Thursday, January 26, 2006

Some scattered thoughts on interviews, Jorge Cham, computer science, and grad student hardship

So, I'm back from my first academic interview. Oddly enough, I had a great time. People tell me that this level of enjoyment fades after you've been to a dozen. Fortunately or unfortunately, I probably won't have that problem, because I probably won't have a dozen in-person interviews. I will also say that having a nice industry job offer in your back pocket makes these things much less stressful.

Which is all in the way of remarking that I saw Jorge Cham speak, not long ago, as part of his lecture tour on the travails of being a fledgling academic.

Jorge Cham --- or at least the lecture persona known as Jorge Cham --- is a brilliantly funny, smart, and compassionate guy, and I don't doubt that his strip and lecture tour are doing worlds of good for struggling grad students all over the country.

On the other hand, as a computer science grad student, I couldn't help but think: could it be possible that a grad student at Stanford computer science really had it that bad? In particular, Jorge's statements about the economic insecurity of grad students struck me as strange. Computer science is one of the few branches of academia for which the implicit bargain --- sacrifice now, and you'll get a good job later --- still holds. Now, that job may not be an academic job, but if you go to a good grad school in computer science and cannot land an academic job of some sort, then chances are that you weren't cut out for academia anyway.

Jorge --- like, for that matter, Cecilia and Nameless and Mike Slackenerny --- could get a very well-paying job in industry, at almost any time of his choosing, simply by walking away from the academic game. And this economic reality has consequences throughout the grad student experience --- at "good" schools (which certainly includes Stanford), we get paid a livable wage, and we're largely given the infrastructure we need to be productive, and we get decent support in our job search. Because we can walk away.

I understand that Jorge's speaking, in some sense, for all grad students, not just computer scientists. And I also understand that grad school poses emotional challenges that all the economic security in the world wouldn't fix. However, if I were in Jorge's place, I'd have confessed, in my lectures, that my deal was much sweeter than the average grad student's. I mean, I'd be slightly uneasy, coming from my current situation, laying claim to the full measure of grad student hardship.


  1. I think it's still possible to suffer economic insecurity as a grad computer scientist. Stipends aren't particularly generous, so there's the immediate here-and-now worries, especially with student loans.

    Sure, there is the hope of a well-paying job at the end of it, but you're perhaps too optimistic that this awaits everyone. If you're suffering from fear that you won't complete, then you're also afraid that you'll fail to get a job, and so on... all these fears tend to reinforce each other in an illogical way.

    Besides, I've never really thought of the PhD grads as being in CS -- for some reason I imagined them as studying some generic engineering subject.

  2. In the US, at least, student loan repayments can be deferred until you finish grad school. And only an extraordinary (in a bad way) student could get accepted to a decent CS grad school, while being unable to get a job at least as good as a fresh college graduate with a B.A. in CS.

    Granted, such a job may seem like a step down from the jobs that many of one's peers in grad school get, but it still qualifies as a good job.

    And, granted, I did build a major caveat into the above statement: if you fail to get accepted at a "decent" CS grad school, then you may have lots more problems finding employment. Frankly, in such cases, I'd say that the person probably should not have enrolled in a Ph.D. program in CS in the first place. Note, however, that by "decent" I include pretty large set of schools --- you have to go really far down the rankings to get to a school where I'd consider the average student's chances of getting a job worse than the average CS B.A.

    The subjects of Jorge's strip could be random engineering students. However, first of all, the fate of engineering grad students is not that much worse than that of CS grad students. Second, in Jorge's talk, as opposed to his strip, he was at least partly speaking about the experiences of himself and peers in his program, which is certainly CS-specific. Third, Cecilia is clearly a computer architect. ;)

  3. Hiyas. Jorge Cham actually was in a Mechanical Engineering program (according to the PhD website's about page,, and there are enough clues in the comics over the years to lead me to think that the characters are not CS students.

    Anyway, I'm not refuting any of the points in your post, I'm a CS grad student and often feel guilty when other grads have to suffer unliveably low wages...

  4. Thank you for the encouragement, or maybe not. I was terrified to apply to the first-rate graduate school in town, because it cost money. I am taking a course at the tuition of the second-rate graduate school over at the first-rate graduate school, and notice that the ability to actually do math makes me competitive with the others. (Of course this course is crosslisted with biology)