progressing through our program. There are, however, several areas of concern that we want to bring to your attention.
First, while some students are clearly putting their hearts and souls into their research, and spending the hours at the office or lab that are required, others are not. We have received some questions about how many hours a graduate student is expected to work. There is no easy answer, as what matters is your productivity, particularly in the form of good scientific papers. However, if you informally canvass the faculty (those people for whose jobs you came here to train), most will tell you that they worked 80-100 hours/week in graduate school. No one told us to work those hours, but we enjoyed what we were doing enough to want to do so. We were almost always at the office, including at night and on weekends. Nowadays, with the internet, it is fine to work from home sometimes, but you still miss out on learning from and forming collaborations with other graduate students when everyone does not work in the same place at the same time.
We realize that students with families will not have 80-100 hours/week to spend at work. Again, what matters most is productivity. Any faculty member or mentoring/thesis committee will be more than happy to work with any student to develop strategies to maximize productivity, even in those cases where the student is unable to devote more than 60 hours to their work per week.
You were all admitted to our program because you expressed the ambition of becoming a research astronomer. We know that you are concerned about the market for post-docs and faculty positions. Yet the market is no worse or better than it is has been for at least a decade or two. The people who will get the best jobs are the type of people who always get the best jobs, those with a truly exceptional level of dedication to science, who seize ownership of their research and careers, and who fix problems instead of blaming others for them. If you find yourself thinking about astronomy and wanting to work on your research most of your waking hours, then academic research may in fact be the best career choice for you.
Second, a related problem is that some students are not reading enough of the literature. All students should read at least several papers/week. You do not have to read the entire paper, as sometimes just the abstract, intro, figures, and conclusions will provide you with sufficient information. Nevertheless, please read. Knowing what is going on, right now, in your field and other fields is crucial to your development as a scientist. We would like to see more students engaged in defining their research projects and theses. We would like to receive more telescope proposals from students and post-docs that do not include faculty members. To do so, a detailed knowledge of the literature is a must.
Third, we have received some student comments about the way in which faculty do participate. Namely, that some faculty-student interactions have become too intense. In these cases, it is not the faculty member’s intention to make the student uncomfortable. The faculty member means to interact with the student as he or she would a peer. That should be flattering to the student! Faculty questions (at least in this department) do not arise from a desire to embarrass a student speaker, but from a real scientific interest in the answer. In such cases, the student should do his or her best to respond and, frankly, to consider the experience good (and relatively gentle) training for any discussion at Caltech or at Tuesday Lunch at the Princetitute.
I love my area of study. Truly, I do--and I love my research. But if it came down to a choice between working on research and sitting on the couch with a glass of wine and a good fiction novel, I'd take the latter in a heartbeat. I'm putting in about 70 hours a week right now and don't think I can go on at this pace.
What are everyone's thoughts?