liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
[personal profile] liv
Please consider not doing a PhD.

You're in your final year of university. You're doing really well, you're getting stunningly good marks and lots of praise from your tutors. You've probably never been so happy in your life, you're using your incredible brain to think about really interesting, really hard problems. And you're starting to be aware of the frontiers of knowledge in your field, the stuff that isn't in textbooks yet, the stuff that people are right now actively trying to find out. Perhaps you did a summer project or a long finals project where you got a taste of actually doing some original research yourself, and it was mindblowingly awesome.

What could possibly be better than spending the rest of your life doing this kind of thing, and hopefully even getting paid for it? Probably everybody around you is encouraging you to go for a PhD, because after all that's what brilliant students do. And universities look good when their best students go on to PhDs after graduating. The academics you most look up to are telling you that you, yes, you, could be like them one day. If you're at an elite university, you're perhaps experiencing the negative side to this, whispers and gossips and subliminal messages that anything other than a PhD is, well, y'know, a bit second-rate really.

Look, I am in fact a career academic. I know exactly what's attractive about it, I've made considerable financial and personal sacrifices to get myself to a position where I can work in a university environment and spend my time doing groundbreaking research. And yet. The gateway into this life is a PhD, and the PhD system is deeply, deeply fucked up when it isn't actively abusive. Doing a PhD will break you. It's pretty much designed to break you. Yes, even you, you who are brilliant (that almost goes without saying; it's because you're brilliant that you're contemplating doing a PhD in the first place). You who are resilient and have survived several kinds of shit that life has thrown at you just to get to the point where you're about to graduate with a brilliant degree. You who have the unconditional support of your family and friends and partners. If you have every admirable personal quality you can think of, if you have every advantage in life, still, getting through a PhD will grind you down, will come terrifyingly close to killing your soul and might well succeed. It will do horrible things to your mental and physical health and test to breaking point every significant relationship in your life.

I'm writing this because it's PhD applications season, and because I've just come back from a conference that was supposed to be about networking for early career researchers and basically turned into a group therapy session for trauma survivors. And this is the winners of the system, those of us who actually graduated from our PhDs and found jobs in academia, and to a greater or lesser extent we've all survived by becoming the monster that tried to devour us. One of the workshop leaders "joked" about how he spent most of his PhD reading self-help books about how to recover from a nervous breakdown instead of academic texts, and pretty much everybody nodded in recognition. This sounds hopelessly exaggerated, I know. But seriously, the conference was run by an anthropologist who does ethnography of scientific research, and her work leans on psychological / anthropological models of collective trauma.

The thing about a PhD is that it's a criminally stupid way for highly intelligent people to train other highly intelligent people. The basic plan is that you attach the student to a supervisor and give them a number of years to "make an original contribution to the field". Countries other than the UK sometimes include a bit more actual educational structure than that, but also usually expect PhDs to take longer, and still include a number of years where the only goal is "produce a thesis". And since I did my PhD at least some progressive universities have started to include some figments of actual skills training as part of the programme, but it's never more than minimal.

So one of the ways that a PhD breaks people is that it's a huge task, where the final aim is extremely vague and there are often few meaningful intermediate goals. Brilliant student, you're probably self-motivated and hard-working. Still, it's pretty hard to stay motivated when you're not getting any kind of feedback or sense of achievement, when you have no real deadlines on a timescale you can usefully think about. It's research, so at some point it will get bogged down and you'll spend many months or even years pursuing a dead end. Short-term student projects are carefully designed to give at least some kind of results in the few weeks available; actual research isn't that predictable, which is good because the whole point of research is to investigate an unexplored area, but also pretty gruelling if you're used to getting good results when you put in hard work. It's not like working hard to complete an essay or project and being rewarded with good marks. You work hard, really really hard, and you often get no reward at all, you just realize you've been wasting your time.

If you get through all this and actually manage to discover something new, you have to write a thesis about it. That means spending several months where all you do is sit at your computer thinking and writing about an extremely narrow specialist area, the area in which you are almost the world expert and which you've been thinking about constantly for the last several years. In some ways everything depends on this task (ie it determines whether you actually come out with your PhD and the prospect of making an academic career); in other ways it's a massive amount of effort for essentially no return. If you're really lucky, your thesis might be interesting to a few dozen fellow-specialists. For most people, nobody will ever read it except your supervisor and examiners. If you have found anything that's interesting to a broader group than that, you'll have published it already as a journal article or book or conference proceedings or whatever is the accepted method in your field. Writing up will make you hate your subject, no matter how much you love it going in.

The combination of doing research, which is almost by definition mostly unproductive, and writing up is really soul-destroying. It's isolating, it's unrewarding, it basically makes people depressed and exhausted even if they started out with excellent health and confidence and so on. If you're at all prone to depressive illness or low self-esteem in the first place, it's hard to imagine anything more calculated to exacerbate those symptoms. The whole system of academia is set up based on extremely able people looking for every possible flaw in the work of other extremely able people; this hopefully means that only really rigorous research becomes accepted and relied on, but psychologically it means that no matter how good you are you will get a whole lot more criticism than praise pretty much all the time.

I should also note that if you're expecting to work 40-hour weeks, you'd better be registered as a part-time student, and if you don't have the health or stamina or external circumstances to manage that, well, it's going to be extremely hard to get through the system at all. PhD studies are so ridiculously open-ended, and so ridiculously competitive, that there's a ratchet which leads to success depending on being willing and able to put in as many hours as humanly possible (and quite often people attempt to do more than that and end up destroying their health and lives). Academia does have the advantage that hours are often a lot more flexible than in the business world; it's quite often possible and even expected to work at times that suit you, your metabolism, your external commitments etc rather than having to be present at a physical place of business 9-5 Monday to Friday. But the sheer volume of work is, well, not just enormous but essentially unlimited. The thing about not having any specific goals is that you can never really say that you've "done" a task, so you keep going.

In the best case scenario, you get a stipend that (by virtue of being tax-exempt) is just about enough to live on for precisely three years. Pretty much all PhDs take more than three years to actually complete enough research and then write it up, even assuming you will definitely never need to take a break for medical or family reasons. So at some point, even "fully funded" students have to do this incredibly tough intellectual work while money is at best uncertain and in many cases there just isn't any. There's been controversy on Twitter recently about universities asking prospective students who aren't fully funded to produce evidence that they can lay hands on enough money for three years' living costs and fees, which of course is dreadful, financial status shouldn't be a barrier to academia. But in practice, if you don't have external resources to draw on, say parents or a partner who can support you, significant savings, skills you can use to earn a serious hourly rate for sporadic freelance work, it is very difficult to finish a PhD with enough money to cover food, shelter and other necessities. And, well, my hypothetical audience here is a brilliant student who's just finishing their undergrad degree, so likely already has fairly substantial student debt, and probably doesn't have the sort of resources I'm talking about.

So it's very likely that by the time you get those letters after your name, you'll be financially worse off than you are now. If you're lucky, only a little bit worse off, if you're unlucky, you (or your loved ones) will have spent serious money. And if the money doesn't exist, well, at some point you might have to choose between finishing your PhD and having enough to cover rent and food. There's also opportunity costs: you're brilliant, right, which probably means you have at least a better-than-average chance of getting an actual graduate job, potentially earning say £75K in three years. Of course, you're not thinking about a PhD because you want to get rich, you're motivated by the joy of discovery. But there's a difference between not getting rich and actually impoverishing yourself. And finance is one of the biggest reasons why people in fact don't complete PhD studies.

Where it crosses over from being just miserable and soul-destroying into actually being oppressive or abusive is in the relationship between supervisor and student. A supervisor has very nearly unlimited power over their student's entire life. Even a supervisor with good intentions has reached where they are in life by being good at their subject, not particularly by being good at training future academics. And all supervisors are themselves the product of this deeply dysfunctional training system.

The best thing about academia is the same as the worst thing about academia: once you get to a certain level, you have almost total freedom to pursue what you find most interesting. This is one of the big reasons why people put up with the low pay and the limitless hours and the constant scrabble for funding and all the other awfulness. But the fact is that few academics are going to be passionately interested in things like, oh, equality and diversity policies or even health and safety sometimes. Lots of academics are basically quite well-meaning, but never get round to putting in the time to make sure their practice isn't oppressive. In the sciences particularly, they may have absolutely no training or education about social justice issues.

Some of course are actively sexist, racist, homophobic, you name it. Senior academics come closer to being genuinely irreplaceable than you see in most normal jobs; only that particular person has expertise in their specific area, and only that particular person has that particular fellowship which brings money into the university. They're nearly untouchable by HR, and anyway it's culturally seen as part of the deal, the egg-heads come to work for peanuts in the public sector precisely because they don't have to waste their time with petty little bureaucratic details.

Now obviously the law's the law; students can of course bring complaints against their supervisors if they are being mistreated or discriminated against. Obviously this recourse is extremely costly in any job whatsoever, but in many ways it's worse for PhD students. If you don't get a PhD you very likely can't work in academia at all, and supervisors have vast amounts of power to prevent their students from completing their PhDs if they are crossed. Plus, with the multi-year, open-ended task that is a PhD, if you leave the course, no matter how bad conditions get, you end up with nothing to show for your years of hard work.

I know some specific individuals to whom this might apply, but for several reasons I want to make this point in a more general way. First of all I don't want anyone to feel personally targeted by this; this post did in fact start off as a comment to a post about the applications process, but then I decided I didn't have the right to say this kind of thing directly to someone, and if I did it would do more harm than good. And secondly, I want to get this out there, as an account by someone who knows the system from the inside. I want to talk about this stuff in the open, to reduce the extent you have to be a member of the secret club of people with personal connections in academia to know all this.

Brilliant student: I went into my PhD with every advantage you could think of, financial and emotional support from my parents, about as mentally stable as anyone I know, very high self-confidence, healthy and able-bodied, strong support network, the works. And yes, I'm female but I have been socialized in ways that feminists regard as male: I pretty much expect to be taken seriously in all situations and I've always been encouraged in my ambitions and had plenty of role-models and have never had to use up my energy fighting sexist microaggressions, much less overt sexism or sexual harassment. And with all those advantages, my PhD was a soul-killing ordeal; I think only now, 7 years after graduating, I'm starting to get back to functioning as well as I did when I was a brilliant student ready to start a PhD. And honestly, my PhD experience was better than about 95% of my peers; I only had to deal with incompetence and never malice, for example. And my university and ultimate boss were willing to step in and help me fix things when my relationship with my immediate supervisor ran into difficulties.

I really don't want to come across as arguing that only people who are well-off, male-ish, white, English-speaking, straight, able-bodied and either single or with partners who are willing and able to be entirely supportive and never in the least bit dependent, should consider doing PhDs. Part of what's wrong with academia is that it already skews heavily towards people who have these sorts of advantages, so I most certainly don't want to contribute to that unfairness. You're brilliant, you are passionate about your field, goodness knows I want you to come and join me in furthering human knowledge! If you would like any advice from me in terms of playing the system, proofreading your applications or help picking a department where your PhD will be somewhat less miserable than it might be, I will be only too delighted to help. But I also want you to make the decision with open eyes, I want you to know that the costs of doing a PhD are higher than you can probably imagine right now.

I expect you, brilliant student, won't really be deterred by this. Likely you'll believe it will be different for you or it'll be worth it or you just plain can't imagine doing anything else. In fact, if I seriously thought this information would put you off, I probably wouldn't publish it. But when you plumb the depths of despair, when the whole system is conspiring to kill everything that makes you brilliant in the first place, I want you to remember this post and know that it's not just you, this is a very common, almost a universal, experience of what putting yourself through a PhD is like. And then just maybe you will one day be in a position to do something to make the system incrementally less awful.
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Date: 2013-01-22 03:18 pm (UTC)
oursin: Drawing of hedgehog in a cave, writing in a book with a quill pen (Writing hedgehog)
From: [personal profile] oursin
I'm honestly not sure this is the case for everyone, but can I just sing the praises of doing something entirely different and then going back in maturer years to do a PhD? I know I was extremely fortunate in that I was doing it part-time but with sympathetic managers who negotiated study-leave for me, and that my supervisor's v hands-off attitude suited me. Because I knew what I wanted to research and had a pretty good idea of how to do it. But even so, I think there are distinct advantages to doing it when you're over all the other early-adulthood crises.

Also, I did not want to have a conventional academic career. This may, of course, be key to finding one's PhD fun rather than an ordeal. Along with 'researching topic one picked oneself rather than was allocated by supervisor'.

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Mature years

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PhD made me realize how fucking stupid I am

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Date: 2013-01-22 03:21 pm (UTC)
elf: Red & blue faces (Face Off)
From: [personal profile] elf

I occasionally give almost the same speech about traditional witchcraft. "Yes yes yes, you are brilliant and inspired and ready to take on a life of service to the Great Goddess... GO AWAY! Find some other way to do it! What's on the other side of the rabbit hole is NOT what you're seeing now, and the rabbit hole itself has not only many bizarre wonders but things that will HURT YOU, and NOBODY WILL CARE. And if you get through it, you will come out a different person, and the person you are now would *hate* that person, and you will be *ashamed* the person you were then. Who is/was brilliant and inspired and artistic etc."

... and then I sit back and watch the wannabe acolytes line up to charge in, because now I've made it sound dangerous and mysterious and a challenge and bygods they are UP for a challenge.

I don't know how PhD programs work. I know that, in initiatory witchcraft, the more we can dissuade from starting, the fewer we have to watch get broken and discouraged along the way.

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Date: 2013-01-22 03:36 pm (UTC)
kaberett: Trans symbol with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
Thank you for writing this (& especially for the extent to which it was for me): of course I am promptly thinking of all the reasons It Will Be Different For Me (past experience weathering trauma, having taken a year out, having had one Master's project go dreadfully, yadda yadda), and on the other hand it's very reassuring to see a whole bunch of issues raised that I can, as far as possible, take into deciding where to study.

Of course, I've also got the... interesting... factor of probably being largely unemployable for a standard 9-5, or at least one doing varied enough stuff that it doesn't make me miserable.

So: I don't know, but thank you, & while if I get offers I intend to take them up, at least I am going in prepared. <3

(& more on the saga of my application shortly: I've got a mental list of pluses and minuses that I should really write _down_ somewhere...)

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Date: 2013-01-22 03:43 pm (UTC)
emperor: (Default)
From: [personal profile] emperor
I want to agree with much of this, but I think you missed a key point:

You can do all this, get some interesting results, write a thesis, talk it through with your supervisor(s), submit it when everyone thinks it's ready, and then your examiners can go "haha no", and there's roughly fuck-all you can do about it. Because there is not standard of what a PhD thesis should look like, it's perfectly possible for the examiners and your supervisor to disagree as to whether your thesis is worth a PhD or not. And if you thought writing it the first time round was soul-destroying, wait until you have to do it all again, with another viva to get through, knowing that even then you might not have anything to show for all your work.

Yes, I am bitter, and yes this is probably sour grapes, and yes I did get a PhD at the end. But still, you can find plenty of people who everyone expected to sail through whose thesis fell foul of examiners, and also plenty of people whose viva consisted of a bit of pedantry about punctuation and minor corrections.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-01-22 03:46 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I completed a PhD five years ago, and am now a university careers adviser. Whilst I agree with pretty much all of your criticisms of the way the system works, my PhD didn't break me. I found a lot of it very boring and stressful, but I'm breakdown-free!

I don't say that to boast, but more because I think the idea of the PhD as stressful-to-breakdown-point is part of the attraction to a lot of people. It probably was to me: there was a bit of glamour in the idea. What would have put me off more was understanding that the stress elements were much more to do with having to organise my own time and self-motivate, which is not productive stress for me, unlike the really exciting and dynamic busy-ness of my taught MA. Also that it was not nearly as intellectually challenging as my MA. When I look back on my PhD, I had some fantastic times, but I just spent so damned much of it bored! I do think I'd have found learning to teach or undertaking a graduate diploma in law infinitely more intellectually challenging.

- (No Dreamwidth account, but I'm marykmac on Twitter.)

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Date: 2013-01-22 03:47 pm (UTC)
mirrorshard: (Terrella)
From: [personal profile] mirrorshard
I did two years of a nanomaterials PhD, and ended up extremely broken - that's a major contribution to why I can't work now. It was a very bad situation, with a dishonest & massively egotistical supervisor, in rural isolation, and bad health & safety practices. One co-worker committed suicide while I was there, and I left with a severe nervous breakdown and some lingering physical health effects. Every so often, I check up on the current state of the field (organic photovoltaics) and see with some satisfaction that the research angle I was looking at has been massively superseded anyway.

On the other hand, I'm not at all sure I'd be much better off if I'd managed to complete it.

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Date: 2013-01-22 04:30 pm (UTC)
emperorzombie: (Default)
From: [personal profile] emperorzombie
I think everyone should consider not doing a PhD, and definitely consider not doing one straight out of undergrad (go off, do some hopefully relevant work, gain skills and maturity and all that), but from my experience and that of the PhD students I was close to, it doesn't seem like it's a universal experience. You raise lots of things which can go wrong, and I think it's important for potential PhD students to think very hard about it, put time into picking the right lab and the right supervisor, know what the options are if you don't get along with your supervisor or your first plan of research doesn't work out or it takes you 3.5 years and you have no money left. But I did not think about it in that much depth, and while there's a vast amount of luck involved in that I picked a good supervisor (and he picked good examiners), and I went into it with many of the advantages you list, I had a great time for almost all of the PhD, and even the final few months only got mildly stressful because I was pulling some 12-hour days to finish the thesis. Now, I know that mentally I had some advantages - I am super laid back, and I already knew that there were lots of people who were smarter and better than me and it was not likely that I would come out and get a fellowship or a lectureship or a paper in Nature straight away or even at all - but I don't think I am uniquely suited to doing a PhD, and many of the students around me with different mindsets also did OK in the end.

I don't want to take away from your many good points about PhDs, and I think there are a lot of people who go into it without a good understanding of how the system works (ie, quite badly) or the potential problems they will experience along the way, and it's good to get all the knowledge out in the open. But it is possible to go through the system and come out the other end with physical and mental health intact.

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Date: 2013-01-22 04:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think some of these are specifically problems with lab science PhDs; at least in mathematics I got the sense of wasted thought a great deal, but not the kind of heartbreaking sense of wasted labour when an experiment just didn't work and all you can think of is doing the same thing and seeing if maybe the cells will grow this time - mathematics gives much better diagnoses when it goes wrong.

I had a particularly good supervisor (he was the head of department, which is potentially completely doomsome but turned out in this case to mean that he had a very organised diary and was happy to pencil out 11am-1pm Wednesday every other week as Meets With Tom) with a pretty clear project - he had probably expected me to do something more inspiring, but I got the boring thing working to the stage that it could be applied to bigger numbers than it worked on before.

Nottingham did provide a bit of reasonably structured training - a couple of graduate lecture courses, from which all I can recall is that the Russian scheme-theory lecturer's mumbles were much louder than the sentences around them, and an attempt to do self-organised graduate seminars which was (it turns out hopelessly optimisticly) intended to get us to Wiles's proof of the modularity theorem in four years. I ran into a wall at cohomology, in much the same way that people describe running into a wall at A-level maths; so by half-way through year 2 it was clear that I wasn't going for the academic-mathematician career path.

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Date: 2013-01-22 04:37 pm (UTC)
mathcathy: number ball (Default)
From: [personal profile] mathcathy
I think that PhDs are hard, by nature. However, mine didn't break me. I didn't get it because of other things, completely unrelated things, but I wrote my thesis up within the three years, made several long term friends and definitely know people who didn't struggle with theirs emotionally at all.

There's room for warning, sure, and lots of your points ring true - but a PhD can be a rewarding experience. A hard, challenging experience, yes, but not as bad as you're making out, not in my experience.

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Date: 2013-01-22 05:03 pm (UTC)
ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
From: [personal profile] ajnabieh
I really appreciate your emphasis on the work of writing a PhD thesis. It was my favorite part of my PhD, but it is also hard in a way people aren't fully capable of understanding in advance. My experience was very good, overall--better than many of my institutional peers, and better than many other people--but the more open your eyes are, the better.

In the non-physical-sciences, one of the major things to caution students about is the fact that it's quite possible that you'll go through this ordeal, earn the degree successfully, and then not be able to get the job that you ostensibly prepared for (a university teaching appointment). It's another thing to caution people about, very clearly. Don't know if that's an issue in the sciences (I work under the assumption that 'there's always industry jobs for science phds,' but that might be untrue).

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Writing for a science PhD

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Re: Writing for a science PhD

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Date: 2013-01-22 05:09 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I agree with you: in my view a PhD is taking a topic you love and POUNDING IT INTO THE GROUND.

My husband was in Genetics back in the day, it was more cooking (with radiation and mutagens) than anything else. He is so not a cook. And he's nervous about public speaking, so his oral exams were incredibly stressful. And his professor was kindly but distant, so my husband did a lot of flailing about which experiments to do. And then said professor decided to move across the country, to a very small island. Finally ended up that my husband dropped out with a consolation Master's, paid back the loan from an inheritance, and had a lot more fun as a computer programmer. He was lucky!

Later, I went to talk about a PhD to one of my favorite professors in my master's program who warned me about the stress and told me that about 80% of their married students got divorced during the process. I decided that stress was Not For Me.

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Date: 2013-01-22 05:16 pm (UTC)
ironed_orchid: pin up girl reading kant (Default)
From: [personal profile] ironed_orchid
Thank you. As someone who struggled with my thesis and eventually dropped out, I want to say lots of these things to people, and sometimes do, but mostly I don't because I know I am bitter, and I know some other people managed better.

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Date: 2013-01-22 05:30 pm (UTC)
khalinche: (Default)
From: [personal profile] khalinche
As you can imagine, the righteous fury in this post makes me smile, and it's timely for me as I go into probably the last week ever of touching up my thesis for resubmission for re-vivaing. It's ten years since I was the brilliant student being told by academics who I idolised that I should go do a PhD, and five years since my writing up process ran into trouble.

I really don't know what I would have done if I hadn't done a PhD. Chances are, I would not know you or anyone I now see regularly - not because you are friends from the PhD itself (I've actually retained surprisingly few friends-friends from my cohort), but because the PhD was a ticket out of the Highlands and into London, a leap I would not have made without the ESRC money and the reason to come. One of the reasons my lecturers told me to do a PhD was because I was asking them for references on applications to apply to be a primary school teacher, because my parents thought that was a safe bet and a good, stable kind of livelihood to have. I am glad I am not a primary school teacher now.

That said, as you know far too well, my PhD has been a disaster. Part of the disaster was my supervisor dying and the university not quite knowing what to do with me, but much of the disaster was me being ill-equipped for such a free-floating, self-motivating job. Money has been a concern in the last couple of years, since my studentship and what I saved from my studentship ran out (this kind of relates to your post about money but is a conversation I'd rather have in person than here), but mostly it's been a battle with structurelessness, laziness, mental illness, lack of faith...all the things you talk about here.

A discussion I'd really like to see, or start - maybe in a post elsewhere if this comment thread isn't the place for it? - is about coping strategies and 'what I wish I'd known' stories for people who are still in the thick of it.

One colleague, who is both successful and lovely, told me while I was writing up that he saw people either divert themselves into lots of unsustainably demanding side activities or focus exclusively on their thesis until they drove themselves mad with single-mindedness. Your post describes some of the dangers of the latter but it was the former that was a mixed influence for me. Without having fixed hours to work on my thesis, I did everything else - at one point I was involved in refugee mentoring, running a food co-op, singing in a choir, researching and writing for an NGO and the normal teaching and writing up. Probably common sense would have said, you are looking for distraction, drop some of these things (and I did). In retrospect, though, having the time to volunteer as a researcher opened up great opportunities for me later, and still pays dividends in contacts and paid work. I still wish I'd done less stuff-that-wasn't-thesis, and instead maintained the habit of doing physical exercise and writing regularly. But in a way the PhD studentship made it possible for me to get some of the unpaid experience which has, infuriatingly, become necessary to getting any kind of career progression in certain fields in London.

I'd say that I agree with much of what you say and I agree with commenters who suggest taking a few years to develop grown-up skills and get a clearer idea of what it is that actually interests you. Certainly, my colleagues who did that (and who had the kind of financial cushion you can get from, say, selling your house and living off the interest, or being married to someone who supports you) did much better than me. But I don't wish I had never done it, for all that it's been a blight on my twenties and is by most measures, a horrible failure, because my life would have followed a much shorter, nastier arc from Brilliant Student to Wasted Potential, back working on a fish farm or in a b and b and wondering what the hell happened to my life.

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Date: 2013-01-22 05:39 pm (UTC)
yvi: (Geek - Computer Science is my boyfriend)
From: [personal profile] yvi
It will do horrible things to your mental and physical health and test to breaking point every significant relationship in your life.

*sighs* my husband is in his last year. Oh, how I could sign this :/

I chose to go into "the industry" instead and while there have been a few moments of "aw, I wish I was doing science again", I don't regret it at all.

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Date: 2013-01-22 05:46 pm (UTC)
jenett: Big and Little Dipper constellations on a blue watercolor background (Default)
From: [personal profile] jenett
Oh, this is all very useful.

First (as someone who has a MLIS, and who hangs out with academics, and who has a friend currently working on finishing a PhD in the humanities) yes, to all of this. Specific pieces:

- I very much agree with Elf's comments about initiatory witchcraft. You want to do a process that will fundamentally reshape you with people you trust not to break you. And academia makes that hard, because you don't get much - if any - chance to really meet the people you'll be working with before you have to work extensively with them. Which is a sort of large flaw.

(There is no real equivalent to "come hang out at some open rituals and social events and see how you like us" for academia: you get highly structured events/interviews/whatever, and very little one-on-one time. And even if you had that time with your supervisors/professors, you don't get it with your cohort until you all show up on campus.)

- I also agree with the advice that taking time away from academia (or even just not-working-on-degrees can be really helpful) The friend who's finishing her PhD (she's on schedule to finish in spring 2014) is my age (late 30s), got her Master's right after we finished undergrad, but then took time to work.

Most of that was at our college, as a lab assistant, but it gave her a lot of chance to decide what she wanted to do, where she wanted to do it, etc. (And it's also meant she's had more time to research funding options, the schools that would be the best fit for her, etc.) because she wasn't trying to fit all of that around an existing degree finishing at the same time.)

- The other part about some PhDs - depending on field - is that they may very well mean picking up and moving somewhere else for an extended period of time. (Said friend just spent a year in Japan, but it's plenty common for people to need to spend a month or two researching, or working with an archive somewhere else, or moving to where a researcher is doing X thing, or whatever.)

And it's quite likely (starting from your undergrad) that you're looking at at least 2-3 and possibly 4-5 moves to different schools, locations, etc.

If you're someone who is geographically dependent for other reasons, or if you're someone who likes having local friends (but is not always quick to make new ones), you may find yourself really isolated socially at a time in your life when you particularly need some friendly people. (Even just for the stupid stuff, like company while moving apartments, or to bring you soup if you're sick.)

And if you're someone who has geographic limitations on where you're live (I do not do well with heat, for example, so a lot of the US South is really not a good fit) you have to be really really aware that there might only be a handful of positions in your field at the end of the degree, and you might need to compromise in all sorts of other ways to be able to even consider making those jobs work. (i.e. be far away from family, friends, places you'd enjoy living more, places your partner could find ideal work for them, etc.) People make that work, and it's not always dire, but it's really not easy.

- And finally, there's a lot of bits about what it takes to succeed with what happens *after* you get the degree. Some people are fine with working out how you navigate references and explaining your research to search committees, and handling applications and rejections for jobs, and so on -but some people find it all entirely baffling, or that it hits *all* of their trigger buttons. And that's tricky.

- And on the larger topic, I have the same issue with people wanting a MLIS (which is a much smaller commitment in time and money). And part of me wants to go "Yay, Librarians!" because I do think the profession is awesome.

And part of me wants to go "Look, be realistic. Let me tell you about the job market. Let me tell you about the future of the field. Let me tell you what you really need to succeed in both." And people sorta don't want to listen to that.

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Date: 2013-01-22 05:58 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I had a fairly good Ph.D. experience (in the sciences), which I know is pretty rare. There definitely was a lot of stress involved, but it was the kind that made me grow and develop as a person, rather than the kind that smashes you flat (that was my postdoc experience). Having a supportive advisor made a big difference, as did being a little older than the average grad student. My postdoctoral experience made me give up on an academic career and now, fifteen years later, I have no regrets at all. My current job is still in the sciences, and yet I have things like HOBBIES now.

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Date: 2013-01-22 05:59 pm (UTC)
frostfire: cuneiform tablet (Default)
From: [personal profile] frostfire
I'm 4.5 years into my Ph.D. (and looking at at least another 1.5, probably more), and it hasn't broken me yet (still time!), but I do have a couple of pieces of advice based on my own experience, intended for those people not deterred by the post above:

1. THE SUPERVISOR: I credit my existing mental health primarily to my advisor being the nicest man in the world. I actually had kind of a backwards experience, here: I got a lot of research experience in undergrad, and it was exactly the kind of soul-destroying stuff that's typical of graduate school, with an advisor who was way, way more concerned with good results than with my mental health. It was terrible, and the terrifying thing is that I didn't realize just *how* traumatic it was until I got out and had something to compare it to. I saw my undergrad advisor this August, four years post-graduation, and she took me out to dinner; we spent about two hours together in a casual setting and I walked away feeling like a terrible, worthless, lazy student, and it took me weeks to process through it. After TWO HOURS. And the even more terrifying thing is that I'm convinced she has no idea how awful she makes her students feel; I think she thinks she's a good advisor and that she's got their best interests at heart. (See above in the OP's comments about abusive academic relationships.) Please, prospective students: talk to the other graduate students in the program, and don't be fooled by praise like, "I've done some really great work under her," and "He's a brilliant scholar." Ask how supportive the faculty are. Ask what sort of *person* your potential advisor is. Talk to older graduate students if you possibly can. Having an emotionally mature, thoughtful, and genuinely nice advisor who legitimately has my best interests at heart is literally the most important thing about maintaining a good relationship with my Ph.D.

2. JOY: This is hard to quantify, particularly at the application stage, because of course you love your field; why else get a Ph.D. in it? But, well, graduate programs can suck a lot of joy out of stuff. I love my subject matter with an insane and ridiculous intensity that has stood up to a fair amount of joy-sucking, and that is another big part of my good relationship with my Ph.D. A friend once said to me, "You care about the Hittites more than most people care about anything." I really believe that that sort of nuclear-grade love is, if not necessary, then at least helpful for standing up to the onslaught of graduate school. (On the other hand, if you love something a lot, go to graduate school, and that love dies a sad and terrible death, which I have DEFINITELY seen happen, that's a tragedy. So think about that.)

3. INTERESTS: PLEASE have a hobby. Preferably several. Perhaps also a pet (good also for getting you up and lending some structure to your life! In addition to unconditional love!). Don't go to grad school expecting to immerse yourself in research to the exclusion of all else, to roll around in it and love it and call it George. Even given point 2, I do not do that. Learn to knit or rock-climb or cook (my choice) or run marathons; write fiction or make art or do competitive underwater basket-weaving or WHATEVER, just make sure you love it a LOT and that it is a different thing than your research. I like writing fiction because it engages a different part of my brain than my research; I like cooking because it engages my *hands*, which my research does not.

4. MONEY: As in the post. Have enough money, or you will be miserable. I have enough money, even in my fifth year; it isn't a lot, and I often wish it were more, but it's enough. I live in an apartment that suits my needs; I can buy coffee and decent food and books and the occasional luxury purchase; I can go out with friends. I'm not going into debt for this. Don't go to graduate school without a decent funding package; DO NOT anticipate any long period of time where you're working full-time and also writing your dissertation. It won't work, and it will destroy you.

5. FRIENDS: Very important. Going into my department and seeing people that I like, with whom I'm happy to grab a cup of coffee or take a too-long lunch break, is crucial. (Again, I have seen people in other situations: it is not pretty.) How many students are there in your prospective Ph.D. program? There inevitably *will* be people you don't like, so try for a larger group. Do they seem nice? What's the environment like? How cutthroat is it? Make sure your information about that is current; I actually lucked out in that my school had a reputation for being a pit of despair, but had mellowed heavily in the couple of years before I arrived. The reverse can also happen! Also something that is important to me: friends not only in other departments/fields, but outside the university entirely.

6. PRUDENCE: Don't expect miracles, don't expect the perfect job, or even any academic job. Don't be in a situation where if you don't get a tenure-track position, it will destroy your life. Accept that you can't control the job market, so expending a ton of anxiety on it is useless, and have the ability to let that anxiety go. Have a backup plan; have a support network; have skills that you can use for other things if this doesn't work out. Don't get a Ph.D. in something like American History where there are literally 700 applicants for every tenure-track position unless you actually *intend* to do something else after graduation. Be active about the job market, go to your conferences and make your connections and talk to your advisor, but also be Zen about it. I am a graduate student; that's my job. I'm not struggling toward an endpoint that is far in the future, and enduring suffering so I can get there; I'm being a graduate student. That means that this is my life, and I should be having a reasonably good time with it, most of the time; stressful, awful times should be temporary, and I should be able to look forward to stuff I'm doing *today*, *this week*, not years from now.

And the things is, I have a fantastic advisor, I am overflowing with joy about my subject, I have hobbies that I really, really love, I have enough money, I have a lot of friends, I *like* being a graduate student and I'm not overly freaked out about the job market, and still, grad school is *hard*. It's stressful. There are some parts of it that are actively designed to break you down; there are hurdles that are tests of your fortitude more than your knowledge or your skills. And ultimately, it's not necessarily going to get you anywhere, and you might come out of five or seven or ten years of school with no money, a bunch of specialized skills that no one wants, and no prospects. So, my advice to the brilliant student who isn't going to listen to the above post is: make sure it's not going to suck. Maximize your happiness with your situation in the ways that are under your control. Think carefully about this. Because if your grad school experience sucks, that's years of irreparable damage being inflicted on you.

In conclusion, everyone who's thinking about a Ph.D. should first read all of this. REQUIREMENT.

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Date: 2013-01-22 07:17 pm (UTC)
rysmiel: (Default)
From: [personal profile] rysmiel
I'd offer myself as an example of it being possible to do reasonably well out of a PhD without actually loving the field at all. (Why did I do it without one ? Because at the time I was still only barely overcoming extreme shyness and it offered a less terrifying prospect than interviewing for industry jobs.)

I did the first two years of my PhD in a work environment that was mostly extremely pleasant day by day, with a somewhat grumpy more senior grad student, and a supervisor who largely tended to ignore me - I was coming off a final undergrad project with a supervisor who wanted daily meetings and progress reports, and I found that scale of freedom possibly more appealing than was absolutely best for me at the time. Then my supervisor opted to move to a different institution for family reasons which in retrospect I can sympathise with (there being precious little for small kids in Cambridge in the mid1990s, that I ever found when Papersky (edit: that was linking to a DW journal which is not lj papersky) and [profile] zorinth visited at any rate), and insisted I had to move with (which is also, in retrospect, understandable; I do not think I would have done well with remote supervision). The social environment I was in for the last year and a half was very much not to my taste, though, and lacking in the supportive social group I had in Cambridge, and hugely not aided by my father misparsing my deep unhappiness at being in my new location as me considering dropping out and spending an awful lot of time and energy trying to "persuade" me not to and not hearing that I had already considered the options and made the decision to go through with it before moving at all (sfaict, fifteen years later he's still convinced he talked me out of it) ; the ways in which I came out of all that very stressed and underweight (I do now, and did even more then, react to stress by sleeping a lot and forgetting to eat, sometimes on a scale of days) were not primarily to do with the PhD system per se. (Being quasi-stalked for a couple of months during the last year did not help either.)

OK, I can tell by the way my shoulders are tightening that setting this down is stressier than I thought it would be, but I did have a point in there somewhere. Which was that I can see how having a supportive supervisor, a good group of local friends*, and a subject one is passionate about could help, but that one can get through without those things without it turning as bad as some of the stories in above comments get, Also, do check whether potential supervisors might be planning to change institution midway through the PhD if you can. And it has, on the whole, enabled rather a lot of awesome stuff the subsequent fifteen years.

*I did have plenty of good online friends and nothing I say here should be construed as lack of regard for how much they helped.
Edited Date: 2013-01-22 07:21 pm (UTC)

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Supervisor screwing you happens

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Date: 2013-01-22 07:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I just wanted to post to add some balance since I found my Ph.D. experience entirely fulfilling and nothing like the horror stories described here... yes, it was very challenging, at times, boring and often seemingly insurmountable, but I was never anywhere near being "broken". That's not to say that all of your points aren't valid and couldn't have affected me; I guess I just want to point out that my personally-observed evidence does not agree with you on the *number* of Ph.D.s that go (very) sour. Looking around me in my department at the same time as I was completing mine, I could name only one or two people who had a really bad time, but, both of them did eventually get through it and both of them were at least partially to blame for their difficulties (at least from where I was standing there were many obvious things they could have (not) done to improve their situation).

This might have a something to do with the fact I am in a computer science department, so no lab experiments in the traditional sense? I don't know. I also know of no supervisors here who come close to being as bad as the horrific ones described in some of the comments. I think good supervision is one of the most important factors to decide if an able Ph.D. candidate is going to sink or swim and therefore my advice to anyone embarking on this journey is to try and get as much interaction with your potential supervisor (and also closely related colleagues) as you can before you commit. I completed my undergraduate final year project with the same supervisor who I went on to complete a Ph.D. with so I knew we worked well together.

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Date: 2013-01-22 07:42 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I agree with the person who said the stress/ possible breakdown idea was sort of glamorous. Going in to my PhD, as an older student who understood stress and working 40+ hrs per week (though not often), I thought that I could handle it. Also, when thinking about the PhD process I thought almost exclusively about the stress of studying, time management, and grades. What broke me was the combination of all of those things with LIFE and I know my labmate would say the same thing. Would I have had a breakdown if my life had been a calm sea even if grad school wasn't? Who knows. All I know is that the idea of grad school stress was nothing compared to the reality. Going in, I never thought I would become the bitter third year grad student who sometimes hates their project or their advisor or their life but here I am.

I'll finish my PhD and, at least at this point, I plan to do a postdoc but from there I have no idea where I'll end up. Academic politics and the PhD process and seeing bright-eyed bushy-tailed first years just makes me sick to my stomach sometimes.

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Date: 2013-01-22 07:54 pm (UTC)
khalinche: (Default)
From: [personal profile] khalinche
Relatedly, I've found the 'oh of course it seems like it's dreadful, everyone's PhD experience is dreadful' refrain to be both very supportive and very unhelpful. It's great to know that even people who seem very successful and sorted had a rocky start, but at times I've known that I'm not doing well and not working hard and having people say 'oh, everyone feels like that, itll be alright in the end' rang really hollow. Liv was one of the only people I knew who honestly said, 'Yes, sometimes it doesn't work out at all and you can pour years of work into a project which is fruitless, or be shafted by your supervisor, and it sucks and life is unfair', and I really appreciated that at the time because there seems to be this rather softsoapy narrative of 'oh, it SEEMS hideous and it is hideous, of course, but eventually it's all fine'.

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Date: 2013-01-22 07:52 pm (UTC)
deepsix: (Default)
From: [personal profile] deepsix
Whenever I read a post like this, I think, "I wish someone had told me this before I started my PhD." (I'm five years in now.) But then I remember: someone did tell me this before I started -- many someones, in fact -- but I really, sincerely thought that it would be different for me. It wasn't, of course.

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Date: 2013-01-22 07:59 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
[Anonymous due to lack of f'lock]

On the one hand: Firstly, many eventually successful PhDs feel like doom in the middle, the feeling of being broken down - not "broken" in a you're-either-broken-or-your-not way but in a "gradually broken down" way - was certainly a major factor in mine, and in lots of other PhD experiences. And I had a decent supervisor, a damn good second supervisor, decent examiners, lots of stuff in my favour. The other thing is that the prize at the end is not reliable. The academic career ladder is crazy, and I did one postdoc before deciding that I didn't want to climb that ladder any further. Partly the academic career ladder has a glut of PhDs chasing far too few eventual permanent positions, and reducing the supply of PhDs would make things nicer for those who do do one. Plus many non-academic jobs might not be as researchy as you like - and many fields that do lead to well-paid non-academic research jobs tend to be a bit crazy. Synthetic organic chemistry PhDs, for example, are well placed to get pharma jobs, and that area of chemistry has a particularly bad reputation for long hours cultures, pushy supervisors, etc.

On the other hand: many parts of my PhD experience were good and useful and fulfilling, it ended well, also probably taught me some lessons in persistence, there was a postdoc job that was good, getting to be Dr. was good, etc. And I'm suffering a fair amount of being broken down through working in the commercial sector.

Not sure which hand: the PhD, for me, and the glorious academic future, was something I had far too much of my sense of purpose invested in for my own good. Putting that sense back together again is not easy. Far above, someone mentioned doing a PhD later in life - this seems eminently sensible from my standpoint.

A different not-sure hand: you mention the able-bodied... there's also the question of able-mindedness. I think in the past academia had a reputation as being a safe place for some people, safer than the so-called "real world", it looks a lot less like that now.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-01-22 08:06 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I (one half of LJ-toothycat, the biologist) just wanted to add myself to the count of people who enjoyed their PhD. I do put that down to a really good supervisor, the loveliest postdoc in the world as my day-to-day teacher, and another person doing a PhD at the same time (with whom I am still friends). That support makes a big difference. I spent four years on it, funding the last year by working night shifts at the weekend as a night guard (which is where most of my thesis got written, with the consent of my employer). I did get stressed, annoyed, bored etc but no more than any other job would have made me, and my overall memory is very positive. Even with the night shifts. I'm still in academia and still enjoying it - and again, I would put that down to having an excellent boss and some great people to share a lab with. To be honest, that was pure luck on my part - I don't think I knew enough to deliberately pick a good supervisor at the age of 21, and the people in the lab were entirely unknown to me. But I'm very thankful for that good luck ^^

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Date: 2013-01-22 08:27 pm (UTC)
deborah_c: (Default)
From: [personal profile] deborah_c
And yet...

I was, as an undergraduate, considered as one of the brilliant students, or so I'm led to believe. Certainly, I was planning on a PhD, and it came as a terrific shock when I screwed up finals sufficiently to make that impossible.

And so my life changed direction: my partner and I moved in together, we had three (wonderful!) children, I've ended up with a successful career (rather to my bemusement) with a great employer, lots of amazing friends, and a burgeoning social life that takes me all over the place doing fun things, at least when I'm sufficiently awake.

So I shouldn't have regrets, right? But... well, the way my life works, I spend virtually the whole of my time in crowds where PhDs are pretty much a given, to the point where they just don't get mentioned; they're virtually assumed. (Something between half and two thirds of my colleagues have them, for example, and the imposter syndrome from being quite senior with lots of junior people far better qualified than I is insane.) Most of my friends have PhDs, too, and I'm always acutely conscious of it, and of having, in some way, Failed.

Maybe it's just one of those "path not taken" things: I always assumed that I was going to go on and do research, and then I had to do something different, unexpectedly, and now I always wonder where I would have gone, what I'd have done if I had had the chance. There's another one of those: the other option I had at that point was to go and do a postgrad music performance course at one of the London music colleges. Again, there's a vague wonder about whether I could have made it, but it doesn't have the same burning passion that the not-doing-a-PhD has, twenty five years on. Possibly that's that I've had some of the opportunities in the last year that the music route would have given me -- two concerti and all sorts of fun musical stuff, if only on an amateur basis -- but it's never been painful in quite the same way. I still live with a vague hope that maybe, in a similar way, I might at some point in the future get the chance to go back to university for a higher degree, but I'm pretty much having to accept now that that's unlikely.

PhDs might break people, but regrets for a lost potential life can do long term damage, too. Sometimes, following your heart has to be the right thing.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-01-22 09:48 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
It's never too late. Find a way and do it. There's nothing worse than regrets.

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From: [personal profile] deborah_c - Date: 2013-01-31 07:21 pm (UTC) - Expand

A good advice probably

Date: 2013-01-22 09:05 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
in 2008 after a LOT of ridiculous troubles, I finally send about 120 pages of mi Thesis to the University to be reviewed

That was 2008

Still waiting...

Disciplined Minds

Date: 2013-01-22 10:02 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Excellent book on this topic (looking at the professional training process at university): Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt -

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