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Goodbye academia, I get a life (2011) (devicerandom.org)
69 points by ramgorur on July 29, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 25 comments

A few things worth noting:

- There is a virtually limitless supply of intelligent and hard-working PhD students at top-ranking Universities. Thus there is little incentive to maximise the value of this resource, by treating students well, etc. Basically it's the inverse of the SF job market for developers.

- On the other hand, one of the nicest guys I ever met during my PhD also happens to be one of the best in his field, with incredibly productive students. I don't think this is a coincidence. [It's Zoubin Ghahramani -- I can't imagine he'd object to being called on this!]

It's a systemic problem. Individual universities don't get harmed by producing too many Phds. If the top 20 schools produce double the scholars needed to fill all the open tenure track spots in the US, they're not harmed. If anything, they can get away with paying new professors less. As taxpayers, we (in theory!) have the benefit of cheaper schools. The real issue is too many people enter the Phd world with blinders on, thinking it's some kind of guaranteed success. There isn't any.

and the university systems are so bureaucratic that when people uniquely placed to solve useful research problems who don't fit well into the hierarchy, the system is unable to deal with them, and spits them out.

I lived in San Francisco as an illegal immigrant, with a bachelors in psychology and a newly found interest in computer science, not able to enroll to a graduate program—nor undergraduate for that matter, I thought I could volunteer as a research assistant in some lab in the Bay Area.

How wrong was I. In the off chance that some professor was interested (some professors are cool people who don't follow customs for the sake of customs), the schools bureaucratic system rendered it impossible for the professor to accept my free (as in beer) service.

Now that I'm back in my home country, with it's free (also as in beer) education system, I'm unable to tackle the project I'm interested in, for professors tend not to facilitate projects that don't fit in their narrow field of interest (reads, the main topic of their 10 most resent publishes).

The university system truly suppresses spontaneity and unorthodoxy.

There's a great article on this here:


Basically, academia loves those who conform to its thinking. This promotes robots, and alienates creativity and intelligence.

This is from someone with impeccable academic credentials and experience in multiple disciplines.

> the system is unable to deal with them, and spits them out.

Wow, kind of just like the real world.

+1 that's so true. Lived through that several times and as a rebel I didn't adapt to the "form", but added much more time into the project to somehow allow my submission by using a loophole, when possible. I also had submissions that failed altough perfectly ok, but it wasn't conforming to what they knew that was conforming. Once I got a D because the teacher didn't believe me that I wrote it, but I did. He just refused to accept it, because it was too good to believe in his opinion (that was a longish rhyme we had to do about homeless people).

Sometimes I believe it was wasted time, but then I think that I was glad to learn something new on my own.

A friend of mine got accepted at a top university for his Masters degree in Computer Science, but he will drop out to complete his master using a MOOC (Massively Open Online Courses).

Know one of his students and was wondering where he gets his excitement for research from.

Getting a tenure track job offer in academia is a very tough prospect. I wish we academics would be more honest with incoming graduate students (or even at an earlier stage) about how much of a filter there is between 1st year grad school and the tenure-track job offer. It's not like there aren't other examples of dense filters in the working world. We just aren't very honest about it with our trainees.

The other thing we fail at as academics is helping trainees understand and take advantage of non-academic tracks after grad school, without attaching a stigma of failure to them. There are many, many ways to succeed, have a rewarding and exciting career, and contribute to society as a non-academic with a graduate degree... not to mention the higher salaries! Too many academics treat their trainees as failures if they even initiate this conversation. It needs to stop.

Imagine if students entering med school, who wanted to be pediatric neurosurgeons, for example (sub-sub-speciality requiring many post-med school years of study) found out at the end of all their training, at age 35 or 40, that oops, perhaps only 25% of them will ever get the job they want?

Spot on! The majority of grad students I've met thought that getting the sheepskin will solve all their problems. You are from a top department so you will surely get a tenure-track position, and that will materialize into an associate professor job in no time. The first time I realized that things were not that rosy was when I started applying for faculty jobs and read the book "A PhD is not enough".

One key reason for all this pain is very simple - too much competition. If we had large institutions like the old bell labs (being funded the same way), that would create demand for fresh PhDs and reduce some of the stress.

Academia is also considered by almost everyone I know to be a one way gate. If you get out, you can't come back in (unless you have achieved massive success and popularity on the outside). This is a sad state of affairs.

All this said, I think there are some very good results of getting a PhD. My social circle is full of ridiculously smart people. I think I'm trained to be unsatisfied until I better understand things, and I have more critical thinking today than when I started grad school.

When I started my PhD last year, my department head gave us a speech where he told us that college football players have better career prospects in the NFL than we will in academia. While that was probably a bit of hyperbole, it certainly made us realize how unrealistic most of our goals were.

This is fine ... but what he ought to do as well is to tell you that going through the program is still beneficial to you even if you don't thread the needle and land that academic job ... and that the Dept or University has resources that will help you find a non-academic job where you can make the most of your skills

That's rather presumptuous to assume that he didn't. In fact, he did and as part of our grad student resources, we have access to a whole host of school specific recruiters. While students from our programme regularly go into the postdoc mill, many go to work at startups, at industrial labs, in finance, at consulting firms, etc. Even more important, though, none of these options are denigrated.

wow that's awesome then! I wish more academic departments were like that

That's not a hyperbole, I totally agree with it. If you sum upp the yearly income of all university football coaches in the US, the amount should be more than triple of the cumulative income of all professors.

It isn't the filters most of you are dishonest about.

It is about the teaching euphemism: students are rather used as cheap labor for exploitation to be disposed of, when "too old" (read expensive: family etc.). I guess there is also a legal reason why trainees and interns are on the rise as opposed to students and initial probation periods.

I totally agree

Personal anecdote:

Something I find interesting: We're taught not to put all our financial eggs in one basket, so we diversify our financial investments - cash and a variety of stock, maybe your own house.

And yet, people typically invest all their energies in one career path, and then lock themselves into that career with commitments that disallow job flexibility.

People often get made redundant, or their employee goes under, or the industry they work in collapses. And if that doesn't happen, they're stuck in a job they hate because... commitments.

Or maybe I'm just lucky. I'm 32 and I have, as Deepak Malhotra put it[1] "quit often and quit early".

I'm 32 and have, in sort-of-chronological order:

* a trade certificate in metal fabrication and welding (I'm a "Boiler-maker / Welder" as it's called in the trade) and have worked nearly 10 years in that industry

* I am a qualified Naturopath - I have studied Clinical Nutrition and Western Herbal Medicine (214 herbs)

* I have worked in IT Infrastructure and Physical Security, and have assisted in project managing a AU$1.4 million dollar data centre upgrade

* And I am currently, and for the second time, working with Physically Disabled men (just two guys) providing in-home independent living carer

I've never been without employment, nor felt stressed thinking I might have trouble finding a job.

Only now am I prepared to go to Uni. I've got employment covered. Now I can go do with Bachelor of Arts I want to do, and have no delusions about getting a job at the end of it.

Is there a point to all this? Surely. I'll make one up.

Why do people invest all their academic energy in one career path? Then get angry at that industry when they realise, like every form of employment, it sucks when you don't want to be doing it any more.

1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D73mm29XXAw

Original link is down, probably got hit by the HN DDoS. Here's the contents of that link, retrieved from Google Cache.


Goodbye academia, I get a life.


One of my first memories is myself, 5 years old, going to my mother and declare to her, as serious as only children can be: “I will be a scientist.”

Yesterday night I was in my office in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge packing my stuff, resolved to not go back to research again -at least not in the shortcoming future.

What has gone wrong?


[ Diagram - a rather idealistic plan for life vs the reality: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive/phd082803s.gif , original at http://blog.devicerandom.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/phd0... ]

[ Diagram quote: Not exactly my pathway (I finished Ph.D. quite well), but well, you get the meaning. ]


I could write in detail what was horribly wrong with my project, and for sure having a lousy project played a big part in deciding to stop and change my path. You for sure want to change your path if you find yourself in a mosquito-ridden swamp.

But if this was the only problem, I would have simply switched to another lab. That’s what I thought until not too long ago (even if the idea of quitting was really in my mind since a lot of time). But the problem is the practice of science itself.

Don’t get me wrong. Every scientist goes on to do science for a single reason: the love of science. Science doesn’t make you rich, it doesn’t make you famous (can you tell me the last 5 Nobel Prizes for chemistry without looking on Wikipedia? I can’t either) and doesn’t make you comfortable. The only sane reason for starting to do science is the dispassionate love of science itself. And I loved science. Like nothing else. Since I was 5 years old. And I still love it.

But one thing is to love science; a completely different one is doing it. Like the proverbial sausage, you don’t want to know how it’s done.

Actually, doing science per se is great. Doing experiments, analyzing data, making calculations, programming code: I loved it all immensely. However, with the partial exception of mathematics and theoretical physics, you can’t be a lone wolf in science. You need funding, you need instruments, you need resources. You need other people. And here’s where the problems lie. You basically face two choices.


[ Diagram explaining the "Profzi" scheme, a cynical depiction of the academic bureaucracy: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive/phd030909s.gif , original at http://blog.devicerandom.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/phd0... ]

[ Diagram quote: No, it's not a satire or an exaggeration. ]


The first is going for the sky: doing great science in a first-class place, make a great curriculum and look for a tenured position in the end. The problem is that a lot of clever people want to go for the sky, and there is much more people who want the sky compared to the available positions. In general, science career is a race, where three people go to the podium and all the others sooner or later will go back home (See also this article from the Economist on the problem). The competition for funding and positions means that not only the hopes of getting a job are really lousy, but that people become nasty. Like, really nasty.

I know of people that have given a purportedly crippled software to a collegue to sabotage his project. I’ve been violently attacked verbally for having dared talking with my supervisor of a project I was collaborating with, because she feared that I wanted to “steal” her credit. I’ve seen more than once people “helped” during a project, only to find all credit for their work taken by the nice and smiling people who scammed them by “helping” them. There are endless horror stories like that. Everywhere. Now, do you want to work in a place full of insanely clever people who are also insanely cynical and determined to do everything to get on top of you? If so, you can do top level science.

It’s not all, of course. Top level science requires also an absolutely mind-boggling determination and, overall, confidence in yourself. To properly do science you must be absolutely sure that, whatever you have in mind, you will do it, no matter what, and that you’re doing it right, to the point of almost self-delusion. This is so important that who wins in science is regularly not the most brilliant but the most determined (I’ve seen Nobel prizes speaking and half of the times they didn’t look much more brilliant than your average professor. Most of them were just lucky, and overall were incredibly, monolithically determined). Combined with the above, this means working 24/7, basically leaving behind everything in your life, without any doubt on your skills and abilities and most importantly on your project, while fencing off a competition of equally tough, confident and skilled guys.


[ Diagram of an evil-looking clown: http://www.gamesprays.com/images/icons/i-like-you-so-ill-kil... , original at http://blog.devicerandom.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/lget... ]

[ Diagram quote: A friendly post-doctoral scientist in your group asking for a scientific collaboration. ]


The ones I’ve seen thriving in Cambridge, apart from geniuses (there are a few), are the guys who cling to a simple ecological tenet: Find your niche, where you are indispensable, and keep it in your claws at all costs. This means basically that these people do always the same thing, over and over again, simply because it’s the lowest-risk option. I could have done the same (I was pretty skilled during my Ph.D. in a quite obscure but interesting biophysics experimental technique) but I thought that doing science properly was also about learning and broadening your expertise. How wrong I was.

You can imagine yourself what does it mean also for research in general: Nobody takes risks anymore. Nobody young jumps and tries totally new things, because it’s almost surely a noble way to suicide your career.

There is a second option, which is bare survival. You go from postdoc to postdoc, perhaps end up as a long-term researcher somewhere in some tiny university or irrelevant research center and basically spend your time with a low pay, working on boring projects, crippled by lack of funding and without any hope of a reasonable career (because the career path is taken over by the hawks above described), nor any hope of stability in your life.

Notice that, again, both paths do not offer you any guarantee of sort. You can arrive to tenure track (itself an achievement) and being kicked out after a few years, thus ending up as a jobless 40-year something, with a family probably, too old to compete in the market of real jobs. And bare survival is not easy as well.


So basically, if you are not cut for this kind of life, your chances are zero. I tried, believe me. I tried hard. What happened during my research career is that I spent 6 months on antidepressants, I got a permanent gastritis, I wasted at least two important sentimental relationships, and I found all my interests and social life going down the drain.

All of this for having a couple papers about modeling obscure aspects of protein behaviour, papers that will be probably lost within the literally thousands of papers that come out every day? Until not so long, I thought that it was worth it. It was something that I had never questioned so far. I wanted to be a scientist since when I was five. I had done everything to become a scientist. I was a scientist in one of the top universities of the world, in one of the top five research groups on the subject. I had won a personal fellowship to fund myself. Most of my self-esteem, of my very concept of self-realization, relied on myself being a scientist. The very idea of quitting academia was a synonim of personal failure.


It has been long and painful to discover that it was just an illusion. When I found that academia was not working for me, I got immediately depressed -my whole worldview was crumbling. Then I remembered that I had a life. I liked my life. I had a billion things that I loved to do. I want to do them again. Quitting and reclaiming back your life is not failing. It is waking up and winning.

A week ago I was with friends, talking about my job, and I found myself comparing science to a drug addiction. Being a scientist, from the brain chemicals point of view, is one week of adrenaline rush when you’re finally on to something and pieces go together -followed by six months (if you are lucky) of pain and suffering, only to get again that adrenaline shot.

Well, noble addiction as it is, it is toxic the same. The next month I’ll be 30. It’s really time to get my life back.


Sometimes people forget that being a scientist is a job like many others. And everything that is rewarding is more or less an addiction. So, yeah, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weltschmerz

The vast majority of everyone gets washed out of academia eventually. It's like being tortured or persuaded or bled to death: it will happen, the question is how long you can stay standing before it happens. The only way to avoid it ever happening is to bail out completely well before your breaking point.

So the question is: how much can you accomplish for yourself by staying in the Pain Game of Academia for how long, versus bailing out earlier to go do something else?

"How should we make it attractive for them [young people] to spend 5,6,7 years in our field, be satisfied, learn about excitement, but finally be qualified to find other possibilities?" -- H. Schopper

This policy, which leaves the staff member in the unknown for almost five years concerning the possibility of obtaining an IC, ensures too great a flexibility to the Organization and imposes too much precariousness and insecurity on the staff. [...] Unfortunately, and to our great regret, this situation will create even more anxiety and insecurity. This will be difficult for LD staff to cope with. Indeed, even while giving complete satisfaction, they have no forward vision about the possibility of pursuing a career at CERN.

What do you mean by LD and IC?

Limited Duration: read temp job

Indefinite Contract: read permanent job (with PIPs, alas)

IC slots are only available to LD holders (ie. multi-year probation).

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