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[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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