Sadly, many students come to college knowing only the minimum they need to pass certain exams, and that does not reflect genuine interest. Most discussions I’ve had about instruction tend to end up with the conclusion that our teaching style would be totally different if we didn’t have to trick people into getting interested in classes they are taking. Today I’m asking the question: what are all those students doing there in the first place? If you are a student, you need to ask yourself if you’re in the right place. You might be in the wrong major. You might be in the wrong university. And any university might not be the right place for you at this time in your life.
I’d like to explore the problem of majoring in science from two perspectives, that of students and that of instructors. This is not really a how-to or algorithm for choosing a major. However, if you are a student, there are some things I think you should think about before going to college, or before declaring a major. These are problems that go beyond any individual student, and they are symptomatic of wider societal issues. If you are an instructor, hopefully we can begin a dialogue about instruction style and advice to students. As an instructor I’ve seen that advice based on competitive social values sometimes gives students harmful ideas about why they are in college and how to get the most out of it.
I find it interesting to see what students blame for their lack of success in particular majors. In Talking about Leaving anthropologists Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt relate a narrative of a young woman in a basic electrical engineering class. She expressed anxiety about how her (mostly male) peers seemed way ahead of her in a basic lab. Once she had constructed the beginning parts of a circuit, her (male) TA came over and said “Looks good, just wire it up” and walked away. She, of course, didn’t know what he was talking about and changed majojrs. She blamed this on how her male classmates had been working on cars in the garage with their dads for the past decade. Since she didn’t have that experience, on account of being female, in her view, she just couldn’t keep up. I want to be careful about something here. The first is that the authors of the study did not blame this episode on gender disparities, but they did ask researchers to pay attention to perception of gender disparities.
My question about this narrative is “If you know that you need a decade of experience messing around with hobby electronics to be successful as an electrical engineering major, and you know you don’t have that experience, why major in electrical engineering?” My basic suggestion is don’t major in something you know nothing about. The issue is experience. What’s troubling to me is that people who have no experience in a particular field would, despite knowing that they need that experience to succeed, choose to do it anyway. Who would encourage that kind of thinking, and what would they gain from encouraging people to do things they can’t succeed at?
My suggestion for how to maximize your learning if you are a student, and reduce the problem of uninterested students if you are an instructor, is for each student to be an interested student. This might sound like something that you don’t choose. “I’m either one of those smart people at the front asking questions all the time or I’m not” might seem reasonable. However, I ask you to consider that you did (at one stage) choose to be in that classroom. You chose a major, field of study or a particular track. If you’re not one of those interested people at the front, then why not choose a different place to be?
For students, I suggest choosing a major from things you already have experience with. Preferably this would be experience outside of classrooms, perhaps even entirely outside of classrooms. Almost everybody has something that actually interests them, and it’s not always biology or engineering. Do you like to cook? Have you ridden horses? Have you decorated a room? Those are probably things you would be really satisfied studying. My first suggestion is that if it’s not entirely obvious, then write down a list of things you’ve done in your life that you found interesting. Not just stuff you’ve read about, but stuff you’ve actually done: real projects, real challenges that you had to stick with. Find the thing on the list that you already have studied, and then study that on a higher level at a university. Of course, it has to be something that can be studied at a university, and that narrows the choices. There are alternatives to going to college.
If you really haven’t spent time with a hobby of any kind, then there are two alternatives I suggest that allow you to become one of those people at the front of the class. The first is to go to a different kind of university where you can get experience doing something really interesting. Small universities allow students to get hands-on and get started with one-on-one instruction, somewhat in an apprenticeship fashion. I did research at a big university, but I started doing research with the same collaborators in middle school, not after I got to college. If you don’t know what you’re going to do, but you can think of what you would like and it’s something amenable to college, small colleges offer a way for you to get started.
The other suggestion I have if you have limited experience is to avoid college and get experience. Don’t go to college. Get a job at a bakery and learn one-on-one from somebody who is already an expert. I’m not suggesting that you beg your parents for money and go backpacking across Europe. I’m suggesting you get a job. Like music? Start hanging out at a recording studio. No recording studios in your area? Move to Nashville (or Austin, or maybe Portland). You might know somebody who’s a music major and seems to be well-connected. If you dig, my guess is you’ll find that’s how he started, except he started when he was fourteen, not after getting a bachelor’s degree.
Let me give you two examples of people who followed the latter approach. The first is my brother Michael. He could have gone to college. But after high school he moved to Arizona, and then to Italy to work at professional cycling. He start his cycling career when he was fourteen, and at nineteen Europe was where to take the next step. After a while of seeing the professional cycling world, he decided it wasn’t for him. Coincidentally, he really loved Italian culture and speaking Italian, so he started teaching English. After he did that professionally for a while he went to work in marketing for his friends’ father. Later he wanted to return to the US and go to college. As I remember it (correct me bro, if I am wrong), but the only reason he ended up going was that he saw not having a bachelor’s degree as hampering his chances of promotion at a large corporation in the United States. By the time he went to college, he already had (at least) three years of experience in marketing, and had traveled the world doing it as a professional. He finished business school in three years while his wife worked as an Italian instructor at the same university.
The second example is my friend Meagan Chandler who still hasn’t gone to college. I say “still hasn’t” because every now and then she mentions that she might want to transition to a profession where a college degree would actually be valuable. However, she’s been working as an artist, musician, dancer, music and dance teacher for over fifteen years. I would say she’s successful, not because she’s made a ton of money doing it (she hasn’t), but because she has been intentionally living that way, doing what she knows and really cares about. She knows, however, that she’s gotten experience doing other things in the meantime, and some of those things might benefit from a college education. There’s nothing wrong with going to college when you’re forty. During graduate school, it’s people like her that I’ve really gained admiration for.
When people choose a particular path without considering preparation, they pay a price. There is something that every student has spent time preparing for. I often hear instructors talking about “unpreparedness” as if it’s a problem in itself that needs fixing: let’s throw more education at people so that they’re “ready” for college. That doesn’t help people who are bored because they’re doing something that they don’t care about. This also assumes that people really fundamentally need to go to college, and that they will all benefit in some substantial way. Everyone has spent time on something that they really love, and not all of those things are helped by higher education. Some of those things are helped more by hands-on training, finding the right mentor, and just plain years of experience. College will only get you that in certain fields that value certain kinds of intelligence. It’s not for everyone.
I often hear that we need to change our teaching style, re-work the curriculum or take other measures to prevent losing science majors. But I’d like to ask if it is really a loss to lose people from a major that they don’t want. Who does it benefit to have more science majors? The most common appeal to the tragedy of losing science majors cites political calls for another one million scientists by a certain date. None of these arguments make an appeal to personal satisfaction for students or instructors. They all rely on someone’s economic and political goals, or that greed is good (more science = more money = more gooder). I don’t want any students out there to be doing something that they don’t want to just so the USA can beat Finland in science.
So to answer the question in the title: major in science if you already have experience in science. If you’re still in high school and you’re reading this, don’t go out of your way to get experience doing something you don’t want just so you can meet my criteria. Get experience doing what you want to do right now and carry on with that. If that’s something that will benefit from higher education, then go to college. Really question whether the skills that you can get from college will help you become a better chef, or horse trainer or artist.
There should be no doubt to anyone in the sciences that there is a “gender gap” in the sciences: there are fewer female professors than male professors in most scientific disciplines. The degree varies across scientific disciplines, I’ve found it strongest in physics, and weakest in math, psychology and biology, but it’s always there and in the same direction. A recent study shows that the problem is related to women’s perceptions of operating stereotypes in their colleagues: when women perceive that they will be judged as inferior, they often behave in such a way that reinforces the stereotype. This reminds me of a now-classic study that had young Asian women read articles about their identity, either as female, or as Asian, and then take a math quiz. When they read about Asian identity, they scored super-high, when they read about female identity, they scored low.
This is a common topic of discussion around my lab, since there are many female graduate students and professors in biology, and we hear all the time of measures to get girls interested in science, increase career advancement and other efforts to make working better for female scientists. The overall goal is to increase the number of women in science. However, I’m a little concerned that people don’t pause and ask what’s really going on, or ask why it’s happening. For example, the lead of the NPR Article on the recent psychological study poses this problem:
Over the years, educators, recruiters and government authorities have bemoaned the gender gap and warned that it can have dire consequences for American competitiveness and continued technological dominance.
Really? That’s the problem? We’re not keeping up with Finland? The reason we need to keep more women in scientific professorships is so that the Japanese won’t be smarter than us? Not only does that sound kinda hostile to everyone who isn’t American (which is quite a few people), but it paints a nice, simplistic picture over the real problem.
Perhaps the real problem is exactly what the quotation points out: our ridiculously competitive society. Maybe more women than men figure out earlier on that the goal of their lives shouldn’t be helping America crush Iceland. A big problem in science is that most scientists believe that the number one goal in life is to be factually correct about everything. Perhaps more women than men figure out that there are other things that are more important: things like compassion, kindness and generosity. Is anyone doing research on that gender disparity? Is anyone running a program to recruit men into kindness rather than insane competitiveness? No one has tried to recruit me.
If you read the theoretical and mathematical literature of evolutionary biology as much as I do, you’ll quickly notice that three-quarters of a century has been spent trying to verify a cryptic statement made by Ronald Fisher and declared the Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection. The “theorem” states that when mutation and genetic drift are negligible (e.g. in a large population) the rate of increase of mean fitness is equal to the variance in fitness in the population. Most of the time in that case we can use mean fitness as a Lyapunov function to demonstrate asymptotic stability of equilibria.
Unfortunately, most of the work on the FTNS shows that it doesn’t apply in most interesting cases and Fisher’s original derivation had some serious problems. Many have concluded that Fisher’s motivation and conclusion were unclear. Despite that, I’ve recently read that the FTNS is comparable to Newton’s Second Law of Motion. I disagree. I remember using Newton’s Second Law to solve tons of problems, and I have never used the FTNS to solve a problem in evolutionary theory. Never.
On top of all this, we have a substitute: there happens to be an actual theorem whose proof is rigorous, applies to any set of aggregate quantities and includes all the evolutionary details. I have just rederived yet another set of famous evolutionary equations from The Price Equation in less than five minutes this morning. Try it sometime! You can derive everything, from the most basic equations of single-locus selection, to mutation-selection balance, and everything else, from the Price Equation. I use Price’s Equation the way I used the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, and the Fundamental Theorem of Linear Programming. As a universal problem solver. I don’t use Fisher’s theorem that way.
Price’s Equation truly is the Fundamental Theorem of Evolution and I, for one, am going to make my efforts to reverse the typical ordering of things. Fisher’s “theorem” (it’s not even a theorem!) is called “Fundamental” and the selection component of Price’s Equation is called the “secondary theorem.” Dude, that’s bogus: you can derive Fisher’s FTNS from the Price Equation!
To see just how fundamental Price’s Equation is, use the full equation, with the transmission bias component to derive equations for
- Single-locus selection dynamics
- Two-locus-two-allele selection dynamics
- Equilibrium between forward and backward mutation
- The Breeder’s Equation
You’ll see what I mean.
Today I took a look at some more articles and some more videos on the web introducing myself to the concepts of Open Access. I also talked to a professor at my university who pointed me to some interesting links. The impact factor of Open Access journals is rapidly approaching that of non-OA journals. That is interesting: I definitely want to support Open Access, but as I said yesterday, I simply find some of the arguments lacking.
I was browsing through some videos on Youtube and just as I was thinking “Why are these all from people I’ve never heard of?” I found one from someone I have heard of (and, incidentally, whose papers I read quite a lot of): Andrew Pomiankowski.
Pomiankowski points out several advantages of BMC Journals:
- Fast peer review
- Fast turnaround from submission to publication
- Creating competition for journal publishers, who have been “ripping off” scientists for a while now
Okay, now he’s speaking my language. I definitely think the publishers need competition. And if they genuinely have been ripping off scientists (and I have no reason to think he’s lying, having seen the whole process from submission to publication), then that’s something we need to rebel against.
Another critical argument that didn’t come up right away in my investigations was authors retaining copyright. Open Access journals don’t demand copyright assignment from the authors of scientific works. Instead authors retain the rights to distribute their own works in their own ways. The articles are still peer-reviewed and still perfectly reputable, but you can get them from a colleague’s website while reading his CV, instead of following links that might not work. That is compelling.
What’s holding me back? What’s holding me back from saying “I will only publish in open access journals?” The fact that a journal like Evolution, or American Naturalist is not Open Access still doesn’t deter me. Those are good journals. I would be more than proud to publish a paper in any one of many good “closed access” journals. As I said yesterday, I also still can’t discount the value of a good paper because it’s not in an Open Access journal.
However, things are changing. Within ten or twenty years I doubt there will be many “closed access” journals. The journals I just mentioned are already putting open data policies into effect. Open data to open access takes very few steps, although it may involve pissing off, losing, or forcing the hand of the publisher. If Wiley-Blackwell can’t provide the kind of access that scientists want, then they may just go out of business. I think a lot of scientists do want that level of access, so I think Wiley-Blackwell, Elsevier, Springer and company will have to change. Either that or they’ll just keep merging until there will be only one such publisher to put out of business.
I do think the access the web allows people is an unstoppable force. The trick is to take the best part of the freedom of the internet (access) and not let the content fall victim to the worst part of the worst part of the freedom of the internet: barriers to entry for authors. Any jerk can say whatever the hell he wants and you’ll still probably read it. You for example, reading the blog of a graduate student when you should be reading something over at PLoS. We need to make sure that all the good things about journals and the peer-review process stay in place, while making the journals as easily accessible as this blog.
Just for fun, here’s another biologist that I have heard of, Steve Jones:
Open Access is an aspect of free culture that I have not fully evaluated yet. I want to be able to take a position on the subject, should the question come up, so this week I’m making a concerted effort to understand what Open Access (capitalized) is, what its major tenets and who its major supporters are. I don’t want to take a knee-jerk reaction to it and say “I think free software is ethical, therefore open access is ethical.” That’s a little short-sighted. Furthermore, although I agree with certain arguments from open access immediately (scientists should make their data and source code available), I certainly don’t want to ally myself with a movement that I don’t understand. People could end up thinking I want to take away their jobs, and that might not be true.
I just watched a short video on the subject:
Open Access is just one of those things that should be a given as far as scientific research is concerned.
Not so fast. Yes, scientists should make their data available to all readers of their work. Any qualified scientist should be able to take that data and come to similar conclusions; this is what peer review is all about. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that people shouldn’t pay for access to journals. For one thing most people who access scientific journals pay for them indirectly by paying student fees that go toward university library subscriptions. Another thing is that most people aren’t scientists: they don’t know how to evaluate scientific literature and they can frequently take things out of context. Especially where we consider the news media, there should be some barriers to entry. There are many places where intellectual elitism is a good thing and having a moderate barrier to entry for those things is a good idea.
Furthermore, when you publish a scientific paper, even in a “closed” journal, you’re doing the antithesis of “hiding it away.” Publication in any form is opening up your research to the public. The only way to hide something away is to not publish it, and then no one knows about it. You don’t have to publish in an Open Access journal to be making your research public.
Finally as to the above remark: most people at universities have access to journals online, whether those journals are Open Access or not. It’s not a question of whether you can see it or not.
At 1:58 we hear this
The way I use the literature has changed completely…go to Pubmed, search and then click on the links…I’m more likely to read that work
Whether you have access to an article’s text or not usually does not depend on whether the journal is Open Access. There is no difference between accessing Evolution versus accessing PLoS One, as far as access to text goes, if you’re at a university with a subscription to Evolution. I would find it hard to believe that King’s College London doesn’t have a subscription to the world’s leading journal in evolutionary biology.
At 2:07 we hear something even more provocative:
People who do publish in open access journals will find their work being more used more accessible by a growing group of people, whereas people who continue to publish in closed journals will, I’m afraid to say, have their work dismissed or ignored over time.
I’ve got two words for that opinion: BULL SHIT. As of now I would never “dismiss or ignore” a work simply because it’s published in the best-edited, best-printed, and best-run journal simply because it’s not Open Access. That is simply crazy. Perhaps in the future there will be holdouts who refuse to grant open access to data, but I would not completely discount such a journal; beside that, most journals are heading to open data regardless of whether they still want people to pay for a subscription. That quotation may be taken out of context by the editors of the film, but I just find it outrageous to consider that I would read a perfectly good paper and say “Well, this isn’t in PLoS, so it’s crap; I’m going to ignore it.” That would not serve me as a scientist at all.
After doing a little research and hearing a few opinions, I will not advocate Open Access for right now, the way I advocate free software. I will tell people “Free Software is better for personal and academic liberty, and creates a society with better values.” I can’t say the same things in support of Open Access. However, I will take it seriously and continue to consider its benefits. I’m certainly not going to advocate it as the One True Way, like Dr. Birney.
A recent USAToday article showed the results of an analysis of 2010 census data, showing that more women are going to college for what are traditionally thought of as male-dominated fields. I think this is good news. I believe our public lives should mirror representation in our households to some degree, and I think that there are plenty of women out there who will make great scientists. My advisor is a woman, and she’s bloody brilliant. Many of the professors I work with are women, and they are all capable people that I certainly would never think less of for their sex. Having always been in a field that’s been receptive to women (i.e. not physics), I’ve never thought that female colleagues would be absent from my scientific career. I’m glad to see people reporting these changes in the news. However, the article, and most that I’ve read over the years, completely misses the point of the real crisis in academia with regard to gender: the leaking pipeline.
As long as I’ve been in academics (most of my life), people have known that the real problem with representation of women in science is the shortage of female professors. Female graduate students are, in many fields, equally represented with male graduate students, and requisition of a Ph.D. does not seem to correlate with gender. However, there are far fewer female professors than male professors in most scientific fields. Where are all these female Ph.D.’s going?
The Leading Hypotheses
Quite a few people have been burned at the stake for discussing this topic, but I still feel compelled to discuss it because I think it gets at another problem that I’ve never heard anyone discuss. There are good reasons why no one’s discussed it, and I’ll cover that a little later. For now let’s consider the leading hypotheses of why women seem to exit academia after receiving their Ph.D.s (remember, that’s not my opinion, it’s a well-established fact).
Women are bad at math
This is the idiotic idea that got Larry Summers ousted from Harvard. We should note, in his defense, that he didn’t actually suggest that women were bad at math, he just mentioned how no one has seriously considered the idea. Nevertheless, this idea is preposterous on quite a few grounds. Just using my own career as an example, the women I’ve known in my field have been, on the whole, much more quantitatively oriented than the men I’ve known. The guys have all known the requisite amount of statistics to get by, but I’ve known far more mathematically-oriented, or statistically-oriented female biologists than I’ve known such men. Besides my own experience there’s the fact that mathematics (pure math, that is) is one of the only fields outside of biology where there have been quite a few notable women: Emmy Noether, Sophie Germain, and Grace Hooper — if I can steal her from engineering — are but a few.
Even if something about being a woman, something cultural, biological or otherwise, prevented women from excelling due to problems with math, that wouldn’t prevent them from making huge headway in any of the biological sciences, psychology, or even engineering. On a logical basis, this idea doesn’t explain the disparity between females exiting graduate school and entering academic careers. Women wouldn’t be gaining Ph.D.s at the same rate as male counterparts if they were bad at math. We would not see a leaking pipeline, we’d see a closed pipeline.
Women tend to choose different professions
Even this seemingly innocuous suggestion that women are different (even in a good way) from men, makes most American women I’ve known turn bright red and foam at the mouth. What I mean about this being good is that I am probably not nice enough to be a public school teacher, but if a woman feels like she could be good at that, better that she go into that than me. Anecdotally, I know many women who have gone into mental health, teaching, medicine, social justice work, advocacy, and other non-scientific, somewhat humanitarian lines of work. I’d say all the professional women I know who aren’t doing something like one of these fields, is in biology, and that’s because I hang out with biologists all the time.
However, how can this explain the leaking pipeline? Are women going into graduate school in science and engineering, gaining advanced degrees and then becoming social workers? That doesn’t make sense either. Especially because for all those fields, you would need special training that is specific to those fields. All of them are just as valuable or more to society than science. We need mental health professionals, probably more than we need scientists right now. India needs scientists, Americans are sick; we need people to fix that. So “good for you” if you are choosing a different profession, but that doesn’t explain the leaking pipeline.
Who cares: why would they want to be scientists?
This is not so much a hypothesis as advice you should consider. The academy is a huge macho pissing match. A lot of my interactions in science have basically been on the level of “I have more publications than that guy! How dare he reject my paper!” I used the male pronoun on purpose there. Why would you want to be a part of that? I don’t want to be a part of it pretty often! Even if you love science, there are a lot of ways you can make a difference outside of academic science and be respected and paid. If you’re into biology, you could get a master’s degree and work in wildlife biology, either with government or with the Nature Conservancy and you would make a living, and see the fruits of your labor, and you would only have to take part in this pissing match if you wanted to.
Could this explain the leaking pipeline? A (coincidentally female) colleague of mine remarked that many graduate students get into the “Concorde fallacy”: by the third or fourth year of graduate school, if a student has changed his or her mind about being in academic science, then he or she would be in a situation of having already spent a huge amount of time and emotional energy into getting that octagonal hat. By then he or she might feel like “I better get my Ph.D. or all of this will be wasted time.” I knew one person who (luckily) changed her mind after only a year-and-a-half and left with a master’s degree. Lucky her; she wouldn’t have made that decision so easily (and I’m sure it was not easy) if she had been in her fourth year.
This factor might explain a lot of choices that lead to the leaking pipeline. I’ve heard from plenty of people whose sister, daughter or friend made this choice. I even heard from one first hand: I was out birding with a couple of women who had both described themselves to me as housewives. Their kids were already in college, so I tried to learn more about them. The one in the passenger seat had a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Stanford.
The question is then: why have I never heard of the person in question being male? I have met one stay-at-home dad who has a Ph.D. in physics, and he’s the only one ever. Why is the subject of that story almost always a woman? My favorite reasons for this are societal, and you can find plenty of hypotheses from your favorite feminist writer. I feel obliged as a man to mention that it’s pretty rough being the only dad at the playground with the kids — take a day off of work, and take your toddlers to the park just to experience this — it’s weird! How do you think I met that guy with a Ph.D. in physics? Beyond that, as much as women are expected to choose leaving work to take care of kids, men are often discouraged from doing so in very covert, but highly coercive ways. All it takes is a stern look from the HR manager and a societally-conditioned man starts thinking “Oh crap, how am I going to support my wife and kids? Sh*t!” I’d like to see the statistics on paychecks of men who choose to work part time, or take time off to take care of their kids. My gut tells me the comparison would reveal the familiar $0.78 often quoted when comparing women’s paychecks to men’s.
They shouldn’t go in the first place
The last hypothesis, that I will discuss at great length, is that men and women go to graduate school for the wrong reasons. I have never heard anyone discuss this possibility (I’ll discuss why in a minute). But why would women disproportionately go for the wrong reasons? There are two reasons: one is a demographic effect. Women exit the academy as their priorities change. Most people go to graduate school between the ages of 25 and 35, right when the ol’ clock ticks in. Add in the societal conditioning mentioned above and you have more women leaving than men.
People go to graduate school for the wrong reasons
Make no mistake: I’m not saying that women shouldn’t go to graduate school. I’m saying that most people who go to graduate school — men and women — shouldn’t go in the first place. There are plenty of reasons not to go, but chief among them would be that you know going in that you don’t want a career in academic science. “Who would go to graduate school that doesn’t want a career in academic science?” you’re saying. Someone who doesn’t understand what a Ph.D. is for. Someone, for instance, who thinks that a Ph.D. is just a level of education that someone can attain because they want to be very well educated. I have met these people.
I spoke to one woman who said that she just wanted to be really smart, and the best way she knew to accomplish that was to get a Ph.D. She chose a topic and pursued a Ph.D. and now works part-time as an environmental activist. This is intellectually on par with a friend-of-a-friend who decided he should be an expert in Gilligan’s Island because he was surrounded by intellectuals and felt outclassed. Have you thought of reading a book?
A woman I knew when I was in medical research wanted to get a Ph.D. in psychology because she wanted to be a “very-well educated stay-at-home mom.” Consider that she said this in an office where she was surrounded by other women who were fighting tooth-and-nail to get into graduate school because they wanted to be successful clinical psychology researchers. These other women needed Ph.D.s to get started doing what they wanted with their lives, and this woman thought it would look nice on her wall.
The only conclusion I can draw is how insensitive and irresponsible that is. If you know going in that you’re only going to be competing with people who actually need something a heck of a lot more than you do, kindly step aside. Otherwise you’re providing unneeded competition. Especially if you have really good grades, and you know that getting in will be easy for you. Don’t unnecessarily out-compete people who deserve to go to graduate school. As well as figuring out what your career goals are, you have a responsibility to consider whether you should go to graduate school.
Another reason that you shouldn’t go to graduate school is that you will be exploited. Some of us (theoreticians like me) are totally useless for anything but teaching; if you do benchwork, however, you are cheap labor. Consider that and then consider if it’s worth it. Unless you’re at the Nobel Prize level, and this is true of many people who still are, it makes the most sense to have graduate students and paid techs in the lab while you deal with administrative and service obligations. Professors have to do a lot: I’m not denigrating “publish or perish” but I’m saying you shouldn’t expect to see professors actively gathering a lot of their data. Their level of success is built on interacting with their departments, colleagues, scientific societies, or getting into industry. If you think grad school is supposed to be “the time of your life” (and I’ve met more than one such deranged person) think again.
As a parent I definitely know that another reason you might not want to go to graduate school is that your priorities may radically changed when you start a family. Marriage is enough to change a lot of people’s minds about how they spend their time. Kids are an unstoppable force. Having your own kids goes way beyond “Look at the baby!” When you have kids — and this is a good thing — you realize that you don’t need a Ph.D. to be respected, successful and have a fulfilling life. If your paper gets rejected, your kids will still love you. If you leave with a Master’s degree, your kids will still think you’re a really cool scientist. If you go to work at a software company, or take up a customer support job in the pharmaceutical industry, your kids will still be proud of you. Kids can convince the most stalwart, dedicated scientists that the academy is a waste of time without saying anything out loud.
Good for families, bad for the academy. Again, not having enough women in faculty positions is wrong. However, if you are searching for causes, you need to look beyond the “power structure” of white males constantly coercing females into leaving, and paying them less when they stay. There are plenty of reasons for the leaking pipeline that are not amenable to Marxist analysis.
If you’re a man or a woman you need to think about all the factors that go into scientific training. You also need to enter graduate school with the right priorities. Don’t go if you just want to be really smart. That’s not fair to people who need a Ph.D. to make a living. Don’t think it’s going to be fun, and don’t make “fun” your primary motivation: graduate school is not an extension of college. Don’t go right after college: being older and more mature (in particular over 26) is a huge asset that most people underestimate. When you’re older you’ve not only spent more time learning your field, but you’ve spent more time learning how to be a successful person. You will know how to handle conflict, how not to let people push you around. And you will know when science should not be your highest priority. Just on the basis of data, by that age you will probably have the right mate to help you survive graduate school. Plenty of people I know have entered grad school under 26, but I’m sure as hell glad I waited.
Most of all don’t go if your parents have bullied you into it. You have to consider your whole life, and how it will affect your other plans. Talk to as many current and former students as you can; make sure you get a variety of perspectives. If you are only hearing that grad school is going to be fun, you’re not talking to enough people. You need to hear some horror stories; I’ve left quite a few out from this essay.