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A PhD state of mind (2018) (nature.com)
170 points by lainon 48 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 100 comments



This style of editorial is becoming more common, and IMO is almost useless. Saying that "Advisors should take care of their students' well-being." doesn't account for the fact that incentives are for advisors to overpromise to funding agencies and drive their students hard to make up the difference. They control funding/compensation, graduation, and paper piblication/author order, and are set to personally benefit from faster results at higher difficulties.

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.


This would be considered absolutely batshit at all three of the R1 research universities I've been around, which spans a significant range of prestige.

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...


Definitely agree with assessment of high variance in programs and even individual groups.

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.


> we need a "Yelp for labs"

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...


This rings true. And it’s not just the students but postdocs, engineers who have to make up the gap. Students bear the brunt as being most disposable. When one student worked in a kebab truck to support themselves, my advisor said “well better to have the PhD than not, yes?”

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.


Unionizing graduate students is the answer.


This came up frequently when I was in grad school. I doubt it is the right solution, especially for PhD students doing experimental work.

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.


Here are a couple of relevant quotes from Freeman Dyson (who does not have a PhD):

“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."


I wouldn't go after a PhD unless being born into a rich family (with a potential fall back). Otherwise its a ticket to an early grave and or lost earning potential. I've encountered a few colleagues who are beyond gifted in what makes them survive the trial. I had a roommate finishing his masters and going for the PhD afterwards. Guy was making bank by prostituting himself to women every few nights. Slept till noon before going to work on his research. I cannot imagine how hard it must be if someone is pursuing the degree without any wealth helping him/her out. I doubt scholarships would be much if any relief. I definitely can see persons ending up in psych wards or taking their life if it becomes too much.


It depends a lot on the circumstances of the individual and their lab/supervisor. If the environment is supportive and a sufficient stipend is provided, then it's achievable without rich parents. The environment is very difficult to evaluate from outside, but the funding is an important go/no-go gate: if you can't persuade someone to fund you as a PhD student, you're not in a great position for the post-PhD job crunch, and the struggle of trying to fund your studies in the meantime makes a difficult situation worse.

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).


This doesn't surprise me. PhD students remain in a vulnerable position. They are not only intelligent and sensible, but also often exploited by the hierarchy and underpaid. The cynic in me sees the whole procedure of academic ordination as a kind of humiliating ponzi scheme, based on effort justification and the sunk cost fallacy.


I think this should be extended to post doctoral fellows as well. People generally focus on PhD students but post-docs are even more vulnerable. Many academic places have some level of protection and oversight for PhD's. These proections are certainly not enough. But post-docs are treated as contract workers, where your supervisor can terminate you whenever they feel like for whatever reason they want. In this situation you really have no recourse and your institution owns your data so you are essentially left with nothing.


I think that's a bit of a mixed bag, really, and depends on the organization and how the post-doc is funded. Some are pretty dire, others quite good.

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.


Yep. The experience of postdocs is extremely varied, from the best job in academia (and one I end up looking back on fondly) to some genuinely hellacious stories.


I suppose some of it depends on the supervisor and how much they care about helping you develop your career versus greasing the pole behind them.


Those are definitely amazing opportunities. I have had colleagues who have had those and they were incredible experiences for them. However, I am not sure what the proportion of post-docs are that get that level of independence.


Compounding the power differential is what seems to be a "thin tweed line" in some universities or departments, akin to the "thin blue line" of protecting a cop who'd made a mistake or was corrupt. It's not just solidarity with one's status group, nor the not-unusual general bit of arrogance, but a (partly understandable) prejudiced suspicion of any student who alleges wrongdoing. There's also a willingness to dismiss gross, even illegal, abuses as merely "academic politics", and imply that the wronged person didn't merit not being wronged.

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.)


You're not wrong. One problem in Ph.D. programs and workplaces alike is that supervisors control both funding and advancement, which grants them inordinate power. If you can get funding (like a multi-year fellowship) that is independent from your supervisor, you will have a lot more freedom.

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.


It's not just the cost of changing, but even having that as an option.

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).


Well put. Ending a PhD/Postdoc position prematurely raises red flags. Besides, accepting a new position often comes with relocations which might be pricey.


Assuming the people involved are intelligent and also aware of how the system works, why consider the student as “damaged goods” over something which is not their fault? I have no horse in the race but as an outsider it seems stupid so I have to assume I’m missing something. I can’t be more rational than all these scientists right?


I took "damaged goods" to mean traumatized by the experience.

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.


Thank you for the in-depth reply.


It ends up literally maiming people.

https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/university-of-hawaii-res...

(Warning: gross bodily injury.)


I know people working in a research lab where the PI refers to some of the members as "slaves" in front of everyone. The power differentials are utterly out of whack. It's not remotely surprising what the results are.


As a real-boy faculty member it's not just the power differential but the utter unwillingness of other faculty to police the actions of their peers.

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.


> 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.

Ah, but if they do no one gives a damn. No one cares about anything except whether the PI gets good publications.


Im more pessimistic. They care, just not enough to rock the boat. I think that's worse. They acknowledge that a disempowered group is unfairly harmed and, from a position of power, actively choose to do nothing.


One of my supervisors used to point out various pieces of lab equipment and equated it's value to X PhD's. It was funny and a bit depressing at the same time.

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.


I was at lunch once with my advisor and some visitors from a government lab who was sponsoring us. At one point conversation went into hours and productivity (which was particularly constrained at a government facility) and I distinctly remember my advisor bragging about how he could get his students to work nights and weekends to get something done. I sure don't miss it.


It's ridiculous that it's a point of pride for supervisors to overwork their students. Along a similar vein one of my supervisors used to come in on weekends just to see who was there and he would deprecate those he didn't see on Monday.


It is. It's something I actively try to combat in my lab.


One note (because the abuse of trainees is unacceptable), is that sometimes the "This thing cost X PhD's" thing is used as gripe, not a way to put down students. Basically, making students realize the equipment they're using is expensive, and that tradeoffs exist in the lab.


That's very disappointing to hear. I'm a fifth year PhD student and I tire of hearing things like "this [now automated task] is worth 5 PhD students!" I can't imagine being called a slave.


Its not really that uncommon. Especially with students from India/China etc where their status in the country depends on the PI's good graces this can be quite complicated. Students will literally do anything to make sure the PI is happy. The worst exploiters are professors from the same countries. They'll sometimes often only hire students from the same countries. I knew a case where a PI was caught screwing a student on the lab bench. She was dismissed, he was sent on a sabbatical.


Students swiped doorknobs in our chemistry building and analyzed the swabs by mass spec. Antidepressants were found on every one of the doorknobs...and no one was even surprised by that outcome. My boss' estimate about how many grad students are on some sort of psychiatric medication is "all of them."


My conclusion is that the janitor is on antidepressants.


In undergrad, one of my jobs was working for the University Plant Services (labor, janitorial, etc). Some of the most well-adjusted people I've ever worked with in my whole life were those janitors and managers.

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.


More often than not janitors wear gloves doing their work in lab


They take so many antidepressants they are too lazy to take their gloves off.


What if one person on antidepressants frequently visits most rooms in the building? I don’t see how we extrapolate from doorknobs to people.


You can't but I did a PhD (Physics) and pretty much every PhD researcher with me was on antidepressants for some time. It was so common that nobody bothered to hide and people would trade information on which antidepressants would work best while keeping their work life unaffected. In other shit, almost every married candidate I knew went through a divorce (except for a Mormon guy).


It reminds me of the study finding that 90% of dollar bills have traces of cocaine. Have to be careful drawing conclusions.


Because only positive results can be published and you'll get fired (err, your position will run out of funding) if you don't.


My two anecdotes are unrelated, sorry. My boss estimates how many people are on meds because many tell him they are on meds.


Did they get human subject consent and IRB and HR approval, for this research on their coworkers, and that veered into private medical information?


Researchers play around a lot with stuff in the labs. You are not linking individual people with these results and you will certainly not see this published anywhere.


Well, it seems that everyone describes the PhD as a tragic experience... for me it wasn't.

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?


Yes, I did. My supervisor was quite old-school idealistic in that he believed that good work would rise to the top without playing political games. We were both a bit naive in that respect I think... and we've both had modest careers as a result. But I really enjoyed my PhD and greatly respected his integrity.

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.


> On my own I would probably have had a breakdown in my final year as the intensity of writing up alone must be intolerable.

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 :)


Currently in the second year of a happy PhD in France.

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).


I did, too. And although, much like other replies to your post say, it was not in the US, I know many "happy graduates" from there.

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.


I'm a fairly recent PhD, but on the whole I had a very positive time. It took some time to figure out what I wanted my research to be, and that was the most stressful part (first two years/in conjunction with a Masters). After that, it became pretty fun, with a very flexible schedule, very talented, driven and supportive people around me, and the ability to work on what I want with a lot of academic freedom.

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.


I think it's a US vs Europe thing. Basically everybody I know in Europe who got a PhD (including my wife) had an experience much more similar to yours than what the article describes.


Hey dude, Italian here as well currently enrolled in a Masters. I am thinking over the possibility of going forward with a PhD rather than looking for a job, could I ask you some questions? It is quite hard for me to find actual information on PhD life here in IT and unfortunately I don't know anyone who has done one.


sure, shoot me an email, my username @ gmail


For me, it's always seemed a primarily American problem. Many of my close friends have done PhD's across Northern Europe also, and they say that while it's hard, they also say that they have a good support system around them.

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.


Net positive experience in my case, in the US. Emphasis on net because there were certainly hard times. It took longer than I'd like to admit and I took a year off to work, and a summer offfor just writing. But I highly value the experience and I had subsidized student loans from undergrad so that was ~10 years of no interest.


I have come across quite a few people across top universities in central Europe who quit academia and/or were burnt out after their PhD. In my own experience in Austria support networks are non-existent, and students working under top professors in competitive fields are under an immense amount of stress.


I just finished a PhD in the US and loved it. Sure there were some stressful times, but I don't blame the system for that, and my advisor was very supportive. I'm sure it helped that my PhD was reasonable well funded and I lived in a relatively cheap city.


It seems to be a primarily US problem. Most people I know in Germany and elsewhere in the EU doing their PhD are doing fine. Stressed at times maybe, but not on the edge of emotional/psychological breakdowns or chugging antidepressants.


It depends on the field. I have a fairly large network of contacts who are phds or postdocs in German and Switzerland. The experiences range from fairly uneventful to US levels of stress.


“Being a graduate student is like becoming all of the Seven Dwarves. In the beginning you’re Dopey and Bashful. In the middle, you are usually sick (Sneezy), tired (Sleepy), and irritable (Grumpy). But at the end, they call you Doc, and then you’re Happy.”

Maybe I'm suffering from effort justification. However, I believe I learned a great deal about the art and practice of study.


After reading this, the cynical part of me would say that the start-up world is in competition with the academic world to recruit the best talents. So, it keeps publishing biased articles about the drawbacks of doing a PhD. For similar reasons, it also publishes articles about bad experiences in the corporate world.

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...


>> the start-up world is in competition with the academic world to recruit the best talents. So, it keeps publishing biased articles about the drawbacks of doing a PhD.

You think Nature has sided with startups over academia?


Abviously not. Nature sides with academia.

This article has been cherry-picked.


Start-ups want CS PhDs mostly.

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).


One reason I always doubt these "shortage of tech workers" stories is that I rarely heard[0] from recruiters, either as a grad student or a postdoc in a fairly computational field.

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.

[0] Except, oddly, for an hour ago.


The problem is that the pools which recruiters tend to connect with are almost completely disjoint from the academic pools. The recruiting is almost completely driven by word of mouth. The other problem is outside of CS (and to some extent Wall Street) hiring companies often think they can get fresh PhDs for cheap. I've been offered salaries that were a x% bump on my pathetic postdoc pay. I have a PhD and would have loved to jump into industry but could only make it happen once I started networking within industry folks. Once I had an industry position I was suddenly swamped with recruiters asking if I was looking for a change.


"...keeps publishing biased articles about the drawbacks of doing a PhD"

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.


This study does not seem very robust. How do we know that folks that enroll into PhD programs are not just more likely to have mental health issues? There is a positive correlation between IQ and mental health issues at least at the higher end of the scale and this could be a manifestation of that.


> There is a positive correlation between IQ and mental health issues at least at the higher end of the scale

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.


I know this is anecdotal, but a lot of PhD students I know who have depression struggled with it in undergrad as well, the stresses of pursuing a PhD just made it worse/caused a relapse.

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."


This is an editorial, not a study.


We have excellent reason to believe this is a PhD programme thing because this does not happen in the closest equivalent, professional doctorates like JDs or MDs, not does it occur in MBAs. And the prevalence of mental problems in PhD students is far too high for any other explanation to be credible.


Those are completely different types of work, not very similar at all.

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.


I mean, I spent 10 years working essentially around the clock. I burned out, my mental health crumbled, I isolated from friends, my marriage fell apart. I'd never ever go through that for an employer. It's funny. With complete freedom to choose when and how I worked, I worked myself to the bone. I'm much happier with a job where I'm defensive about my time and wellbeing


I can relate to this. I sometimes wonder if creative, intelligent, conscientious people actually need some kind of mild oppression in their lives in order to be happy?


Complete freedom means you have to provide the structure yourself. And that is something that is not taught at universities or schools. I know I struggled a lot with this. And even coming to this conclusion in the first place is something that took me several years.


Burned out, hit my limit, and needed to take a break in grad school twice. Once due to contract work (had to pay my bills, so spent a week writing testing code instead of core product), and once due to emotional exhaustion after writing an unaccepted paper (spent a week watching all 7 seasons of ST: Voyager while my ex was at work).

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.


A lot depends on advisor-student compatibility. Different students need different mentorship styles, and some students require a lot more hands on help than others. Research is incredibly hard, especially when just starting.

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.


A bit of a tangent, but does anyone know if a "paper PhD" is still and option ? The first and only time I ever heard of it was during a lecture by Nobel laureate Dr. Shuji Nakamura[1].

IIRC, the University of Florida offered PhD's if you published 5 papers which he did in one year.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUlR9DP6Me4&t=2074s


It’s called a “sandwich thesis” and it’s quite common in some countries, mostly in Europe. Put together a few papers published in peer reviewed journals, write a introduction, and submit it for defense.


It's fairly common at my university. You publish 3 papers surrounding a singular theme or topic and you use that for your PhD. You still need to write an intro and have some boilerplate stuff, but it's not uncommon at all.


The so-called "Sandwich Thesis" is the default in my field. At this point, doing something else is genuinely strange.


Although the number is shrinking, it's still a thing in Japan (so-called "ronpaku"). It is generally said that the thesis by a paper PhD must be better than those regular PhDs who completed courseworks, but it's much more efficient. If your thesis is already complete, you can get a degree in less than a year.


some programs are happy to just have you tack a bunch of papers together into a dissertation. they usually still require you to write the actual document, though, re-explaining the work in each paper.


This may differ from one student to another or from lab to lab, but the general thesis is definitely true. I decided to quit academia in favor of IT industry exactly due to this high stress problem, even having a number of relative good papers published. I just could not bear it more.

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 :)


We used to call it Permanent Head Damage - it certainly rings true many times during the course.



It's both a money and commitment problem. Even without the money problem like in europe, ut makes a very unbalanced life to make so much sacrifice during a so long time..


Vast majority PhDs end up being giant losers. Very few career choices with any money. Being a professor at age 50 isn't a success, really.


Funny it took so long to get this research out.


The grad student writing it up had to take leave


I wonder if those PhDs are ready to suffer so much, why don't they work at SV companies where they can get free sushi + 6 figure salary and lots of interesting problems to solve.

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.


It's not particularly hard to understand. Some people love to work on deep, challenging problems that can take years to solve. This kind of problem solving doesn't really exist in the tech industry. The vast majority of industry work is grunt work - the cutting edge would be implementing papers that poor graduate students publish. The rare places it does exist (e.g. Google/Microsoft research) generally require a PhD in the first place, and are very competitive roles.


Plus, in academia (at least in most countries of the EU, where you receive a salary during your PhD... I don't know how it works in other countries) you can focus on stimulating problems with little business value, and you can decide on your own your research topic, which is a kind of freedom I can't imagine in any industry.

I'm more than willing to trade a significant amount of my salary for that freedom.


The "title" is by far the least important part. I really only use it for junk mail and annoying airlines.

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?


Still dreaming? PhD work can be done by students from poor countries needing a visa


No shit.




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