Is There Life After Graduate School?

May 05, 2000

Ah yes, graduate school. The ivory tower, symbolized by bell towers and phallic-shaped buildings on college campuses all across America. Despite years of stultifying laboratory research and endless grading of papers, graduate school does insulate you from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune of the "real world."

Don't know what to do tonight? There's a party on campus, or a movie, or a concert, or some athletics competition. Just want a few drinks at the pub? Plenty of bars around the college will take you in, and the less-savory crowd usually stays away. On campus, the latest parking-ticket scandals or the provost's new alcohol policy seem far more immediate than whether Clinton had relations with That Woman in the White House.

I've been in the real world for a few months now. I took a few months off after finishing my thesis to unknot the muscles in my back and get myself reacquainted with sunlight. Then I started the arduous task known as a job search, updating my résumé, sending out cover letters, and going on interviews.

Despite my "impressive qualifications," many companies rejected me because I didn't have any work experience. In fact, a couple of managers advised me to seek out an entry-level job to gain the necessary experience and work my way up through the ranks. Seeing as I'd been working my way up through six years of graduate school in engineering, I thanked them kindly and headed out the door for another job.

Luckily for me, I live in the Internet Age. Many of my friends work for start-ups, and it seems that every week brings a new Web site with new ideas and a new business plan. I now work for a young, growing company, doing mathematical modeling and database analysis. Instead of my writing being shelved in the back of a university library and dusted off once a decade or so by a scholar for his arcane research, my reports are eagerly awaited by other managers.

I can't tell you how much it means that my contribution is valued. I have intelligent co-workers to bounce ideas off, to learn down-and-dirty programming tricks from, to teach a new way of approaching a problem. This is a community that's entirely different from an academic one in which people are more isolated by vocabulary and dogma.

And it's strange that after all my time spent canvassing corporate Web pages, posting my résumé on different sites, and working with the university career center, I found a job on the recommendation of a friend. The old boys' network is alive and well.

The really perverse thing is that for working long hours, for taking on challenging problems and solving them, for completing projects -- they pay me. Real money. Lots of it. (At least, it seems like a lot until the rent and the student loans come due.)

Back in January, in one last gasp of grad-student enthusiasm, I revised two parts of my thesis into stand-alone articles for publication, and hopefully sent them off to two journals. One responded a few days ago, saying that although the editors appreciated the opportunity to review the paper, they must regretfully decline to publish it. One referee said that my paper was "without scholarly merit" and "made only a meager contribution to the field."

It's a downer to have your work slammed in this manner. Once it would have been devastating. Now I can see that while they had some valid criticisms, this referee probably got up on the wrong side of bed that morning. My thesis work was good enough to earn a Ph.D. and praise from several other professors, so it can't be all bad, can it?

The point is, there are more important things in my life now than gaining the approval of anonymous referees. I still may take some time to tighten up the article, revise a few sections, and submit it to another journal, but it's not as critical as it used to be. I still keep my hand in the academic world a little, by doing some consulting for a professor in Los Angeles.

Perhaps one day I'll return to academe and the ivory tower. The intellectual atmosphere can be inspiring, the isolation restful, and the languid, long-term approach to research can produce undreamed-of results. But for now I'll put the academic ambitions aside and throw myself into the dot-com mania.

At first, I had a few qualms about "selling my soul to the corporation." I'm giving up some freedom and independence, but in return I get a real salary and a strong feeling of working on a team. After the solitude of graduate research, that's a powerful tonic.

Time to catch the wave, and surf the Net. I'm living on Internet Time now.

Joel Singer earned his Ph.D. at a large research university in the West. He is now working at an Internet software company in Silicon Valley.