On Monday night, I attended the stand-up routine and book reading of Adam Ruben, author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School (excerpt). Ruben was able to tap into the universal experiences of graduate students to garner laughs from an audience all too familiar with being “exhausted, overworked, underappreciated, and buried in shit.”
Self-titled “recovering graduate student” Adam Ruben received his Ph.D. in molecular biology from Johns Hopkins University after spending seven years in the program. He left academia to pursue comedy in such ventures as the Food Detective, The National Lampoon, NPR, and opening for Dane Cook; he also works as a microbiologist at a start-up biotechnology company.
Ruben read three sections from the book, which has been acclaimed by the graduate students who have been able to both afford it and have time to read it. (Finding a publisher is difficult when your target market has no money or time.) On the topic of grad school, Ruben said “I went to grad school in the sciences because, like many of you, I was lied to.”
When discussing advisors, he highlighted that most issues come from the fact that scientists are not good communicators. Some advisors are too hands on, some are too hands off; both are ultimately ineffective. He told the story of a meeting in graduate school where faculty met with the entire 6th year class, not a single member of which had graduated yet. The graduate students were wondering why they hadn’t graduated. The faculty members were wondering why the students were still there. The faculty members were waiting for the students to take initiative. The students were waiting for the faculty members to give them direction. This discussion took six years to happen. When an audience member asked Ruben for advice on graduate school, he replied, “take initiative that [your advisors] don’t expect.”
Another big issue that most audience members had not faced yet was figuring out their post-graduate lives. The hardest part was not knowing definitively when they would graduate and not being able to plan their lives accordingly. Many found maintaining their relationships and the “two-body” problem to be a much bigger issue than if graduation dates were immutable.
The biggest surprise for me is that Ruben said that he didn’t hate grad school. He didn’t even dislike it. Sure, he had regrets, like he could have done some things faster and taken more initiative, but he said “we secretly kind of like this.” All grad students that don’t quit somewhere secretly like sighing and complaining about the fifteen-hour days, grading, and instrumentation failures. He just likes to complain about it more vocally and in a more humorous way than others.