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The Reality of Grad School

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If we want to get fancy, we can argue that forums are, to some extent, voluntary response samples, and will therefore exaggerate the voices of those with strong opinions. Given the described tone of psr (I've never been on it myself), it's probably a safe bet that people who are happy in their program wouldn't be comfortable on that site and wouldn't bother posting on it much (analogy: the comments section of Fox's website is likely not representative of the opinions of the American people as a whole).

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If we want to get fancy, we can argue that forums are, to some extent, voluntary response samples, and will therefore exaggerate the voices of those with strong opinions. Given the described tone of psr (I've never been on it myself), it's probably a safe bet that people who are happy in their program wouldn't be comfortable on that site and wouldn't bother posting on it much (analogy: the comments section of Fox's website is likely not representative of the opinions of the American people as a whole).

Yep, that's what I was trying to get at. :)

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To be honest, it's not just that site, though. 

 

Even here, where most of the grad students (and post-docs, and faculty) are not what I would consider disgruntled, there's a large divide in opinions and outlook between prospective grad students and current grad students. Especially senior grad students. 

 

I think a lot of that has to do with the application bubble, but also a lack of practical experience with grad school on the part of those applying. 

 

It's not just here, you find similar discussions on the Chronicle forum, with faculty talking about how hard to impossible it is to talk advisees out of grad school when they think it's a really poor fit for them. 

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To be honest, it's not just that site, though. 

 

Even here, where most of the grad students (and post-docs, and faculty) are not what I would consider disgruntled, there's a large divide in opinions and outlook between prospective grad students and current grad students. Especially senior grad students. 

 

I think a lot of that has to do with the application bubble, but also a lack of practical experience with grad school on the part of those applying. 

 

It's not just here, you find similar discussions on the Chronicle forum, with faculty talking about how hard to impossible it is to talk advisees out of grad school when they think it's a really poor fit for them. 

 

This. A million times this.

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This whole thing is kind of weird, though. If you had such a homogenous job for other professions -- meaning the day to day and other experiences were essentially the same, as they are roughly speaking for PhDs -- can you imagine how much complaining there would be? I mean, I'm sitting here at my current job, which I don't like, with many coworkers who I know do not like their job, but we don't have the ability to complain to thousands of others across the country who are going through the same day to day, week to week, experiences. There are like 25 of us.

 

The vast majority of working professionals I think have many of the, if not same, analogous complaints to what I've read on these and other forums. It's just not this shared experience which PhD students have and can relate to with eachother.

 

 

edit: this doesn't really relate to the immediate preceding replies, just something I was thinking about.

Edited by esotericish

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This whole thing is kind of weird, though. If you had such a homogenous job for other professions -- meaning the day to day and other experiences were essentially the same, as they are roughly speaking for PhDs -- can you imagine how much complaining there would be? I mean, I'm sitting here at my current job, which I don't like, with many coworkers who I know do not like their job, but we don't have the ability to complain to thousands of others across the country who are going through the same day to day, week to week, experiences. There are like 25 of us.

 

The vast majority of working professionals I think have many of the, if not same, analogous complaints to what I've read on these and other forums. It's just not this shared experience which PhD students have and can relate to with eachother.

 

 

edit: this doesn't really relate to the immediate preceding replies, just something I was thinking about.

 

Except that a PhD isn't really a job in itself. It's a (hopefully) low-paid apprenticeship that is designed to prepare you for a job that you statistically are unlikely to ever get. The griping doesn't come from the nature of the work (as it does in most workplaces/careers). It comes from the massive gap between expectations and the reality of the job market.

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Except that a PhD isn't really a job in itself. It's a (hopefully) low-paid apprenticeship that is designed to prepare you for a job that you statistically are unlikely to ever get. The griping doesn't come from the nature of the work (as it does in most workplaces/careers). It comes from the massive gap between expectations and the reality of the job market.

I hear you, but having spent a few years working, I would very much call my first few jobs as low-paid apprenticeships (about 3 years worth). The work sucked, the pay sucked, the prospects for moving up sucked, and I wasn't doing anything I particularly cared about. If you go into a PhD expecting to have a plethora of jobs available to you after finishing, then you simply didn't do your research. If you enter the job market with a BA (or in my case an MA) and expect to have a plethora of jobs open to you, you are also way off.

 

edit: and don't forget, you'll probably have to do quite a few months worth of internships if you are looking for a job anywhere near the policy/political science/research field. hopefully they're paid!

Edited by esotericish

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This whole thing is kind of weird, though. If you had such a homogenous job for other professions -- meaning the day to day and other experiences were essentially the same, as they are roughly speaking for PhDs -- can you imagine how much complaining there would be? I mean, I'm sitting here at my current job, which I don't like, with many coworkers who I know do not like their job, but we don't have the ability to complain to thousands of others across the country who are going through the same day to day, week to week, experiences. There are like 25 of us.

 

The vast majority of working professionals I think have many of the, if not same, analogous complaints to what I've read on these and other forums. It's just not this shared experience which PhD students have and can relate to with eachother.

 

 

edit: this doesn't really relate to the immediate preceding replies, just something I was thinking about.

 

This is precisely one of the major problems.  Many of those attempting to dissuade others from going to graduate school are implicitly comparing it against some ideal, instead of other viable career options.  Sure, there's plenty to complain about, but have they seen message board comments from failed lawyers?  Actually, pick any professional field, including medicine now, and you will find the same complaints.  Once I overheard a Professor downplaying the idea of getting a PhD, only to turn to another student to commend their decision to go to law school.  Seriously?  Check out lawschooltransparency.com to see how poor placement for JDs can be, and these are students who payed six-figures for their education.  Even an MBA doesn't guarantee high pay unless you're coming from a top program, but the higher up you go the more you pay for less return.  Ok, maybe that means it is best to just finish higher education after the BA level.  However, for some an extra five to seven years of study is a worthy deferral for having a job they like.  But life with only a BA isn't some paradise, either.  The median income for someone at that level is $46,900, which is slightly less than the salary for a new Assistant Professor at South Dakota State Technical College.  Fine, fine, the median income for BAs also includes everyone who got one in puppetry or politic . . . art history; they should have all gotten degrees in computer science.  Fair enough, but at that point you might as well tell them all to forego college because one can learn enough programming to get a solid job oneself while working on the side, and the relevant skills are all that employers care about anyway.  Problem solved: start shutting all the university doors tomorrow.  Really, those who are excessively doom and gloom about the situation in PhD programs* are saying "oh if only you knew what I knew" or "look at the burden I have to bear."  If this is coming from PhD students or Professors, why don't they simply leave academia and cut their losses?  News flash: no job is perfect, employment is never guaranteed, high pay is not an entitlement, you won't receive praise for simply doing your job, some people in every career will ultimately fail and many more will fall short of their top goals.  That's realism, the rest is mostly narcissism from people who think their lot in life should better for no good reason.

*Does not include the humanities.

Edited by fakeusername

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There is a difference, however in the various other occupations and that is simply that the prospects are terrible AND the investment.

Lawyers have found massive decline in employment in their area of work and will face increasing competition from other countries (e.g. India) but nevertheless the number of lawyer jobs is still increasing dramatically. Furthermore lawyers spend 3 years in their programs.

Meanwhile, we spend nearly 7 years (comparative politics) to completion and given many of our skill profiles to enter the occupation are likely giving up more in both market income and actual growth in some other somewhat decent job, compared to lawyers who are often unskilled. I also would be interested to see the stats, but I am also under the impression that TT faculty populations are shrinking.

The closest thing I can think of is aspiring agents or actors in Hollywood in terms of probability, however aspiring agents don't do it for 7 years and the life of actors is much different.

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I think there is good arguments on both sides.

 

Bottom line. the academic market for political science Ph.D. holders is brutal. You are looking at spending 5-7 years preparing for a job that in most likelihood you will never get. This is especially true for people who go to universities outside the top 10. Even for places like Stanford, you can have years where only a couple people out of 10 get placed in TT jobs. That's pretty ridiculous. 

 

On the other hand, what people don't seem to factor in is there are a lot of ABD and Ph.D. holders that really aren't that good. Lots have crappy dissertations and some don't even get anything published. Then they wonder why they are not getting offers. Ridiculous.

 

There are also a lot of advisers out there, whether from top R1 schools or not, that don't really even give a crap about you. They don't help you network, they don't teach you how to publish, and you can sometimes be stuck out there alone on an island. 

 

On one hand, I see why there is disillusionment among Ph.D. students and grads. On the other, there seems to be a lot "grass is greener" mentality as well. People who have failed in the academic market seem to think that life would be all rosy if they didn't do a Ph.D. and used those years to gain a foot in the job market. Or may be they are frustrated that they spent the better part of their 20s not getting laid, staring at a computer screen doing regressions, and not enjoying their life. They then use this opportunity to shit on the whole industry and put out "facts" towards grad students. There are also a lot of wannabe academics who are obsessed with social recognition, that are extremely elitist and think that anything besides TT at a R1 is below their standards, a waste of time, and a knock on their ego; this is ridiculous.

 

The question becomes what you want for your life. The vast majority of people who graduate with political science BAs (or most social science degrees) will amount to jack squat in the private sector. This means working average jobs, doing things you may not like, making extremely average salaries, and probably being in debt like the typical consumer in North America. But of course a lot of doctoral grads will have allusions about them being the top 2% and making their life so wonderful if only they didn't do a Ph.D. 

 

If you are dead set on academia you have to live with the fact that you probably might end up unemployed and disillusioned. 

 

You have to ask yourself...what are you looking for in life? Do you value money and job security? Are you more driven by your work than what your work affords you in your lifestyle? I really think your personal priorities are the crux of the matter in this debate, not what TT stats are, not what attrition rates are, not what unemployment is, or whatever. 

Edited by victorydance

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Definitely strongly agree with victorydance's analysis above. I also want to highlight one thing from the post, which I think is a good reason that graduate students can become disillusioned and it is one aspect of academia that makes it a little bit different from other fields:

 

On the other hand, what people don't seem to factor in is there are a lot of ABD and Ph.D. holders that really aren't that good. Lots have crappy dissertations and some don't even get anything published. Then they wonder why they are not getting offers. Ridiculous.

 

There are also a lot of advisers out there, whether from top R1 schools or not, that don't really even give a crap about you. They don't help you network, they don't teach you how to publish, and you can sometimes be stuck out there alone on an island. 

 

I think these two paragraphs summarize a lot of the dissatisfaction in academia. The tough part is that for many graduate students, we don't really know if we are going to be really good or just "not that good". Professors are not really well trained in good mentoring and career development strategies at all. They just get to where they are through skill and/or luck, but they might not really know why they got there. They just know one path that works well for them, and it might not be the path that will work for their students. Also, many of them are just not competent at advising students and picking out the good from the bad. 

 

So we end up with a system that is really not meant for everyone who enter it, but there aren't a lot of checks and balances along the way to help people determine if they are making the right choice for themselves. The system also seem to view those that drop out as "failures", which also keeps people in the system even though it's not the best path for them. So it's no wonder that there are a lot of disgruntled graduate students that feel like they have been lied to or misled about their abilities and career prospects after graduation. 

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So, I've been watching people talk about this issue for a while now, think this conversation is actually pretty productive, and I suppose I'd like to throw in my 2 cents. For whatever it's worth. Maybe nothing. Always nervous  :unsure: .

 

I worked my way through undergrad in odd jobs, and since then I've spent a few years doing some freelance research work for policy folks in DC. Not that my background matters, just that I've talked to a lot of "career-level" people in different industries over the years. I think a dose of their perspective on what the working world is like could be important in a discussion like this. Especially because we're academics, trying to spend most of our lives cloistered away from it all on a university and even secondhand perspective is better than nothing. 

 

Whether they're a stage carpenter, grant accountant at a nonprofit, or even someone working at the Pentagon, not one of them spoke very glowingly of their industry. Especially people doing government work in DC. They talk about the restrictive job prospects, how pay is often going down, or how the environment can be so stifling that anyone proposing changes is trampled over, how frustrating rules and regulations are, how it's impossible to actually make a difference, etc. They say to be realistic, and please consider working in another field. Go to grad school or law school! And then of course, lawyers say the same thing about that. No jobs, incredibly competitive, too much debt, it's unrealistic to assume you'll succeed, etc.

 

I'm inclined to think it's a tired story people tell to vent. Or maybe everything does just suck? But then it's not THAT much better anywhere else either. If the world is going to smack me around for having dreams of a tenure track job, OK. The world can go ahead. Worse things happen to people than not getting their dream job. It's no reason to be a curmudgeon (looking at you, PSR). At least my job for five years will be doing something I love (research, school, TAing) before it's back to the grind.

 

And for the record, I'm probably just missing it, but I feel like I see a lot more lamenting a lack of realism lately than cases here of folks actually needing that dose of realism. Unless you count wanting to try in the first place, or being excited about acceptance to a #25-50 school as a lack of realism. In that case, humbug to you too, Mr. Scrooge. It's all a crap-shoot anyway.

Edited by BillyBillyBilly

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So first, I think you're assuming that most of us don't have real world experience. I've worked construction, oil & gas industry, and for years on a farm.

 

And to respond to your last paragraph: I'm not sure where you're looking, but if you're not currently in grad school, I don't know where you would be looking for a lack of realism. I've been doing our new graduate student orientations for the whole school (across departments) for the last few years, as well as school specific ones before that. I work with all of our incoming graduate students to some degree, as well as doing workshops for new graduate students across disciplines. 

 

There's a huge lack of realism.

 

Also, I don't see a whole lot of non-annecdotal evidence in your post, but yes, employment for academics is significantly worse than most other labor markets. Similar to law graduates, it usually takes the position of underemployment rather than unemployment, but it doesn't lead to happy days either. 

 

Additionally, you're assuming you'll love research, school, and TAing. Generally, you know it's time to graduate when you hate your project, your research, and everyone around you. A friend of mine in Political Science (recently tenured) told me that when he finished his dissertation, he couldn't stand to look at it for 2 years. And then he ritually destroyed it. 

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First things off, thanks for responding! And apologies if my post was longer than people were hoping to read. 

 

 

"Also, I don't see a whole lot of non-anecdotal evidence in your post, but yes, employment for academics is significantly worse than most other labor markets."

 

That's absolutely true, I mean, it was all anecdotal. But my goal was just to talk about the experiences of other people who had a lot to say on career realism. When the same negative message come from every possible direction, I don't think it's that hard to understand why after a while it makes new admits suspicious of it all. Even if you think that suspicion is really just a lack of experience. Do you see what I'm saying? To address your employment comment, again, no arguments here! In that specific case though, I wasn't really talking about comparison of the labor market so much as a hypothetical happiness in a different career or a different life. 

All I have to go off of is my own frame of reference, so I'm glad to get another perspective, 'specially a humbling one. Cheers!
 

Edited by BillyBillyBilly

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Obviously the people who post online about how unhappy they are are going to be a self-selecting group. I have nothing but anecdotal evidence from three friends in poli sci programs - one at a top-10, one at a top-30, one at an unranked program, so their predicted outcomes are vastly different. The one in the middle hates it the most, but it's either finish or go back to his/her home country. The other two seem quite content. 

The "hypothetical happiness" argument is an interesting one because, as far as I can tell, very few poli sci PhD candidates have significant salaried work experience beyond academia, whether in policy or a related field. They don't actually know what the other side looks like - they may have loved it, they may have hated it. Some people ended up in PhD programs because it was 2009-2010-2011, law school was too expensive, and the alternative was sixteen unpaid internships in DC in a row - these people would have undoubtedly been hypothetically happier in a paying job from the getgo. Others ended up in PhD programs because they desperately wanted to devote their lives to academic research - these people would hypothetically be miserable in anything else. Yet others chose PhDs with a clear non-academic goal in mind - thinktanks, NGOs, government, what have you; my guess is these people aren't the ones posting about fierce competition for TT lines at the University of Northeastern Nebraska. Of these three groups, my top-30 friend falls into the first, my top-10 friend falls into the second, and my unranked friend falls into 1 & 3. Take from that what you will - maybe that group 1 is always going to be unhappy and that group 2 is always going to be happy?

Edited by sixfoxtrot

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I think its quite simple really: If you don't love reading, writing, researching, and teaching, then you will not be happy as an academic. If you don't love the job, there are simply too many demands on you to be happy. For us who love it, these things aren't really demands.

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Even for those who love reading, writing, researching and teaching.... You may hate the department politics, the bitter people you're working with, the lack of support from your department when you have problems with students, the lack of support for your department from the administration, the pretentious and/or entitled students you're teaching who don't care about the subject, the crapshoot of publication, etc.

 

It's very idealistic to say you'll be happy if you love reading, writing, researching and teaching, in my opinion- although if you don't love them, I agree that you're in the wrong field. 

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Even for those who love reading, writing, researching and teaching.... You may hate the department politics, the bitter people you're working with, the lack of support from your department when you have problems with students, the lack of support for your department from the administration, the pretentious and/or entitled students you're teaching who don't care about the subject, the crapshoot of publication, etc.

 

It's very idealistic to say you'll be happy if you love reading, writing, researching and teaching, in my opinion- although if you don't love them, I agree that you're in the wrong field. 

 

 

Sounds a lot like my last three jobs! Replace "department" with management and "students" with coworkers.

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Even for those who love reading, writing, researching and teaching.... You may hate the department politics, the bitter people you're working with, the lack of support from your department when you have problems with students, the lack of support for your department from the administration, the pretentious and/or entitled students you're teaching who don't care about the subject, the crapshoot of publication, etc.

 

It's very idealistic to say you'll be happy if you love reading, writing, researching and teaching, in my opinion- although if you don't love them, I agree that you're in the wrong field. 

 

In other words, academia is not a magic place where academically inclined people will thrive and are safe from the realities of any workplace. It's just like any other office/workplace. I've seen equally crappy things happen to and caused by coworkers in both my academic departments and the car parts warehouse I've worked at prior to and during undergrad. The way I see it -- academics are humans and being in academia doesn't take away the human aspect of workplaces.

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Even for those who love reading, writing, researching and teaching.... You may hate the department politics, the bitter people you're working with, the lack of support from your department when you have problems with students, the lack of support for your department from the administration, the pretentious and/or entitled students you're teaching who don't care about the subject, the crapshoot of publication, etc.

 

It's very idealistic to say you'll be happy if you love reading, writing, researching and teaching, in my opinion- although if you don't love them, I agree that you're in the wrong field. 

So you have a choice...

 

Department politics, bitter people, and lack of support OR

Department politics, bitter people, and lack of support

 

The world outside academics isn't better.

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In other words, academia is not a magic place where academically inclined people will thrive and are safe from the realities of any workplace. It's just like any other office/workplace. I've seen equally crappy things happen to and caused by coworkers in both my academic departments and the car parts warehouse I've worked at prior to and during undergrad. The way I see it -- academics are humans and being in academia doesn't take away the human aspect of workplaces.

 

This is absolutely true. A lot of people seem to forget that, though. 

 

The number of complaints I get through our graduate student association about academia not being a magical place where there are no politics, grad students aren't the low rung on the totem pole, and we don't all get perfectly fair treatment based only off our merits (and not our networking or personality) seems to indicate that the vast majority of people getting into graduate school don't realize that the ivory tower isn't a complete insulator to humanity. 

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The number of complaints I get through our graduate student association about academia not being a magical place where there are no politics, grad students aren't the low rung on the totem pole, and we don't all get perfectly fair treatment based only off our merits (and not our networking or personality) seems to indicate that the vast majority of people getting into graduate school don't realize that the ivory tower isn't a complete insulator to humanity. 

 

Our grad student association ran a workshop series last year about how to ensure you get what you came here for, and how to manage the human aspect of academia (i.e. conflict resolution, management etc.). When we pitched this idea, we got some complaints from students that these skills are not necessary, because we are in academia, not business, and that people will always hire us on our ability to do science, not people skills......so that was interesting! I strongly recommended them to attend the workshop though :)

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We've been trying to come up with a seminar series on networking... With the main focus being how not to piss off all of the University staff by (a) yelling at them and (B) assuming you're better than anyone who doesn't have a PhD. 

 

I'm not exactly sure how to market it, though, and I have a feeling the people who really need to hear it wouldn't come, regardless. 

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One of the advantages of a public policy degree is that there often is a collaborative project where intensive research (if you are at the right place and on the right project) is the primary goal. Even if you will never work in a research team per se, understanding those group dynamics is so crucial to not making every one hate you and likely damaging your career potential unless you're just a massive stud. I think most grad school programs in the natural sciences force this experience through lab settings, but the closest you get to it in the social sciences is research h colloquia or workshops, but these seem to be more meeting of individuals rather than dealing with group dynamics as a member of the group.

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I'm not feeling up to a long, rambling post right now so I'll just keep it short and sweet.

 

I love being a graduate student and I feel confident in my ability to find employment when I complete my PhD. This employment may not be in academia but I am not entirely sure that I want it to be.

 

I have plenty of additional funding opportunities  and am able to pursue interesting new research and professionalization opportunities that present themselves to me. Research assistant positions, fellowships, and paid work are fairly easily available.

 

The department culture is engaging and supportive -- both academically and inter-personally. No matter how busy my professors are (and they are busy) I always feel like they have time to meet with me to discuss my work or to help me get through other struggles.

 

Generally speaking, graduate school is "the good life". I am paid to study things I find interesting, work with the best and brightest in their respective fields, and explore the possibilities of academic life without committing fully to said life. Also I get a pretty good wage and everything in my town is heavily subsidized by the university so I get to go out for nice dinners (especially when my adviser pays), watch world class theater, and spend quality time with my friends down at our local watering hole.

 

All this said and done - I think that the school I attend has a lot to do with my positive experiences. I didn't really think it out ahead of time so I got lucky... I honestly just went to the highest ranked school that admitted me. But in retrospect I would advise you to chose a school that has the resources to support you and a non-toxic department culture. Do not underestimate the importance of university/department prestige - your life will be made easier if opportunities to meet top academics, attend good conferences, and attain important fellowships are made available to you. Department culture can be hard to gauge but get a few grad students drunk on your visit weekend and see if they start effusively praising their department (apparently this is what I did 2 years ago). Certainly it is possible to get to the top without these things - they just seem to help a whole lot.

 

Happy to answer any questions people may have -- but I'm not going to back my thoughts up with stats. We all know grad school is hard and getting a job is even harder... I'm just here to say that it may well be worth your effort.

 

Darn... that was longer and ramblyer than I intended.

Edited by puddle

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