Quitting the Academy
November 17, 2013 3:08 PM   Subscribe

An aspiring scientist's frustration with modern-day academia. A resignation letter circulated to staff and students at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, which has caused a bit of a splash in the science community. Lee Smolin, author of The Trouble with Physics, responds in the comments.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot (51 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yet another career that could have been saved,
if only we taught Sturgeon's Law from a young age.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:22 PM on November 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Just like democracy being the worst system, except for all the others; the alternative to science is creationism.
posted by sammyo at 3:31 PM on November 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I’ve lost faith in today’s academia as being something that brings a positive benefit to the world/societies we live in. Rather, I’m starting to think of it as a big money vacuum that takes in grants and spits out nebulous results, fueled by people whose main concerns are not to advance knowledge and to effect positive change, though they may talk of such things, but to build their CVs and to propel/maintain their careers

True, but you got a better plan? Or a way to fund it?

Many advisors, whom you would expect to truly be pushing science forward with their decades of experience, do surprisingly little and only appear to manage the PhD students, who slave away on papers that their advisors then put their names on as a sort of “fee” for having taken the time to read the document

They may appear to be doing surprisingly little. In fact, they're spending the vast majority of their time desperately applying for grants so they can fund those students, post-docs and that research. Which sucks, but I can guarantee they'd rather be getting their hands dirty.
posted by Jimbob at 3:35 PM on November 17, 2013 [12 favorites]


Basically, if you want exciting, age-of-discovery kinda science, then you need a bunch of independently wealthy geniuses working for fun and cheerfully publishing their breakthroughs in the Proceedings of the Royal Academy. I don't see how you're going to return to that.
posted by Jimbob at 3:38 PM on November 17, 2013 [8 favorites]


Smolin's point that the issues the student identifies are endemic to all human systems is a good one.

I don't know much about the Swiss science culture. The rumors, at least, are that the funding climate in Switzerland is one of the best in the world, and when it comes to science and engineering, there are really only two institutions contending, the EPFL being one of them. I think it's very different than in the US.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:40 PM on November 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


Basically, if you want exciting, age-of-discovery kinda science, then you need a bunch of independently wealthy geniuses working for fun and cheerfully publishing their breakthroughs in the Proceedings of the Royal Academy. I don't see how you're going to return to that.

Nathan Myrvold and Jeff Bezos?

I'll be handing out cyanide pills 'round the corner.
posted by Diablevert at 3:41 PM on November 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


I am planning to quit my thesis in January, just a few months shy of completion.

I’ve lost faith in today’s academia as being something that brings a positive benefit to the world/societies we live in.

However, nothing can take away the knowledge that I’ve gained during these four years, and for that, EPFL, I remain eternally grateful.

Maybe as a way to repay their gratitude he/she could have stuck around for a few more months in order to share with the world everything that they've learned.
posted by one_bean at 3:59 PM on November 17, 2013 [9 favorites]


This is a weird letter to read, as it's a document composed after a long period of unhappiness on what is likely in the top five worst days of the author's life. Having seen numerous fellow PhD students drop out, some at late dates, and having had to quit a lab myself, I know it to be a position that does not corrupt perspective but certainly alters it.

It's hard to look at this and not start asking questions about relationship with advisor, satisfaction with individual work, anxieties about upcoming defense (a lot bigger in many parts of Europe than in the U.S., as it's up or out after a fixed period of time), and so forth. I don't know if any of these issues are present with this person, but it's hard to disentangle situational from systemic disillusionment. It would be interesting to hear back in a few months.
posted by monocyte at 4:06 PM on November 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


one_bean: that would best be done through publication, not a thesis/defense. If there's salvageable stuff it no doubt will wind up on Arxiv at some point; the thesis advisor presumably does not want good work to go wasted.
posted by monocyte at 4:08 PM on November 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Maybe as a way to repay their gratitude he/she could have stuck around for a few more months in order to share with the world everything that they've learned.

Share with the world? Give me a break. The world isn't exactly clamoring to hear about most people's theses. Even this student's advisor and committee is probably going to to care for about 15 minutes before going back to another round of grant-writing.
posted by peacheater at 4:09 PM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just like democracy being the worst system, except for all the others; the alternative to science is creationism.

I don't think the author is saying we should throw away science entirely - just that within academia, there are institutions, funding bodies and traditions that could benefit from being fundamentally shaken up.
posted by Mike1024 at 4:18 PM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Aspiring Scientist discovers that chosen speciality is filled with hypocrisy, inefficiency, egotism, and frustration. Plus ça change. Aspiring Scientist should try experiencing the very same travails in an industry that is unambiguously less beneficial to humanity. Like advertising.
posted by chimaera at 4:19 PM on November 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Unfortunately, most such research is challenging and difficult to publish, and the current publish-or-perish system makes it difficult to put bread on the table while working on problems that require at least ten years of labor before you can report even the most preliminary results.

What kind of crazy project requires 10 years before you can report even preliminary results? Short of an astrophysical project that requires waiting for a probe to cross the solar system or a biology study on the long-term affects of something, I can't think of a project that legitimately wouldn't have publishable results for 10 years. Certainly most studies aren't like that, not even most 'challenging' ones.
posted by Mitrovarr at 4:20 PM on November 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


one_bean: that would best be done through publication, not a thesis/defense. If there's salvageable stuff it no doubt will wind up on Arxiv at some point; the thesis advisor presumably does not want good work to go wasted.

Dissertations are published. Not every field uses arXiv. It's hypocritical for this person to say that academia is too selfish to help society on the one hand, but that he/she can't even be bothered to actually finish what they started. No, not every PhD is transformative. But they gained knowledge from their research, and the people who helped fund it ought to have the opportunity to assign value to it.
posted by one_bean at 4:27 PM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


What kind of crazy project requires 10 years before you can report even preliminary results?

It's certainly a problem we face in ecology - some questions require long-term studies, setting up plots that are then monitored, literally, over generations. It's very difficult to get funding to do this, when the results might be gathered in 50 years. It's usually the sort of thing researchers set up on their own dime in the hope someone in the future can make something of it.
posted by Jimbob at 4:28 PM on November 17, 2013 [13 favorites]


I didn't find that particularly insightful or thought-provoking. I'm a graduate student, and I think often about the many problems in my field and in higher education in general, and very few of the complaints voiced here resonated with the problems I see. This seems to be the author's main contention:

...I’ve lost faith in today’s academia as being something that brings a positive benefit to the world/societies we live in. Rather, I’m starting to think of it as a big money vacuum that takes in grants and spits out nebulous results, fueled by people whose main concerns are not to advance knowledge and to effect positive change, though they may talk of such things, but to build their CVs and to propel/maintain their careers.

First of all, that faith is overly simplistic and ill-considered. Science and academia exist to advance knowledge, yes, but neither of them are explicitly or implicitly committed to changing the world, per se, much less to changing it for the better. If that's what you want to do, get involved in the world of power, not the world of knowledge.

Second, describing academia as a money vacuum is so hilariously deluded that it's impossible to tell what planet this person is from. As mr_roboto said above, things might be really different in Switzerland than where I'm from (the US), but here in America, systems of education are the target of non-scholars who wield money vacuums to extract wealth from the public and privatize institutions that used to exist for the benefit of the American public. If this person thinks academia is a money vacuum now, wait a few years and watch neoliberalism reverse the flow. And this relates to this person's point about academia being business. The truth is that there exist many structural problems in higher education, and if we young scholars don't like it, maybe we should cooperate to change things for the better.

Like, maybe we could use our knowledge of what's wrong with academia to bring a positive benefit to it and thereby society at large, through organizing scholarly and pedagogical labor, agitating for a transformation of funding structures that would ameliorate the perverse incentives that cause some of the problematic patterns identified, and other important work. But that's hard. Giving up is easy, and nobody will blame you for it, because we all know how maddening and frustrating it all is. If this person were serious about bringing a positive benefit to their society through science, I think working to make academia better would be a great place to start.
posted by clockzero at 4:34 PM on November 17, 2013 [7 favorites]


As a grad school dropout let me tell you all about the joys of being an analyst in a cubicle....

As soon I find some....
posted by srboisvert at 5:07 PM on November 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Basically what I saw my Dad refusing to talk about back around 1978.
posted by localroger at 6:06 PM on November 17, 2013


I think he'd have a much easier time finding ways to 'benefit the world in a positive way' with a PhD after his name - even if not in academia. I don't understand.
posted by Golden Eternity at 6:24 PM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


one_bean: that would best be done through publication, not a thesis/defense.

Maybe it's different in Europe, but in the US a PhD dissertation *is* a published work once it is defended, revised, and deposited.

I wonder how much public investment had been made in this person's career.

You want to help people without any moral ambiguity? Your choices are limited. Be a farmer, a mother, or a doctor who serves the truly sick and indigent. Or get filthy rich leveraging derivative transactions and live frugally while giving all your wealth away to the poor, actually the most selfless and generous thing most westerners could do with their lives.

Otherwise, accept that the rest of us work in human systems that are part of a deeply flawed real world and few of us are saints.

If you don't like it, change it, or leave it without so much attitude. Science has never been pure. It has always existed at the whim and in the service of whatever powers have made it possible. When one is no longer a child, it is time to put away childish notions.
posted by spitbull at 6:33 PM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think he'd have a much easier time finding ways to 'benefit the world in a positive way' with a PhD after his name

Not really. I don't even have a BS after my name but literally billions of dollars in trade have depended on machines I'm responsible for over the last 30 years. One system alone which I put in 15 years ago weighs 7 million pounds of sugar a day, on which the refinery pays its producers. Got audited on that one once and had to produce the source code and walk the auditor through the software and hardware. Fun times. I won the audit.

A Ph.D. gives you access to certain avenues of advancement but there are avenues just as powerful and important that don't require the degree. The key is to know what you want to do and hope to accomplish and not waste time acquring credentials which don't actually get you what you want. A doctorate degree isnt' an intrinsically bad thing but most of the people I know who have one got theirs out of some kind of perverse completist tendency, and then foundered when they had to find something to do with their graduate degree in the post-college world.
posted by localroger at 6:40 PM on November 17, 2013 [8 favorites]


Sadly, most people neither know what they want nor are wise enough to know which credentials will help them at the time of their lives that they are applying to PhD programs.
posted by maryr at 6:56 PM on November 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Lee Smolin is wrong to equate Wanting to Learn with Changing the World. Sometimes the things we want to learn aren't earth shattering, just things that we're curious about. Of course, if you've resigned yourself to the idea that nobody Changes The World in that way, a relatively morally unoffensive existence is one you're more than happy with.
posted by Apropos of Something at 7:04 PM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm trying to finish this letter before fully commenting... but this kid is mostly pissing me off so far.
posted by maryr at 7:21 PM on November 17, 2013


I think the lack of sympathy in this thread reflects an inability to see the broader issue. To put it simply, the prevailing system creates these burned out individuals. It's an inevitability of the system.

First one must understand and accept the above. Then it simply follows that to tell these individuals that they should do X or Y (X = get with the program, you should fight it from inside, etc., or Y = you don't like it then leave), and so on, is a point of view told from complacency and presumption, due to an ignorance of perspective. That is, from the status quo.

The post may have been written by some lowly grad student, but where are there rigorous connections being made to the political, social, economic implications of the modern science research industry? Where is that deliberation, the intellectual mind-sharing? I don't see much of that here, nor in the article's comments. I see sloppy (and frankly, anti-intellectual) rebuttals such as "but Science is neutral", "but this is true of everywhere / it's not perfect", and literalistic readings of "academia is a money vacuum", all missing the point of owning up to these real examples of social costs incurred on actual human beings, at least one of whom has still managed to retain some shred of relatedness enabling him to openly describe his intellectual experiences and working conditions. His feedback should be a gift and a warning.

This person is one of our own. At least consider it that way.
posted by polymodus at 7:22 PM on November 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


The more I read this, the more I think this guy just doesn't get it.

Worse yet, there often does not appear to be a strong urge for people in academia to go and apply their result, even when this becomes possible, which most likely stems from the fear of failure – you are morally comfortable researching your method as long as it works in theory, but nothing would hurt more than to try to apply it and to learn that it doesn’t work in reality. No one likes to publish papers which show how their method fails (although, from a scientific perspective, they’re obliged to).

Ok, first of all, let's go over the obvious. The huge, vast majority of discoveries have no practical application. They're incremental steps on the way to understanding something. Maybe the thing doesn't have any known useful purpose, or it isn't understood well enough to apply, or any use it has isn't practical. So there's that.

Secondly, that isn't really what scientists do. Most of them aren't in a position to try to apply any discovery they make. A physicist who discovers a new subatomic law doesn't have a semiconductor lab to design a new component, a molecular biologist who characterizes a cancer pathway might not be set up or funded to run a clinical trial, and an ecologist who discovers a new threat to an ecosystem probably doesn't have the political pull to enact policy change. Plus, to attempt to apply a discovery, you'd pretty much have to drop all of your other research. Others can attempt to apply a discovery you've made (assuming you published it) but only your lab might be able to continue the particular kind of research you are doing.

Finally, this is the kind of thing industry is good at. Industry is well-funded and can afford bringing in the other people necessary to make applications work, so they are often better at actually applying new discoveries, if there is profit to be made. What they can't be trusted to do is do the long-term, fundamental research that academia specializes in, since it has no immediate profitable application.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:26 PM on November 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


There's an article about "good" vs. "evil" networking linked in his letter (which I suspect he identifies with) and it contains this paragraph:
Whatever the case, whether it makes me naïve or stubborn, I am going to stick with my old way of doing things. I’ll be happy if I make friends with people who can advance my career, but I’m not going to choose my relationships based on their ability to do that; I’m going to work hard in my classes, do original and innovative work wherever possible, and trust that the same forces that brought me to Harvard will take care of me at Harvard, and beyond.
And that same sense of naïveté/stubbornness comes across in Aspiring Scientist's letter as well. And I've seen it in many other fields that function a lot like academia, mainly art and music. There are people who get into it because they want to make the big splash, be the next big name. There are people who get into it to advance the field, to push it further regardless of whether they get accolades or not. There are people who do it because it is their calling and regardless of what their results are, they can't live with themselves if they're not doing it. But the one thing they all have in common is that they're expected to play the game, to work within the rules whether they want to or not.

And like arts and music, I see a lot of the same sort of inability to deal with How It Works. It is really sad to watch the aghast surprise that comes when someone realizes just how much of the job is hustling, especially when that sort of hustling is severely distasteful to their personality. And, this I see more in academia than the arts, that part of the system is seen as a terrible, terrible failing that will doom everything. And, hell, it might, but there's no doubt there's a whole lot of confusion of personal distaste for a moral failing of the entire system, as if the whole system has deviated from some ideal established during the Age of Reason when scientists vivisected dogs and used prisons as guinea pig farms.

So I'm sort of glad this person is leaving academia in the same way I'm sort of glad when someone tells me they're not going to try to be an artist or a musician anymore. It's definitely a loss to the field, and that sucks. Few people who made it far enough that quitting is a big deal haven't contributed, even if that contribution is nearly imperceptible unless you know where to look.

But then there's the other side: hopefully this is a person who will no longer be miserable because they can't do what is expected of them. The person in that paragraph I quote? I don't envy them. Unless you're a bonafide prodigy -- and a lucky one at that! -- you're not going to beat the system on the basis of your abilities alone because regardless of how good you are, chances you're not good enough that you can get by on abilities alone. And if you think you are and you're not and you stubbornly persist that They're Wrong and You're Right? That's a recipe for misery if I've ever heard one. And one less scientist definitely sucks, but the trade-off is one less miserable human being, which ain't so bad.

(NB: I am not a scientist or even anything close, but I have friends who are. If I wrote anything that is grossly misrepresentative, feel free to correct me.)
posted by griphus at 7:27 PM on November 17, 2013 [9 favorites]


And that same sense of naïveté/stubbornness […]

I don't buy this type of argument, because it is really the "How It Works" that is cynicism and jadedness. Any normal human being's response is to have a sense of injustice. That is a more empathetic way of understanding what is happening.
posted by polymodus at 7:33 PM on November 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


I am not yet finished. I have many thoughts. But a quick "Really? That's where you want to go?" moment:
I often wonder if many people in academia come from insecure childhoods where they were never the strongest or the most popular among their peers, and, having studied more than their peers, are now out for revenge.
Really? Really?
posted by maryr at 7:37 PM on November 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


...because it is really the "How It Works" that is cynicism and jadedness.

But what about the people who thrive in that environment? If there's a system set up -- and if there's going to be things like "ethics committees" and "peer review" there has to be a concrete system -- some people will thrive and some will flounder because of personality alone. Aspiring Scientist has no answers, but let's say he did. Or someone did, and they had a big revolutionary plan to reform everything. What happens to the perfectly good scientists who can't function under that system, and then write these letters?
posted by griphus at 7:38 PM on November 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm a huge critic of the way that science is set up and the opportunities that are available for being coming out on the other side of a Ph.D., but what's coming through with this guy isn't an earth shaking critique but rather someone who just went in with misguided expectations and is upset that things didn't work out the way he expected.

I went into science knowing that I would be working on tiny problems that had mostly theoretical application. And if someone saw that result and said, "hey! that's a neat idea I can apply elsewhere to this other interesting problem!" I would have felt happy. And he also sounds frustrated that his job as a Ph.D. student is to find an original problem with in the context of his mentor's research agenda rather than come up with ideas and research on his own. How would it work any other way? That's why he's the student and the mentor is the mentor-- his job is to learn how to "think like a scientist", and once he's proven that, then he gets a Ph.D. and can be "trusted" to pursue original research as an independent investigator. A lot of them use their work and apply it to other fields. Other are thrilled just with being able to get funding for the specific field they are obsessed with. But what is true is that they're generally obsessed with their field, which is how they managed to become principal investigators. There isn't a lot of room for dilettantes-- which is a shame, because it would be nice if more laboratories had somewhat more nebulous research agendas rather than selecting for only the most narrowly obsessed researchers to get the choice academic positions.

A lot of computer scientists have gotten frustrated with the knowledge that their research is just another paper sent off into the void. Those are the ones that leave for Google and Yahoo and Facebook. That's ok too! But you don't go into science to "change the world". You go into science to do really good research that you're obsessed with. And then maybe, with the right combination of circumstances and opportunity that happens to place your research agenda in the right place at the right time, you might Change The World™. But for the most part, you're going to be spending your days obsessed with your research agenda.
posted by deanc at 7:44 PM on November 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


OK, done reading, I'm going to limit myself to one assumption I think the letter writer makes that I take issue with, then I'm going to close the laptop. To be fair, I am not an academic, I have chosen not to be an academic (as I recognize I do not have the constitution for it), and I am in the US where the tenure system works differently. IANYEPFLPhD.

... the PhD student is often left wondering if they are only doing science now so that they may themselves manage later.

YES. EXACTLY. Which is to say, if you are working to obtain your PhD you are ABSOLUTELY only (physically) doing science now in order to manage it later. That is what a PhD is for. You are obtaining a Doctorate of Philosophy. You are meant to be learning to think. You are meant to be learning how a laboratory operates. How experiments are conducted. How they go wrong. How to diagnose what is wrong and how to prove what is right. You are meant to learn all of these things so that you can eventually go on to think about the *science* instead of the experiment, the pipetting. Just because your advisor isn't at the bench doesn't mean they aren't doing science. As painful as it may be when you're in the lab at midnight taking time points and your advisor is (or at least seems to be) home in their comfy bed, bench work (which is to say data generation) is not the only method for "doing" science. It's sure as hell a prerequisite, but working with the data from an experiment, tying together data from multiple experiments, making sense of it in relation to other published studies - that's science too.

If you are in the process of obtaining your PhD and you are hoping to be at a bench for the rest of your life, stop, take your complementery MS, and walk out the door. You are now a Master of Science. Congratulations from a lowly BS. Come back into the lab and we'll bitch about the PI some more. Then we'll do the experiments he/she has asked for because the PI is the one thinking about which questions to ask and how to answer them. (And that turns out to be the real, idealized science.)
posted by maryr at 7:48 PM on November 17, 2013 [18 favorites]


Yeah, the picture the author paints is just loaded with cynicism to the point that it's hard to take seriously. Being shocked that researchers give each other copies of their papers at conferences? There are way too many cases in this where the author just assumes the worst possible motive and outcome for a given feature of science that it's clear they've had a bad experience with their graduate work and feel the need to extrapolate that to the entire scientific enterprise. It's a rather shallow understanding of science.
posted by kiltedtaco at 7:52 PM on November 17, 2013


maryr: If you are in the process of obtaining your PhD and you are hoping to be at a bench for the rest of your life, stop, take your complementery MS, and walk out the door. You are now a Master of Science.

Does it actually work that way in some places? I had to write an actual thesis to get a MS, and I'm not really sure how much easier that was than a dissertation. I think the main difference is that doctoral programs are longer and have a larger scope to the experiment, and you're supposed to have some part of designing the experiment in the first place.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:13 PM on November 17, 2013


working with the data from an experiment, tying together data from multiple experiments, making sense of it in relation to other published studies - that's science too.

Absolutely, YES. When I started my PhD I had a similar view as this student does -- that I was the one doing most if not all of the work, my advisor would contribute some idle thoughts on occasion, and then we'd write a paper with both of our names on it.

Over the course of my PhD I learned that this view was very wrong. In fact, as a PI, every PhD student adds work to my workload. (If I'm lucky, by the time they are reaching the end of their PhD, it's a net gain; but I can't count on it).

In addition to writing grants, PIs do a huge amount of the proper business of science when mentoring a PhD student: guiding the half-baked and ill-formed ideas of their students into something that is both workable and interesting; offering their own ideas when their student doesn't have any; knowing the literature and the area and thus knowing what is a real advance and what isn't; contributing extensively the writing (oh, the writing!) and organisation of the papers that result from that research, and along the way teaching the student how to be a better writer; teaching students how to think about research and come up with ideas and organise all of this into a presentation so that other people can learn from them; etc. etc.

These are all parts of the core business of science, which the vast majority of PIs do, and which PhD training prepares someone for. It's not just "managing" and the saddest thing about this letter is that this student has gotten so far into his PhD without realising this fundamental truth about what science is. It's not pipetting or running simulations or performing statistical analyses; it's all of the skills I described above.
posted by forza at 8:15 PM on November 17, 2013 [8 favorites]


What I meant when I said a PhD adds work to my workload is that in less amount of time, I could produce the same paper that a first-year PhD student does by doing everything myself. I take PhD students because I strongly believe in the importance of teaching the next generation of scientists, and the hope that by the end of their PhD they will be at least a net positive.
posted by forza at 8:19 PM on November 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I just retread the letter and noticed this colossal irony:
More than once I’ve heard leading researchers in different fields refer to other methods with such beautiful descriptions as “garbage” or “trash”, sometimes even extending these qualifiers to pioneering methods whose only crime is that they are several decades old and which, as scientists, we ought to respect as a man respects his elders.
posted by griphus at 8:54 PM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah you guys are totally right, it's fair to ask people to sacrifice ten years of their lives for grueling, infantalizing and poorly paid labor after graduating from college AND expect them to hustle and schmooze better than a New Jersey pre-owned auto dealer. Lord knows all those late nights sleeping in the library and loan debt really enhances your social skills.

People go into these shitty, unrewarding research jobs to get away from that. Of course they're upset, burned out and disillusioned, it's a sick system. Myself, I've worked on every major holiday over the last five years without a complaint because that's a price I'm willing to pay for not having to Play the Game.

The problem is that after decades of gutting funding for scientific research there's no alternative to the endless nightmare of academic bureaucracy if you want to Do Science, especially since industry sure as shit isn't going to train you into a higher paying position.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 9:12 PM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Aspiring Scientist identifies that career is not for them, identifies the reasons, and leaves. Seems like a pretty good idea.

I left my PhD program 20 years ago for medical reasons, but I can sympathize. My PI would vanish for weeks at a time, renovating his very lovely house. Of his last twelve grad students at the time, all of two received their PhD. His grants often involved literally explosively incompatible fantasies, that he liked to pawn off on undergrads (the smell of phosphorous still makes me a little twitchy). His papers were always of the form 3 pages of things we've done in the past + 1 new fact.

So, the PI didn't bother to show up to mentor, couldn't do much practical science, and contributed little to science as a whole. But damn, he could sell. Grant money rained from the sky. Papers and conferences were everywhere. It was astounding. Last I heard, he was setting up a foundation.

I don't know. Perhaps it takes some of these guys doing the sale, so that others can do the real work. But if you're into justice and credit where it's due, I can see it being aggravating.
posted by underflow at 9:28 PM on November 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


The problem is that after decades of gutting funding for scientific research

I'm pretty sure this is not the case in Switzerland.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:04 PM on November 17, 2013


the alternative to science is creationism

Or stock options!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:49 PM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have more than a few issues with the current structure of academia with regards to scientific research. But this letter ... did not describe the academia I know. It was like some strange, bizarro-world version of academia with a completely different set of problems. Occasionally there was a glimmer of something halfway familiar, but mostly I was left feeling, "What on earth is this talking about?"

But I am sorry this person had such a bad time of it, and hope things improve for them wherever life takes them next.
posted by kyrademon at 3:55 AM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


People go into these shitty, unrewarding research jobs to get away from that.

There is no escape from capitalist culture if you live in one. If you want to join a monastery and pray all day, or start a subsistence farm, or live like a hermit in the wilderness, go for it. But expecting academia to be a monastic retreat from the society that pays for its existence is a fantasy one would best abandon before enrolling in a PhD program.
posted by spitbull at 7:41 AM on November 18, 2013


"Does it actually work that way in some places? I had to write an actual thesis to get a MS, and I'm not really sure how much easier that was than a dissertation."

At least in the harder areas of biology, it is typical that once you finish your competency exams as a PhD student (about two years in) you can just leave with a Masters. Alternatively, you can often decide - or more typically have it decided for you - that you will do a masters thesis instead of a dissertation about a year in. Departments are trashing Masters programs as the degree becomes more and more associated with a failed PhD, and less with a step towards a PhD, as more departments focus on directly recruiting undergrads into a longer program.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:02 AM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Departments are trashing Masters programs as the degree becomes more and more associated with a failed PhD

This is unfortunate. My MS (physical chem) has served me well in the engineering world, where Masters degrees are well regarded. PhD's are sometimes considered with a bit of suspicion by practicing engineers... after all, you could have been building something instead.
posted by underflow at 9:27 AM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Does it actually work that way in some places? I had to write an actual thesis to get a MS, and I'm not really sure how much easier that was than a dissertation."

It depends on where you are. In Canada, the two are separate degrees. Some extremely talented students in Canada can jump straight to a PhD program from a bachelor's degree, but most do a master's first and then the PhD.

My Canadian friends who did a master's here and then went to the US for their PhDs ended up with two master's degrees because they also got one on their way to their US PhDs.
posted by wenat at 9:48 AM on November 18, 2013


polymodus >

I'd like to respond to what you said, because I felt there may have been some misunderstanding after I read your comment.

I think the lack of sympathy in this thread reflects an inability to see the broader issue. To put it simply, the prevailing system creates these burned out individuals. It's an inevitability of the system.

Those of us in academia mostly realize this, at the risk of speaking on someone else's behalf. Perhaps we didn't acknowledge this in the way you expected because we already know that a non-trivial portion of people pursuing doctorates will quit the whole world of academia. But that fact is not an emergent pattern of the academy in isolation: it's a complex effect caused by many factors, only some endogenous to academia.

First one must understand and accept the above. Then it simply follows that to tell these individuals that they should do X or Y (X = get with the program, you should fight it from inside, etc., or Y = you don't like it then leave), and so on, is a point of view told from complacency and presumption, due to an ignorance of perspective. That is, from the status quo.

I think you're getting very close to accusing several of us (rather inappropriately, both on a substantive and contextual level) of "complacency and presumption" and "ignorance". That's rather unkind and totally unwarranted, as many of us are actually speaking from positions of intimate knowledge about the world under discussion. I'm baffled by the apparent claim that people who suggest agitating for change instead of giving up are exhibiting complacency or that people familiar with academia suffer from an ignorance of perspective about it.

The post may have been written by some lowly grad student,

Be fair. Nobody, but nobody took this person to task for being "lowly". Come on.

but where are there rigorous connections being made to the political, social, economic implications of the modern science research industry? Where is that deliberation, the intellectual mind-sharing? I don't see much of that here, nor in the article's comments.

I'm puzzled by this response. You're upset that people aren't making rigorous connections between...what and what, exactly? Again, those of us in academia already know what a lot of those things look like on the personal level; if you're not seeing the kind of discussion you want to see, why don't you make some of those connections instead of taking others to task for not talking about what you want to discuss?

I see sloppy (and frankly, anti-intellectual) rebuttals such as "but Science is neutral", "but this is true of everywhere / it's not perfect", and literalistic readings of "academia is a money vacuum", all missing the point of owning up to these real examples of social costs incurred on actual human beings, at least one of whom has still managed to retain some shred of relatedness enabling him to openly describe his intellectual experiences and working conditions. His feedback should be a gift and a warning.

I think you're misunderstanding what has been said. Stating that science is neutral is neither sloppy nor anti-intellectual, it's merely an acknowledgment of the fact that the goal of science is to produce valid and reliable knowledge, and that the endeavor in itself is neither intended nor structured to change the world for the better. Scientists may use their discoveries to change the world for the better, and that's wonderful! But science as a method and pursuit is oriented to knowledge rather than social change.

As for reading the money vacuum simile literally, I do not know how doing so misses "the point of owning up to these real examples of social costs". I don't know what any of the responses you mentioned have to do with "owning up" to anything, actually, nor why anyone here needs to own up to whatever you're talking about, and am especially perplexed about why you seem to think that people are denying that there's any problem in academia. What is being contested here is not the suggestion that problems exist, itself.
posted by clockzero at 9:55 AM on November 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


The hard part, across the board, is that not everybody is good at the hustle, and yet there is no career track that does not require the hustle. There are occasional people who get lucky, but there's no category where you can reliably succeed without it. None. But lots of people aren't good at it, and it's so tempting to believe that you will be able to find a place in the world where it won't be asked of you, where you can do what you do best and just be content with that. It's not reasonable to expect it, but I also don't see the point of faulting anybody for wanting it.
posted by Sequence at 3:43 PM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The hard part, across the board, is that not everybody is good at the hustle, and yet there is no career track that does not require the hustle

I dunno about that. In science, it is being a lab tech or a patent examiner. In medicine, you can be a pathologist. Accounting has a lot of openings for this kind of personality. The jobs that require of someone "take quiet pride in what you do and do it well" as opposed to "You Are A Brand!" are harder to come by than they were in the past, but they're still around.

The thing is that I think that certain fields that attract the "quiet competent", like arts and science, find that they are getting outplayed by the hustlers. But I think for the most part, those who don't have a natural temperament towards hustling eventually learn how to do it enough to support themselves, even if it isn't as instinctual as it is for others.
posted by deanc at 5:10 AM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Lab tech is not really a career track. It is a job, one you can spend your life doing, but career track implies there is some room for advancement.
posted by maryr at 8:57 AM on November 19, 2013


I didn't get very far into the article. I can't see how is makes any sense to drop out of his program with only a few months left after all that hard work. I can understand be disillusioned, but c'mon man, at least do it to get that credential. Those letters after you name mean something to future employers and I can't imagine how big this bridge hes burning is. It just seems so shortsighted.
posted by Che boludo! at 2:06 PM on November 28, 2013


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