RR: The letter of a PhD student that decided to quit the thesis disappointed with the world of research

I found very interesting to read the list of reasons given by a PhD Student in his/her resignation letter (after four years working towards getting a PhD at EPFL).

The full letter can be read here. Though I don’t agree with all the points s/he makes, I do agree with a few of them. In fact, I dare to say they are well-known, my surprise is that s/he was able to realize this is how academia works so early. It took me quite a few more years to reach the same level of “enlightenment” (and start this “research rants” blog). This doesn’t mean that Academia completely sucks, IMHO the problem is that students enter the PhD with too high expecations so it’s also our task as advisors to make them understand that researchers don’t live in an ideal world but they are part of the real world which basically means that we, as any other “company”, need money to operate (and to get money you need to justify the quality of your work which end up producing some of the problems the student mentions in the letter).

Like it or not this is how life (including research) works. I just wish the best of luck to this student but I hope s/he doesn’t switch to a private company expecting a better working environment. Believe me I’ve been there and the problems (with co-workers, with “competitors”,…) are similar but the level of nastiness tends to be higher.

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5 thoughts on “RR: The letter of a PhD student that decided to quit the thesis disappointed with the world of research

  1. I’m not really sure that the nastiness in business is higher: I’ve never seen someone land in the looney bin from business, but I have seen it being done from academia. Also, business tends to be relatively honest/transparent about the existence and amount of subterfuge while academia’s tends to engross itself in its propaganda (as the letter highlights).

    1. I´d say that people working on a company are much more used to nastiness since as you say they have been exposed to it from the very first day while in research it takes some time to realize that you´re not there just to make the world a better place. For the same reason, researchers switching to a private company will be much worse at playing the survival game at the beginning and will need to catch up fast with their more skilled company coworkers

  2. > the problem is that students enter the PhD with too high expecations

    It is entirely the fault of advisers for selling these expectations. Most PhD students are the brightest students in their respective undergrad courses. The only illusion that can sell them on the idea and keep them going, while being overworked and being grossly underpaid compared to their less equipped and trained peers in industry, is the illusion that there is something much superior at the end. Being told at the end of the process that its no different (if not, worse), is a betrayal of trust that students place in their mentors. But take the illusion of making a big difference away and no sane student will enter doctoral training.

    Academia talks about being fair and ethical. It isn’t. The only way they can reconcile this lie, if the truth is that the academic life should not be expected to be much better than the industry, is by paying students roughly the same as they would have earned in the industry. If they are not attending lectures, but instead working on advisor’s projects, pay them as employees. But academia won’t. Just like the businessman who won’t pay his employees any more than what he can get away with, neither will academia. The purported liberal ideals of academia are just lies.

    1. Well, I won’t deny this is probably true in many cases but I can assure mine had a very realistic view of what they could expect from the PhD, as you could guess from somebody that takes the time to publicly complaint about (some aspects of ) the world of academia🙂

      Another important point to me is that researchers should not forget that the working environment in private companies is not better (or they will be disappointed again). This may depend a lot on the country but in my experience, companies also promise a lot so that you accept a low starting salary. For instance, in Spain the salary of a junior programmer (and that´s basically the only kind of position you´d be offered after getting your CS degree) is not much higher than the salary of a PhD Student.

    2. As a Phd student, yes I was grossly underpaid… But it was my own doing. I didn’t compete for the scholarships very aggressively and made due with my meagre stipend. Many scholarship students do almost as well as I do now as an assistant professor at a small teaching university–at least in the scientific discipline I chose to pursue. There have been instances of falsified data, retractions of journal articles, self-pliagerism, to name a few, in recent years. This is a symptom of the pressure to perform, which in turn comes about from the need for capital, and all this pressure is dumped on the laps of the student slave labour; however, grossly underpaid students are buried in their work and simply missing out on plentiful funding opportunities. (Yet another factor propagating the current academic ethos)

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