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    Thread: Why is graduate school so damn competitive?

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      Why is graduate school so damn competitive?

      (rant incoming)

      I am trying to get into some Ph.D. programs in the next couple of years in nuclear engineering. I was just thinking about the entire graduate-education system today and how it seems kind of lopsided. It's accepted as the status quo that students should be competing with each other to get into the top schools, and the departments at these schools sometimes pick students on a whim or through personal connections, which leaves many applicants' chances a matter of luck if they are equally qualified. If these top schools have such huge endowments in the tens of billions of dollars, why can they only afford to pay 10-20 new graduate students $20,000 a year? I honestly think a for-profit system would hypothetically be better because, stemming from the high demand for graduate degrees by students, the students would have to pay the universities tuition and in return the universities could guarantee students a spot in accordance with supply and demand.

      Worrying over being accepted has been causing me a lot of stress and grey hair lately. Also the fact that I am a mathematics undergraduate major, coupled with possibly getting my first C in college this semester are troublesome. I wonder if I will still be competitive if I receive a C in complex variables? My professor has accused me of procrastinating and I have taken offense at that, because I make every effort to study, attend office hours, attend every class, and do the homework. I just simply don't understand the material very well as it is very abstract. I don't want this to put a stop to my lifetime goal of getting a Ph.D.
      "La bellezza del paessa di Galilei!"

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      I kind of took the logic from the opposite direction when I was thinking about this not long ago. I was asking how I could view my education as a way to serve others and to make a meaningful contribution towards the betterment of the human condition. But my dilemma was... if there was any truth to this view, why is competition so heavy to do it? Can I really justify a service attitude if I climbed over people to perform that service? Scientific work is not lacking for people to do it, it seems, so assuming I would make a unique contribution that would not be made by someone else is, to be honest, conceited in most cases. And wanting to have my name attached to a contribution that would have eventually been made by someone else anyway had I never pursued further education, is narcissistic.

      But that's just my observations that were meant for my own situation, not necessarily to your point. This speaks nothing to just wanting to be an academic for one's own lifestyle choice. Towards your point, the best advice that I followed accidentally is from E. O. Wilson, "run away from the sound of the guns". I applied for a masters in a degree that didn't seem very competitive, there were only 8 of us whereas other degrees in my same department had closer to 20, and I didn't feel particularly qualified because my bachelor's was in a very different area, so I suspect they just let in everyone who applied. Then, whereas the other students in my degree did their dissertations on the standard topics of evolutionary anthropology (primate behavior, hominid fossil morphometrics, etc.), I did mine in a much more "fringe" field - patterns of evolutionary theory in literature/folklore, to sharpen the analogy between cultural and biological evolution. So now, even though my project was very simple and tenuous (in my opinion), my supervisor is confident that I can publish it, just for the simple fact alone that it hasn't been done before and I can demonstrate a methodology.

      So, if my experience is of any use, try to work in the fringe areas of your field if you can.
      Last edited by IndieAnthias; 11-11-2012 at 01:54 PM.
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      Thanks for the reply. I dont think i completely agree with your idea that someone else may just come along and do the work. Most of us have had at least ONE unique idea in our lifetime that wouldn't have a chance we didn't give it one. I am going to try and apply to as many programs as I can and hope for the best.
      "La bellezza del paessa di Galilei!"

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      You would be surprised to know how large the disparity is in the IQ levels across princeton's undergraduate engineering department. There is such a lack of really interesting, passionate undergraduate math and science related kids here. I can't speak about the graduate application process, but for the undergraduate process, it was extremely easy because no other high school kid could really talk about knot theory or Lorentzian manifolds because that would require...you know, genuinely intelligent, motivated kids.

      In any case, I would imagine the same thing applies to you. If you have no impressive achievements outside the dismal 15 or so books or 50-100 lab hours you logged, how can you possible expect selective colleges to embrace you in open arms.

      If you're having problems with introductory complex analysis, isn't that a big red flag to your nuclear science career?

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      If I'm here I'm bored. justme's Avatar
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      Maybe it's due to the fact that quite a few PhD people also get either full rides or GTA positions? I'm applying for a few PhD programs myself (psychology here) and am currently teaching as well. Money wise there is no way I'm going to go into a PhD program unless I get another GTA position (in one now for masters). Sometimes people also want to get into the really prestigious ones as well. I have a pretty good GPA, experience, and having already taught I can hopefully gain an edge in the GTA positions, but I still applied for not very prestigious (doesn't mean they aren't good) PhD programs and I still think I have a pretty horrible chance of getting in. Also it seems that other countries like American universities for some reason (my college now has about 10% exchange students while less than 2% of our students even go abroad) so that could cause even more people applying. As for why they limit the numbers, I don't know. I heard that for medical doctors the government or medical association limits the number of certified medical schools for some reason (there's some conspiracy about wanting to keep doctors salaries high by make doctors less available but I think the government says something about be really picky about whose a doctor or not) but maybe other programs have those limitations as well even though I don't think the APA (main psychological association) does that... maybe the professors just want to keep their little pretentiousness limited to a select few to make themselves feel more important or something but I feel ya. Applying to PhD programs are stressful. Maybe applying to a few master's programs as well? Those are easier to get into (for psychology at least) and you will have something for a back up. Good luck and that's a nice lifetime goal btw.

      "There are two types of people in this world, people who think there are two types of people, and people who don't."

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      Quote Originally Posted by Hercuflea View Post
      If these top schools have such huge endowments in the tens of billions of dollars, why can they only afford to pay 10-20 new graduate students $20,000 a year?
      Part of it is that, unlike many other things that the department can spend its finite resources on, spending money to fund graduate students is basically throwing the money away. If the department hires professors, these professors are typically expected to bring in grant money, and assuming they successfully do so, then the department at least recoups much of the cost of the professor, and very often comes out ahead. (The university gets a substantial cut of all grants.) If the department spends money to improve classes in various ways, this will ultimately attract more students, and again the department benefits in term of both finances and overall prestige within the university. But hiring a graduate student really doesn't accomplish that much for the department. They rarely are awarded outside grants; they might teach some lower-level classes, but they almost certainly don't excel at it; and after 4-7 years they leave. Essentially, graduate students are cheap labor to help lighten the teaching & research load of the real money-makers in the department.

      By the way. If you think the squeeze from undergraduate to graduate school is tight, you don't even want to think of what's in store for those who have their sights set on academia.
      Last edited by DuB; 01-29-2013 at 09:39 PM.

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      I think the answer to this question, in its simplest form, is that graduate school must be competitive because we want to make sure that the title "Doctor" retains its value. If we set up a basic curriculum and herded kids through grad school like it was a technical certification program, then we would get rid of what makes graduate students so special -- the fact that they are the best of the best... The smartest, the most determined, and the most well-funded of them all.

      ^ Mhm, heard 'dat.

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