In my advisor's lab, this was done by encouraging competition between students. If a student didn't make experimental progress in a month, a second student was told to work on the same problem. If that didn't work, he would collaborate with postdocs in other labs, sharing ideas and results to get high impact publications quickly. Students needed to publish results as first authors to graduate, so becoming a mere coauthor on someone else's publication after a year of work was a huge setback. One (independemtly wealthy) student was desperate to graduate and published as a first author through another lab with our advisor as a coauthor, and was told that the paper would not be counted. I don't know a single student who graduated without having a breakdown on the way, but the professor in question has become quite famous and received many awards and fellowships in professional organizations for their high-impact work, the department is becoming famous in that field, and the funding agencies have extended funding to pay for five more years with 50% more students.
These hand-wringing editorials suggest nothing that will change incentives or hold ruthless PIs accountable.
I think it goes to show how much variance there are in PhD programs. I frequently advise undergrads to find the right lab (i.e., a lab that doesn't have such a competitive environment) instead of picking a school based on some other criteria like prestige, but this is far easier in hindsight. I got super lucky -- a small lab with a good advisor.
Maybe (in addition to a strong union) we need a "Yelp for labs" where advisors can be penalized (or recognized) for their behavior. If it were publicly available and student testimonial could be somehow verified and anonymous (potentially impossible), I bet administrators would put at least some pressure on problematic PIs...
I think ‘yelp for academic groups’ is an interesting idea, but I really doubt the administration would step in unless it got really bad. But giving prospective students better information could disrupt the flow of good students to toxic labs, which might actually create some incentive for change.
I’m not sure I would actually post to such a service though, even though I have a pretty good relationship with my Ph.D. advisor. Too many bridges to potentially burn in such a small community.
For any prospective students who might read this, in the meantime you might try briefly emailing a few current and former group members asking for their perspective.
It exists: https://www.gradpi.com
There was an article in Science about it last year: https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2018/02/crowdsourcing-goe...
There is no accountability for PIs, for funding agencies, but at least at my university there are independent committees that assess well being from time to time, but to little effect: the university itself has little incentive to limit this behavior as it will limit impact factor, end of discussion.
For disciplines where PhD students are mostly independent and funded via TAships (humanities, sometimes math or social science), a lot of their aggravation is due to university or department policies: how many classes does each person need to teach, how many students per section, how are the classes assigned, how is summer funding allocated, and so on. Collective bargaining could be an effective way to sort this out.
In the sciences, however, the model is very different: students are essentially apprenticed to one professor. If there are problems in that relationship, it's not clear to me how a union could successfully intervene since many of the disputes are both a) highly specialized and b) incredibly subjective. My PhD advisor, for example, sat on manuscripts forever. Could a union have forced him to provide timely, constructive comments on them? Probably not. Very few labs set explicit working-hour "quotas", which a union could regulate. Instead, there are productivity expectations: "this should just take an afternoon" and it's unclear how a union could ensure those are reasonable, especially for research stuff which, by definition, has never been done before! Finally, a lot of academia runs on reputation: recommendation letters are essential to get jobs, grants, and promotions. Even if there was an effective grievance procedure, it could get you through to a PhD--and then promptly doom your career.
The biggest change I would like see is a transition from students "belonging" to one PI towards a model where all of the faculty are invested in all of the students' success.
Management training would be good too. As a grad student and postdoc, you're judged on your ability to train the rats, run the reactions, or image the stars. This is how we pick faculty, and it's a surprisingly small chunk of the actual job, which is mostly people/grant management, with a lot of writing thrown in.
“Well, I think it actually is very destructive. I'm now retired, but when I was a professor here [Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton], my real job was to be a psychiatric nurse. There were all these young people who came to the institute, and my job was to be there so they could cry on my shoulder and tell me what a hard time they were having. And it was a very tough situation for these young people. They come here. They have one or two years and they're supposed to do something brilliant. They're under terrible pressure — not from us, but from them.
So, actually, I've had three of them who I would say were just casualties who I'm responsible for. One of them killed himself, and two of them ended up in mental institutions. And I should've been able to take care of them, but I didn't. I blame the Ph.D. system for these tragedies. And it really does destroy people. If they weren't under that kind of pressure, they could all have been happy people doing useful stuff. Anyhow, so that's my diatribe. But I really have seen that happen."
You're right, though - having a fall back is very useful. I had eight years of outside work before starting mine, which meant that my "in case of disaster" plan was simply to go back to my old career (albeit with lost time and earning potential).
That being said, being a post-doc with independent funding (e.g. a national fellowship) is perhaps the best gig in academia, except that it can't last. You can actually spend all the time on research a PI wishes they could, and any leverage people have on you is not financial. Burning bridges could still hurt you of course.
Having been around many universities, I've seen a number of grad students who believed in academic universal ideals (e.g., the professor as a brilliant and benevolent citizen of the university microcosm) get blindsided by imperfect reality -- when they have the misfortune to be on the receiving end of someone else's mistake/wrongdoing, were powerless, and were not able to find anyone who would help them.
But I don't mean to discourage people from pursuing a PhD. This is just one reason for advice you've already heard, about the importance of finding a good advisor, who'll guide you through the process, and have your back if/when anything goes wrong. (Actually, in all the cases people have told me, it seems the student's career would've been saved if their advisor had had their back, and/or had enough influence to get the department/university to fix the problem. One other student came close to getting scrod, but didn't, because their parent was a noted academic at a top university, who could not only give good advice, but could also have their back, and simply make a phone call, like a good advisor.)
Changing to any new job is hard, but changing Ph.D. advisors/labs/schools/etc. can require you to restart your dissertation research again essentially from scratch.
Ph.D. programs are basically lengthy gauntlets of flaming hoops to jump through to get a meal ticket which is unlikely to get you an actual meal, because of the pyramid scheme. Though like many ordeals, if you manage to survive then you will probably be able to overcome other challenges in the future. You will also teach yourself a lot of things and probably meet some interesting people.
As one of my wise mentors put it, having things not work out with an advisor, even if people have a sense it was the fault of the advisor, marks a student as both "having had their chance" and also "damaged goods".
Unless their department/university facilitates the move, or they already have great publications (great enough to get past the "damaged goods" suspicion).
Regarding awareness of how the system works... While everyone has some shared sense of the systems of graduate studies and career development, an individual probably doesn't have much information about instances of wrenches being thrown into the works, especially not outside their own department or university. (Though they might hear rumors about a particular department elsewhere having cultural problems, and they've formed superficial impressions of a number of other professors, from their behavior at conferences or in faculty meetings, but that's about it.)
Also, I'll speculate it's possible that there's an element of survivorship bias: you don't get to be a professor without a lot of hard work, but also bit of luck in enough things going your way. Wronged grad students, on the other hand, tend to quickly disappear from professors' environments.
(Warning: gross bodily injury.)
Literally, they will observe that behaviors are wrong. They will tut-tut that so and so shouldn't do that. But given the chance to actually take action, they suddenly are unable to find their voice.
It's embarrassing. Everyone claims collegiality is important...but this isn't collegiality. It is the co-option of collegiality to protect bad faith actors. These are not accidental things or one offs or misunderstandings...these are malicous assholes who thing they are gods gift to research. The reality is the people who behave like this rarely make good researchers.
When you hear a story about a faculty member behaving poorly, I guarantee you that other faculty knew and did nothing. Remember that. The only reason they are letting their colleague fall under the bus now is because their behavior has reached the point where there are going to be consequences. They don't want to get caught up in that so they run like rats from a person who's bad behavior they have long turned a blind eye too.
One of my favorite things to do to disrupt these discussions is to consciously reframe discussions of 'students v. faculty' type nonsense into 'people v. people.' If you don't let them implicitly otherize a group but rather make them do it explicitly they won't. These types are totally okay talking in demeaning ways about students but when you refer to students as people they balk.
Ah, but if they do no one gives a damn. No one cares about anything except whether the PI gets good publications.
EDIT: I do think the culture of referring to trainees as slaves needs to stop. Even in jest it can be quite disheartening to be reminded how beholden to your supervisor you are.
One was even a former high-flying book publisher whose previous life was all stress and chemical abuse. He was an amazing dude. He loved being a janitor at the Uni.
Obviously, I can't extrapolate that limited experience to all janitorial staff, but having myself later been through grad school and then professional school and knowing what went on there, I would wager that it wasn't the janitors on anti-depressants.
I don't know exactly why that was, probably a mixture of how it is organized/work culture (Italy is clearly not the US), the extremely caring and human supervisor, and a not particularly competitive field. I would argue that also my fellow PhD candidates were not as stressed as I read here (antidepressants on every doorknob? No way.)
Now that I'm done and I moved to another university in the northern part of the EU, I'm still not convinced, by looking at candidates here, that the PhD is such a tragic experience,but maybe I just know lucky people.
Did anyone here have a positive PhD?
Other people in our department rose quickly and now have international reputations. But I couldn't treat people like they did and look myself in the mirror every day.
One other thing that greatly helped me in my PhD was the mutual support of fellow candidates. On my own I would probably have had a breakdown in my final year as the intensity of writing up alone must be intolerable. That is why I was shocked to read the comment above where a supervisor pitted candidates against each other: that is criminal in my view.
I think I agree on this one. Writing your thesis is indeed a stressful thing, but there was always a supportive atmosphere from the other PhDs in my department. Maybe because everyone is in the same boat :)
Looking at other PhD-students around me I would say that those that have few results so far are indeed stressed, but clearly not to those levels, and that the main criteria for their well-being is the quality of their relation with their advisor (if you intend to do a PhD, pick your advisor carefully, you will work with him for the next three+ years of your life).
A factor might be that our PhD tend to be shorter (three years) and that students are paid and have no debts (at least for a PhD in science in France, those don't hold for other fields such as literature).
My impression is that the amount of PhD stress is different in different fields, with higher-competition fields resulting in more tragic overall experience. For example, my own subject was relatively un-populated and even a bit out of fashion, so I was able to publish papers on openly available data taken almost 10 years ago, and even open source some of my code.
That being said, I also got very lucky to have a flexible and supporting supervisor, and to have a proper working contract with my institute with all the social benefits included (yay, Germany!).
Edit: just realized that the above looks too rosy - I had also burned out in the middle of my PhD from overworking, got increasingly cynical attitude towards science and have left science altogether after graduating due to lack of career prospects. However, challenging as it was, I still consider it a great experience.
One thing I emphasize to all the new graduate students/people thinking of grad school is that, of course, pursue research that is interesting, but also to make sure to pick a good adviser, one who's PhD students can vouch for in private. That was key for me and many of the people I know to having a good versus bad PhD.
Saying that though, I also know people in the UK doing PhD's, and they're having a horrible time. I think it's possibly a consequence heavily privatising education, and focus more on monetary profit over learning and inovation.
Maybe I'm suffering from effort justification. However, I believe I learned a great deal about the art and practice of study.
However, I do remember that, during my PhD, about a third of my lab mates had some kind of mental breakdown. Some suddenly cut the bridge and stopped going to the lab. They would not answer to emails or phone calls.
I would say that in the CS fields, successful PhD are most often a very positive experience, and bring a lot of professional opportunities. The program itself is very intellectually satisfying. And now, many of lab mates have very exciting jobs: startup founders, top AI scientists/engineers, professors.
However,some students that were used to study very well and have top grades, once they started their PhD program, felt completely lost and hopeless in this totally different way of working and thinking. They had to work (mainly) alone for years. So, if no output came out, they felt very depressed. On top of that, the failure to publish usually extends the length of the PhD program...
You think Nature has sided with startups over academia?
This article has been cherry-picked.
If your PhD is in Chemistry/Biology/Physics, not so much.
Some fields of Physics do alright (primarily HEP due to the advanced mathematical/statistical analyses they learn).
It's a pool of smart, driven people with precarious employment and aren't getting paid very much. It should be like shooting fish in a barrel! It sometimes feels like some people imagine that we're all having tea and debating philosophy instead of scrabbling with data.
 Except, oddly, for an hour ago.
I think that startups have a lot more interesting and important things to do than support or promote hit pieces on PhDs and academia life.
I have only read scientific studys which confirm that the lower end of the IQ scale correlates with psychiatric disorders. Can you point me to any papers which support your claim? I'm not saying you're wrong, the claim sounds plausible, it's just that I really haven't read much academic that confirm these claims.
To be fair though, the article does acknowledge that the studies done are not enough, saying that "the evidence is too limited to permit robust conclusions about the mental health status and needs of researchers. Nevertheless, the potential mental impact of pursuing a PhD should not be disregarded."
One is research / research training, involving projects with a large scope unlike anything students have done before, unpredictable timing, a lot of uncertainty and risk, and a certain amount of personal autonomy and social isolation. The others are professional training with many small clear tasks, more or less comparable to previous schooling students already have a lifetime of experience with.
Since then (11-12 years now), the work ethic that pushed me through a PhD in 5.5 years left me burnt out after 60-80 hour work weeks at my first gig. Since stopping working for other folks after coming home (except as necessary for pager duty in some cases), I put my spare hours into relationships, family, and personal recreation. With the wife and kids, basically now just family and personal recreation.
Unfortunately, my personal recreation tends to look a lot like work (email support, open source projects, ...). Combine that with "working for myself" for the last 21 months, and I've experienced more pain and stress in the process of building a business than I did getting the PhD (solve all the problems, all the time, no academic advisors, no end in sight). I think at this point I've needed to take explicit "I am burned out on this" breaks at least 5 times in the last 21 months.
I've been trying to explicitly "not work" in the evenings to cut my own work-driven exhaustion. Trying to do something fun (work on non-work fun software, handle correspondence, play video games, etc.), but at least half my evenings end with starting an overnight "run forever, log failures" set of unittests, or at least updating my daily worklog.
Much of my stress during my PhD was self imposed. I felt like I needed to keep up with the peers I respected, and I knew the metrics required to get the jobs I wanted were hard to reach. It's very easy to get stuck in your own mental bubble. That said, as a professor, I became much more sympathetic to my own advisor. It's easy to criticize when you haven't actually done the job.
Now that I'm a PI, I feel a massive responsibility to my lab members. Being a professor is far harder than any job I had in industry. I spent most of my time helping students do research and fund raising to pay them a pittance (6% success rates for my NSF programs). I also had innumerable other tasks. Seeing my PhD students do well and become leaders in the field has been immensely rewarding, though. Keeping the lab going requires that we all do good work (publishing great papers in top places) or my students won't get good jobs and I won't be able to get money to pay them or educate the next group.
IIRC, the University of Florida offered PhD's if you published 5 papers which he did in one year.
PhD student/postdoc life is extremely unstable: 1) you are very limited in finances; 2) you have to perform a number of different research trials and most of them will have no success; 3) you are always limited in time; 4) there is a continuous flow of grant applications, reports, papers preparation, sometimes teacher assistance works. And in the middle of this you have to find your own unique path in science, your niche.
In summary, you have to be ready to live in a continuous disaster during relatively long period of life. If it fits you, then you can achieve success after ~10 years of hard work. Anyway, it was interesting experience for me :)
Why these people are so hung up on getting PhD title.
Or any not become a YouTuber?
We can easily see that ElectroBoom on YouTube is more respected in the world than any other person holding PhD in Electrical Engineering.
I'm more than willing to trade a significant amount of my salary for that freedom.
I went to grad school because I loved science and mystery stories as a little kid, and my mind was absolutely blown when I discovered that you could get paid (a little) to solve scientific mysteries. I like the idea of figuring out the world and making it a better place much more than I like nicer clothes or a fancy car.
I'm not a YouTuber because I use a multimillion dollar MRI machine, which my credit card wouldn't authorize, my landlord won't let me fill a room with monkeys, and I do my best work when I have colleagues to bounce ideas off of, not just comment boxes.
I do grumble about academia a lot, but it mostly comes from wanting to see it live up to its ideals and possibilities. The current structure is bad in so many ways. You, the taxpayer, are paying for many of these students' training. Wouldn't you rather that they thrive? Even if you don't care about them as people, wouldn't you rather see a return on your investment, in the form of discoveries that make your life longer, healthier, and happier, than have them burn out and quit?