Jan. 22nd, 2013

liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
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. This is not hyperbole or metaphor, I am talking about literal oppression and abuse )

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.


Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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