How naive can you get?

The pursuit of a Ph.D. entails much more than classes and research

By Carolyn Kleiner

Like many prospective Ph.D.'s, Lauren Wittenberg arrived on campus a bit starry-eyed–dizzy with love of her discipline, psychology, and eager to fulfill a calling to the academy. She dreamed of becoming a professor at a high-powered research institution, of standing in front of packed classrooms, lecturing undergraduates about the nature of prejudice and stereotypes, and then heading to her lab to investigate topics like the social aspects of eating disorders.

Wittenberg wasn't entirely idealistic. She knew long before she entered an experimental psychology Ph.D. program at Dartmouth in 1995 that she was in for years of grueling schoolwork; still, she felt up to the challenge. "I thought, I can put up with 18-hour days, no problem," recalls the Detroit native. But she never anticipated how trying her graduate-school years would be–or that her struggle to get through them would have so little to do with academics.

Indeed, there's much more to earning a Ph.D. than classes and research. Deans and glossy admission brochures may showcase big-name professors, state-of-the-art labs, and top rankings, but often it's the less publicized quality-of-life issues that determine whether students finally obtain their degrees. Although many people have satisfying graduate-school careers, others encounter problems that, while common, are often unexpected-such as abusive advisers, financial difficulties, and exhausting teaching or research workloads. "Many students are quite naive about the realities of graduate-school life," says Chris Golde, a professor of educational administration at the University of Wisconsin?Madison and a leading doctoral-education researcher. That's unfortunate, she says, because the more informed that prospective Ph.D.'s are about these potential struggles, the better prepared they'll be to choose a program that's right for them.

To be sure, the life of a doctoral student has never been easy. "We dangle our three magic letters before the eyes of these predestined victims, and they swarm to us like moths to an electric light," wrote Harvard professor William James in 1903. However, the pursuit of a Ph.D. is increasingly difficult, for a number of reasons: The intensifying pressure to publish is leaving faculty less time for mentoring grad students. With funding drying up in some disciplines, more students are having to get outside jobs and loans to make ends meet. Cash-strapped universities also are shifting more of the teaching burden onto the shoulders of grad students, resulting in grueling schedules and less time for personal studies.

Not surprisingly, the number of years it takes to earn a doctoral degree has increased. In 1998, the average across all fields was 7.3 years, up from 5.9 in 1972. And just half of all Ph.D. candidates today end up obtaining a degree. Individual schools or departments rarely disclose their attrition rates, but researchers have found that they generally are higher in the humanities and the social sciences than in the hard sciences. They also are higher for women and minorities, especially in fields where they are underrepresented.

Crucial choice. Despite the upheaval in doctoral education, one thing hasn't changed: The most important decision a student will make is selecting an adviser. This professor will serve as intellectual guru, employer, and chief advocate during a student's job search. That is, when the relationship works. When it does not, the fallout can be devastating.

Within six months of arriving at Dartmouth, Lauren Wittenberg knew she had a problem with her adviser. She claims he was capricious and volatile: He would tell her to do one thing in the lab one week and another the next; then, she says, he'd deny changing his instructions and berate her for not doing what he'd asked. He would call her stupid, she contends, and belittle her when experiments didn't go as planned. "I walked out of his office, more times than not, and went up to the lab and cried," says Wittenberg, who finally switched advisers after three years and finished up a year later, in the spring of 1999. Her first adviser denies Wittenberg's charges but says he did make it clear that he didn't think she was cut out for academics. Wittenberg says this experience persuaded her to seek a job outside the academy, and she now works as a health policy analyst in Washington, D.C.

Grad students typically have few options when these relationships sour. Only a small number of schools have a well-defined grievance procedure, and even when they do, prospective Ph.D.'s often are wary of filing a complaint against an adviser?afraid of a potentially ruinous effect on their careers. "The power relationship there is all in one direction," says Nick Repak, director of Grad Resources, a Dallas-based organization that provides time- and stress-management seminars and other support to students at a handful of schools across the country, including the University of Texas?Austin and the University of Washington?Seattle.

According to Repak, this power imbalance, along with other emotional and financial pressures, can contribute to a host of problems for graduate students, including depression, dropping out, and even, infrequently, suicide. In 1998, for example, a top student in the chemistry department at Harvard swallowed cyanide after leaving notes blaming his Nobel Prize-winning adviser–and the broad power he wielded over his life and career–for his death. The incident provided a wake-up call for the chemistry department, which moved to an advising system in which three-professor committees evaluate a student's work. A number of other schools, including Michigan State University and the University of North Carolina?Chapel Hill, have since initiated seminars on conflict resolution for students and faculty. Repak also helped start a confidential crisis hotline (877-GRAD-HLP) last year for graduate students, which currently receives about a dozen calls a week.

Even if students have a decent adviser, they aren't guaranteed a happy graduate career. Some female students relate stories of unfair treatment of women in their departments. One, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in sociology at State University of New York?Stonybrook, claims she and a male colleague were given markedly different duties while working together as teaching assistants for a course. "He was helping to write tests and seeing students for office hours, [while] I took notes and Xeroxed," she recalls. A former sociology student at one Southwestern university relates how, as a newcomer, she attended a potluck dinner given by female students, ostensibly to welcome women to the department. "What it was really for was to warn [us] about a professor who had a long history of molesting female grad students," she says. Certain institutions are taking steps to improve the climate for female students. The University of Michigan's Graduate Experience Project, for instance, offers faculty in engineering and the physical sciences seminars on sexual harassment and matches up incoming female students with experienced peer mentors.

Some departments can be lonely places for minority doctoral students, who still make up only 9.4 percent of new Ph.D.'s. When Roland Fryer started his doctoral degree in economics at Pennsylvania State University last year, he found himself surrounded by foreign students who, he says, refused to work with him because he is African-American. "Comments were made to me like, 'I don't study with black people; black people are stupid,' " says Fryer. "It was very tough, because problems and homework are meant for group effort." He has persevered, aided by an understanding faculty, but knows many peers who aren't so lucky: "I talk to my friends in other programs and they all say, 'Oh, you're doing the solo thing, too?' "

Roy Diaz also understands what it's like to feel ostracized by fellow students. A sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in physical chemistry at the University of Washington?Seattle, Diaz is one of two Latinos in a department of some 190 graduate students. Time and again, he says, unfriendly peers have insinuated that he's on campus?and in his current research assistant position?merely because he's a minority student. "People always ask, 'How is it you got here?' " explains Diaz, who says he feels added pressure to succeed as a result. "It's not enough to be doing ok, because somehow your abilities are always questioned." Several schools are working to make themselves more minority-friendly. Texas A&M University and the University of Nebraska?Lincoln, for example, are involved in the American Sociological Association's Minority Opportunities Through School Transformation program, which provides institutions with a variety of services, including diversity workshops for faculty and students.

Other Ph.D. candidates share stories of departments where cutthroat competition has replaced camaraderie and any sense of community. Students have been known to steal journal articles from the library so others can't study them, for example, or to throw classmates' papers in the trash instead of handing them in to professors. A sixth-year Ph.D. student in criminal justice at SUNY?Albany says that she was warned from the get-go by seasoned students not to share thoughts about her dissertation with classmates–as ideas had been stolen in the past. "I thought at this level of education people would be supportive, that it would be a great, cooperational environment, but what I found instead was pettiness," she laments. Some competition is healthy, asserts Mark Kelley, president of the graduate student caucus of the Modern Language Association and a Ph.D. candidate in English at the City University of New York. But he speculates that the ultratight job market is driving rivalry to dangerous levels in certain departments.

Genteel poverty. Something else prospective Ph.D.'s aren't likely to read about in glossy brochures is the funding problem that plagues a growing number of doctoral students. Although most schools provide financial aid in the form of fellowships and teaching and research assistantships, the grants may end well before a student gets his degree. At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, for example, psychology students are guaranteed funding for just four years. Jonathan Stadler, currently in his seventh year, has struggled to support himself since his time ran out. Fortunately, his adviser helped find him work as a research assistant in another lab; unfortunately, the research is unrelated to his own. "It makes it hard to focus, because I have to constantly shift gears," says Stadler, who spends his days shuttling between his job and his adviser's lab, on the opposite end of campus.

Even when students do have secure funding, they often live at or below the poverty line. As a result, some take part-time jobs like waitressing to stay in school. A growing number of graduate students also are taking out loans: According to the 1998 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, 20 percent of doctoral students borrowed an average of $9,870 in 1995-96, compared with 12 percent of students who borrowed an average of $6,362 six years earlier.

There's no doubt that graduate assistants are working harder, as schools shift more of the total teaching load their way. Institutions like the University of Iowa and the University of Oregon set the average number of hours that students should work per teaching appointment: In cases where they put in more time, they can file a complaint, which can result in higher pay. However, at other schools, prospective Ph.D.'s must teach or assist in as many as one or two courses each semester–no matter how much time is involved. Jason Sears, for instance, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of South Florida in Tampa, found himself overwhelmed with work at the end of last semester. In addition to taking three graduate-level classes and studying for two qualifying exams, he had to teach two undergraduate courses in introductory philosophy. This entailed preparing lectures, holding office hours, and grading class assignments. For all his teaching work, which rarely totaled less than 30 hours a week, Sears was paid the bargain-basement wage of $4,500. "We're considered graduate assistants, which is ironic, because we're not assisting anyone," he says.

Many recent Ph.D.'s–and dropouts–say they wish they'd had a less starry-eyed view of graduate-school life from the beginning. What advice do they offer on how to ferret out crucial information about prospective doctorate programs? Visit departments and talk to a range of people, including professors and a diverse selection of students. Request the names and numbers of recent graduates, who are in the best position to be open and honest about their experiences. Chat with potential mentors and their current advisees; inquire about where past advisees are now working. Get an agreement on funding in writing before enrolling, and, if it includes a time limit, find out how many students finish in the alloted period. Finally, try to get as many data as possible about attrition rates, which vary widely between departments.

The stars may disappear quickly from your eyes, but at least you'll know what to expect once on campus. And you will likely be better equipped to pursue and earn a Ph.D.