The Controversy Over Graduate Student Life: What Do YOU Think?

Dear Astrobites readers,

Below is a survey and a short statement pertaining to a letter which has lead to fervent discussion amongst much of the astronomy community over the past week.  The letter was sent to the graduate students at “a well known astronomy department” several weeks ago and was then anonymously posted to tumblr earlier this week.  Presented as an assessment of the progress of the graduate students from several faculty members, the letter touched on several aspects of the graduate experience, in particular what the writer considered to be reasonable expectations for students during their time of study.  The contents of the e-mail have caused significant controversy, as have several very strong comments made in response.  Although this post was shown to all of the astrobites authors before publication, I take full responsibility for its contents.


As you all know, Astrobites is written by astronomy graduate students at a wide range of institutions.  As such, we take this letter and the subsequent reaction on the internet very seriously, and many of us have spent time personally reflecting on the broader issues raised (e.g. see Elizabeth’s recent post).  Although the debate has become heated at times, we do believe that the overarching discussions about academic and graduate student life which have stemmed from this letter are healthy – and it is a testament to the field of astronomy that they have begun.  We also believe that with all of you — representing a wide range of astronomy enthusiasts — as our audience we have a unique opportunity to take the “pulse” of the broader astronomy community on this issue.  We are particularity interested to see whether opinions vary throughout different academic generations.  As such, we have compiled a short survey at the link below which we encourage you all to complete.  We would find your feedback extremely valuable and will share some of the results as well as a few more of our widely ranging personal opinions in a future post.

You can access the survey here.

Finally, there is something we would like to address to our prospective graduate student readers.  One of the main goals of Astrobites is to expose interested undergraduates to both the academic literature and to the graduate student experience.  As such, we cannot completely ignore the fact that both this letter and the reactions published on the internet have the potential to influence some students’ decisions pertaining to whether or not to attend graduate school, and where to go.  We therefore emphasize that any potential graduate student should consult a wide range of sources when making those life decisions. Don’t base your decisions on hearsay and don’t assume that the opinion of one is necessarily the opinion of all.  Instead, get first hand information: e-mail graduate students, e-mail faculty, e-mail the Astrobites authors, visit departments, and ultimately make your own call about the atmosphere in academia, or in a given department, and whether it is right for you.


About Maria Drout

I am currently a Hubble, Carnegie-Dunlap Fellow at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, CA and an associate of the Dunlap Institute in Toronto, ON. I recently received my PhD from the Harvard University Department of Astronomy, and was previously based both at the University of Cambridge (M.A.St.) and the University of Iowa (B.S.). My research focuses on understanding the evolution and death of massive stars, and the origin of unusual astronomical transients.

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  1. I was never a graduate student. I just got a BS degree and went to work. However, I have three thoughts:

    1. Graduate students should know what they are signing up for before they go into the program. Certainly the letter that was sent came from a person who thinks they know what the graduate students signed up for and was not getting it out of some of the students they had. So, if you sign up to be a graduate student, do the work as expected.

    2. I teach astronomy at the community college level. I notice that there are a class of students that want to get the grade without doing the work. Some have made rather rude remarks when they get bad grades, even though I show them clearly how they did not do the required work. All the required work is clearly layed out in the ‘contract’ (syllabus) at the start of the term. So, I could see where maybe some non-energetic students find their way into the graduate program.

    3. Probably most current graduate students are already doing a great job and putting in the time expected, and hopefully getting results. At least we see it from the ones that are posting to astrobytes. These students should take no umbrage with the article and should just move forward on their research program and their careers.

    So, is the letter a result of a bad ‘advisor’ in the graduate system, or the result of non-performing students? I don’t think it is our role to judge either way, but to allow room for both possiblilities and encourge the administration to make the proper improvements in either the advisor or the students.

    • Wow, that is quite impressive that you with no experience as a grad student can assume that the grads aren’t doing the work. Grad students are by no means community college students, and no one gives a [****] about grades, so there really is no analog there. Students who get into top schools, such as the department who sent this letter, have almost all done research as undergrads, and know what doing research is.

      Things that are commonplace but should not be expected of grad students:

      1. Taking calls from your advisor at all hours of the week/weekend to talk about non-urgent science matters
      2. IMs from your grad advisor for the same reason/the expectation to be online 24/7 and answer emails at all times
      3. Needing to experience prolonged periods of sleep deprivation in order to complete work (occasional deadlines ok)– 100 hours/week = research and nothing else the entire week, every week, with only time to eat and sleep 8 hours/night.
      4. Micromanaging a grad student’s time (“I’m not going to let you teach even if you want to work at a liberal arts school/community college because then you can’t do as much research”)

      Standards vary quite a bit from advisor to advisor, and I don’t think the person who wrote this letter was speaking for advisors as a whole. Sometimes there is an issue with a lack of mobility between research advisors when such unreasonable expectations are levied, or a lack of way to express such problems without fearing retribution.

  2. We discussed this in our astro department with all students staff present. The overwhelming response from the profs and other staff was that our department would be resisting this mentality at all costs. With few exceptions, the staff told us that efficient students should be working 50-60 hours per week AT A MAXIMUM. They even went so far as to say that if we needed to work 80-100 hours p/w to get a PhD then we probably didn’t have what it takes to be an astronomer, and that if we chose to work 100 hours per week we needed to get a life!

    From my own experience, I’ve seen that people that work big hours rarely seem to be more prolific in publishing papers than people who work 10-12 hour days, 5 days per week.



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