During the last edition of the Complex System Society conference (Palma de Mallorca, October 2022), the Young Researcher Team organised a round table on “Challenges for young researchers: from mental health to precarity.” Much as expected, the session turned into a résumé of the many broken pipes of academia – whether you are a Ph.D. student or not. But nevertheless, I think the event was very valuable. That a group of students sat together with senior researchers and just talked about how they feel, that they question their working conditions, the pressures they endure, and that they bring into light the ups and the downs of their daily struggles, is for me a very encouraging sign. I really hope experiences like this will become more frequent in conferences because it is about time academia visits the psychiatrist for an inside-out therapy.
The highlight of the evening happened when, during the phrasing of an argument, a student suddenly said “… because doing a Ph.D. is just a job.” Wooow !! Murmuring propagated throughout the auditorium instantly and eyebrows were rosen (mine included). For about two minutes my mind got trapped in those words and I couldn’t listen to anything else.
Why would a student come to think or feel that, what they are doing is “just a job“? It sounds so wrong. I think the reaction that this triggered in the audience could be explained by the fact that it condenses many of the failures of academia –or its consequences– in just a few words. But before deliberating further, I will make my view on this very clear:
No, doing a PhD is not just a job. And it should never feel like that to anyone. Not to the students, not to the supervisors, not to the universities, not to the funding agencies. A Ph.D. is all about becoming a scientist, and proving you can become one. That’s it.
One of the most revealing messages I understood from the round table is that many Ph.D. students feel like cheap labour: working for somebody else, enjoying rather questionable working conditions on the one hand but facing very high pressure and expectations on the other one. What is going so wrong that students could end seeing themselves like that? I can imagine some possible reasons, usually interdependent, but which could be more or less classified into: (i) scientists have no time to do science, (ii) institutional failures and (iii) personal incompetence.
Most of the issues raised during the round table were not only about the process of doing a Ph.D. They are endemic problems about academic culture, academic governance and how science or universites are funded. Obviusly those problems slide down the ranks and, as the last in the chain, affect the life of Ph.D. students. Sometimes, the consequences fall directly on their shoulders.
So, where does all this come from ?
One of the major problems of academia is that most scientists have barely any time to do science. Our lives pass busy. Doing stuff. Exactly what, it is often difficult to say. Yes, teaching duties take time but then we start adding “stuff” to the pile. We are buried under mountains of administration, emails, working for free for journals as editors or referees, organising conferences, taking part in councils and evaluation boards, writing grant proposals, managing and reporting those grants, and a very large etc. For scientists in academia, science has become something you squeeze one hour here, one hour there. Specially during your free time – evenings, weekends and holidays. And that is extremely frustrating.
So, what do we do? We put our scientific dreams on the shoulders of Ph.D. students. And that is very wrong because too often we are not giving them problems or questions to think about. We are just passing to them the scientific work we would love to do ourselves but find no time to carry out because we are too busy doing all the other “stuff.” In other words, we are giving them projects that are already predefined to a high level of detail. So, of course, many students will feel as cheap labour. Besides, delegating your dreams onto someone else, or the fear of failure because you know – as a student – that you are responsible for the success of someone else’s dreams, adds a psychological and emotional pressure to the student-supervisor relationship that not everyone knows how to deal with.
Another lesson I learned from the round table is that many Ph.D. students ignore the struggles of their supervisors and the massive pressure they also suffer from the institutions. I think many students see their supervisors as workaholic freaks who know nothing bettern than spending their weekends writing e-mails to them. They don’t realise that their supervisors are also victims of an academic, editorial and scientific funding system that turns passionate scientists into “delivery boys for eveything.” The point is, most supervisors will tell: I don’t write you during the weekend because I like it. I do it because it is the only moment I have to revise that manuscript or those results you sent to me.
From an institutional point of view, I never understood why the expected time to fulfil a Ph.D. went down from four years to three. As a professor of psychology used to tell us when I was myself a student at the University of Potsdam: “The moment you finish your Ph.D. you have to be the world-leading expert on what you did“. Honestly, I don’t see many students taking their work to the depth needed for that to happen. Some of them can’t or don’t know how to, but most of them simply do not have the time to dig deep enough to become a true expert nor to deliver a truly solid scientific outcome that will survive the passing of time. The institutional pressure –both from the universities and from the funding agencies– is to “wrap things up” and to deliver a dissertation because time is ticking and the three year limit is coming.
The 3-year Ph.D. schema (two years of research and one for writing) leaves no room for failure. No time to learn from failure. No time to take risks. As another beloved professor of mine used to tell us, and still does nowadays, a scientist can’t promise results. A scientist can only promise hard work and that you will try your best to solve a problem or to answer a question. But you can’t promise a solution or an answer. When an engineer promises to build a bridge, surely challenges will appear on the way that will require novel thinking. But at the end of the day there will be a bridge. Science doesn’t work like that. Indeed, so many of the biggest discoveries in history happened unexpectedly while a scientist was working hard on one problem but something didn’t go as expected. For a Ph.D. student nowadays failure means panic. Failure means that six or twelve months are gone and that there is practically no time to start over and get enough results to write a dissertation. Specially in the experimental fields where repeating an experiment or carrying a new one can easily take one year or more.
The 3-year Ph.D. funding schema forces supervisors to design detailed projects that “can be done” in the expected time. This is positive to a degree, I know. But it also implies taking no risks, passing to students insubstantial projects, safe projects, in which there is little room for the students to bring true intellectual contributions of their own. Hence, no wonder that many students feel as cheap labour. Because in the end, this is the role that the system is leaving for them.
Don’t fool yourself and don’t let others fool you
If you are a Ph.D. student reading this, or you are thinking to enroll into one, don’t fool yourself. Doing a Ph.D. is hard work. It is to proof you can understand a field of research or an area of knowledge deep enough to identify critical issues and raise fundamental questions. That you are an independent mind capable of critical thinking (but a thinking that makes sense) and moreover, that you are capable of answering questions nobody has answered before or solving problems nobody has solved before. You are on your own. Yes, with help and guidance, but on your own standing at the edge of an intelectual cliff. And this can be daunting because odds are you will fail. If you don’t feel the passion for exploring the unknown, if you can’t handle the pressure of standing on that intelectual cliff, if you don’t make yourself questions about how and why nature works, maybe a scientific Ph.D. is not the right path for you.
Putting it in the harsh way, as it happens in many other professional areas, as a Ph.D. student you are like a new fish in a pond “either you learn to swim or you don’t“. This is absolutely no excuse for the institutional failures around academia, it is no excuse for incompetent, abusive or narcissistic supervisors. But it is what it is. You have to proof yourself, given a reasonable environment and working conditions. So, there are a few things you should take on account:
- A Ph.D. is not an extension of a master’s degree, sorry. As an undergraduate student you mostly solved textbook problems for which solutions are known. If you couldn’t solve it, someone could tell you how to.
- You can’t expect your supervisors to know how to solve your problems. They can guide you based on their past experience but there is no guarantee their recommendations will be right.
- As a Ph.D. student, you can’t expect someone will tell you precisely what to do and how to do it. A scientist is not a worker sitting at the production line of a factory. That is why doing a Ph.D. is not just a job. You work for yourself, you work for your dissertation.
- So, if someone offers you a Ph.D. project in which everything is already protocolised and your task is to just carry out the plan, run away.
- The fact that your supervisor is a great scientist, that doesn’t make him or her an empathic superhero, nor the devil in person. We are all motivated in different ways. Some people need a smile and a tap on the shoulders. Other people need to be challenged in order to give their best.
- So, don’t expect your supervisor will understand how they should treat you out of the box. Your supervisor may also have a particular style that doesn’t take the most of you. If you feel uneasy express yourself and try talking with them about this.
- But of course, when a relationship becomes toxic or abusive, one has to get away. Move away and find a better place (for you). And that goes both for students and supervisors.
- Beware of other toxic students. It is not all about the student-supervisor relationship. I have seen attention craving students destroying the peace of a lab. Making their way to become the “favourite” of the Professor and then using their position of power to take advantage of the work of their fellow students.
- Keep your fingers away from the competitive-style labs. In some labs the Professor gives the same problem to different students so that they compete against each other. You don’t want to be in a place like that.
- Last, but not least. If you are in an experimental field, the adequate maintainance of a lab requires plenty of duties that simply need to be carried out. And that is part of your job. Bacteria, plants and animals don’t understand whether it is Sunday or holidays for humans. There are rutinary maintainance duties and you must be ready to take responsability. Of course, it should be shared with the other colleagues.
In summary, I hope I could explain why doing a Ph.D. is not just another job but why I think some students may feel like cheap employees. Of course, all these reflections are just based on my personal experiences and my perception of what I have seen in my surroundings. Other people will surely have other views, tangential or complementary. For me, being a scientist is the most exciting profession one could possibly have but unfortunately, there are structural and institutional issues that often makes it a very frustrating job. Doing a Ph.D. is the beginning of this path. For me, the years of my Ph.D. were some of the happiest times of my life. Later on, I came to realise how lucky I was to do my Ph.D. in the place where I did it, surrounded by the people I had around. And also as a matter of timing. I was just there in the right place, in the right moment. I took all that for granted but since then, I have seen other faces of science, of the humans doing science and of academia. Not so kind faces all the time.
If you are in the middle of your Ph.D. and you love it, but you feel the conditions and the environment are making you down, you should know that there are other labs and other scientists out there. Try bringing up those problems to your supervisors or seek help from your institution. It is not always easy, I know. But if you love it, endure. Get your Ph.D. done and then fly away. Surely there are many other places where you will be happier. Academia is a very conservative environment, rooted in strong hierarchies and power relations. Very reluctant to reorganization and adaptation. But there are many signs out there that things could change soon. The fact that we spent two hours during the last conference for the Complex Systems Society, to start talking about mental health and a healthy working environment for Ph.D. students, is one of those signs. I am very thankful for the young researchers who dared to organise the session and I truly hope the example will be followed in other conferences across different fields.
About the Author(s)
Gorka Zamora-López is a research assistant with +15 years of experience. Now, he replies e-mails, attends zoom meetings, writes reports and supervises students all day long.