An Aspiring Scientist’s Frustration with Modern-Day Academia: A Resignation

Here is a mind-blowing text that was sent to all EPFL researchers (presumably) by a doctoral student during the week-end. It expresses feelings that are worth to think about.

Just to be crystal-clear:

  • I am not the author of this text.
  • I don’t publish the name of his/her author, since I have no proof that his/her e-mail address was not spoofed.
  • I don’t think that the exposed facts are a problematic unique to EPFL, nor to any other Swiss university: to the contrary, this is probably a worldwide phenomenon.
  • Finally, I would like to make very clear that I did not experience the same feelings at all during my (very happy) PhD times at EPFL. So, don’t try to make any parallel with my own experience.
  • Like the author, I don’t have any good idea how to change the system towards a better one.

Still, if you are or have been in the academic world, I think it is worth to invest 10 minutes to read this text.

Dear EPFL,
I am writing to state that, after four years of hard but enjoyable PhD work at this school, I am planning to quit my thesis in January, just a few months shy of completion. Originally, this was a letter that was intended only for my advisors. However, as I prepared to write it I realized that the message here may be pertinent to anyone involved in research across the entire EPFL, and so have extended its range just a bit. Specifically, this is intended for graduate students, postdocs, senior researchers, and professors, as well as for the people at the highest tiers of the school’s management. To those who have gotten this and are not in those groups, I apologize for the spam.
While I could give a multitude of reasons for leaving my studies – some more concrete, others more abstract – the essential motivation stems from my personal conclusion that I’ve lost faith in today’s academia as being something that brings a positive benefit to the world/societies we live in. Rather, I’m starting to think of it as a big money vacuum that takes in grants and spits out nebulous results, fueled by people whose main concerns are not to advance knowledge and to effect positive change, though they may talk of such things, but to build their CVs and to propel/maintain their careers. But more on that later.
Before continuing, I want to be very clear about two things. First, not everything that I will say here is from my personal firsthand experience. Much is also based on conversations I’ve had with my peers, outside the EPFL and in, and reflects their experiences in addition to my own. Second, any negative statements that I make in this letter should not be taken to heart by all of its readers. It is not my intention to demonize anyone, nor to target specific individuals. I will add that, both here and elsewhere, I have met some excellent people and would not – not in a hundred years – dare accuse them of what I wrote in the previous paragraph. However, my fear and suspicion is that these people are few, and that all but the most successful ones are being marginalized by a system that, feeding on our innate human weaknesses, is quickly getting out of control.
I don’t know how many of the PhD students reading this entered their PhD programs with the desire to actually *learn* and to somehow contribute to science in a positive manner. Personally, I did.  If you did, too, then you’ve probably shared at least some of the frustrations that I’m going to describe next.
(1) Academia: It’s Not Science, It’s Business
I’m going to start with the supposition that the goal of “science” is to search for truth, to improve our understanding of the universe around us, and to somehow use this understanding to move the world towards a better tomorrow. At least, this is the propaganda that we’ve often been fed while still young, and this is generally the propaganda that universities that do research use to put themselves on lofty moral ground, to decorate their websites, and to recruit naïve youngsters like myself.
I’m also going to suppose that in order to find truth, the basic prerequisite is that you, as a researcher, have to be brutally honest – first and foremost, with yourself and about the quality of your own work. Here one immediately encounters a contradiction, as such honesty appears to have a very minor role in many people’s agendas. Very quickly after your initiation in the academic world, you learn that being “too honest” about your work is a bad thing and that stating your research’s shortcomings “too openly” is a big faux pas. Instead, you are taught to “sell” your work, to worry about your “image”, and to be strategic in your vocabulary and where you use it. Preference is given to good presentation over good content – a priority that, though understandable at times, has now gone overboard. The “evil” kind of networking (see, e.g., seems to be openly encouraged. With so many business-esque things to worry about, it’s actually surprising that *any* scientific research still gets done these days. Or perhaps not, since it’s precisely the naïve PhDs, still new to the ropes, who do almost all of it.
(2) Academia: Work Hard, Young Padawan, So That One Day You Too May Manage!
I sometimes find it both funny and frightening that the majority of the world’s academic research is actually being done by people like me, who don’t even have a PhD degree. Many advisors, whom you would expect to truly be pushing science forward with their decades of experience, do surprisingly little and only appear to manage the PhD students, who slave away on papers that their advisors then put their names on as a sort of “fee” for having taken the time to read the document (sometimes, in particularly desperate cases, they may even try to steal first authorship). Rarely do I hear of advisors who actually go through their students’ work in full rigor and detail, with many apparently having adopted the “if it looks fine, we can submit it for publication” approach.
Apart from feeling the gross unfairness of the whole thing – the students, who do the real work, are paid/rewarded amazingly little, while those who manage it, however superficially, are paid/rewarded amazingly much – the PhD student is often left wondering if they are only doing science now so that they may themselves manage later. The worst is when a PhD who wants to stay in academia accepts this and begins to play on the other side of the table. Every PhD student reading this will inevitably know someone unlucky enough to have fallen upon an advisor who has accepted this sort of management and is now inflicting it on their own students – forcing them to write paper after paper and to work ridiculous hours so that the advisor may advance his/her career or, as if often the case, obtain tenure. This is unacceptable and needs to stop. And yet as I write this I am reminded of how EPFL has instituted its own tenure-track system not too long ago.
(3) Academia: The Backwards Mentality
A very saddening aspect of the whole academic system is the amount of self-deception that goes on, which is a “skill” that many new recruits are forced to master early on… or perish. As many PhD students don’t truly get to choose their research topic, they are forced to adopt what their advisors do and to do “something original” on it that could one day be turned into a thesis. This is all fine and good when the topic is genuinely interesting and carries a lot of potential. Personally, I was lucky to have this be the case for me, but I also know enough people who, after being given their topic, realized that the research direction was of marginal importance and not as interesting as it was hyped up by their advisor to be.
This seems to leave the student with a nasty ultimatum. Clearly, simply telling the advisor that the research is not promising/original does not work – the advisor has already invested too much of his time, reputation, and career into the topic and will not be convinced by someone half his age that he’s made a mistake. If the student insists, he/she will be labeled as “stubborn” and, if the insisting is too strong, may not be able to obtain the PhD. The alternative, however unpleasant, is to lie to yourself and to find arguments that you’re morally comfortable with that somehow convince you that what you’re doing has important scientific value. For those for whom obtaining a PhD is a *must* (usually for financial reasons), the choice, however tragic, is obvious.
The real problem is that this habit can easily carry over into one’s postgraduate studies, until the student themselves becomes like the professor, with the backwards mentality of “it is important because I’ve spent too many years working on it”.
(4) Academia: Where Originality Will Hurt You
The good, healthy mentality would naturally be to work on research that we believe is important. Unfortunately, most such research is challenging and difficult to publish, and the current publish-or-perish system makes it difficult to put bread on the table while working on problems that require at least ten years of labor before you can report even the most preliminary results. Worse yet, the results may not be understood, which, in some cases, is tantamount to them being rejected by the academic community. I acknowledge that this is difficult, and ultimately cannot criticize the people who choose not to pursue such “risky” problems.
Ideally, the academic system would encourage those people who are already well established and trusted to pursue these challenges, and I’m sure that some already do. However, I cannot help but get the impression that the majority of us are avoiding the real issues and pursuing minor, easy problems that we know can be solved and published. The result is a gigantic literature full of marginal/repetitive contributions. This, however, is not necessarily a bad thing if it’s a good CV that you’re after.
(5) Academia: The Black Hole of Bandwagon Research
Indeed, writing lots of papers of questionable value about a given popular topic seems to be a very good way to advance your academic career these days. The advantages are clear: there is no need to convince anyone that the topic is pertinent and you are very likely to be cited more since more people are likely to work on similar things. This will, in turn, raise your impact factor and will help to establish you as a credible researcher, regardless of whether your work is actually good/important or not. It also establishes a sort of stable network, where you pat other (equally opportunistic) researchers on the back while they pat away at yours.
Unfortunately, not only does this lead to quantity over quality, but many researchers, having grown dependent on the bandwagon, then need to find ways to keep it alive even when the field begins to stagnate. The results are usually disastrous. Either the researchers begin to think up of creative but completely absurd extensions of their methods to applications for which they are not appropriate, or they attempt to suppress other researchers who propose more original alternatives (usually, they do both). This, in turn, discourages new researchers from pursuing original alternatives and encourages them to join the bandwagon, which, though founded on a good idea, has now stagnated and is maintained by nothing but the pure will of the community that has become dependent on it. It becomes a giant, money-wasting mess.
(6) Academia: Statistics Galore!
“Professors with papers are like children,” a professor once told me. And, indeed, there seems to exist an unhealthy obsession among academics regarding their numbers of citations, impact factors, and numbers of publications. This leads to all sorts of nonsense, such as academics making “strategic citations”, writing “anonymous” peer reviews where they encourage the authors of the reviewed paper to cite their work, and gently trying to tell their colleagues about their recent work at conferences or other networking events or sometimes even trying to slip each other their papers with a “I’ll-read-yours-if-you-read-mine” wink and nod. No one, when asked if they care about their citations, will ever admit to it, and yet these same people will still know the numbers by heart. I admit that I’ve been there before, and hate myself for it.
At the EPFL, the dean sends us an e-mail every year saying how the school is doing in the rankings, and we are usually told that we are doing well. I always ask myself what the point of these e-mails is. Why should it matter to a scientist if his institution is ranked tenth or eleventh by such and such committee? Is it to boost our already overblown egos? Wouldn’t it be nicer for the dean to send us an annual report showing how EPFL’s work is affecting the world, or how it has contributed to resolving certain important problems? Instead, we get these stupid numbers that tell us what universities we can look down on and what universities we need to surpass.
(7) Academia: The Violent Land of Giant Egos
I often wonder if many people in academia come from insecure childhoods where they were never the strongest or the most popular among their peers, and, having studied more than their peers, are now out for revenge. I suspect that yes, since it is the only explanation I can give to explain why certain researchers attack, in the bad way, other researchers’ work. Perhaps the most common manifestation of this is via peer reviews, where these people abuse their anonymity to tell you, in no ambiguous terms, that you are an idiot and that your work isn’t worth a pile of dung. Occasionally, some have the gall to do the same during conferences, though I’ve yet to witness this latter manifestation personally.
More than once I’ve heard leading researchers in different fields refer to other methods with such beautiful descriptions as “garbage” or “trash”, sometimes even extending these qualifiers to pioneering methods whose only crime is that they are several decades old and which, as scientists, we ought to respect as a man respects his elders. Sometimes, these people will take a break from saying bad things about people in their own fields and turn their attention to other domains – engineering academics, for example, will sometimes make fun of the research done in the humanities, ridiculing it as ludicrous and inconsequential, as if what they did was more important.
(8) Academia: The Greatest Trick It Ever Pulled was Convincing the World That It was Necessary
Perhaps the most crucial, piercing question that the people in academia should ask themselves is this: “Are we really needed?” Year after year, the system takes in tons of money via all sorts of grants. Much of this money then goes to pay underpaid and underappreciated PhD students who, with or without the help of their advisors, produce some results. In many cases, these results are incomprehensible to all except a small circle, which makes their value difficult to evaluate in any sort of objective manner. In some rare cases, the incomprehensibility is actually justified – the result may be very powerful but may, for example, require a lot of mathematical development that you really do need a PhD to understand. In many cases, however, the result, though requiring a lot of very cool math, is close to useless in application.
This is fine, because real progress is slow. What’s bothersome, however, is how long a purely theoretical result can be milked for grants before the researchers decide to produce something practically useful. Worse yet, there often does not appear to be a strong urge for people in academia to go and apply their result, even when this becomes possible, which most likely stems from the fear of failure – you are morally comfortable researching your method as long as it works in theory, but nothing would hurt more than to try to apply it and to learn that it doesn’t work in reality. No one likes to publish papers which show how their method fails (although, from a scientific perspective, they’re obliged to).
These are just some examples of things that, from my humble perspective, are “wrong” with academia. Other people could probably add others, and we could go and write a book about it. The problem, as I see it, is that we are not doing very much to remedy these issues, and that a lot of people have already accepted that “true science” is simply an ideal that will inevitably disappear with the current system proceeding along as it is. As such, why risk our careers and reputations to fight for some noble cause that most of academia won’t really appreciate anyway?
I’m going to conclude this letter by saying that I don’t have a solution to these things. Leaving my PhD is certainly not a solution – it is merely a personal decision – and I don’t encourage other people to do anything of the sort. What I do encourage is some sort of awareness and responsibility. I think that there are many of us, certainly in my generation, who would like to see “academia” be synonymous with “science”. I know I would, but I’ve given up on this happening and so will pursue true science by some other path.
While there was a time when I thought that I would be proud to have the letters “PhD” after my name, this is unfortunately no longer the case. However, nothing can take away the knowledge that I’ve gained during these four years, and for that, EPFL, I remain eternally grateful.
My sincerest thanks for reading this far



  1. Everything written here is important and true. Many thanks to the author for taking the trouble to write it up. I wish the author a productive and fullfilling life outside of academia.

  2. The word for this is “burnout”. I’ve seen it happen to graduate students a dozen times in a dozen places. Most commonly it is the result of people forcing themselves to work very hard for a long time on something that doesn’t actually interest them or that they don’t understand. The negativity that that produces spreads like a cancer.

  3. @Bill Skaggs – what’s your point here? Are you denying the things s/he describes are real our prevalent? If not are you denying that they’re a problem?

    Thus is a really common response to great students who express their frustrations with how broken academia is. Instead of responding to the problems, ours thrown back on the student: “he’s a burnout,” “he just can’t cut it and he’s bitter,” etc. That’s another symptom of what’s wrong-as if being successful in science requires developing Stockholm syndrome towards your superiors and cynicism towards your peers and juniors. And *that’s* the attitude that’s spread like a cancer.

    • Good point, i agree!
      Same problems here in Germany, you get ripped off the society if you research for truth! (i hope i wrote it right)

  4. Interesting points. 1) yes, it’s a business, because it costs a lot of money to pay for the people and infrastructure needed to do many forms of research. Did you think we live off the goodness of our hearts? 2) Good mentors will start PhD students writing most of the paper themselves (and with others), and gradually teach you to conceive of and write papers on your own. Good mentors are hard to find, sadly. And yes, being a senior researcher means filling out a lot of paperwork (grant applications) and actively managing junior students and faculty. It’s part of the job. 3) You sound very bitter that you chose a topic you’re not interested in. Original research doesn’t mean you’ll cure cancer or win a Nobel Prize. But a thousand people all doing a little piece of original research does advance science and occasionally make for some amazing insights. We can’t all be astronauts. 4) I think this feeds more back into the business side of research. The need for research grants (or corporate sponsors, in some cases) makes it harder for abstract basic science research to get funding. I agree this is a major problem. 5) How you measure something influences how people will do it. If I teach a class and make participation 90% of the course grade, you can bet everyone will be in class and pretend to be attentive. If participation is 0% of the grade, then students will show up if they value my input and the class discussion. Likewise, academia is driven by some very odd measurements, such as impact and citation and number of publications and amount of grant dollars received. How else would you propose to measure research activities? 6) This is related to #5; in any social network it’s common to support your peers if it doesn’t take away from yourself. 7) Academia doesn’t have a monopoly on giant egos. How much time have you spent in industry? 8) There has been a strong trend in the last decade to emphasize ‘translational research,’ namely getting ideas from research labs into practical use more quickly. This also supports the business case for research, as noted previously. And frankly I don’t know of anyone who would deliberately block application of their research, so I don’t know where this point is coming from. Is it an extension of #3?
    I’m sorry that your research experience left you so sad and bitter.

  5. While I understand the author might want to remain anonymous, it would be nice to know in what branch of science he/she was working.

  6. Thomas Edison spent his late years in courtrooms doing legal stuff instead of the lab. It wasn’t pretty — he fought against AC power with deception because his was DC. This goes to show making money, getting glory and power are done by doing what we would rather not do. So much wasted potential! Academia and law slow things down.

  7. @ Glenn
    1) No one contests the need for science or at least some elements of it to be treated as a business. In fact I believe that a part of the solution lies in partially corporatizing academic research. The issue is about accountability of your science. A business runs on making profits and if those profits are false it doubles on itself. Now when science deceives itself in order to appear more slick (to get that paper published, to get a grant and what not) you can imagine the pitfalls in the future.
    2) Managing is and should be a part of the job but it should not become the only part of your job. I sadly have to admit most of the scientists I have met are hardly even aware of the literature in what they are doing, let alone guide someone well. They just “manage” and proofread and sell a lot of snake oil.
    3) Its not about winning the noble prize or curing cancer its about choosing routes that are never gonna be of any use for anyone or anything. I can assure you at least in biology a lot of research happens on concepts that are just fundamentally wrong. SO you solve a very interesting problem which is publishable but absolutely useless- “sudoku science”
    5) Measurements need to happen but when those measurements are not based purely on merit and include factors such as whose ass you licked the most last conference its immensely detrimental to the entire organization
    6) “any social network”- I think you have forgotten what science is meant to be its meant to be beyond social networks, its meant to be cold hard facts without a hint of emotion. So no do not treat it as if its your high school gang its NOT.
    7) The difference is in industry you are expected to have one and nobody hides it. In science nobody is supposed to have one yet everybody does and the very basic principles of science are hurt because of it.
    8) As to translational research a lot does come out nowadays but you need to look at it in terms of how much goes in and how much is coming out. The numbers are pathetic compared to 20-30 years. If we were a business with taht strike rate we would be share holder/market breakfast.

  8. Wow… I didn’t think that this would spread so quickly.

    The guy who wrote that piece is actually me, and though I can’t fight all the wall-of-texts that people will post here, I do want to say that I enjoyed my time at EPFL tremendously, that this definitely wasn’t a burning out, and that the problems with academia were not my only reason for resigning. There are also a number of reasons completely unrelated to my frustrations, although this is the main one – as I said, I simply don’t want to accept a degree from a system that I no longer find as being beneficial.

    I’m glad that this is generating discussion though. A number of EPFL professors have written back to me (students have not officially received this yet due to moderation), and most replies have been in support of what is written in the letter. Some have amended certain points or said that certain things work differently in their departments. No one has really denied the things in this letter. To be frank, if you’ve been in scientific academia, I think you’d have to be crazy to, but everyone’s experience is different.

    En tout cas, merci pour le pub, Pascal 🙂

  9. Academia is a business, but it is one that is virtually exempt from most business taxes and labor laws.

    I find it interesting that the ones who heinously defend this system are the first to pass judgement and jump to the ” burnout” conclusion. I have had a similar experience, though not at the PhD level, with my professors. Instead of being able to reason and discuss the state/ problems of academia, some professors, including ones I really liked as people, started to view me as a rebel. Interesting, considering I was at the top of my class. Apparently students should not be encouraged to grow up and think for themselves!

    Thank you for sharing this.

  10. @Glenn, and @Bill Skaggs

    I am leaving Academia for the same reasons as this author. I am 8 years into it. I am fully motivated by my thesis topic. I could graduate in 3 months, but I no longer believe in what the PhD degree stands for.

    This is not an issue (as Bill Skaggs suggests) of burnout. I am definitely not burned out. On the contrary, I work on my thesis every day—even though I have left the academy! Rather than write a dissertation that hardly anyone will read, my newfound freedom allows me to write up my research in an accessible form that anyone in the public can read and gain insights from. This is very motivating!

    And I do not suffer from having chosen an uninteresting thesis topic, as Glenn suggests. I think my topic is very relevant!

    To the original author, and others like him: Thank you very much for writing this! The Academy appears to be in the beginning of a crisis, and it is very helpful for people like you to draw attention to it. I have some ideas for a solution. Please contact me if you would like to discuss them!

  11. Sadly, there are similar kind of things happening in professional or tech industry, too. What can you do, since the power is on “one side of the table”?

  12. In response to “Glenn”:

    Keep living in the matrix, agent Smith.

  13. We could pretend that everything is actually okay and that the author of the letter was just suffering from “burnout.” Or not.

    Currently, a huge percentage of grant money goes directly to the University, to pay for things like the library’s new heating system, the upkeep of the flowers, and the new swimming pool. That’s why universities want their professors to be big-time salesmen. It’s expensive to run a university! Which begs the question: Is the university even needed?

    A different model:

    1) Separate undergraduate science education from graduate-level science education. (High school is already separate. It’s not such a strange idea.) Primarily-undergraduate universities already exist and do very well for their students. The people teaching undergraduates should be professional teachers, first and foremost. It’s not necessary for them to be working scientists: you don’t need a working scientist to teach Newtonian Mechanics. Nor do you need to be chasing after grants. A salary should suffice.

    Students could also learn the basics from free MOOCs, and can get tested by certified testing centers. That’s already happening and will only get more popular: it’s low-cost and it works.

    2) Researchers should create their own highly-specialized working / graduate-training labs *independent* of any University. If they need something like group medical insurance or access to a library, they can buy it a la carte, probably through professional organizations like the IEEE or the ACM. Independent labs already exist, but I’m proposing that they also assume the responsibility of teaching their new recruits, both through coursework and apprenticeship. No doubt such labs already exist but none come to mind.

    Governments could easily promote such a model, by making it clear who will be getting the grants in the future.

    • @wakjob This is abusive language you used against the Big Nation of the world. You shouldn’t do this if you really support Science in any way.

  14. @FeuDRenais: 51’000+ views in less than 24h. Apparently, I was not the only one to be shaken by your letter…

  15. My applause to the author, I feel he makes many excellent points. I agree, science fails more frequently than it succeeds in providing a benefit to society. I am earning my Ph.D. in infectious diseases and the only reason I sought a research career in I.D. was to put myself out of a job – to find cures. What did I find when I got to graduate school and started to learn the landscape of the field? That (with only very few exceptions) the field was doing exactly the opposite – each investigator only sought to obtain the next grant and establish a “career,” – there was little or no thought given as to whether or not the research would positively impact anyone’s life, only whether or not a project would get funded or provide new funding opportunities in the future. And, as much as I would like to point the finger at PI’s for leading graduate students and post-doc’s down this path to the “dark side”, I see it more as symptomatic of an entire system that is both corrupt and failing. I’ve heard that “the grant system works” and I’m sure it does – in a nepotistic and masturbatory fashion, but the pipeline for antibiotic discovery has nearly all but dried up, HIV is still a menace to the world, and malaria, tuberculosis, and diarrheal diseases still account for the vast bulk of all human casualties every year.

  16. @FeuDRenais Thanks for your letter, and @Pascal thanks for publishing it. I think it is a very accurate description of the current situation. I am relieved to learn that other people have similar opinions and also refuse to comply with the system.

  17. Looks like high school really never ends, eh?

    I was looking into a PhD to get out of the popularity contest that is the independent inventor / kickstarter thing, but… I think I’ll get back to trying to cure malaria on a budget instead. <= see what I did there?

    Jokes aside, interesting post. Seems this stuff always happens when something gets too institutionalized, the institution becomes more important than the thing. Parkinsons laws and all that.

  18. Being a PhD student at “the other” EPFL 🙂 in Zurich, I completely sympathize with the author. I went through similar thinking a lot, however I did not decide to leave it – and this is not because I want those 3 letters and the “financial benefits” (?) coming with it….

    I hear this kind of argumentation a lot and everything seems to be somewhat true. However, to even *see* academia that way requires some kind of general negative attitude towards the thing – which is, by all the frustration PhD students suffer often, not very hard to get. I had it myself, more than once. And of course it becomes worse when you are trapped in your social bubble, surrounded by other PhD students who feel the same, reinforcing their thinking.

    But here is the thing: the letter suggests that there are only two real options: a) you choose to be part of this “dirty” game and business or b) you are consequent and leave academia.


    We are the young generation of scientists. We are the ones who will one day decide how to do and handle things in academia. We are the ones who can break out of that scheme. And I chose that way. And to be honest, I would have liked you would have done the same, cause only if we (a critical mass of critically reflecting scientists) start to rethink the whole system, to be honest in our paper, to not only sell stuff because we need another paper to fulfill the project requirements, to take more time to do research, do more quality research, and publish less, we CAN change how things are done.


    And I don’t mean this as some kind of rebellion or revolution kind of thing. I just mean that this is what we are. And as such it WILL BE us, like in every other aspect of society, who WILL decide how things are run. And I would prefer to have more people like the author to be in academia, for the good of it.

    I chose to fight for it, and not to let them screw it for eternity.

    And no, Rob is not my real name. If you want to get in contact with me, cause you want to meet or talk or whatever, just answer this post.

    • Thank you for writing this. I’m also Ph.D student who had the same view as the author, and your comment is so encouraging 🙂 Recently I’ve also decided to stay at the academia, even though these problems still exist. Research is not perfect, because it is also part of human life. But we can still hold the essence of science. That’s better choice for academia.

    • It is really encouraging to see someone sufficiently optimistic as to believe that change is still possible. I wonder how your attitude towards this evolved from the time you wrote this post. Not sure if leaving a reply here sends an email to you but just writing in case it does. Let me know if you would like to email/chat. I hold somewhat similar views to the author (though I am in social sciences) and would like to talk to someone who actually tries to do research at least partially for idealistic reasons…

    • I used to believe in what you said, but I don’t anymore. I used to think that my coworkers and I would be able to change things once we have the chance, if we could wait for 5 or 10 years for that chance. But the system itself works its way to wear you down, to make you bitter and cynnical. It’s not worthy. It really doesn’t.


      I’m sure that 30 years ago there were also optimistic young scientists who could change everything. Why would our generation be better/worse than any other generation? Evolution doesn’t go that fast. What I have come to realise is that it is established scientists who sit on all the job and grant committees and decide who gets to be their successors. So I don’t see how things will improve in the current system. I think change has to come from above the top of science: Governments. Young scientists should contact their elected representatives.

  19. Having recently started a PhD, you might argue I have not been fully confronted with the vices of the system.
    However, I don’t think the arguments presented here are new to anyone in Academia. I do agree with most of them, but I quite significantly disagree as to how detrimental and widespread they are. But maybe that is a question of personal feeling.

    I’d simply like to state a few opinions:

    – It seems to all boil down to research evaluation. I think people forget that objective perfect evaluation does not exist. If we use measurable criteria (citation), then of course people will adapt. If you ask experts to give opinions, it is subjective and community is so small that conflict of interests are inevitable. I think experience shows that relying only on subjective opinions is leaving more space for nepotism anyway so…
    – Nearly everybody seems to think that it was better before: sorry for my lack of experience, but can someone actually show this to me. I feel like people actually prefer no evaluation to any evaluation. This creates a lot less troubles but I do not think this is very satisfactory either.
    – I have not met any of these evil minds undermining research by trying to push their work at all cost and preventing honest scientist to perform their work properly. We have to realise that practically everyone is participating in this system and I do not hear people talking about collective responsibility. It seems to me people tend to exaggerate what others do while at the same time minimizing their own actions. This is to my opinion the deepest vice of the system.
    – Selling research is part of the job. People might argue it is going too far and i agree, but if you write revolutionary work but nobody reads it, then you are not managing that good in the end.
    – Researchers are employed by university, this implies they have obligations towards their employer like any other employee. Research is not the only thing they are hired for. This is probably detrimental to science but I think researchers can spend a reasonable amount of time researching if they want to. So if they don’t, again maybe they not only have to but also prefer doing other things…
    – When hiring a professor, networking skills and social abilities are also evaluated. Like it or not, these are valuable skills as well, but I think some people just prefer calling it ass-licking. Of course there are conflicts of interest and nepotism, that is not my point.

    P.S. Being also an EPFL student, I like very much the part on the email that the dean sent us about the Shangai ranking. It is very well phrased and to my opinion, this mail was really grotesque.

    there are many more things I’d like to say but I guess this is enough.

    • You need only one person to read your revolutionary work (the right person) to make a massive impact.

      The number of citations/readers is often simply an indication of how inefficient and unoriginal the system is. Having thousands of people working on the same collections of problems at a surface level (and valuing that above all else) is highly detrimental to the goal of making true progress.

  20. @Glenn @Sandy

    On items 6) and 7) I absolutely and whole-heartedly agree with Sandy.
    Look at the facts: the majority of research has been and is currently bankrolled by society as a whole through taxes.
    Taxpayers (who for the most part actually work hard and contribute to their country’s GDP) live with the illusion that the cash they’ve worked so hard for will go towards ‘fundamental science’ and ‘untangling the mysteries of the universe for the better of society today and future generations’.
    I can only imagine that politicians would have the hardest time ever convincing their constituencies of the need to bankroll scientific research if taxpayers knew that most of their money that goes towards ‘science’ really just goes towards fragmented clusters of academics, one cockier than the next one, that fight each other personally and generally spit on the basic principles of science and research.
    I’ve seen some disgusting stuff in my time as a PhD student: ‘Supervisors’ that brown-nosed their way up to their PI positions without acquiring any hint of technical expertise on the way up. PIs that do nothing but cheerleading will be named ‘leaders’ or ‘stars’ in their field — for no other contribution to ‘science’ than talking enthusiastically and patting enough fellow ‘academics’ on their backs.

    Society doesn’t care about your ego and how well you cheer-lead!
    Society bankrolls academia for straight-to-the-point scientific results.

  21. Good science for the sake of science/understanding still exists, but it’s hard to get money to do it. Part of the problem with this IMO is the ascendance of ‘translational research.’

    As for the system, the current pyramid scheme of academia is unsustainable. The best solution I’ve heard proposed is to make the equivalent of tenured research positions, sort of permanent postdocs, who should be paid decently, and can do long-term projects. These should mostly replace the work force of poorly paid and overly-numerous PhD students. This would then clear the way for fewer but better and more motivated PhD students to actually be *trained.*

    • Exactly. LONG term projects (10 years or so) are the ones which facilitate the development of mastery.

  22. @Andy: It seems that the author was doing a PhD in (theoretical) computer science.

  23. I feel like crying while reading the letter, everything is so true, and the whole phd is so painful, especially you know you are doing something with little value and there are something you really want to work on, but for the publication, you just have to stick to the marginal improvement. The more closer to fulfill the requirement for the degree, the more pain to force yourself to go even closer. To get the finial certificate of the phd is just like a sentenced man waiting for the execution. It is a torture.

    Thanks for the author to speak it out and write it so well down. The society should know about the true academia.

  24. Dear ??

    As the author of a book about the issues you so eloquently describe, The Trouble with Physics, I would urge you to stay in academic science, for exactly the issues you describe. Like so many things important for life the issues you talk about come down to values. There is to put it simply, an ongoing fight between those of us who do science to satisfy our curiosity about nature and increase our knowledge and those who do it for careerist or egotistical reasons. We need you on our side in this fight. If you do not stand up for your values, who do you think will do this work for you?

    I faced the same crisis at the same point in my career. What kept me in science was reading Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method which taught me that a life in science must be both a search for truth and a challenge to our characters.

    In a long career I’ve learned a few things that I would pass on. As bad as it is-and every word you say is true- a determined individual can have a career where they spend most of their time doing what they love. In my experience those who followed their own compass succeeded in their careers about as often as those who choose what they thought would be good for their careers. In both cases nothing is guaranteed, life is not fair and there are good people whose careers failed. But being ready to quit puts you in the best situation, because you have nothing to loose. You are free because you are willing to walk. So why not go for it and try for a scientific career based on love and integrity?

    I also learned that when that individual succeeds they can do a great deal to improve the situation for others. One scientist with the right values can employ and protect many promising young individuals, freeing them to pursue their own ideas. There are also fights that can be won on an organizational level to promote the right values, up to and including starting new institutions.

    Finally, the hardest lesson is that the fight is within each of us. Few are immune from their own egos and desire for security and status. So the fight you are about to resign from turns out to be a lifelong struggle to build your own character.

    A final word: where ever you go if you leave science you are likely to face the same fight, because it is in the nature of modern life and modern organizations. So why not stay to fight it in a place where the outcome can be to discover truth?


    Lee Smolin

  25. @Wakjob,

    This is exactly what is happening right now, degrees are getting devalued, students live a miserable and bitter life until they become in charge of things i.e. become professors and the result would be either being brutal with their students or something like this:


    You’re probably one of those grey-haired nitwits who are certain that their ridiculous subject is improving something, sadly it does improve your pocket but nothing else. And by the way, you cant really develop interest in a topic that you know very well is not improving anything… @Sandy this is good example of “sudoku science”


    I hope you find a better future, I’m disappointed in academia myself and I’m glad I haven’t wasted a lot of time.

  26. BRAVO!
    EVERY single word is pure reflection of what is going on.
    PLUS there are some other issues…
    BUT the most ugly thing is that building a reputationa and mainting some SELF IMAGE within the academia gets in the way of true science…..
    I went to do the PhD because of the worst reason: got the opportunity and did not give much of the tought to the topic at hand BUT had a strong inner feeling of making something important….
    For a while I thought I was crazy and stupid to be thinking same thoughts as the author of the text BUT today I see a lot of BSing going around where there is not place for TRUE motivation, inspiration and meaningful activities….
    HOWEVER thanks to Univers there are still people who are doing AWERSOME , WORLD CHANGING stuff such as Elon Musk with his 3 fantastic companies:
    1) Tesla Motors
    2) SpaceX
    3) Solar City


    And here is a story about TRUE practical engineer, scientist and entrepreneur:–AM

    WHO ever wrote this I LOVE YOU!
    Good luck!
    World needs people like you!

  27. @Wakjob – your name (user handle) fits your comment perfectly.
    As if there aren’t any non-Indian academic/research conmen.

  28. Professor Lee Smolin, thank you for your insightful reply. I found it touching, and a life lesson.
    I read your books and I know that your words have real value, because you are among those who really gave a huge contribution in reminding us what are the values that a scientist can not forget.

  29. Hello … (FeuDRenais?)

    I’m also at EPFL, having come from American academia and changed fields as a response to my specific frustrations. Surely most of us can see where you are coming from with your lucid manifesto against the system. I’m especially impressed to see what appears to be the real Lee Smolin commenting on this post. Mostly I would second his advice and sentiments.

    I will add something that a great mentor once told me: “every job has a bit of job-ness in it,” which means that no matter what you do, no matter how much you love it, we will all have to deal with all of the frustrations you outlined. There’s always going to be a business aspect of anything you do – academia is not a sacred exception, no matter how much you want it to be. It’s competitive out there, and it always will be. Academics are probably less cutthroat and greedy on average than most other people. Maybe the egos are big – especially when young students believe they know the “real issues” of “important scientific value.” But go check out the egos in the worlds of banking, commodities trading or Silicon Valley and report back.

    As for tenure-track and statistics-based evaluations of career success and subsequent allotment of resources: this is the best bad solution out there. The leading alternative is a good-old boys (yes, boys) network where all that nasty “networking” and a silver tongue are the only things that matter. Tenure-track is much more effective than whatever they used to do.

    Maybe the most revealing thing I see in your open, anonymous, letter is how you put yourself up against those who would let “true science” disappear in the face of competition and human frailty. One might submit that a sacred conception of “true science” should be replaced by a more mature understanding of scientific research as an imperfect, flawed, but ultimately wonderful pursuit with no guarantees but a rewarding journey.

    Best wishes,

    Kyle Gustafson

  30. I agree with many of the points you make, but none of it explains why you would leave your PhD a few months before completion.

  31. @Kyle Gustafson

    who the hell said that this field should be treated as business in the first place? the fact that it’s a mistake to treat it as business is already becoming obvious:

    good luck keeping any university open with such idiotic monetary system.

  32. Rather depressing, but, as @Glenn comments, it does depend on your mentoring. A lot of PhD supervisors/advisors are in fact quite different from that described in the letter.
    I would also add that @Rob has hit the nail on the head: The times they are a changing. Far greater scrutiny of papers and public discussion is afforded by the internet, which has led to the now abandoned “Abnormal Science” and “Science Fraud” web sites, and what we could call “Version 2.0” in the form of Other sites such as Retraction Watch and the many individuals blogging, etc., exert growing pressure on the system. In a very minor way I engage in this too by blogging. I would agree that the aspirations of science, e.g., to be self-righting, are far from being met.
    To finish. Understanding the natural world (taking Natural Sciences in the old fashioned, broad sense) is an absolutely critical cultural activity. To stop doing this brings us back to an age of domination by religion and superstition, where there are no human rights, where people are enslaved or murdered by virtue of their skin colour, gender, sexual orientation and so on. I do not want to live there. So there is work to be done to reduce the corruption in science, but to throw the towel in (consider, for example, the words of Pastor Niemoller on this subject), though understandable, is not an option.

  33. I applaud the author on his decision on his heart-felt and eloquent words. At one level I totally agree with these words and have thought them myself many times. However, I think stepping back and reflecting a bit more what kind of academia is desirable is an enlightening exercise. Criticisms of academia like the ones voiced by the author are easy and a priori compelling, and there are indeed many things are wrong with academic. What would academia -ideally- look like to avoid these problems? How should it be funded? What would be the performance metrics to judge career success? As soon as you start reflecting on these questions, you realize how difficult they are. It’s easy to imagine some kind of golden age of science, but any golden age possesses features that would be deemed very unpalatable and untenable today. In the 19th and early 20th century for instance, access to science education and practice was extremely scarce and mainly limited to (rich, white) men. (Marie Curie being a very rare exception.) However, these lucky few scientists could work on substantive issues without care or worry, and apply themselves fully without distractions of grants, progress reports etc. Most people would probably agree that we do not want to turn the clock back to that golden age. So how can you accommodate vastly increased numbers of scientists and provide them with livelihoods and meaningful job objectives? I think the answer is far from trivial, and an uncomfortable realization is that there might be far too many of us. Our vast numbers in a way dictate performance metrics and ever-increasing competition for scarce government resources. I am as frustrated as the author about some of these systemic mis-developments, but then I compare my academic job against others, and not against some earlier mythical version of academia. Without getting into the details – what I see is still compelling and makes me state “This is still the best job one could wish for.” – Also, concerning the benefits of academia to society (or lack thereof), I would cast my net for assessing these benefits a little wider, beyond sense or nonsense of the primary subject matter: (1) government funds could and have been used in a more destructive way than academic research, whereas scientific research at least does not cause any net harms, (2) education almost always has positive side effects and creates open minds with benefits for society at large, (3) scientific research brings secondary advances in technology and computing etc. and (4) simulates the economy at large in form of conferences, travel, accommodation etc. – Again, I am not saying academia cannot be improved, far from it. Exploitative practices of overwork and stealing credit, in a way, are straightforward to fix. But then they are other improvements that might be harder for consensus formation and implementation. I urge you to stay on, complete your thesis and contribute to this improvement of academia in the future! Best wishes – Chris Habeck

    • Hi Chris. You make a very good point about the number of scientists. One solution is to spend less money funding massive infrastructure, and preferentially fund the brains inside the skulls of creative human beings. Some of the most significant advances made in academia (talking ever) have been made in mathematics – minimal equipment required. The point is not that math is superior, but that understanding (when truly invested in) can take us a long way, without fancy equipment. What we lack in modern science is an insistence on deep understanding and comprehension of the core principles underpinning one’s field.

  34. Thanks to everyone for their comments. Quick update and some replies:

    – I learned today that EPFL blocked this letter from getting out to the students, which is unfortunate, since I think most have seen it anyway (thanks to the few professors who did forward this to their groups). Thankfully, I’ve got a date with the dean next Friday and suppose that I can ask him why they chose to censor in a little tête-à-tête 🙂
    – I did not do my PhD in compsci (don’t know where this idea came from), but in optimization, which is a great topic and of great practical interest. Those who wrote to say that I’m frustrated because I did not like my topic… are wrong. I absolutely love what I do. Also, while my field of science is relevant, it seems that these problems are quite widespread (based on the replies I’ve received).
    – People who want to meet to discuss in person (e.g., “Rob”), or who want to continue this discussion via other means… Gladly, if time allows (please don’t write very long e-mails, because it’ll take some time for me to reply to these). If you are mildly skilled in Google, then you should have no problem finding my real identity. I’m not going to publicize it, but I don’t feel particularly compelled to hide it, either (thanks, Pascal, for doing so, however – I don’t know how you got the letter).
    – To people urging me to stay in academia/science (including Lee Smolin!), I essentially agree with you. However, this is the question of whether you want to fight the monster from the inside of its belly or from the outside. Both are valid. What I am essentially leaving is the Western academic system, and NOT science (the two are not the same, alas). I plan to remain in science and I plan to be very active in science, and this is not precluded by leaving academia. Specifically, I hope to promote good research/science in developing nations, where the local “academia” is not the academia that I’m writing about here (as they have much more serious problems than the pure lack of ethics/responsibility that I wrote about here). I want it to be very clear to people that I’m not simply “giving up” (i.e., you don’t need to encourage me, though I appreciate it anyway :-)).
    – Finally, in looking back at this letter, I realize that it was written in a very negative tone (well, it is a letter about frustrations, after all… I could write another about academia’s good points, though it’d be slightly shorter). I would like to clarify that this was a calm decision made over the course of several weeks, and that I used three months to reflect on it before taking a few days to draft the letter. It wasn’t an “oh-my-God-I-can’t-take-it-anymore!” thing where I snapped and decided to write something crazy, though I realize that many people could get this impression (first drafts are never perfect).

    Anyway, thanks to everyone for the discussion, which I hope will spread a bit further. I did not think that this letter would have the impact that it is already having.

  35. This letter raises true concerns about the world of academia. However, analysis in the letter is very week.

    If I would think that academia has serious problems then I will stay and try to lead it to better direction instead of quitting.

    May be the author has more balanced view in comparison to the letter.

  36. @Ashutosh GUPTA

    oh man it is very week and a month as well….

    Your argument is just invalid… stick with a bunch of mercenaries and claim that you can change them is just a silly idea. Rather than moving away and trying to build your own path that truly pushes research stick around and do the same crap they’re doing while hoping one day things would be different… as far as I know if he sticks around NO ONE would allow him to change anything and therefore, the option he chose is quite the best I believe.

  37. The chap is really accurate in his analysis. I share his concerns! Coming up with solutions is important though, of course, creating awareness is the first step.

    What’s the point of the champions league football or to become an olympic athlete? All these sacrifices, and this to prove you can control a ball or run at 23 km/h average for 26 min? They do it of course because they like it, maybe even for the challenge, to see how far they can push it, to understand the limits of their physical and mental powers. As a pleasant side effect they might bring joy to other people as well, or to inspire them for similar positive activities.

    To understand how a single cell works, even a single protein is so incredibly challenging that, no matter which method we use, we will never understand. We will never be able to run at 27 km/h for 26 minutes, no matter which training method. In a similar fashion we might never be able to grasp the complexity of a single cell. So, let’s still run, maybe dream of that 27 km/h, and enjoy it on the way. Let’s do science, focus on the fun of the learning experience, enjoy working together with young and motivated people and as a side effect, I’m sure we’ll be able to bring some extra life quality to the society.

  38. Dear Pascal (FeuDRenais),

    Everything you have said about Academia is true. Vilification aimed at you in terms of “burnout” and “bitter” etc. are common dishonest methods of distracting from the facts.

    I have experienced similar things as you, at the PhD level. Academia is just as corrupt as any other club. Society has been duped into the false belief that scientists are, ipso facto, smart and honest people searching for truth. Nothing can be further from the truth. The methods of politics and organised crime are routinely employed by Academia just as in industry and government. For instance, the people at the LHC at CERN now plan to build the International Linear Collider, to cost taxpayers somewhere between $20 and $25 billion US dollars. Add to that the money for operations. This is sinecure employment for those in the club. No doubt the industrial and other companies which will get the building contracts are rubbing their hands together with glee. Vested interest lurks.

    Academia has no monopoly on science. Academia however, controls the major journals, the institutes and universities, and the money. It is money that is in the end the main objective of Academia. Social status, reputation and all that comes with it is reinforcement to the main objective.

    Keep doing science. A PhD is not necessary. A fancy office is not necessary. Lunching with professors is not necessary. Oliver Heaviside had no need of any of it. Nor do we.

    Kind regards,
    Stephen J. Crothers

  39. ‘So how can you accommodate vastly increased numbers of scientists and provide them with livelihoods and meaningful job objectives?’

    Here are a few thoughts:

    *Sack those responsible for the current situation [i.c. current professors with tenure, managers, editorial members of journals, presidents of societies, big publisheres, etc.]? (assuming they are partly responsible for the current situation, sackging them could possibly lead to improvements in and of itself. Also for instance take into account the pay-check these professors, or bureaucrats at universities have: seems plausible that you could hire 3, 4, 5, maybe even more, young scientists for the same amount of money)

    *Sack the tons of bureaucrats that are present in today’s academia? (so money can be saved to actually hire scientists, and perform research optimally)

    *Decrease no. of students that are taught? (so there will become a more balanced situation regarding future open positions and applicants)

    *Teach things correctly and trythfully? (so students can decide upfront whether they want to study something given the state of things which they will encounter once they finish their study)

    *Stop fooling the general public, phd students, students, and also yourself ? (the last part is perhaps most important, but perhaps also most difficult…)

  40. Incredibly accurate. This is why I won’t start a PhD project, having two master’s degrees. Science isn’t objective anymore and we’re losing objectivity to economic dragons.

    We do actually not need a long discussion on it. We only need to look at the ‘phenonena’ around us. Fellow scientists: take a look at our audience, the world. It had lost fate in science. Which to me says: we doing it wrong.

  41. A few comments claim that what the author is encountering in academia they will encounter equally everywhere else.
    Of course that is true and nobody would deny that.
    The problem, in my opinion, is that academia – seen as an economy – is highly unregulated as another commenter has pointed out.

    The small (usually young but you also see tons of ‘failed’ ones that do postdocs well into their 40s) academics have absolutely zero rights nor labour-style protection whatsoever:

    (i) Work hours are completely unregulated.
    (ii) Job security is nonexistent: While in the free economy a lot of entry-level jobs are temporary (by far not all), in academia everything is temporary right up to the point where you’re awarded tenure (by which time most academics today will be well over 40).
    (iii) Salaries, for the small academics, are a complete and utter joke.

    If academia is like any other economy (as some commenters suggest – oddly enough most of these appear to be senior academics that are likely quite contend with their income and job security) then where are the labour unions that will bring absolutely all academia-related activities to a standstill when administrations don’t deliver hefty wage increases?
    Where are the law suits of mistreated workers (small academics) bringing down entire administrations?
    How would some of the more settled (tenured) commenters like their costs of operating their labs doubled or tripled because their students suddenly demand higher salaries and regulated working hours?

    The big difference between academia and industry (and this is the major reason for me to quit academia soon – likely after I finish my PhD) is that the above three points are built into the system.
    This is how academia has been designed, this is how it works, and while a lot of people complain about it, everyone respects and adheres to these points.

    Depending on where I go after my time in academia, I am likely to encounter some of the points the author laments (after all this is human nature) but at least – for the majority of economies out there – I will be protected from the above three points by law.
    I will be able to start a proper life, and enjoy the quality of life that I believe I deserve.

  42. @Michael Toomim: sorry, but dropping out after YEARS because you don’t “believe in the degree” anymore (whatever that means) is really lame. I’ve been there. I was ready to drop out month before my defense because my supervisor is a huge jerk (and incompetent and has illusions of grandeur) and I finished. Not because I “believe” in any degree but because it’s silly to drop out when you are finally at the end. It’s like running a marathon but refusing to cross the finish line within a meter of it because you “don’t believe in marathon”. I bet you feel like you are “sticking it to the man” but you are not. No one cares. Someone else will publish your research, the world will continue to turn. you are not a hero nor a rebel.

  43. All of what the author describes is true. And there is a very perverse incentive system in place in current academia.

    However, the author also suffers from the backlash of an apparently once held illusion that Beautiful Superior Academia was so much better than the little people just earning their daily bread outside of academia, which is now shattered, as (s)he discovers that, lo and behold, incompetence is everywhere, and that Academia is not the pond where the Swans of Human Intelligence gather to create a better world, but instead contains people that are fallible.

    I’ve been there myself, and I call it the Third Depression of the PhD (the first one being the I Know Nothing, the second one being The Big Lull, and the last one being the meta one: What Am I Doing This For?)

    But like I said, (s)he has a point, and most of the above can be traced back to (a) wrong incentives, and (b) too many people going through university and into PhDs – which is perhaps also related to (a). I remember when a professor had max 1 or 2 PhD students and perhaps a postdoc. And things were more relaxed and papers more thorough. And all those problems are well-known (even though they go un-addressed).

    But it’s not like all the Old Research was Good Research. Far from it.

  44. One final point, and a very important one as many people seem to have this misconception:

    My advisors were reasonably good, and I don’t want people assuming that I’m complaining about my own bad experiences with bad advisors. As I said in the letter, I am not pointing fingers at anyone – these are conclusions reached after four years of study and conversations, and are quasi-objective as they reflect a multitude of opinions. I should have emphasized this in the letter, but didn’t due to lack of foresight.

  45. Yawn. If you were paying any attention at all, you should have realized this before you came to graduate school, or at least within the first couple years. Surprise! All human endeavours are plagued by egoism, greed, and ambition. And on top of it we get paid badly. Why, then, are so many people still going to grad school, despite the bleak prospects? For many it is because it is worth it to obtain the academic freedom to study the things that you want to study. For still others, it is because they are naive and delusional and think somehow they deserve better – that academia has wronged them and their absurd expectations of it. Somehow I think you fall into the latter group. Academia has it’s problems, but they are well-known to anyone paying any attention at all. I refuse to believe that you were mere months away from successfully finishing your Ph.D. and you’re simply dropping out in protest of the system. You’re either lying, and there is some other reason you’re not finishing, or you’re just as big an egoist as everyone else, assuming that your tragic self-sacrifice will matter to anyone at all. It won’t.

    I don’t mean to dismiss the accusation that there are problems with academia. I mean to dismiss your holier-than-thou attitude where you hold it up to these ridiculous standards and feel victimized when it doesn’t meet them.

  46. To the author of this text, if you ever read this:

    I have completed a PhD in Genomics in the US and I completely agree with what you wrote (though I still think that in between all this mess, there are still some interesting things being produced – but yeah, science is a huge and heavy system, so, like for any such system, it’s hard to bring novel things in – reading Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions helped me a lot to understand this better and to come to peace with all this). Shouldn’t we gather people who also think this way and start a discussion to try to figure out what can be done to improve this? And write a paper about it, ahah 🙂 No kidding, something needs to be done! Contact me if you are interested:

    Best wishes,


  47. Great letter! I have touched on all of these topics in conversations with the other grad students in my program at one time or another. Many people feel this way.

    To everyone saying “stay and fight the system from within,” who determines whether you get to a place where you can effect change or not? The answer is those who have already succeeded in the current system (who judge you based on their experiences) and administrators who only glance at your publication list and the amount of grant money you have won them.

    This is the problem with so-called “meritocracies.” Who determines what “merit” is and whether you have it? The ones at the top with merit, of course. Sure, someone could publish meaningless crap until they get tenure and then (if the system hasn’t changed them and they remain determined to change it) embark on a 10-year project and publish their failures, will they get grants? Will they get students/postdocs? Will they be able to afford new instrumentation? The chemicals? Labor intensive, original, high risk/high reward projects are simply not possible without a dedicated philanthropic or corporate sugar daddy (or mama).

    I’m not cut out for academics, I’m “too honest,” not competitive enough, and I care more about quality of my papers than quantity. Recently, I’ve been looking into science policy. I’m planning on finishing up in two years, but we’ll see…. now the only thing motivating me is the opportunities that come with a PhD, or at least that’s what I tell myself.

  48. The author of this letter makes many valid points. The criticisms will certainly ring true for many PhD candidates, myself included. I have worked through my PhD and then spent some years in academia, in industrial research, and now in a commercial R&D position. In my opinion the author has in parts confused things that they were “sold on” with assumptions that the author and many students make about academia.

    I think there is a lot in this letter worth debating and trying to improve. This is a continual process in my experience in institutions in multiple countries. There is no perfect system.

    Additionally, I think this letter is an indication of many failures. Failure of the advisor(s) to communicate; failure of the system; failure of the student to understand their own motivations and goals. Putting aside the funding/management critiques, the author seems to have missed a fundamental but difficult part of academia and scientific research: it is a human activity. As such, there is a need to communicate and convince other people about the merits of your ideas and work. In many technical fields it is easy for people to fall into the belief that good work, good science will speak for itself. The truth is that it can only speak for itself if you can get people to pay attention to the work. This requires communication, persuasion, education, lobbying, networking, and a whole raft of interpersonal interactions. These human qualities can be negatively ascribed, but in my thinking… without communication there would be no science.

    It is also a myth that there was a golden age where grants and funding were not needed. Scientific work has always required patrons. As romantic as the image of a lone tinkerer who solves a great problem is, the reality is that those are very rare stories. The rarity and the greatness of the achievement is what makes them memorable. Today’s patrons are universities, grant councils, and the occasional company. In the 1800’s it was professional societies, grand challenges, and government prizes/stipends that funded research.

    I hope the author finds a path that satisfies their goals.

    • I think the emphasis which is placed on communicating ideas in postgraduate-“help” seminars is generally shallow and backward. It teaches people how to simplify and eliminate substance, rather than actually communicate with a rigour and clarity that others learned in their field will respect enough to read twice.

  49. I agree with what he has to say. Unless you are into economics or business management, you won’t be in a position of power in the current capitalist system. STEM also has stopped making huge leaps and most research lately has been happening in smaller (and apparently useless) increments. Thus, academics have been fighting harder to secure what’s left of scientific research potential. Nevertheless, graduate students are at the receiving end of this ponzi-scheme-like-PhD-system, where about 15 PhDs are produced for every faculty position.

  50. @ex-grad Actually, ex-grad, I believe the author is a hero. There is nothing more important in life that standing up in what you believe. And to take your analogy, if as you are running a marathon, you realize that the event is morally corrupt and bankrupt, than not crossing the finish lines does make you a hero. Maybe the event will keep going but then again maybe not, maybe some of the other runners will take a long hard look and wonder why you didn’t cross the finish line, maybe this will spark a discussion and maybe just maybe, there are enough runners that agree with you and look up to what you did that the event will be changed one day down the line.

    This author refuses to accept an award (the Ph.D degree) from an institution (academia) that he considers to be bankrupt. I agree with everything the author said and more. I am just extremely disapointed at myself for not having seen it all this clearly earlier. It took a Master’s degree, a Ph.D degree and a post-doc at the best institutions in the world, until I started to see academia for what it is: a paper publishing business driven mostly by people who care nothing for the advancement of knowledge. We have to understand the current crisis in Academia as directly related to the ever expanding ever pervasive neo-liberal paradygm. It is this paradygm that has linked grants to numbers of publications that now drives this relentless pursuit. We have in effect created a currency (papers) that is simply not tied to any real work-value and most definetely not tied to our ultimate goal, namely the advancement of knowledge. Dishonest elements are accumulating wealth by whatever means at their disposal for selfish reasons and are driving a race to the bottom, even by the most honest elements. At least the corporate world is honest about its ultimate goal, namely generating wealth for shareholders. This is a full fledged crisis. The most discerning already see it.

    • Spot on. These problems are very much manifestations of a poisonous neo-liberal agenda, hell-bent on measuring everything trivial, and holding everyone powerless to account. Sadly, most scientists don’t take the time to learn about the monetary system, or the (few, and select) coherent economic theories which make sense of the never ending budget crises. It’s not their job to do that though, and their job has become somewhat time consuming…

  51. ‘. And to take your analogy, if as you are running a marathon, you realize that the event is morally corrupt and bankrupt, than not crossing the finish lines does make you a hero. ‘

    I heard from people in the Netherlands (where Didrik Stapel, infamous social psychologist data-faker is from) that universities receive a large amount of money over there for every phd student that succesfully ‘crosses the finish line’. If you really want to take a stand, quit while you’re just about to finish your phd in the Netherlands: that would really drive the message home over there…

  52. Reading about history of molecular biology, one can find that in the early days (60’s) a mentor was on PhD student’s paper only if (s)he actually contributed to the work; in other words, advising/mentoring was done to educate the next generation, not to boost your own career, since (being a mentor) you should be already established enough. One can think why are things different today….

    Furthermore, imagine how would the authorship of Watson and Crick’s paper look like in contemporary science:

    “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid”

    JD Watson*, FHC Crick*, Max Perutz, John Kendrew and Lawrence Bragg°

    *These authors contributed equally
    °Corresponding author

  53. Hello,

    I am an ex- research master student from the Netherlands.
    The system in the Netherlands is even more money driven, some universities have almost become PhD factories (due to the arrangement H.C. mentioned).
    Publication quotas are also regularly applied. If they are not met, end of contract.
    It is sometimes even the case that bachelor and master students are used for gathering data, writing parts of publications, or as input for new ideas as part of their ‘’thesis supervision’’. Often a simple acknowledgment on the bottom of an article is what they get in return when their work is published. I have also had courses in my master where I was taught how to ‘’sell’’ science. My thoughts however always were: I don’t want to sell science, I want to be a scientist… Furthermore, in my opinion no personal financial security can be achieved as a scientist unless you publish, and the way you publish is by doing safe research (as is described in the wonderfully bold letter above).

    Luckily I figured out all this even before I started my PhD, I am truly very sorry for the author that he or she only found it out after all these years of hard work.

    Keep spreading this message, things will hopefully change! However, always try to keep in mind the good guys who are still hanging in there to give academia some glance.

    In the words of Albert Einstein:
    ”science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.”

  54. Another comment. Sorry it’s a bit long:

    You can’t only rely on vocation. That is typically what all people in underpaid parts of the educational system say. You also can’t over-incentivise, because then you may attract the wrong sort of people. But the advantages of an academic job are becoming rather limited, apart from potential tenure, and flexibility. But the truth is, I believe, mainly the over-influx, creating a true pyramid. When I say to colleagues “it’s a waste of money to get someone to do a PhD when in the end it just turns out to have been a very expensive 4-year assessment for a private sector job”, then they reply that it’s also about educating people, training them to be independent. Now, apart from the fact that I believe there are many other ways in which to achieve independence, I think the problem with this is that *this is not just a project* – this is actual scientific advancement we’re talking about! Because that scientific advancement is sacrificed to the “training” of these people, and to people who absolutely need to get jobs. So in that the author is very much correct.

    But (s)he goes through a lot of twists and turns to point out the core problem, namely that too many people enter academia because it is made too easy. In Belgium I remember vividly that at one point the Flemish National Science Foundation decided to get rid of its tenured scientists (they had to be paid by the universities instead), and invest in young people. What that means is simply the same as in the private sector: for the price of 1 old fart we can pay 4 young people. It is the business model that got put into science. The underlying idea was probably that the cream would float to the top. But at what cost. There is obviously the personal and societal, financial cost. But most importantly the cost is in the scientific quality!

    What are the reasons for tenure. The most important one frequently quoted is that without tenure no senior scientist would have any incentive to train a good younger one, since it’s one who can take his job. The only way to get the system to generate excellence is if it poses no threat to those established. But the other reason is that in principle, tenure should allow you to research even the most outrageous paths, and thoroughly, because you don’t have to “prove” yourself, and scientists are supposed to be in it for the search itself. Having to “proving yourself” is *always* destined to have people look at how to maximise the output rather than the process (since the process isn’t measured).

    Which bizarrely brings us to money. Frequent evaluations of individuals, faculties, etc, and obviously the FUNDING that depends on all that, has meant that scientists have to be continuously on their toes. Your faculty’s publications (recently Dorothy Bishop showed that for all the complex paper work, the UK’s REF’s outcomes are surprisingly well predicted by publication metric alone) will decide what state funding you’ll get (output per dollar, you know). And obviously with personal grants you’ll only get them when you have enough publications. Recently a colleague remarked that perhaps it would be more time-efficient if instead of writing grants for personnel, a fraction of which gets accepted, we would actually do the research ourselves and spend the time writing papers, the scientific output might be higher and more qualitative. And I think he was right.

    And indeed, we perhaps need a justification for the tax money we’re getting. But.

    And here comes the evil combo: if you measure scientific output, you can’t measure scientific “success” only. Which brings us to the bias towards publishing only novel first-time findings. This seems unrelated, but it isn’t. If and only IF it would be as easy to get published with replications or null findings, THEN it would make sense to “count” publications to get an idea of the amount of work being done, without it being detrimental to good science.

    So in a nutshell: (1) there’s too many people entering academia at the bottom, and (2) the time spent writing the grants to pay them could better be spent on research by the senior scientist, who doesn’t have to learn via mistakes on the back of science, (3) also, with all these young researchers, both these young people AND the tenured people are under much more pressure to publish (to get jobs and to get the next grant for students, respectively), (4) which in itself wouldn’t be a problem, if the science being done would be the science seeing the light of day, but instead there’s a publication bias.

    The solutions are twofold, and not one is sufficient:
    – Remove the publication bias. That way, we might end up with a system whereby measuring “output” does not conflict with scientific practice.
    – Put less emphasis on the ability to secure grants and managing others (with job insecurity) doing research, and more on research output from the tenured researchers. (Dorothy Bishop once made this point)

    So there it is.

    • While I don’t entirely agree that those two solutions are together sufficient, I do think you’re on the money with young people publishing. It is a great shame that many scientists with decades of experience eventually become so burnt out, by the constant carnival of self-justification, that they become managers. Unfortunately though, I fear that the intellect does not develop as effectively under constant pressure, and so a decade’s experience in today’s environment counts for less understanding than it used to 🙁

  55. “(7) Academia: The Violent Land of Giant Egos
    I often wonder if many people in academia come from insecure childhoods where they were never the strongest or the most popular among their peers, and, having studied more than their peers, are now out for revenge.”

    I think this misses the point and is simply a bit nasty. This is what I think of the Giant Egos: You don’t get much feedback in research. Especially as a PhD candidate, you are responsible for producing all the failures in order to have a few successes that are actually a research outcome. People that are OK with this fact are the ones that either managed to construct or already have had a giant ego. Hence, professors/advisors have giant egos. Which then again keeps them from giving feedback, because who would need it, they themselves didn’t need it, so what. Those with realistic egos quit academia before or after the PhD.

    Most research is not important. Or at least: You never know. It may become important 2 years later, or 20. There are two strategies to cope with it: Either, you keep telling yourself, that you are the center of the universe with your research, turning yourself into a person hardly anybody from outside academia wants to deal with – I’m sure you can find this in people surrounding you. Or you accept that what you do is your research job and that it probably will never change the world for good – but then you’re on the leave for something already, either before or right after your PhD.

  56. So True. For years, I had this feeling inside me. So great to finally see someone else resonate the same.

  57. 10 years ago, a post-doc at our insititute tried to publish the below “paper” about his view on academia:
    “What do astrophysics and the world’s oldest profession have in common?.”
    It basically expresses the same thoughts as that letter above. he was a great guy and we felt pity that he left soon after.

  58. I am a Professor at the same institution as the author of the letter – and I received it by email. If forwarded it to my PhD students, who did not receive it, so as to generate a debate but also to make sure they were not hiding similar frustration. Some did; we talked it through, as openly as possible.

    When I was a PhD student myself, I never experienced these feelings. But since I’ve become a Faculty member, and despite the big fat cheque at the end of month (sorry to be blunt), I got frustrated to a point you cannot even start to grasp, mostly because of the system described rather accurately in the letter. I do not agree with all your points, but I certainly follow on the main aspects.

    Yet, I cannot help but thinking that resigning, as I often think I should do and as you propose, is a good idea. If you spot a problem, you should solve it. If you turn your back, the problem will stay there. Another commenter below put it more accurately than I could “You are the future young professors”. Get your diploma, become a faculty member and do your work every day making sure you apply the strong sense of ethics you display in your message. Then educate the next generation until there are enough smart guys to change this. In the end, the one true value of Academia, is the passion you put in when you joined. Don’t let others still that from you, fight for it. It won’t be easy, but it will work.

    I guess most PhD students realize that a lot of this negative pressure falls onto young professors for all the bad reasons. I’ve been the head of our doctoral program and, lately, I had to moderate many situations in which a young professor was “milking” PhD students to produce papers. I want to make it clear to all the young people reading this, that this is NOT what a PhD is. It is not what you should expect from your advisor. If this happens to you, there are MANY senior faculty members to whom you can talk and who will go out of their way to help you. I did, many times. As a professor I can fell this pressure every day: papers, grants, h-index, impact factor, quantity over quality, no one cares about my teaching, about the depth of the problems I solve, it is all superficial. But I always make sure none of this gets over to my students. And when I get depressed, and that is too often these days, I take time to think of all the good reasons that took me to Academia. I go at my whiteboard, pick up a pen and shout “Fç*%ç*% it! Let me do exactly what I think is worth.” (note: yes, we Professors do swear 🙂 ).

    I would like to end by stating that if any PhD student (at EPFL or elsewhere) want to talk it through, I am there to help.

  59. @ Sascha

    I note the paper by Martin Lopez Corredoira you have referred to. It was published in the book, ‘Against the Tide. A Critical Review by Scientists of How Physics and Astronomy Get Done’, edited by Corredoira and Carlos Castro-Perelman, of which I have a copy. I wrote a chapter for that book, at the invitation of Corredoira. Castro-Perelman significantly altered my chapter without my permission, because he did not like what I had to say since it had certain impact on his own work. When I discovered this I protested. Corredoira sided with Castro-Perelman and in doing so committed offences which he has himself complained about and which the aforementioned book professes to criticise. No other author for the book had their chapter altered by anybody. As I would not allow Castro-Perelman’s alterations to go unchallenged, Corredoira and Castro-Perelman excluded my chapter from the book. The point is that those who complain of malfeasance and dishonesty in science often change sides when they find it to their benefit. They then become part of the problem.

    Stephen J. Crothers

  60. @FeuDRenais

    I’m so sorry to hear about your struggles. You are not alone in this. Your comments truly capture the terrible side of academia. After completing my PhD at a top academic institute, publishing highly cited papers in a hot new field, I too stepped away from academia for the same reasons.

    Unfortunately I discovered that no system is perfect, and those of us who want stay in research (at least in the life sciences) are faced with a challenge. In my job search, I’ve found these negative attitudes across all types of research institutes (academic, pharma, biotechs). Perhaps because all the researchers have been trained in a broken academic system! But more likely, it seems like an inevitable outcome, when the drive to be creative (and produce something of value) comes up against the needs to make a living, and the survival needs win.

    I do have hope though.

    Your letter is a first step in establishing that hope. By taking the provocative step by sending it out, you’ve brought awareness to a deep issue. Admitting the problem is the first step in solving it.

    Seeing that we have a choice is another step towards hope. Dear author, you’ve exercised that choice by telling your story and choosing to follow another passion. For those who want to stay in academia, there is still a choice. We may not be able to exercise our choice on the level of helping patients or receiving grant money, but we can choose to carry ourselves with integrity and live the academic system the way we believe it should be. We can choose between writing an honest peer review and writing a harshly critical one. We can choose to mentor others who are in need, rather than letting them flounder and have their talents go to waste. By fostering hope on a small-scale, it will naturally emanate outward to bring hope to the whole system.

    I also believe that academia could thrive with a change in perspective. It’s false and painful to believe that resources are limiting. Money is just paper! The resources are there, and if we focus on creating value for others, the resources will flow in. It likely won’t happen as cleanly or easily as this sounds, but overall, if there’s something of value, people will pay. If we engage the public, educate them on the importance of basic research, and show patient groups how we’re contributing to their well-being, support for research will be there.

    My hope is that all scientists will find their voice and bring to light their struggles, and share them with each other so that we can become stronger as a community. And for those without a mentor, know there are others willing to help. I am.

    So dear author, I wish you all the best in your career pursuits. Your willingness to rock the boat and change the system are admirable. You’ve listened to your heart, you’ve spoken out, and you will do well.

  61. Blame it on “academia”, when the problem is really extreme individualism, materialism, lack of solidarity, and anti-societal attitude. This same cancer is spreading in about every single human activity.

    That’s what you get after so many years of ultraliberal capitalism that doesn’t offer anything to man but material and gadjets.

    Try to imagine a context where the very notion of an “economy” would be as obsolete and abstract, as it really is today due to the technological advances that we dont want to realize. As religion, the economy is a man-made notion designed to face the issues of the era it saw it develloped. It has nothing to do in a context where the original issues have become irrelevant.

    And then imagine your own place and freedom in this world, i hope it makes you feel better.

  62. @BBQ
    I am a Professor at the same institution and I forwarded the letter to my PhD students as well. I also see your point concerning the pressure passed on by the “young professors”. Yet, I do not reach the same pessimistic conclusion. Our institution is still very much in transition and a lot depends how the dean of the respective school is handling such situations. As long as I have colleagues like you, who genuinely care about students and serve as role models for others, I know that I am at the right place. You are the “future dean”!

  63. I’m a recent PhD graduate, and I must say I recognized the author’s complaints only because they’re frequently aired in discussion forums like this.

    During my studies and now my post-doc work, I never felt the same way the author does. I’m sorry that he got such a bad experience of academic work. It’s not always and everywhere like that. I love my work (it’s a huge department), I think my work is somewhat important, I can focus on publishing only high quality texts and not look at numbers, my colleagues are fantastic people with quite few ego games, PhD students are treated as colleagues, good teaching matters, and originality is highly valued. The only thing I can feel similar about is the “management” part: too much of professors’ and faculty time goes into administration and management.

  64. @Life isn’t fair:

    If you want to live in a world where everything is sh*t and all those who don’t see/accept that are naive idiots, then you have that right. But most of us don’t live there and don’t want to live there. So don’t drag us in.

  65. I’m in favour of getting something constructive done from this interesting discussion.
    Maybe coordination first?
    @Juliette: “juliette.colinas at”.

  66. This letter is (unfortunately) bang on the money as far as my own experiences go! What’s even worse is that I’m pretty sure the author is from a different scientific field to me; that is, these problems are indeed those of academia in general, not some small part of it.

  67. I am one of those people who loves science but hates the system. Before starting a PhD I actually considered not doing so because of the system the letter describes. But then I have thought to myself: nothing will ever change if the people that hate the system abandon it. And then I entered a PhD and I am still sucking through it until I will get into the position to decide otherwise. In the meantime, I am trying to change things as a student representative. And things are changing. Slowly. I found that things change faster if enough people stick together and demand change together. This is why I agree with @Rob, @Dave Fernig, @Lee Smolin, @Julliette : it is not a solution to throw in the towel, because we need people like you. But I also understand that you choose to fight from outside the system. For me it does not matter as long as we are fighting for the same things 😉 But you know, a wise person once said: “Reasonable people adapt themselves to their environment. Unreasonable people adapt their environment to themselves. Hence all progress depends on unreasonable people.” I just believe that you are the right kind of unreasonable person. BTW: kudos for leaving the system creating such a roar.

  68. “(2) Academia: Work Hard, Young Padawan, So That One Day You Too May Manage!”
    The wrong conclusion is drawn.

    The correct reason for managing prof’s, slaving PHD’s is: Prof’s know the greater community. They know what questions still exist, and are best answered now. PHD’s don’t know this. PHD’s know how to find answers. But they don’t yet know what the important questions are.

  69. Thanks to both you gentlemen for writing and posting this. I believe that many of us who have touched upon scientific research around the globe can recognize several of the points raised here.

    I agree with the good ideas suggested in the above comment by @Alfred Charles and I applaud the brave spirit in the comment by @Rob from ETH Zürich.

    We are some that support the following movements as (probably imperfect) solutions to these well known problems in academia:

    I myself is active in the Copenhagen DIYbio lab:
    and in the Copenhagen makerspace:
    In Europe, the DIYbiologists are organized here:

  70. I don’t know where this ideal of high and pure science is coming from. Sociologists of science have, since the 1970s, shown that science has never been “pure”, and that the aura of holiness has never existed. I’m sorry that you had a weird, unrealistic idea of science free of impurities and flaws, and that you got disappointed. I guess universities are partly to blame for keeping the tale alive. Science is human activity and in the baggage comes many “impure” things that you dislike.

  71. Any social science/humanities PhDs/Academics out there? Surely the problems are even worse with these disciplines, where, unlike Science, there may not be an objective truth to be pursued?

  72. @barbecue thanks for your kind words. I really didn’t want to blame young professors, don’t get me wrong. Those on tenure track feel an incredible pressure and, quite unfortunately, that pressure is often carried over to students. I think young professors simply need mentors, coaching. I was myself an assistant professor not so long ago and I made mistakes: no one ever taught me how to be a thesis advisor. But then I was lucky to have older colleagues who gave me good advices, and I was clever enough to listen. It is my time to give advices now – I find it natural and I am positive we can change things slowly (agonizingly slowly) this way.

  73. Do you know what’s the similarity between research and shitting? First, both need papers. Second, the papers are full of shit~XD

  74. The system of grants and overheads has greatly corrupted our value as scientists. The definition of success has changed to being able to generate the most amount of money, managing the largest number of people, and having the most power in committees. A true scientist has to be true to his/her own values and be tough enough to stand in front of a bandwagon.

  75. Theorem: BBQ is awesome.
    Proof: Above comments. Q.E.D.


  76. This is a cool read, and I can share many of the concerns stated. But it is really a rant-list and its loss of objectivity is self-evident as you read further into it. It focuses on the worst aspects of academia and it tries to portray them as representative of the most, which I think is very misleading. Problems with academia? Yes, many. What the author seems to me missing is crucial. Academia compared to what? What other activity you can devote to (working in government, the private sector, NGOs, others) that has less (and less serious) problems? Over the last 20 years, I have worked for industry, academia, and international organizations. I can’t tell you academia is the bad animal this article portrays it to be. Just stating my (biased) take on it.

  77. I quit my PhD studies at EPFL a couple of years ago. I came to Switzerland because I was passionate about science and I really wanted to learn. After 1.5 years I realized that the topic that was chosen {for me / by me} was completely pointless and will never be fruitful. My research direction was mostly chosen because it looked good to get EU money.

    At EPFL you are expected to publish papers almost from the the very start. Moreover your progress is closely monitored and you feel the heat (indirectly) when you are behind. I lost all self-esteem and all passion. Little by little I felt worse and worse. You realize that most research that is done is completely pointless and follow exactly the points mentioned in the letter above. Very few people are there to advance the field. It is about selling a topic, not researching them.

    After 3 years I finally quit and it was the best decision in my life! I now do almost exactly what I had hoped my PhD would be like. I have people around me that help and inspire me. I learn more in half a year at my current job than I did during my 3 years in Switzerland.

    If you don’t like your PhD I strongly recommend you quit. The industry is a much better place to grow, to learn and to have fun. A PhD can be a dangerous mix between insane pressure and moments of pure panic. Life is too short. Unless you love your field unconditionally or need a PhD to boost you ego, I can promise you that you will learn more, have more fun, feel mush better, accomplish more, be more proud of your own work in the industry than in academia. Moreover, I actually think there is better ethics in some sense, it is harder to bullshit and lie. If the stuff you are developing don’t work, they don’t work.

    If you love science and learning – search for a great company in the right industry! There are plenty of places you can do science in the industry.

  78. On the DOT! Well said, you have put forth all the points I had in my mind.

  79. I agree with the author of the letter. Academia has become another tool of the “Market”, this entity that nobody fully understands and which behaves like a monster eating human beings to go on in the Third World as well as in the Fourth one. In my opinion, the reason why Universities are becoming emotionally cold factories of professionals formed only on technical issues is that the “Market” only wants these institutions formed by this kind of people. There were already meetings in the end of 70’s and beginning of 80’s where big corporations met in order to discuss about the future academic models that should be established in order to build a more competitive society and develop a better world. But the way that these corps. defend is only one of the possible ways to do it, and I fully disagree with the extremist Neoliberal ideas that led us to this economical crisis that everybody is paying, except the big corps.

    By the way, when I told my boss at EPFL during my PhD that EPFL didn’t seem a University from my point of view because we didn’t really make research, he replied telling me that EPFL is not a University, but a School…! According to him the differences are clear: a School is more a tool for Companies, Industry,…. I wondered whether he meant “the Market”. So apparently for some people it’s clear: if research activity doesn’t bring short-term benefits isn’t worth to invest in it. Why do you think that Molecular Biology has so big budgets? In order to better understand where do we come from, or in order to produce more benefits for pharmaceuticals? And I think that this is what is making politicians change their opinion about academic institutions as if they were sinks of money where researchers, scientists and even students live at the expense of the taxes of Society.

    Therefore, I agree with the contents of the letter, even though I found it hard to understand in some parts. I am pretty sure that the author took his time to write it, but I would appreciate clearer messages without so many appositions and subordinated phrases. On the other hand, I fully agree with Rob that we are the young generation to change the things, so here I am as well to change things with my day by day behavior.

    I could continue saying so many things, but it’s time to leave it for the moment and to show all my admiration and my respect to the author of the letter. I’m sure that we lost in the research community, at least, a very honest person. And we are lack of them in Science.

  80. Anyone working in science must be able to recognise these as valid points. Science is a pyramid scheme, whereby you get lots of students or post-docs underneath you to write as many papers as possible. Review processes are also political and hardly anonymous (you can tell you writes what!). There are other problems (e.g. when funding is low, people fund PhDs rather than researchers, as it is cheaper. In the UK there is 1 post-doc position for every 20 PhD graduates, and the UK does well!)

  81. I’m also a PhD student from EPFL but I work in a research centre in another Kanton. In general, I have a very supportive PhD supervisor and encouraging environment.

    But ask yourself ….

    how often you wonder, how come someone *like that* could get a PhD just because he/she had been in the system long enough?

    How come your supervisor just doesn’t see the fundamental problem/mistake in his proposed project/argument?

    Most students who apply for a PhD program come in because they couldn’t find a job. Even though PhD students are paid very little, they still sign up because it’s better than nothing. If/when they graduate, they might think they’re capable of doing research and become supervisors for the next generation of PhD students. Or they think they can be good managers (because in this age, good presentation/salesman skills are regarded better than the actual ability to do research), and go onto managing a lab. But in fact, they are far from capable of advancing the scientific frontiers. They come up with pointless projects like they have a quota to fill and admit cheap & low-quality students to do the projects, so that they maintain their PI status.

    Some truly brilliant students, if they are lucky, get very competent supervisors. If they’re unlucky, they are quickly disappointed by the quality of their peers (who come in because of a salary than science), supervisors (who are either more focused on advancing their managerial career than the actual science or are just mediocre scientists) and the lack of support (financial, professional) from the University. They become bitter and lose motivation and lost.

    The value of the PhD has decreased so much:

    To fix the broken system: admit only the best of the best for PhD programs and reward them with good salary for what they contribute to science.

    Until then… the real, smart ones are going to find jobs (and do amazing things) in the real world. Only dreamers and the slightly-above-average ones go to Grad School.

  82. Dear Gene,

    Felt so reassuring to know that someone else shares my views on academics. For a moment, I even wondered if I was cloned out of you ! I am currently in the second year of my PhD, but wondering if I should continue. While I may not be courageous enough to quit my PhD as yet, I am hopeful that I can, with like-minded people such as you, bring some positive changes in myself as well as in my surroundings. As an Indian, it is nice to hear that you would like to work in the developing world, although I don’t subscribe to the prevailing definition of development. You are most welcome to work in India. :-). I have some fresh ideas.

    Please let me know your e-mail address so that I can correspond with you (FYI, I generally don’t send long emails 🙂 ). Note my e-mail address:

  83. I am really happy seeing that finally someone had spoken out.

    I study in Germany and I and many of my friends share your frustration.

    The situation is even worse for PhD students coming from outside Europe, Canada, and the US. They are often forced to work with 50% of the PhD students salary for 10-12 hours per day 7 days per week.

    I believe modern slavery is this.

    I have witnessed one case of burnout in my colleagues during my PhD.

    People are stressed out all the time. The nervous system diseases are ubiquitous among my colleagues who are below thirty years old in where I work.

    I loved my field of study before I did this PhD. I no longer do. Every thing is so superficial and ugly that I do not want to be a part of it. I have also decided to quit science for good after I finish my PhD studies.

  84. This article is worth ten “academic publications”!

    It is so close to me and my experience I almost thought I wrote it, I wish of course I had written down my experience as well,
    instead of just discussing it with friends , the whole thing reminds me of the naked king and the little boy!

    somebody needs to shout it out, let it be us,

  85. My sincere respects to you and few of the other commenters who making an earnest effort in understanding of pitfalls in academia. I agree on quite a few things that is presented in the original letter, although I have been lucky to escape them by the whisker.

    I too have recently submitted my first draft of dissertation and hoping to graduate in coming months. Few years ago, when i was finishing my masters and thinking about future options. I was eagerly seeking advice from other graduate students who were pursuing their PhD on what to expect in case I decided to undertake PhD. Most (not all)of the people I spoke to were prone to frustrations expressed on this page and some of them had bought into the system and others were cursing their lives while biding their time till graduation.

    I made it a point that I would feel comfortable in the group(which takes in the factor of Prof/Advisor) such that I would be enthusiastic about going to the lab everyday. I cannot imagine spending 3-5 years of my life doubting my choices, feeling insecure, incapacitated, frustrated about life in general. I am sure such a time comes in to everybody’s life and we’ve learn to cope but to bring it oneself is something which has to be avoided!(I think I have so far, lucky me:))

    My point is, the ills of the system apart, there are Profs out there who are making an effort to swim against the tide. Some students are lucky(I really mean this, I know people will doubt my qualifications for saying this) and rest of them either get sold into the system or living their lives in frustrations. Then there some brave souls who call the bluff and walk away.

    I don’t want to walk away now but even in case I wanted to ….I would not, life back home is not so sweet…..its god damm greyhound tracks back there and if I don’t go back with a fancy certificate……now you see why I consider myself lucky.

    Good luck for all you brave souls who are walking away and my sincere sympathies to the frustrated souls out there.


  86. Great letter, all true except for one thing: Science is NOT a business, science is a charitable venture funded by government. And government is famously incompetent at getting ANYTHING done efficiently or sensibly, because government is also not a business, it lives off the taxpayer, few of whom even follow what their money is being spent on. So science is a big charade where bureaucrats hire committees of “respected” academics to make collective judgments on distributing the government funds, so all the conniving and deal-making and back-stabbing are a natural part of the process. It happens wherever government spends money, not just in science.

    That the cynical truth. Now for the hopeful truth: Government will always grow and grow till it is barely sustainable, and it will spend and spend to justify its bloated existence by “doing good” by one measure or another. Every culture has its religion, some spend the collective wealth building pyramids or spinning prayer wheels. We have the good fortune to live in a society where science IS our religion, because if you have to have a religion, science is the least deceptive and most grounded in actual reality of the alternative belief systems.

    The true benefit of all that government funded research is NOT the piles of incomprehensible publications generated by all the career scientists building their careers. That literature is indeed mostly worthless and incomprehensible. The true benefit of government funded science is that it offers a (almost useless but delightful) career for many science-minded people, who do more interesting REAL science and philosophy and mathematics in their spare time at home than they do in the boring lab, and they get to exchange ideas over beers with like-minded science-interested folks on every topic under the sun. The culture is enriched by giving a living to the geeky nerd thinkers. Jump on the bandwagon, join the gravy-train, write your mindless papers, but give thanks that you live in a culture where there is a career available to anyone who is willing to play the game. THAT is what is good in science. Not the obvious “product” published in peer-reviewed journals. That is just the game they play to earn their respected position in the system.

  87. I want to congratulate myself with the author of this letter.

    I think what s/he says actually captures a lot of what is going on not only in science departments, but also in the humanities. As many people may be aware of, during the last decades the humanities have started to feel “inferior” to the sciences and, in order to fight such a complex of inferiority, they’ve started to become more “scientific” themselves. Nowadays, in whatever branch of the humanities you work, you are expected to produce papers written with “scientific clarity”. This is translated in very short papers, focused on an extremely narrow topic, citing a lot of pre-existent and “important” literature.
    In this way, historians are now “scientists of history”, anthropologists are “scientists of culture and men”, philosophers are “scientists of thought”. No-one is interested in actually trying to give a humanistic perspective to the most urgent problems of society. There are no more historians who try to understand how we ended up in this current situation, there are no more anthropologists who try to actually understand cultural conflicts, there are no more philosophers who engage themselves in the construction of a general system of ideas to make sense of ourselves and of the world we live in. There are only a lot of “scientific humanists” spending days typing on their laptops and producing shallow papers which are going to be read only by seven people in the world; finally, when they have ten of those papers, they collect them together, they write a Preface and a Conclusion in which they say exactly the same things of what is already said in the papers, and so they are ready to publish their first book – which probably is going to be reviewed by their old teachers and friends.

    I am a PhD student in Philosophy of Science, and I share the same feelings of the author of this letter. Philosophy of science is a complex discipline, with many branches and sub-branches. Lately, it has become clear that the very disciplinary structure of the philosophy of science mirrors the taxonomy of the sciences. This tendency to the over-specialization is almost suffocating. Once upon a time, there was a sort of “general” philosophy of science, treating issues like the epistemological status of scientific claims (i.e., whether such claims are “true” or “false”, and how we can be sure of that), the history of scientific concepts, the inter-relations among the sciences, the definition of scientific rationality, the role of science within society. Then, it happened that many “philosophers of science” became “philosophers of physics”, or “philosophers of biology”, or “philosophers of the social sciences”. Nowadays, there is the philosophy of quantum mechanics, philosophy of statistical mechanics, philosophy of relativity, philosophy of evolutionary theory, philosophy of economics, philosophy of psychology…
    While putting effort on a special field is not bad per se, the problem here is that all these “philosophers of the special sciences” do not even communicate with one another anymore. If you ask to one of them a question which is not related to their narrow area of expertise, they don’t know what to say or they just say that “it’s not their field” .
    All of this, in the name of a “scientific clarity” which is sold as the highest virtue in the humanities and accepted as a dogma.

    Because of this over-specialization, another tendency in the humanities that I have noticed is the lack of a sane – I would say “enlightened” – critical spirit. I make again an example from the philosophy of science, since it is the area that I know best. In the past, several philosophers of science were interested not only in the “conceptual analysis” of this or that theory or equation. They were also interested to other issues like, for instance, the “ethics” of science, or the place that scientific knowledge should have in (and for) society, or the relation between “scientific progress” and “human progress”. There was this famous philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend, who knew a lot about science – in particular, the various interpretations of quantum mechanics – and yet, despite his detailed and informed analyses, was claiming that ultimately the problem that philosophers of science should try to solve is happiness. Feyerabend’s research tried to answer to the question: “How can science be used to improve our lives and to make us happier?” (or, alternately and more critically: “Is science actually used to improve our lives and to make us happier?)
    Nowadays, no philosopher of science asks those questions. If you try, you are labelled irrational and idealist. All you have to do is to have this “scientific attitude” which translates in the dogmatic and a-critical acceptance of what science is and does. In other words, if you have a PhD in philosophy of science, your job description is going to be: “Given that science is right, you must be able to explain why”. But this attitude is neither humanistic nor scientific, I’m afraid! And beside, what would be the need of having philosophers around, if what they say is exactly the same of what scientists are already saying by themselves.

    Finally, there is this eternal academic arrogance which pervades not only the science departments, but also the humanities. It is true: people from the departments of physics may look down at people from the departments of biology who may look down at people from the departments sociology. Because the structure of the philosophy of science mirrors the taxonomy of the sciences, the same thing happen in the departments of philosophy: people doing philosophy of physics look down at people doing philosophy of biology who in turn look down at people doing philosophy of the social sciences, while philosophers of maths look down pretty much at everybody.
    Moreover, philosophical disciplines are also more or less important depending on their nationality. Anglo-American philosophers say that German or French philosophers, the so-called “Continental”, are just a waste of time and they all write wishy-washy non-sense. All of them. You then ask to these people which German or French philosophers they have read and they will most likely reply: “Well, none of them, because they are all of waste of time and they speak non-sense, all of them!” The opposite is also true. When asked about Anglo-American philosophers, the so-called “Analytics”, the Continentals would reply that they are all shallow and narrow and affect by an irrational scientism – all of them, that’s why none of that should be, and have been!, read.

    My feeling is that current academia has destroyed what both the sciences and the humanities were about. Both scientists and humanists are just caged in the lab or in the library and they have no idea of what is going on in the world. Wars, famine, financial collapses, climatic and natural disasters: this is what is going on. Yet, you ask to academics to try to make sense of even one of this problem and you find out they can’t: they are too busy writing the next paper in which they have to cite those guys who have cited them, or supervising the next thesis about nothing – all of this with public money, of course.

    The only reason why I am not giving up on PhD is because I have almost finished and I don;t know what to do. I don;t feel particularly blessed or intelligent in doing what I am doing. Actually, I feel rather dumb and, sometimes, even morally “dirty”. Let’s see what the future will decide of me and best of luck to the author of the original letter.


  88. Whoever you (the original author of the content) are, dude, accept my “friendship”. Yes, we are less in number, but does it matter? We always have been. Keep courage, my friend. Bloodsucking leeches have networks and self-sustaining-mediocrity always. But that never bothers the true Howard Roarks (ref: The Fountainhead). Keep doing what you believe in, and don’t bother about peer-support. In the end, they all kneel down and worship the harbingers of new ideas. and yes, they do keep on making their bread and butter from our ideas!
    Only thing that I suggest? or request? Do NOT quit from doing science. Then those businessmen win.

  89. Thanks to bring this issue up. Such cases happen a lot.

    I was forced to be working fully on supervisor’s projects, and stressful work makes me work every until late night. These projects have nothing to do with my phd topic!!!

    I always have to beg for time for my research, I fill my holiday time to write my papers and send it to my supervisor for correction. After waiting 3 months, I asked, he didn’t even read it!!! and later he spend only a night to finished.

    Now I am struggling not to be involved into any business projects.

  90. Just a recommendation – Science and Method by Henri Poincare.

  91. What this young apprentice says is largely true. But, out of a hundred papers you may read, you may stumble upon “the one” that is life altering. It makes it worth is.

    Your work is a pure as your soul. I do not see it as an Either/Or, but a chess game to keep your soul and keep an academic roof over your head. No shame in that.

    What else… oh, really hard problems worth solving could take decades…Yes. But, I look at a Journal like a notebook that is made public. Heh, it may not all be E=MC2, but it is the best I can do. If you look at a journal pub as an open notebook, then maybe you would not have such high expectation of each individual publication.

  92. The key is to pick your advisor and project carefully before getting involved. While that is easier said than done, it is much easier than 4+ years of uninspired work. There are scientists out there doing science the way you imagine it should be done (whatever that may be) — find them and don’t settle for less.

  93. To the author: I admire you. Like you, I have experienced a similar situation and have the exact same feelings. Here, five months ahead from my dissertation I don’t have the guts to quit. Yet I decided to take a different path and go to the industry since I don’t believe in Academia anymore. Certainly the industry is also money-driven, but at least they honest about it.

  94. Unfortunately so true.hope it will change.the real researchers have to do something to change the situation

  95. I feel this is more of a supply-demand problem. I’m an undergraduate and I’ve done most of my research in my home country (India) and while I agree that such things happen even here, I’ve been fortunate to the extent that I would think twice before calling it a coincidence. The facts are thus…

    I’m now working on two research projects in Condensed Matter Physics. Project 1 was decided after discarding three different project ideas that came up, two of which came from my supervisor and one from myself. There was not the least display of any sort of negativity when I told him I found a different topic more interesting or that I didn’t want to do a certain type of work this summer. I’m still early in my career and in no position to judge the merits of a professor, but to my limited understanding, he is a brilliant researcher with a keen command over the very interesting (to the scientific community in developed nations as well as to myself) topics he specializes in, which it is surprising to me that the strength of his research group is at this point I believe limited to three PhD students one of whom is leaving this year. Project 2 is being carried out at my home instituition. During our first encounter after I had finished describing my previous work, the professor expressed interest in a project of mine that I was incomplete (because a European professor I had started it with had lost interest in the project) and suggested that it might be interesting to reformulate that into a more general problem as our project and try to complete my project on the side. Both of these professors actually work on the projects, in the sense that they get their hands dirty and work through the stuff when it gets interesting enough to excite them. These are not isolated instances; I have had similar experiences in other projects in my country and a single starkly different experience in my lone stint abroad.

    I feel that one of the roots (and certainly not the only one) of the problem is that there is a surplus of supply in the hallowed scientific centres of the developed world, the US, Germany, Switzerland, France, Britain, Canada among others. Supply of good quality graduate students when in excess, will inevitably lead to a system in which they are undervalued. Also, it increases the managerial overhead on the professors, who then have even less time for their students, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle.

    This is essentially the same problem that would arise if all the tomato famers of the world preferred to sell their tomatoes (cf. 5 years of graduate school) to Walmart and Tesco, say (cf. hot-shot Western universities). The tomatoes would rot and both companies would be deluged in managing inventories so there is really no point blaming them either. As the businesses expanded under the pressure of more and more supply, the possible objective of providing quality tomatoes at lower rates to the world is lost in the rat race, as both try to one-up the other. In principle, the analogous problem in academia would need to be resolved in similar fashion. However, I’m not sure what the necessary steps would have to be in practice for the encouragement of a global academic “free market”, where quality researchers are matched to quality graduate school applicants irrespective of affiliation, if at all I am right in believing that this would solve the problems addressed in this post. Fixing a maximum PhD:mentor ratio sounds like a very naiive and knee-jerk reaction, I would be glad if someone came up with a more feasible solution.

    Just my two cents,

  96. Science is a messy, messy place with morally bankrupt individuals competing with one another for paltry, waning grant funds. The only equity left in the world of science is social equity freely paid to influential professors who store it in a vault of ego.

    I dropped out of my (ivy league) PhD too. I refused to develop, as you say, Stockholm Syndrome for my advisors, who were using their students as robots to do their work instead of developing the students themselves. I once received a report that said something to the effect of “you desire to innovate, but that distracts you from your work.”

    There are almost NO checks and balances in the system. You can work for years under a professor who holds your degree or letter of recommendation hostage, and there is no way to earn your “payment” without delivering whatever expectation they have, no matter how absurd.

    Let the pompous “intellectuals” tear themselves to pieces as science becomes privatized, education becomes free and online, and grants all but disappear. The real world is a well-paying meritocracy established on concrete and objective market demands. Fight on and don’t look back!

  97. Thanks for the beautiful article, I am still working in academia a see a lot of the things you mention.

  98. What a wonderful article! 🙂 Without saying so directly, the author has touched on a few pertinent real life challenges such as:
    + that part of culture where ignorance is bliss and those who have gone down the road to enlightenment discover their own shortcomings and those of others;
    + that part of economics where money and greed drive decision making in an world where dependence on money enslaves you or protects you from the will of others;
    + that part of individuality and choice which eludes so many because they do not have it, or do have it but don’t realise that they are in a position to stand free…

    All that said, the article reveals so many opportunities. For instance, there is the opportunity to be an academic outside of the formal structures and inject truth into the world through platforms like this (a blog). Or go straight into the (business) world and do the same. I do the latter. I abandoned my masters because of my principals’ egos. Had I been so naive at that stage of my life, I would have spent less money on them and more on me. But my clients love my work – it’s brutally honest and ego free. Most of all, it’s totally scientific.

  99. Okay, given the interest that this letter has generated, I’ve decided that it would be criminal not to do something to act on the spark that this seems to have created for many people. If you want to create a group where we could discuss/propose/implement potential solutions, the first step should be to get everyone who’s interested together, after which we could start formal discussions.

    If you are interested, either:

    (1) e-mail Juliette at
    (2) e-mail me at
    (3) join the Facebook group I created for this (called “Honest Science”, link above) – I recognize that Facebook is not the best choice for everyone, but it’s free and as a quick-and-dirty solution it’s good, as it can also immediately give a forum to more focused discussions (if we want to migrate to a dedicated forum later, that’s of course possible)

    A big thanks to everyone, again.

  100. Thank you for the courage to write this article.

    I have just retired from a career in academic and industrial science and it’s been very kind to me. I’ve had freedom – both funding and choice of work – in both situations. For the last few years until I retried I have had a wonderful group of people working with me (in chemical informatics). I am extremely proud of them and they have uniformly gone into productive high-tech industry (almost all in UK) which I believe represents a very positive outcome.

    I have no doubt that I was very fortunate to be in a golden era of science and that it’s much harder now. I was fortunate to be mentored by first class scientists , all showing great humanity. None had large groups and I have always held that I personally did not want to run a group that could not sit down at a single table at a pub on Friday afternoons without a deadline of rushing back. But this is increasingly hard to do. Crick and Watson might mind it hard to work today in the way they did.

    There are wonderful things in academia, but I think the system is getting out of touch with the world outside. I’m now working largely outside the system (in the Open Knowledge Foundation) and looking to do science with those outside the ivory tower. In the digital era there’s a huge potential to change the way we do education and research – and universities have failed to recognize this. Indeed academia is one of the few business areas largely untouched by the digital era.

    It depends very much on the field but there are often equally exciting challenges in industry as in academia. The constraint of a business focus can be beneficial as well as constraining. I think both biotech and IT are very exciting areas outside academia. And – although it’s not common – it’s often technically possible to do non-laboratory research privately. I hope we shall see the development of non-academic communities doing innovation and research in the public arena – Wikipedia, Mozilla, OKF, and crowdsourcing are growing rapidly. So earning your living outside academia may allow you to continue certain types of “research”. It will be very challenging, but it’s possible.

    Change can often be a good thing – I left academia because I had wonderful industrial collaborators and I saw the potential of doing new and exciting things.

    Of course, you will be lucky and unlucky in the people and organizations you meet. Make the most of the good fortune

  101. So If I get it right from your own comments:
    – You were given the great opportunity to work on a topic you are truly interested in
    – You were well supervised, you were granted public money for a duration of four years to pursue “true” science
    – You claim to have learned a lot during your PhD journey
    …and yet you chose to quit.

    How ethical is it, not to want to share what you have learned with others, while you accepted public funding for all the duration of your journey?

    How is this better than the people you described?

  102. To be honest, I’ve come across similar writings several times during the course of my Masters degree, and it didn’t stop me from doing a PhD. Sure, a lot of it is true, to an extent, but if you feel that you are not given enough freedom, not working in the right place or on the wrong project, with the wrong people, or making enough money, then the fault cannot fully be with ‘academia’ (whatever that is!); most of the responsibility of this lies with yourself. I do understand that not everyone has the good fortune to be offered a position in their preferred lab or on their preferred topic, but blaming your misery on ‘academia’ after you knowingly chose a sub-par position, is not honest; no matter how unfair ‘the world’ might seem.

  103. I apologize for the length of this post.

    I started out my university life as a physics student, with an interest in nuclear physics and biophysics. During the course of my studies, I became convinced that nuclear energy was the only feasible way to effectively tackle the issues of climate change. I started PhD program in nuclear engineering, where I decided to specialize in radiological physics and radiation safety. I found the field interesting, from a mathematical perspective and as a practical endeavor. Being that I had no nuclear experience starting out, I was given a year or so to work casually on several projects, so that I could find my niche. Whenever, I found a major professor, he assigned me to a thin-film neutron scintillator for my dissertation project. I never had any experience in solid-state physics or photonics, and I wasn’t allowed to take any solid-state physics class. To make a long convoluted story short, things ended very badly.

    I was starting to become concerned about the prospects of nuclear employment in America after Fukushima and the ideologically-driven closures of two nuclear power plants just this year. I still maintain that nuclear energy is the only workable solution to adequately address climate change, but I would not recommend going to graduate school as a means to enter into the nuclear industry.

    I’ve read a lot on the responses to this article about how the dysfunctions of the neo-liberal and laissez-faire capitalism are eroding academia, and my experiences are fully consistent with careerist professors who are only interested in grubbing as much money as they can; the academic profession is quickly going to replace the legal profession for being the worst of blood-sucking parasites. I think that academia is too far gone, too full of rage-prone egomaniacs, ranging from the University President to the Provost to the Deans to the Faculty to ever reform internally. I think that reform to academia is going to have to come from the outside. Specific to America, I think that all graduate students should have a right to have to organized labor, and I think that weekly overtime laws that apply to regular workers should apply to graduate students as well. Academic work needs to be seen as just another form of labor that should be covered to the same labor laws that govern all other labor.

    I think another problem with academia I would add to this letter is that the academic climate can be extremely unforgiving for people who have interests and hobbies outside their scientific specialty and want to interact with people outside the academic climate. Outside science, I have a love for classical music, both performing on piano and organ and going to the symphony; I realize that I am in the minority for being a physicist who is a Greek-rite Catholic convert and enjoys volunteer work. And I can say in all honesty that I was often seen as a pariah by my major professor for wanting contact with the outside world. To be just blunt, these are signs of a cult!

    I still maintain that science is the means by which the majority of the world’s problems will be solved. Whether academia can deliver on this or not, I do not know and I no longer care. Since my time as a PhD student, I have completely fallen out of love with science, and I can no longer be a functioning product worker in the sciences or engineering. I have also found other causes are a lot more important to me. I am completely sick of both the careerist academics who treat students as food for their ill-gotten gain and the anti-science American Fundamentalist heretics called the Tea Party. I I have decided that I should go to the seminary and be a priest.

  104. I think there is a lot of bullshit here. One person’s or a few person’s personal experiences or opinions are being blown out of proportion to malign an entire system that has produced countless benefits for mankind over many centuries. There is no problem-free system in the world and any serious student of science would know that this is inherent to any evolutionary process. Did any of us learn to run before learning to walk and learn to walk without falling? Yet it is the human spirit and endeavor for struggling against the odds that has brought us to see the modern world from jungle and cave days. Imagine what would have happened if our ancestors had given up on effort and sat contentedly with what they had? There are always dropouts, for whatever reasons, and they have always been ignored while the bandwagon moves on. Instead of just condemning things and dropping out of them, one should spend time and effort into finding solutions. In this case, a better course would have been to complete the PhD, join the group and then work to convince the system of your proposed changes and have them implemented…change things from within, as it were, rather than running away.

  105. @ FeuDRenais

    Hmmm, Interesting lettre.
    Nothing new though, and you’re definitly not the first. I have respect for the fact that you stated your mind so clearly and had the courage to send it to so many “large” egos.

    You say that you want to do true/honest science. Have you actually asked yourself what that might be? I’m sure if you took a pole, you would find as many answers as there are to this blog. The problems you state in your lettre do not just apply to academia. They are problems found in almost every aspect of life and this because we live in a world populated by Humans which (last time I checked) are flawed creatures. Therefore anything they do will also be in someway inperfect.

    Your answer to the problem is to quit. What will this achieve? You will go to industry or elsewhere and you will be confronted to the same problems of egos, dishonesty, cheating, etc. You say academia pulled a trick on the world. Look at some of the companies out there trying to sell there products to the world, are they any better? Not really. Will there ever be something as pure honesty in an imperfect world? The answer is a resounding no.

    However, this does not mean that we should not strive for this. From my point of view our job is to make the world better, if only in a neighbourhood of ourselves. You want to change academia for the better, than stay and fight for what you believe in. You can only change things by hard work and perseverance in the area itself. Your quitting will only get you a few days or weeks of discussion and then people will loose interest and go back to there life and struggles. You will not become a becon of honest science because you quite, you gave up. If you truelly want to change something, then finish your PhD, stay in academia and spend the rest of your life trying to improve it, if only locally.

  106. One of the world’s most eminent electrochemists (a man I knew) in 1989 was vilified and his career (albeit late in life) ruined though the search for a new scientific phenomenon.

    He and a colleague reported observations, measurements that they had made, which flew in the face of established theory. They openly stated that they did not understand the theory of the phenomenon behind their observations. Despite that, they were accused of being charlatans and performing “junk science”. How can reporting an observation be anything other than of scientific interest?

    Almost a quarter of a century later, the observations they reported have been replicated many times in many laboratories throughout the world. Mainstream science still ignores this field: a quiet word in the ear from the established scientist tells a young researcher not to go anywhere near this topic. The world is a poorer place as a result.

    Fortunately, like you, there are a few brave men and women who have integrity. They continue to pursue this research which is likely to be seen in due course as leading to a paradigm shift in science.

  107. Hi all, I just came across to this article…I really suggest you to read this book: THe Culture of technology, A. Pacey ( it is a very “academic” description of how ambiguous is science today. We still believe that science is pure and bring a positive progress but reality is that everything touches technology enters into industrial-market logic which is most of the time far far away from pushes people to become scientist. …

  108. After the disenchantment with academia, the next step for this young person will be to de-mystify the business world. S/he seems to think “Business = Evil” when in fact plenty of jobs do actually accomplish something.

  109. FeuDRenais

    Good luck with all of your future endeavors.

    You might be interested to know that Sean Summers at ETH Zurich has posted a kind of nasty-gram to you at his website:
    Comments don’t seem to be possible there.

    You’ve also been picked up in the USA at Anthony Watt’s blog WUWT – take that for what its worth.

    As I say at my own blog:

    This seems to be a symptom of a larger problem that many outside of academia, such as myself, have been commenting on for years, namely the degradation of institutionalized science into an academic racketeering operation.

    Academia is along established institution – or meta institution. All long established institutions share a common phenomenology – they serve to protect mediocrity and stifle genuine innovation. Institutions are often [though not always] created for some original purpose as an innovative impulse, usually that of an exceptional innovator. That purpose inevitably degenerates into self-perpetuation of the institution, rather that innovation. Of course it is often the case with political institutions in particular – and academic institutions are by their nature quasi-political – that they are founded precisely to shore up a status quo and stifle any outbreak of novelty or innovation. The exceptional and innovative of course do exist in academia and elsewhere, but the academic institution is often at odds with them – my outsider take on the situation.

    In the cases where institutions are created as an auxiliary to some innovative or creative impulse, for example that of some great innovator who creates an institution to further his work, once that innovator leaves the scene the decline sets in. You cannot institutionalize innovation, innovation and institutionalization are contrary impulses. The best that an institution can do is recognize the real innovators in their midst and get the hell out of their way and let them try, fail, and succeed and give them the necessary resources and support along the way.

    Spengler has a new essay at the AsiaTimesOnLine here: where he discusses, in the light of his recent death, economist Ronald Coase, the notion of the Firm in regards to innovation.

    “Firms exist, he argued, because the individuals who comprise the firm – the production workers, the salesmen, the typists in the office pool, and the janitor – would have to spent too much time searching for work if they all worked freelance. By collaborating in a firm together they are assured of steady work.”

    Its supposed to be all about lowering everyone’s transaction costs. Spengler later corrects, or extends, Coase’s theory of the Firm.

    “I have an alternate theory of the firm, namely that large firms exist to protect mediocrity – from the lunatics and conmen on one hand, and disruptive innovators on the other… …For every Thomas Edison there are a hundred candidates for commitment to state mental health facilities.

    Most people don’t like disruption. They want to acquire a skill, work reasonable hours, secure reasonable pay, watch television in the evening and play golf or whatever on the weekends. They don’t look deeply into the matters that concern them and are content to do what other people in their position do. If they are diligent, reliable, well-mannered and polite, they are just the sort of folk that the human relations types at corporations prefer.”

    In this way, academic science seems to have become indistinguishable from Coase’s and Spengler’s Firm.

    Good luck to those who are exceptional enough to find their way out early.


  110. Yes, there are all these problems, obstacles, difficulties, irritations, egos, ….but, actually, the most important thing I’ve noticed in all my years of academia is that really passionate people who are reasonably smart, who work hard, and who “keep their eyes on the prize” almost always make it. It’s a human endeavor that can be a lot of fun, but it’s still part of the real world.

  111. Before doing anything else, read Jeff Schmidt’s Disciplined Minds, which exactly describes the group sociology of this situation. I am surprised it hasn’t already come up in discussion. I believe every grad student should read it.

  112. I am doing research into the culture of academia and I would like to know more about the circumstances that led to this letter as well as how to cite it.

    Mike Haseler BSc.MBA

  113. EPFL PhD here. Congratulations and sympathies to the author of the letter and to our gracious host. My two pennies:

    1) Academia draws on average rather intelligent people. For this reason, they are even more susceptible to manipulation by flattery — hence the dismal salaries, social status and living conditions that we accept in exchange for the mere hope of approval and recognition by an intellectual elite.

    2) Because academics are rather smart, they are good at gaming the system. Most of the paper publication system, the way funding requests are written, even the research topics themselves are optimised for high returns on the performance metrics, irrespective of any link to actual social benefit.
    In particular, research that is too theoretical, too applied, or even that has some degree of uncertainty in it stands no chances of funding. It is almost impossible to obtain grants for a research that is not at least half completed already.

    3) There is a micro-political aspect. The unconditional acceptance of the “American model” entails a gutting of the mid-level researcher category, and attention to publicity stunts such as grandiose-sounding projects, supporting VIPs and the construction of impressive buildings.
    There is also a degree of top-bottom authoritarianism: for instance tight control of communication organs like internal journals and mailing lists, or a degree of rigging in school-administrated research grants to promote politically fashionable topics

    4) There is a macro-political aspect, framed in the general disfranchisement of younger populations and the Baby-boomers – Generation X/Y fracture line.
    Up until the 90s, professors were to some extend judged by the success of their pupils, who were the inheritors of their theories; since then, professors have been judged by the amount of grant and private partnership money that they gather for their institution. As a consequence, PhD students and post-docs have decayed from pupils you had to care for into a disposable, cheap, overqualified workforce.
    This follows the general evolution of generational relations between privileged Baby-boomers and struggling members of Generations X and Y. I suggest reading the following piece on and drawing the parallels to Academia:

    Now, to echo Lenin: What is to be done?

  114. Dear FeuDRenais,

    I urge you to reconsider and to get those three letters.

    I agree with your arguments, so much so that I left academia for these very reasons, but only after I’d gotten the three letters. The last months were the worst, stretching from the depths of my disillusionment until achieving the three letters, but I persevered and am very glad I did. With my PhD my credibility and the strength of my argument is greatly enhanced; “I got my PhD” is simply much more persuasive than “I was three months away”. Unfortunately, you will find a large number of people who did not complete their PhDs for a wide variety of reasons, including (rarely) yours. Yours may be very principled, but this will not be apparent to anyone but you and your closest friends. The three letters will convey that your argument is genuine and that your reasons for leaving academia were out of principle. Without them, you will blend in with the many who were not capable of completing and who left bitterly, blaming their failures on others. Though you are not in this group, once you leave ABD, you will have a hard time explaining that, and your power to change the system will be enormously reduced.

    One fact remains: those who have the three letters DO want them to mean something. Indeed, we all want them to convey exactly what you despair is being lost: that one is capable of searching for truth. You can use this common desire that even jaded academics will endorse, and you can help to reform the system, and you will find support. But your arguments will be strong and corroborated by the evidence, or will be weak.

    You get to make that choice now.

  115. From the huge reaction to this email it seems like the system is on the border of a crisis. I personally think it is in the interest of the heads of academia (also of those who only care about money) to carefully read this thread and try to address some of the arisen issues, if they don’t want to risk a snow-avalanche type of collapse..

    I am one of those who joined a PhD program (in the same institution, namely EPFL) motivated by his love for science, knowledge and ethics. I had quite many good opportunities in industry after my MSc., but I said no to all of them because I loved research and I wanted to do a PhD abroad. I was (and still are) convinced that science pursues higher goals than just money, but before actually starting the PhD I was quite unaware of how academic systems worked in countries different from mine.

    I don’t want to describe my personal problems with the PhD, but I definitely have experienced all of the feelings reported in the mail, on a daily basis; especially points 1), 2) and 3) and probably with the exception of point 8), as I work in applied sciences (actually in applied sciences there’s the opposite problem: good numbers on experimental data are way too important).
    I will likely abandon academia, but it is very soothing to know I am not alone and to let all these feelings emerge to the open air; so thanks a lot for the letter.

    @FeuDRenais I think that facebook is really not the place where to carry this kind of debates. Isn’t there any alternative??

  116. You are looking at the negative points only. To criticize is easy, to make the difference is difficult. Academic area, as well as ALL other areas, needs optimistic and strong people who can live together with bad things and turn them into something better. If you are not strong enough, if your contribution is just to complain, you did the right thing: gave up.

  117. I agree completely. After earning my BS in two years, I continued on through two masters in the next two years. I then worked for three years to reduce my debt and then did all the coursework for my PHD.

    In order to do my Practicum I had to quit work. I just couldn’t do it. My faith in the system was long gone. Without motivation learning doesn’t take place.

  118. This crystalises almost all of the conclusions I came to during the final months of my PhD better than I could even have done myself. Although I went through with finishing it, a large part of me wanted to quit at the final hurdle. I’m not at all proud to have PhD after my name, even though I tried my very best (and somewhat succeeded) to make my research of value to society not just my own CV/ego.

    This should be required reading for any PhD student.

  119. 1) I couldn’t agree more with the author of this letter – he has managed to put into words all the semi-concious concerns that I have developed about academia in the past two years of a PhD. On the other hand, I agree with many of the comments – the non-academic world has just the same problems, but probably in a greater concentration.
    What is the current graduate student to do? My answer (and the answer of many others here) is to seek intellectual fulfilment in other areas.

    2) I wonder if academia is currently experiencing a bubble:
    – The number of academics and academics-in-training is higher than ever, but funding is under threat.
    – Universities are requiring more and more from their new hires to achieve tenure, resulting in overworked faculty, undertaught undergraduates, and a “publish or perish” paper glut that is unsustainable to produce or digest.
    – University fees are rising rapidly. Although a BA is currently worth the cost when compared to future earnings potential, how long will this continue?
    – MOOCs and the slow increase of free information on the internet mean that it may be possible to get much of the benefit of a undergrad education without attending university.

    Its hard to say what will happen as a result of these changes – it seems unlikely that universities are going to go extinct, but it looks likely that they are going to have to change.

    I find this, combined with the current state of research described in the original letter, to be the two factors that dissuade me from continuing in academia.

  120. There is far too much rhetoric here for it to be as hard hitting as it could have been. It’s a shame though, as some of the points, are quite true, if too emotionally charged. It would have been far better submitted as a letter to Nature

  121. I have the same conclusions about Academia, after working for 5 years in a top 10 School in my field for PhD. Just that I never had the courage to come out openly and quit.

    Kudos to the Author.

  122. A short contribution following the many before. I fully agree with you. Keep the passion as you mentioned it before. Science, knowledge are beautiful things. You can contribute to them and have an impact. There have also been a number of very good books trying to analyze the issue. Finding solutions has been a challenge though. But let me mention some of these books, beginning with an author who posted his own post here:
    – Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics.
    – Joao Magueijo, Faster Than The Speed of Light,
    – Laurent Ségalat, La Science à bout de souffle ?
    – Libéro Zuppiroli, La Bulle Universitaire, and even to a lesser extent
    – Freeman Dyson, The Scientist as Rebel
    – Peter Thiel in Technology = Salvation (a article in the WSJ) is also showing the limits of the system, relating to technology, not science; the issue is similar though.
    All these authors show the perverse effects of science. Hopefully, you Facebook initiative will have an impact.

  123. I found this article interesting because it represents a good example of how rot has spread into academia. I’ve been examining how under a long period of stability rot spreads into all corners of a society. In this case it is academia in Switzerland, but it has also spread into the US military, US financial system and European financial system. There is also extensive rot in Japan and China. The core problem being that under a long period of stability rot starts to slowly grow and spread into all corners of society. This will continue until there is a very large collapse in society.

  124. Well-written article. Having done a PhD stemming from finding that a well-established theory in biochemistry was incorrect, I have personally witnessed most of the systemic flaws you have pointed out. Originality is often punished; selfish people pervert peer-review for selfish reasons; there is safety upon the bandwagon and risk off of it. Being correct does not always elicit admiration; it more often elicits fear and animosity. One may become the month’s target rather than hero. Personally, I choose to tell the scientific truth, gain skills outside of academia, and keep up the good fight. You might win in the end.
    While I understand your frustrations (and could add quite a few others to your list), I’d add that there are still a few good people within the system. Perhaps we should struggle to help the decent ascend and replace the more selfish ones to improve the system?

  125. @hlm: Thank you for the extremely useful list. There was also a short article in a UNIL (University of Lausanne, just next to EPFL) paper that had attacked this issue directly. It was in French and tackled a lot of the same things quite eloquently. I wonder if it might be online somewhere… If anyone knows, don’t hesitate to post.

  126. Clearly English is both the writer’s native tongue and the original language of the “letter.” Clearly its author is not writing to Swiss academics, and probably never attended a French speaking school. The question arises, how did its transmission entangle EPFL?

    Whatever its truths and merits, they are tainted by the fraudulent and anonymous nature in which the discourse arrives and is presented. Can none of the critics of academia spot obviously inconsistent fraud? –AGF

  127. What he says is largely applicable to academic medicine as well. I left Academic medicine 24 years ago, and was criticized at the time for selling out to go into private practice. However, what I had observed in academic medicine was no more admirable than what exists in private practice. In private practice, you are paid more in US dollars. In academia, the currency seems to be ego dollars. The revered names in academic medicine tended to be massively egocentric. (this is not, as the author notes, true of everyone, but it is true of enough to make it the average).
    I would add a few wrinkles to what he saw – The “game” is to do a large project, and after data is collected, divide it up into smaller parts, hopefully taking a few years work and milking it for many, many papers for years to come.

    Although he doesn’t note it, this degradation of the scientific ideal I think is responsible for the fact that much work is, after a few years, found to be incorrect (or possibly faked). See “Why most published research findings are false” by John Ioannidis

    Like the author, I was totally disillusioned with what I saw. I have found a fix. I recently retired, and am now pursuing my own research projects. They are small, they are not likely to result in massive changes to how we do things, but they satisfy my curiosity, and they also likely will help a few patients here and there. And that is all I ask. As a benefit, I run my own schedule, and don’t have to publish if I don’t think the work is valid, or I don’t think it is worth saying. I think that is the way science is supposed to work.

  128. Well I hadn’t read all the comments when I posted that: PJ admits authorship. Now I would like to know where PJ is from, and what is his native tongue. –AGF

  129. I reached the postdoc stage 40 years ago, before giving up and going into software development. In my case I went (together with a more senior colleague) to the head of department to point out that our equipment had 2 serious faults that rendered results almost meaningless. After trying ineffectually to downplay the problems, he then said that yes they needed repair, but it would have to wait until his two students had finished collecting data (a matter of many months at least)!

    Since then, I have worked in areas related to research, and have also talked to many other researchers about the problems in academic science – including medical research. The picture is pretty bleak – summed up in this paper:

    Every time we open a newspaper, we see trivial examples of perverted science where ‘researchers’ run a few quick surveys until they get a result that passes the 5% statistical test. This is how you generate results such as, “Brain Science: Does Being Left-Handed Make You Angry?” To the newspaper editor, these are fillers analogous to horoscopes, to the authors, and to the institutions for whom they work, the fame can only help – who cares about the science!

  130. Did you talk this decision over with your mother or father (or equivalent) before you pulled the plug on your PhD. program?

    I suspect not. If I were your parent, I would have advised you to weigh the pro’s and con’s. Generally speaking, academic credentials create opportunities even if they are directly related to the opportunity they present. For example, I’ve hired PhD’s, not for their knowledge but for the character quality of perseverance. They’ve demonstrated courage, can accept constructive criticism, and they are not quitters. However imperfect, the post-graduate credential keeps some doors from closing.

    As a graduate of the US Army’s Ranger school at age 19, during the Viet Nam era, I cannot count the times I’ve drawn courage from that accomplishment when I wanted to quit something else, even though I did not make the Army a career.

    So I think you were short sighted to quit. For the very thing you wish to improve — the opportunity to improve the system, is denied you because you will not have the gravitas of a credible critic. I get you point — lots of things to change, but you’re a quitter.

    Everything human beings want a lot of, especially if it’s valuable, will become fungible and be the object from which a business enterprise forms. Businesses are how we share stuff we want without going bankrupt. However one wishing some things could transcend monetization, very few valuable things do. It just is.

    We’re seeing the collapse of the destination / hard-walled university business model as MOOC’s shatter the cost model of knowledge. Maybe this will make post-graduate studies more appealing?

    Regardless, you quit. If it was because the net present value wasn’t worth it — good for you. And if you’re not pursuing that more valuable use of your time now, with the same determination you had hurled at your doctorate — then you’re just lazy.

    Regardless, best wishes.

  131. @alexandre:
    “ALL other areas, needs optimistic and strong people who can live together with bad things and turn them into something better. If you are not strong enough, if your contribution is just to complain, you did the right thing: gave up.”

    I am sure that the Soviet apparatchiks said the same thing in 1989.

    You are right to say that it is easy to complain without contributing anything and to attribute one’s failure to others; but it is equally easy to attribute the lack of luck of others, and the way they are exploited, to their supposed lack of commitment. Blaming the victims has been a leitmotiv in the oppressors’ rhetorics for a long, long time. Our cultural environment hammers this victim-blaming constantly, and Academia is especially permeated with this “believe-in-yourself”, “everybody-is-special”, “be-committed-and-you-can-fly” mentality; just try to realise that it is just propaganda.

  132. This is an amazing letter. I just finished my postdoctoral fellowship and am taking some time off from working. I am leaving academia for ALL of these reasons. I’m having a really difficult time dealing with my disillusionment with academia after it has been my love, my family and my support system for many years. It’s so good to see that I am not alone in these feelings.

    I would still absolutely encourage you to finish your PhD. Then leave academia. They don’t deserve you.

  133. I was fed up doing graduate work being treated as if I knew nothing and needed another degree to succeed. Educators are like ministers. They think they know something I need to know. I just don’t know that I need to know it.

  134. Sounds like youthful idealism meets fatigue in Pascal’s letter. It’s foolish not to finish the degree; stop writing long-winded critiques of your profession and get the job done. It’s not a perfect system; hell, it’s not a perfect world, incase you hadn’t noticed. But it’s a world where knowledge is power, and degrees demonstrate that you have some knowledge. Grow up, before it’s too late.
    If your goal is to reform the system, first master it. Start by getting the degree.

  135. Hello Author:

    As one commenter said, I’d get the PhD.

    Doing something of value requires: 1) Actual work that impacts a field and 2) Distributing the information. The degree may assist in the distribution and acceptance. When you have great insight – why impair the dissemination paths.

    But the email carries out a theme infecting, certainly, the USA. To Wit: In our big institutions, we promote the wrong people in all areas: Government, business, education and the military. People with a responsibility to hire for roles have lost the ability to assess applicants. Reliance is on credentials and certifications.

    As Christine Comaford recounted in her pity book, Rules for Renegades, a GSD (Getting ‘Stuff’ Done) is what should count most in hiring.

    But a GSD is how we hire vendors in the USA, but not how we hire and promote employees. This email is may be a mold breaker – filled with inconvenient truths – that Western sociality may be ‘paper’ chasing instead of finding real achievers in all our most important institutions.

    And – to share – Joe Strauss built the Golden Gate Bridge. He had no engineering degree or architecture degree. (For that he relied on Chas A Ellis.) FL Wright designed many building before he ever got an architecture degree. Today – they’d both have gotten nowhere.

  136. I’m on the other side of things as a somewhat recent graduate (got my PhD last year) currently working as an alt-academic for a tier 1 university in the States.

    Academia isn’t for everyone. And it isn’t a perfect system. However for me to get out of my dead-end technician job in not-so-big-pharma it was the only option. There’s only so much you can do in my field with only a Bachelor of Science, few to no professional contacts, and a few years of experience. The piece of paper and list of professional contacts matters more than what I know. So I played the game and am now much happier than I was as a tech and I’m doing a far more rewarding job.

    You can do a lot with experience and formal training in cryptography. I wish you the best in your future endeavors.

  137. A very interesting letter, and as a former researcher, … well … it strikes with great familiarly. And with tendrils to the research community still, and an interest in same, I sense a great deal of the same challenges existing in many areas besides “pure science”).

    @ Glenn: What letter did you read? Did you pay attention, or take instant offense, deciding you needed to charge forth with pen in hand on your mighty electronic steed to establish the knave as stupid and unrealistic? For example, you comment: “3) You sound very bitter that you chose a topic you’re not interested in. Original research doesn’t mean you’ll cure cancer or win a Nobel Prize. But a thousand people all doing a little piece of original research does advance science and occasionally make for some amazing insights. We can’t all be astronauts.”
    1) I sensed no bitterness, just a bit of frustration. Personally, I think the letter was prepared professionally with decent clarity quite a large degree of frankness. And I sensed no animosity toward — in general — his own institution and to many of his colleagues and peers. He also indicated before his comment appeared, that there were other forces ALSO at work in his decision.
    2) The author said he was NOT in the position of being stuck working on a project that was of little interest to him. “” I don’t know where you found reference otherwise.
    3) I dare say that few PhD candidates actually choose their topic today. Realistically, few have probably done so for decades. More likely than not, the student was recruited to work in a particular area of science, a few “possible projects” were tossed about, and when push came to shove, the student ended up with whatever the advisor dumped into the student’s lap. I saw that happen with one of my very best friends in grad school in the mid 1980’s — she hated the work and the condescending attitude of the professor towards her. Of course, the prof was probably Mensa level intelligence and was (is) very Sheldon-like in terms of interpersonal skills (that is a reference to Dr Sheldon Cooper on the American sit-com “Big Bang Theory” for those of you unfamiliar).
    4) There are many scientific studies being published every year that fit into the categories of “if -then” science; all based on the implicit or explicit assumption that something or other will or will not occur and that will cause something else. Thus we have seen the many published results of Anthropogenic Global Warming/Climate Change/Climate Disruption that on the surface make no sense: more drought, less drought; more rain, less rain; more hurricanes, fewer hurricanes; more ice, less ice; more ecological diversity, less diversity; stronger storms, weaker storms; and so on ad nauseum.
    5) Really, you think that a PhD student would actually think he/she would expect to attain a Nobel Prize in Science? That has got to be an exceptionally rare student, and a truly “super-sized” ego, one that would probably fit in well in academia.

    Scientific fraud is known to be a significant problem, and while it has existed since the beginning of time it also includes efforts by jealous peers to trash the reputation of researchers. Much of the time, however, it has it’s origins elsewhere… Here are but two of 120 results of a search for the words Scientific and Fraud on NatGeo’s website:
    * /

    There is also “Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications” published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences… It would seem there are problems of significance when: “…67.4% of retractions were attributable to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4%), duplicate publication (14.2%), and plagiarism (9.8%). Incomplete, uninformative or misleading retraction announcements have led to a previous underestimation of the role of fraud in the ongoing retraction epidemic. The percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud has increased ∼10-fold since 1975.”

  138. We in academia all live a very sheltered existence where we are fortunate enough to be supported by society to work with other really smart, motivated people, seeking things that we really believe in – education and research.

    Because most people in academia haven’t experienced anything else they tend to belly ache about the fact that there are down sides and that the system isn’t perfect. Tell it to a tax accountant who spends their whole time working within a faulty tax system. Or a public servant where politicians constantly tinker with what they do. Or a factory worker who doesn’t get the chance to even dream of working for a goal that they truly believe in. I wonder how many people rail against academia – and then when they get into the ‘real world’ realize just how privileged they were. That’s certainly what I did.

    I am an academic – and incredibly lucky to work in a job that is seeking to further knowledge and to educate. If you believe in those values then everything else is detail. I have worked 6o hour weeks for most of my career. I don’t care. It’s been an honour. I have had to manage people. That’s fun too. I have had to ‘play the game’ of papers, grants and wordsmithing. Enjoyed the challenge because it is about achieving something worthwhile and good.

    I get that there is a stage in your career when you have to make a decision about whether you believe in the main values enough to ignore the detail. I get that people feel a need to vent about making that decision and how angry and frustrated they are.

    But the sort of indictment of academia that starts this thread is not only an unfair reflection on those working within academia – it is exactly the sort of ammunition that those that are anti-science and anti-university education will use to support their case to cut public funds. And then the main values (education and research) will be sacrificed because people are frustrated and angry.

    Academia isn’t broken – it isn’t perfect, but it is a much more fortunate, productive and worthwhile endeavor than what many people in society ever have the chance to imagine enjoying.

  139. Interesting reading but, honestly, I don’t see the point of making such a fuss about someone who didn’t like his job and decided to quit. It sounds lots of frustration and misunderstanding here, or maybe whining and idealism… and frankly I’m not sure industry or any kind of alternative position will bring more comfort to the author. I recognize it takes some balls to quit a job “just because you can’t stand it anymore”, especially when you are at a top-tier institution with almost unlimited funding to make your life easier (I’m an EPFL PhD), but I definitely have different opinions on the various arguments.
    1. The rules are clear: if you do good research, you’ll be rewarded (I’ll come back to the types of rewards later). Honesty is paramount on the long haul and good results will always be recognized, even over not-so-good stuff that a better speaker can “sell” better. As scientists, we are also trained to recognize sound science over meaningless BS that some people might try to sell us.
    2. Yeah, though life. You need to show how good you are before being the boss. The generals get the medals while the soldiers fight, and the famous professors get the prizes while the students do the monkey work. I don’t see how different it is in the non-academic life. And honestly, there are certainly rotten fruits but my advisors always went through all my publications and reports extremely carefully – it might have taken months before I got feedback on a paper but it was done.
    3. It sounds very much like “it’s not working so it’s not interesting any more”. What about side-projects and new ideas that come out event when you feel like you’ve tried everything to make your stuff work? When you’re trying to explore uncharted territories, you will always have to struggle, explain your point, convince your advisor. So you better get the data to support your claims, and build convincing arguments, especially if you want to convince your boss his ideas are not working. Remember, until you prove him wrong, he’s the expert – and you’re probably going to be grateful for that at some point.
    4.Here I can agree that the current short-term profit and vision hamper long-term projects. That is sad, and I always take the Fourier transform as an example, that was quite useless when elaborated in the ~1800s and proved invaluable with the arising of analytical instruments in the second half of the 20th century. Now, let’s face it: we are not going to cure cancer, or solve the world energy problems just by ourselves. Thus, every brick we can contribute with will help solving bigger problems. It’s not about avoiding real issues, it’s about being realistic and tackling a problem at a time – and for assessing what research is worth being pursued, I refer you to the Pasteur quadrant ( If your project falls in the blank quadrant, well, maybe it’s time to move on and find something that actually makes more sense.
    5. I don’t agree here, although there is definitely a bandwagon effect. But just repeating experiments done by people who already did them (with slightly better or worse results) will not make a breakthrough. You might sustain a low-tier research program that way, if it’s what you want, fine. But innovation and creative ideas will always be rewarded, just not everyone will be able to come up with paradigm-shifting discoveries. And like everywhere, it’s not always easy to come up with ideas and results that will shatter years of prior research done by tens of research groups. A good friend of mine, one of the researchers I respect most, is still reluctant to reveal the latest data their lab collected, not because they don’t trust their data, but because they have to figure out how to present them to the community without making too many enemies. There might be some politics and inertia but it’s going to be the case everywhere – not just in the academic environment.
    6. Well yeah, welcome to the real world. Science doesn’t happen just by itself. It requires both money and talented people, for better or worse. Of course the easiest way to classify people is to put numbers on them, such as the number of publications or any variation on the ‘impact factor’ theme. Smart people know not to give too much importance to these figures, but like everywhere, there will be big egos and douchebags who will just care about their own H indices. The EPFL dean praising good rankings just shows that the research performed is internationally recognized (which indirectly benefits you, since it warrants better funding!) and that it might (remember, it’s research, thus difficult to predict) eventually impact the everyday life – like, the Graetzel cells were not invented and perfected in one day, but when they will actually get commercialized, they’ll make an impact on lot’s of people’s life and the global environment (just to take one of many examples from the EPFL). Even if rankings are just numbers, they reflect how the research performed at a given school might impact on the outside world.
    7. Egos are everywhere, I’m not sure you’ll be happier in industry from this point of view. And regarding the peer review system, to paraphrase Winston Churchill: “Peer review is the worst system, except for all those systems that have been tried before”. Your peers are still the most qualified people to judge the validity of your findings- so the system might change in the future, like, become transparent, but it’ll persist IMHO, just because there is no other way to assess the quality of research.
    8. It academia necessary? Well if you don’t know why your project is important, or why people should care about it, it probably is not important, and public (or private) money could probably be spent elsewhere. But still. Academia educates people to do research, be curious, look for the devil hiding in the detail, push their limits, be critical, and eventually, yes, make progress in research and perhaps try solve some big problems. It also teaches resilience, honesty, and provides many highly-educated people, who have the opportunity to make an impact wherever they chose to go.

    In conclusion: I pretty much agree with the letter from Sean (, I was also kind of offended by your letter, and I think there is no ambiguity: we know what we’re getting into when we sign up for graduate studies (eg we might struggle with bad results, we might feel lost and hate our advisors at times)- and if we don’t agree, either we quit, or we try to make it a better (academic) world. From a reasonable point of view, only the latter solution makes sense.

    Good luck for you future endeavors!

  140. The author sounds like a courageous and lucid person, but there is a collection of such letters lying around in various languages (I can cite at least three on the top of my head, plus blog posts on the theme “why I left academia”), and his letter is still one of the optimistic ones.

    The word “paid” appears only once, as “underpaid”. It seems that all PhD candidates at EPFL are funded in some way or another. This is far from the case in any of Switzerland’s neighbor countries. Everything that is described in this letter is true, and even more clear when you are technically working for free.

    My point is: in most countries, academia hosts a large, unpaid group of workers that also happens to be the pool of incumbents for its job market, and that contributes a lot to the kind of environment described in the letter. It’s not a minor aspect of the question from where I stand.

  141. I recently changed fields and am now in business. At least in business people are upfront about being in it for the money. Academia will only change when mindless publishing stops becoming the measurement of progress/success. The academic path has gone horribly horribly wrong and there is a declining number of positions in academia too, so the future of post-grad students is bleak (

    Academia is killing some great minds!

  142. @Sebastien … and everyone else that seems to be in denial about the state of the academic system…


    I’ll let you deduce what that might be

  143. This letter is very impressive!. I hope it starts a movement that changes how science is done. The system awards only a “certain type of thinkers” while leaving anyone who does not fit that standard out in the cold. Not to mention the old boys/girls club.

  144. Terry A. Davison above wrote:
    Thomas Edison spent his late years in courtrooms … he fought against AC power with deception because his was DC.

    All wrong. First, he spent some time in court and won a patent infringement suit against Westinghouse, which had stolen the “three-wire power distribution system” he had invented.

    Second, AC is “natural” current in that it is the type of current produced by the generator. You must go out of your way to change it to DC. Edison made the conversion to DC because it is far safer than AC. (AC has an economic advantage when used with transformers, too technical to describe in a short space.)

    Oddly enough, for the very long range transfer of power today power companies have gone back to DC. It saves on self-inductance losses.

  145. Pretty much agree with whatever the author of the letter has to say.

    Anybody who’s offended by this letter needs therapy. If you get offended by such things, then you should essentially live in isolation and not communicate with others in fear of getting offended.

    Publish or Perish is the academic mantra. If you ask me, that is the problem.

  146. See Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt. We are going in circles, guys. All of this stuff has already been covered, and if you talk to newer grad students, they don’t even know who Jeff Schmidt is …

    It’s very sad.

  147. @Sebastien: “The rules are clear: if you do good research, you’ll be rewarded”

    Yup. But in practice, the rules are not applied in this manner. You can do excellent research and get nothing — I’m thinking of a colleague with two papers in “Science”.

    Conversely, we see the stars in some fields revealed to be hacks who made up their experimental results — not incompetent people, mind you, they had to know what to make up; but it is gross injustice that these con men recieve the positions, the fundings, the honours, strangling the careers of others in appearance slightly less (and in reality much more) deserving, and be punished with big fat salaries in the private sector when they are found out.

    In such an environment, the cry of “do good research, you’ll be rewarded” is akin to Stephen Colbert’s “We can all be in the richest 1%”. Joe the Plumber has the excuse of being a manipulable ignorant; we academics have no such mitigating circumstances.

  148. Get real, cry baby “academicians” and wannabe Ph. D.’ers. Read my book Yes. (Is BiO Spiritualism the answer?) on and then also my book, Selfish’ism and then continue to link and read all my material on the web that I started putting there in the last decade of the 20th Century. The “solution” is to go-galt-in-spirit and become the patron of your own arts – by whatever means it takes, be it working as a waiter in some local restaurant or coffee shop or peon in a big box store. The fun of deciding your own research topics and then working on them is beyond compare. The pain of never having anyone see them or read them is real for sure but at the end of the day it is pretty small in comparison to the pure joy of doing what you want and then writing up your own—COPYRIGHTED (as in TIME STAMPED in the YEAR YOU FEEL finished)—book about some aspect of your particular interest, is really all a true scientist needs. Being read by others and making money on your love interests is as they say, gravy. The only real requirement for this to succeed for you is that you are truly writing and thinking and researching in a field of study that you absolutely love – and at the same time making enough money by some productive means to live on. For me that love interest is psychology and I managed to get to the Masters Level before it dawned on me that I couldn’t stomach all their “errors” let alone their BS.

    Now having said all of the foregoing my biggest fear is that I will unleash some super-duper intelligent people currently imprisoned in the world of professional academics who will also be interested in psychology and beat me to the punch in many of psych(h)ology’s remaining to be explored areas.

    But, what the hey, there’s still plenty of room for everybody and I also have enough of a head start in my areas of interest that I’m not all that worried.

  149. Very well said. As an assistant professor — in a prestigious private university in the Eastern part of the US —
    on my way out of academia, I have struggled with many of these questions myself. What the writer says about “spam” from the Dean, reminded me of all the spam I received. I would go one step further. The faculty meetings also, more often that not, dealt with departmental rankings, faculty statistics, and such. I often wondered, what is the point of all this? Why has
    the emphasis on teaching and education been so trivialized?

    Do not know a solution to fix the balance, but perhaps minimizing the importance of indirect costs (from grants) in the
    running of universities might be a start. That would force faculty to ask why they are in this endeavor in the first place.

  150. There is certainly a great deal here that is true, but it does a huge disservice to the vast majority of your colleagues who are still pursuing idealistic goals of research with full integrity.

    Academic research has led to a huge number of spectacular advances in the last half century and it has done so with very little of the ugliness that one sees in the corporate jungle. You cannot deny that.

    In fact, money, or more precisely the scarcity of money, does poison the system and turns highly trained scientific thinkers into second-rate capitalists always in search of more funding for their projects. It makes the system exploitative, such that people pour years of their lives into doing research in order to obtain that independent faculty position one day, a day that for most will never arrive.

    But I would argue that the real problem is a society that has come to value income and wealth over actual contributions to society. Being paid $40,000 as a postdoc with 5 years of PhD under your belt, mainly because the carrot of a faculty job is held out somewhere in the indeterminate future, seems like exploitation if money is how you measure success. But imagine being given access to some truly amazing equipment and the funding to carry out investigations into some question that you are truly passionate to answer…. and then on top of that being paid cash money for the privilege! It’s not so awful when you consider the opportunity we scientists are given. Do some start to blindly pursue fame and grant funding and lose sight of the more idealistic aims? Perhaps, but we scientists are all human after all. Receiving recognition in the form of media coverage and grant funding is the closest thing we have to outside approval and endorsement of our work. We all want to be told we’re doing a good job and that’s how it is done. Maybe some weaker souls become addicted to the praise and forget why they needed it in the first place.

    But no, I don’t believe for one moment that academia has lost its way and is now nothing more than a way to bring in money. If that were the case, we would be doing a pretty lousy job of it, given the massive cuts in research funding these days. Nobody is living high on the hog on research grants. I think that if one were to ask whether all the criticisms enumerated above apply to any job in any field he would find not only that they do, but also that once those things were removed there would be nothing left. At least with science the data lives on.

  151. @Rob I completely agree with you. I am still in Academics and I am trying fight for the right cause.

  152. I agree with the author’s points, but I don’t think quitting your PhD when it’s almost done is the smartest thing to do. He should have perservered a little more. What he did is just make himself less employable. I don’t think potential employers would be impressed with his reasons for quitting. True, the academe works like a business or a corrupt system, just like industries, governments, entertainment, families and anywhere else where there is money, people and incentives involved. People just publish for the sake of publishing solving irrelevant problems or tweaking parameters of the same old stuff. Students just waste money hopping conference after conference without producing any new output, many just bringing crappy recycled posters. Supervisors have no idea what their co-authored publications are all about. Data is cherry picked/manipulated and stories are twisted just to make them look good… We will never escape this ugly reality. We could just do our best with what we have, where we are,and strive against odds just like how the rest of the world creates real progress. He would do more if he had a “PhD” attached to his name, whether or not he continues to the academe. He could even be like the other people in academe that he respects. It’s not that quitting is bad especially when you are no longer challenged or inspired, but the timing he chose is bad, i.e. close to finishing when the pressure is high and feel like giving up… unless perhaps he’s planning to be self employed and change the game.

  153. The interesting thing to notice here is that how neatly the people are divided in their opinion along the same lines as they are along the teacher-student divide.

    Teachers – the skags – are all about how the kid is a burnout and such.

    Students – they are all agreeing as this is a fact – this is the absolute truth about the nature of academia.

    1. Professors get paid and get cited from the research that grad students do.
    2. Grad students have no say(in many cases) in what they research.
    3. Grad students are criminally underpaid.
    4. Research is a dick-measuring competition. Impact factor is inches.

    A very significantly large number of students would agree with what the author has said, especially if they (the students) has at one point nursed romantic thoughts about what research(and science) ought to be.

    Teachers would disagree, they have been in academia for far too long, so they know what it really is about. Well that impact factor and that citation is the ONLY quantifiable measure of how productive their research is! Would Prof.X’s research on ethics be the basis of all human civilization a hundred years from now? Maybe, he hopes so, but all he has to measure it, is that impact factor! His value as a human being is derived from that impact factor.

    Students on the other hand, want to change the world, have always wanted to change the world. To understand, to explain, to cure the world of its ills. No such thing is going to happen. This “disillusionment” is thus going to happen, because eventually the student realizes that he has no say in the system – not even the area he wants to research in.

    There shouldn’t really be a fight for ideology between these two groups. There is no way this discussion can be had in real life, no grad student has the gall to say that his(or her) adviser’s research area is of no use to the universe, even when it is! What does that say about the nature of grad students? Meek, cowards! Bullied in school – most likely.

    The true irony is that grad students go on to become professors themselves.

    Academia – wasted on the academics.

  154. Hi,

    I can add a few more items to your list that in the case you changed your decision and got your degree anyway, you may experience them too. But, note that in almost majority of jobs you may find hypocrite and dishonest people too. In modern science people can be so, and sometimes because they are smarter they could be worse.

    Some of the problem you see in Academia is only due to their personal weaknesses, not the weaknesses in Sciences they follow. Note that Science is already existed and Scientists are digging to only discover its pieces. Here I only put my focus on this part, which I could not read in all of the above replies.

    Scientists are smart but some of them perhaps are oversmart that they do not realize their attitudes for making others attracted to science is not proper. For instance, I know a scientist who wrote public science book and in that they clearly state that based on the second law of thermodynamics if somebody said something not proper to you, since time is not reversed, your relation shall never get healed! You can imagine how eccentric should be the relationship between this scientist and their students! Compare this piece of advice, as an example, with all other advices from great people in the past that we need to forgive each other. You assume that how horrible the world becomes if people start listening to his second law of thermodynamics, instead of following social ethics (*). Mind functions independent than one’s belief system and a great scientist can easily be a damage to ethics.

    There is a fast approach in the universities toward growing mental health services, specially in the Northern America. Did you ever think why is so? Isn’t this alarming that there are currently many conflicts between students/postdocs and their supervisors that a third party is needed to properly find a resolution. Who should be blamed? The professor, the student, or their second law of thermodynamics?!

    The main problem in Academia is that the Ethics of Science is not a credit course during the undergraduate studies. People are left unassisted on their decisions, and if they fall into the trap that how great minded they are, they may easily follow their version of the second law of thermodynamics instead of a supporting behaviour. The contents of such a course should not be restricted only to the behaving with mice in the lab. We must bring human-human interaction to the rules. Scientist never learn that they are not allowed to steal ideas from their students/postdocs/colleagues; must report their results faithfully, must stop informally and indirectly asking grad student to get pleasing results by staying at nights and on weekends in the lab, etc.

    In the past centuries, the mathematicians and scientists in Asia, Middle East and Europe knew about the importance of ethics in Academia and already wrote important books on this subject. Scientists needed to forget about ethics in order to become able to create mass destructive devices. But not those who are involved in such production are the few who should be blamed. In the weaker regime, only a person who has never opened up a book in ethics can invite new students to skeptical science he/she is working on, just as tools to intensify the hunger for the uncertain sciences.

    My single piece of advice is that if your supervisor cannot open your mind to the joy of Science and its importance, I strongly advice you change your supervisor. Search a lot for an honest scientist and start again. Do not fall in trap with the names, look at the future of his/her students. If you see the majority of the students have quitted Academia earlier for other jobs, this may happen to you too!

    Mohammad H. Ansari

    (*) By the way I apologize from the second law of thermodynamics, which is a great law, for this misconception.

  155. Hmmm. Here is my experience. I tried industry after my B.S., but no one was ever going to listen to my ideas. In retrospect, they were right – I thought I knew everything but I was just ignorant, without a clue.

    So I went to grad school. I got paid to go to school, a new experience not found in many areas, and it would not have occurred to me to complain. I worked hard and got out quickly after coming up with some things that my advisor did not think about. He taught me things to start, he pushed me, he payed the bills, and he helped me move on.

    I postdoc’d and I got paid a little more as I learned more.

    I then went into academics. To get the job I had to beat out 150 other applicants. To survive I have had to publish and get grant money and convince graduate students to work on my research instead of that of others. I worked very hard to succeed and I still do 25 years later.

    Publication has largely meant doing what interests me, but always keeping an vague eye toward completing projects and making it fundable and making it doable by inexperienced graduate students who are just like I once was. Such constraints add to the difficulty but I have never found it impossible to find interesting things to do.

    Are my ideas worthwhile? Am I able to be brutally honest about it? Who knows? I suppose that my research has often been dismissed as completely worthless by graduate students (who of course never have big egos). But to be brutally honest, I worry a lot more about what the members of funding study sections think than what graduate students think. To do anything at all I have to convince study sections that my work is better than 9 out of 10 of the other proposals that they see at the same time. Every one of the other proposals is from someone who beat out 150 applicants to get their job, and “sells” their work, and worries about their image, and is strategic in their vocabulary, and networks, and makes a good presentation. Still, weirdly, when I have been on study sections, the arguments seem to focus on whether ideas will work and whether they will have an impact.

    Regardless of whether my very basic research is worthwhile or “of marginal importance,” when I succeed at getting money I can recruit and pay my graduate students. I can then teach them to do research that will be published with my name on it (oh, the “gross unfairness”), and at the end they can get a job that pays a lot of money. In theory. In practice, it has mostly worked out, but far from always, and that has been the part of the system that bothers me the most. I have fired students that I considered to be friends. I have seen students every day for five years, then had them go off to a good job but get laid off after two years or have their whole company shut down after eight. I have seen some struggle in a tough job market. I hate that.

    I complain as much as anyone else, in some ways more, and the system is pretty imperfect. But I have missed the part where anyone is chained to their lab bench. By all means, if you don’t like it and will actually like something else more, leave. I also missed where academics is worse than other paths. My brothers were construction workers, and I worked construction summers during college. That sucks, believe me. Academics does not suck. And I am not apologizing.

  156. I’m a late year PhD student. I get what you’re saying and have seen much of the same. That being said, go get your ass back in the lab and finish your damn diss.

  157. Ed wrote: “Academic research has led to […] with very little of the ugliness that one sees in the corporate jungle. You cannot deny that.”

    I don’t know what what ugliness you are referring to is, but as a female former academic who is now in the corporate “jungle”, I can tell you about one type of ugliness that academia has a lot more of.

    When I was unhappy about the way my phd work was going and went to speak to my advisor about it, I couldn’t tell whether he was listening because he never took his eyes off my breasts. I left that supervisor. When I went to my first conference, a professor suggested that I do my eyebrows and wear tighter trousers. At another conference, one of the professors (who I could assume would be reviewing my papers, grant applications, etc) made a very explicit pass at me on the first evening and avoided me for the rest of the conference.

    Some of this of ugliness does occur in small companies as well (I was at a startup which was almost as bad as academia) but in corporates there are HR departments that enforce a couple of basic rules. There is gender discrimination everywhere, but in any large company there will not be anything that comes close to the constant sexual harassment that many academics allow themselves.

  158. I just want to mention a few misconceptions of a few dreamers commenting here. Fighting the system inside and other nonsense being put out every ~10 comments,

    1) The argument is weak: Oh really, would you like fries with that? What would you expect from a letter that is sent internally, a full blown publication with citations? Now you are sitting in front of your computer and judging the author by his/her argument, seriously? meh, boring right? Well you have been playing the part that helped to create and sustain this system, reviewing peer papers in 10 minutes, writing up ridiculous reviews which are two lines long. Spreading your nerd anger all over the place in conferences while holding your coffee in one hand and your weird “dossier” full of your nonsense in the other. Attention span and extrapolation. Cite these concepts in your next paper.

    2) Sorry to hear that the author had bad experience but we are not like that, hihihi, sorry: Well if you claim to be a true academic just look at the statistics. I mean look at the stats and grad student suicide rates in US only. I’m serious just open a browser page and study!!! As you claim to do science. No, don’t comment now! Open up a new tab and spend at least 20 mins. Since when did you stop calculating exactly? You give me one good example I’ll bring thousand. So your lack of empathy is one of the major concerns. you don’t even worry that this might be true. An academic is responsible from the consequences of anything that is worth of studying. And clearly you are not. You and your success stories are simply statistically insignificant.

    3) The academia is not wrong it’s misused. Look an aeroplane, how would it be possible without it ! Hail to the king: Well, excuse me while I yawn and wait for you to finish your argument. To all the nerds out there, technology != science. For theoretically oriented ones != is ≠ in some programming languages. And starting from companies like Bell labs, academia always served technology. Never managed to push things the moment research grants and funds with conccrete goals are established. Grant money defines what is researched. Supervisors beg for grants ad infinitum…. Please we have Phds too don’t play the naivity card on us. Look at the world-wide acknowledged physicists on youtube. Even they have to justify every 5 minutes why science is necessary. Look MRI scanner, look GPS…… I’m sorry but a theoretical physicist justifying his work is simply lame. It’s not that non technical people think that academia is useless. It is evident that academia is failing to keep its unspoken promise. Instead keeping the kournal publishers happy and crunching numbers which represent actual lives of idealist people.

    4) You don’t like it because you couldn’t *make* it: Oh you people are my favorite 🙂 I don’t even need to make an argument for you. History is full of your kind.

    Love and kisses….

  159. Let’s be positive here! If you want to do good research, then you should run after true problems.

  160. I understand your decision.
    I felt the exactly same thing.
    I would like to salute your life laid in front of you from now on.

  161. Wish to dedicate this article to Mr. Julian Hoseason (M.Phil) the Academic dean of Glion Institute of Higher Education (G.I.H.E.). Even as a undergraduate student, I have learnt by heart that having originality in dissertation ultimately hurts me. Also have learnt to simply say no with the authority, ‘you misunderstand the situation so you figure out by yourself, I do not give clues or any logical persuasion’. I personally thank you for giving the biggest lesson from GIHE. This great disappointing experience, for sure, will become a huge asset to my future career. Wish all the best to your very convenient life!

  162. I’t’s so interesting to see that this experience is international. I’m British and have just spent two miserable years at Harvard Medical School as a postdoc, which I am leaving at the end of this week. I don’t necessarily agree with every single point in the letter but I am still a bit of an optimist. However I completely agree about egos and the role of the principal investigator in actually checking over results – I was very badly burned by this this year. Good luck to the author and I’m glad that they also feel they have learned a lot from this experience – I certainly have felt that with my situation. I’m moving on to try another postdoc because I don’t want to give up on this yet, and I know there are scientists out there who buck this trend, whose ranks I would like to join to be able to encourage other young scientists, something I have tried to do to a small extent already. Many thanks for sharing.

  163. @Gary McDowell, shoutout from South Korea, I’m not fully into PhD yet, but the situation does not seem to be very different here. This IS international, isn’t it?

    Thank you FeuDRenais and Pascal for making this public.

  164. Although not fully agreed to the post, I am glad to see that there are still some people to examine hidden problems in academia. I studied Accounting in Canada and Korea for undergraduate and Master’s (although no PhD experience, I saw and did the works what PhD candidates did for professors), and I think it is the experience not only international, but also beyond the major we study.

    Thank you for the post, and best of luck in everybody(especially, writer)’s future endeavours!

  165. Great letter! As a phD student at the University of Lausanne, I share exactly the same consideration as the author of this clever text ! However, I think there are obvious ways to heal this perverted academic systems. You mentionned some hints in your letter, I could add :
    1) De-privatisation of the publication lobby which is owning science and distributing results only agains outrageously expensive licenses that only rich academia can buy
    2) Better valorisation of the teaching within the academy. Currently, mostly research performance in taken into account in the rankings (although we should go beyond the ranking approach)

    Best wishes for the future !

  166. Great letter! I would have to add that scientific community is falling into scientism. Though I am not saying all people in science (generalization is always inappropriate), many of young scientists are alienated for having other interests such as philosophy or art. With the new atheism movement, this is getting worse. Christian Schmemann (previous commentator) has pointed it very well. I think what people need to do is through policy making. Government research grants are also supposedly assessed together with public engagements and publication in open-access journals.

  167. Many true facts inside the letter. Still one point I disagree with the author is that I don’t believe academia is in reality the entity that promotes science nowadays. It’s mainly the role of the industry and the research centres that deal with real scientific projects. Universities are solely there for giving out degrees.

  168. I’m setting up a blog which will explore the issues we face in the academic world. Issues like open access, importance of citation and impact factor, quality of publications due to pressure to publish, funding, methodological problems, politics we face in the department or in the field and any general dishonesty we come across and how the spirit of research can survive them. The hope is to raise enough voices to cause a change, not just complain and vent (though that’s ok too).

    I’m looking for more authors to get more voices, perspectives esp from fields different to mine. You could contribute with your own experiences, or send in links once in a while of related topics other people have written about so we can ‘reblog’ and discuss, or if you’re very enthusiastic, you can even become a regular author with more than a few contributions.

    Let me know if you’re interested, I also recommend using pseudonyms considering how easy it is to google people nowadays.

  169. Thank you for sharing this. As was stated and affirmed by man previous posters, this problem is experienced internationally.

    I’m a PhD student from the University of Sydney and I’ve recently decided to suspend my candidature (willingly) because of the same reasons outlined in this letter. I entered the PhD knowing full well some of the points raised, but thought that I could turn a blind eye and overcome them with grit, hard work and/or that they won’t affect me.

    I’m exactly halfway through my PhD and I’ve come to realise that the entire system is too self-serving, nepotistic, inefficient and sometimes downright immoral. As such, I’m trying to use this break to figure out and decide for myself whether I want to truly pursue a PhD through to its end in light of all these negative points.

    Like the author, I share many of the same thoughts and feelings and I hope change does come around. I don’t know how but I do know that this letter is a first step in opening dialogue and serving as a rallying ‘battle cry’ of sorts in recognising this is a widespread and real issue. These problems are too rooted in academia as a whole to ignore.


  170. I think that this graduate student’s comments are the result of a surprisingly mature understanding of how the reward system in academic science has changed its nature under the twin pressures of status and money. Money, and the ‘businessification’ of science have altered the scientific landscape – Michael Crichton, despite what issues I have with some of his conclusions, has provided some concise and powerful descriptions of how money has warped science – and it’s certainly unsettling how the current reality clashes with an early paradigm of scientists laboring selflessly in the ivory towers of academic science, objectively assessing their own lives as well as their data. We should be concerned about this, since academics in general (along with large religious organizations) are one of the last great bastions of the old, outdated style of corporate management. We don’t even pretend to educate future scientific administrators on good management practices. Scientists go directly from an experimental and manuscript-oriented post-doc to running a group, something they’ve generally received no training for – and, more importantly, something that isn’t seen as a priority to their bosses, other than the value of getting as much from their underlings for as little effort as possible. Sweatshop is not too strong a term for some labs I’ve worked in myself.

    Her other major point is one that’s almost universally held but generally not talked about among professionals. Namely, that our current system is spiraling slowly down to short-term, ‘safe’ investigations that spin off fluff papers on the way. Even if your program isn’t focused on the investigation that will only yield its preliminary results in ten years, our programs don’t come up with publishable findings like clockwork, and when they do, it takes a good year’s worth of work to bring them to current publication standards. When I started out, a Journal of Clinical Investigation paper had 4-8 figures, while a current paper in JCI has at least that many – each of which is the equivalent of an older JCI paper, i.e., has 4-6 panels –- not to mention the 4-12 supplemental data figures. Science is becoming an -industrial- business, with necessary economies of scale. Small, home-town science shops are being run out of business by big-box conglomerates. Along with that change comes a focus on volume product at a reasonable price, which translates to pumping out safe manuscripts to justify the large groups, multiple grants, and major institutional investment. Big business can do things that cottage industry can’t – but you’ll notice that big box stores are starting to go out of business in favor of smaller enterprises that focus on quality and service. There are things that cottage industry can do this Big Business can’t – or won’t – do.

    The primary message we should take home from this letter is that we need to clean house. We’ve all gone along with the program because we want tenure, or the grant, or to avoid antagonizing the current clique so we could get our results published. And we’ve gone along with it because scandal is SO poisonous in science, especially in light of the flag of purity and truth we’ve wrapped ourselves in. Yes, you’re so busy writing more grants so that you can keep your business afloat that you can’t be bothered with how the whole ship is listing to port – until you end up failing to make tenure because you didn’t pay attention to what the humans have made of your pure scientific endeavor, both the ones funding it (the public), running it, or working for _you_.

    Best on your post-non-doctoral future, and remember that if it isn’t fun – why not?

  171. Since most people posting here probably don’t read most of the other posts, I will repost this info where it’s more visible (i.e., at the bottom).

    There is a group on Facebook (and on Google) that has formed as a reaction to this letter. It may be found here:!forum/honest-science

    Please don’t hesitate to join if you would like to work for better academia/science with other people who do as well. We are (slowly, but steadily) becoming organized and will soon start working on some initial projects to tackle the different issues.

  172. @Alfred Charles
    you are spot on with constructive ideas on how to reorganize university education. The question is still what to do with so many people with so many degrees? what kind of skills those degrees entail, are they good enough for world outside academia?
    I am also not stranger to the sentiments in the letter, but I don’t think it’s fair to blame on the entire field.
    Publication-wise, I do think it’s important to publish, since that’s the only proof that some science has been done. Quality of many publications may be disputable, but that’s something that can be improved, by raising the bar. I don’t know how peer review works, I mean does reviewer get manuscript without knowing who is the author. If that’s the case, then it’s fair enough; no conflict of interest can interfere. But if not, it needs to be changed.
    Professors shouldn’t be tenured, period. Most of them, especially in tier2 and 3 schools (and that’s a lot) just suckle on their professorship until the end of their days, and if they keep research group, their students fare pretty badly due to the lack of publications, possibility to network, spending time in non-stimulating environment etc.
    Also training grad students shouldn’t be the job of only one advisor; ‘ownership’ of students by one advisor makes plenty of room for power abuse, that needs to stop.

  173. @FeuDRenais

    As a former Ph.D. student, I feel sympathetic with you. I happen to have not suffered that much, finished the Ph.D then switched to writing software right after, for a mixture of reasons.

    Are the reasons pushing academia to its current state so specific to academia ? My answer : no.
    If this is true, then you will find similar trouble in most contexts. As Chris Reeve wrote above, “See Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt. We are going in circles, guys. All of this stuff has already been covered”.

    AAMOF, I quit hired jobs because of required subordination to practices that I believed were inefficient. But before that I took the opportunity for a honest talk with the company’s boss and founder (which may or may not have been useful to him and the company, at least I tried). You might go to that route, too.

    Can you read French ? On
    > Grothendieck obtient un poste de professeur associé au Collège de France où, plutôt que d’enseigner les mathématiques – ce qu’on attend de lui – il dispense un cours intitulé « Faut-il continuer la recherche scientifique ? ». Son affectation n’est pas renouvelée : « une majorité de professeurs du Collège de France a voté contre, une première dans l’histoire de la vénérable institution ».

    I don’t know for what reasons he did that, but your story recalled that fact.

    Respectful regards,

  174. I think a PhD student has penned an open letter that was designed to go viral in order to complete their PhD study that is based on individuals hiding behind their computers and thinking that they have the right to say whatever they like to whomever we like.

    We all got played.

    But great PhD research!

  175. I believe all of your points are very true in many scientific departments. However, why not to get a PhD if you’re already so close, unless you have an excellent opportunity elsewhere which absolutely cannot wait? I’m not saying having a PhD is a precondition for success but often it gives additional weight to your opinions (and resume). Even though you won’t continue doing academic research, and you feel that the degree itself has nothing to do with your qualifications for other jobs, it may still prove otherwise, taking into account that the first people to read your cv when formally applying for a job, are the recruiters with no great insight into your area of expertise. At the very least, that’s my experience.

  176. I have complaints about academia, but they don’t overlap with (and sometimes contradict) the ones in that letter.

    1. The most-important thing for academic success is to have rich parents. You will be judged your entire career by what graduate school you went to, and graduate school admissions pay a great deal of attention to what undergraduate school you went to. The entire academic system is predicated on the assumption that good students go to good undergrad schools; if you didn’t go to a top-tier undergrad school, you will probably be locked out of grants and good positions for the rest of your career. Check the fraction of prominent scientists in your field with non-Ivy credentials if you doubt me. Yet in the US, a top-tier school costs about $60,000/yr, including expenses. The US government will loan you up to $10,000/yr. The only merit scholarships at any top-tier US schools that are open to white, Asian, or Indian males that provides more than a few thousand dollars per year are military scholarships. The fraction of students whose family can afford such a school is smaller than the fraction of students who could do well at such a school.

    This was emphatically not the case before 1970. I compiled a list of the undergraduate institution attended by every Nobel laureate in physics. Before 1970, many laureates went to obscure undergraduate institutions, and a very large fraction, possibly most, of those who went to elite institutions did so on full-tuition scholarships (which were so abundant that some schools had scholarship-student dorms!), even though those institutions were MUCH cheaper back then. Many of them said in their autobiographies that they could not have gone to college at all without those scholarships. After 1970, the only ones who went to non-elite undergrad schools were astronomers who went to schools that were considered elite within astronomy because they had big telescopes, and few of them had much financial support.

    2. The problem is not that people work on theoretical rather than applied problems; it’s just the opposite. There have been many studies of the effectiveness of basic vs. applied research, and the results are, roughly, that basic research (meaning you have no application in mind!) is at least 10 times as cost-effective as applied research /even when measured by impact on applied research/. The way to cure cancer is not to try to cure cancer; it’s to have people work on the things we currently don’t understand but are able to study, whatever they are. Yet our funding agencies fund approximately no basic research, and little risky applied research.

    3. There should be fewer $1,000,000 dollar grants and more $10,000 grants. The existing system provides few ways to bridge the gap between an idea and a $1,000,000 R1 proposal. The NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences, their “basic research” institute, did a study a few years ago to determine the optimal grant size, and concluded it was a few million, scoring grants by number of resulting publications. They did NOT consider the size of the grant as part of the score in their calculation of optimal grant size. I’m not making this up. If you take their data and do so, you see it’s going to be far off the lower end of the scale, under $100K.

    4. Investigator experience, citation count, and college attended or lab worked in should not be the major factors in grant proposal evaluation. It’s a catch-22: You can’t get a grant because you don’t have publications because you didn’t get a grant. The investigator’s identity should probably be blinded from the reviewers.

    5. Grant review panels should be interdisciplinary. With the NIH, the principal investigator pretty much has to be a biologist or M.D., which hampers innovative approaches to omics and big data. The NIH would never have funded our successful project to sequence the human genome–that’s a historical fact; Craig left them because they said so–because its key innovations were computational, and nobody in administration or on review panels understood computation. Looking at the publications from research funded by the NIAID’s Bioinformatics and Computational Biosciences Branch, you’ll see even they don’t fund projects led by computer scientists or bioinformaticians!

    5. Some money should be allocated for taking finished research and applying it. I don’t mean applied research; I mean straightforward conversion of research software into production software. In my field, automated protein function annotation, there are at least a hundred papers from funded research projects over the past 20 years on how to combine multiple pieces of evidence to infer annotation, and I don’t think any of them have been used by anybody. We also have the problem that funding agencies like to fund construction of new software and knowledge resources, but don’t like to fund the maintenance of existing ones, so much effort in bioinformatics goes into constructing new informatics resources, marketing them, and then letting them die after 3 years when funding runs out.

    6. Anyone smart enough to do good science is too smart to go into science. The salaries of doctors, lawyers, and bankers have skyrocketed since 1960, while the salaries of scientists have hardly changed. Possibly unionization would help, although this would probably result in tightly restricting the numbers of accredited scientists, as the doctors’ and lawyers’ unions do.

  177. 1) Split strictly fundamental (basic) research from applied research, fairly 20-80 ratio. Fund basic research from state funding (guaranteed) and optionally from private/competitive grants.

    2) All faculty doing applied research (corresponding to 80% of academic research) is forced to take a paid leave from academia for 3 years and join the research arm of an industrial player , before promotion to full professorship. Promotion decision takes – with a significant weight – the business outcome (industrial impact of research outcome, research commercialization success, relevance to the future of the business) of the academic’s stay in industry (real-world….)

  178. Having read most of the comments as well as the main article, before I say what I have to say, let me state where I am coming from: I did not study science and am not in the academic world. I am seriously a philosopher with a decades-old interest in ethics and politics.
    Nothing I have read here has surprised me; most is what I have surmised or have observed before, though it has been good to read it here with unusual clarity.
    There are solutions, or the beginnings of solutions. But nothing will work unless there are people of sound character (as the original contributor); furthermore, there must be mechanisms in place such that, if there is no reward for those of sound character, there is at least punishment for some (inevitably not all) of those who are without.
    You (we) need / One (society) needs seriously independent tribunals/committees/courts where conduct is reviewed by people from other areas of expertise. I have given much thought to this in the area of business, but the recommendation could certainly be adapted to the academic sphere. Hence finance people could have their conduct reviewed by people from outside areas such as mathematics, the humanities, social sciences and even economics. Those who have failed morally would be excluded for a while, or even for life, from practising as financial experts.
    It goes without saying that teaching (e.g. at undergraduate level) must be separated from research, as has indeed been suggested in the comments. An ability to teach well is quite different to an ability to research, or even to manage. In any case, a lot of effort is wasted, and damage done, by poor teaching. If teaching is well remunerated, then those with the appropriate talents and drive should be able to subsidise their research time by their teaching. Others might wish simply to pursue family and friendship, which is also valuable.
    The principle has to be that some exceptional individuals are promised several years of reasonable income on the understanding that they are the sort of people who will pursue lines of research they seriously believe in. These should not be people driven by personal ambition: Wittgenstein wrote, rightly. that ambition is the death of thought.
    That is, soundness of character is as important as technical competence.
    This does not address the need for funds to finance the research itself; i.e. the question of how to distribute any funds that are not earmarked for salaries.
    Citations must not all be counted alike. In the area of business ethics I have criticised certain individuals harshly. This does not mean I believe these individuals have had anything interesting to say. On the contrary: they are charlatans. It is simply that charlatans, too, if they have once insinuated themselves, must be confronted and exposed. In other cases, someone slightly competent might become popular, and be mentioned everywhere, without their meriting this attention, and here too there is a need for their shallowness to be exposed.
    Hence it must be possible for a citation to carry a negative value. (I once had a paper turned down on the grounds that I had not cited the literature – in this case, about professional ethics. I had read the literature and determined it was useless. The subject was difficult and I held no grudge against the standard commentators, and I did not see any point in explaining why their work was useless. That was – is – evident to anyone reading them. My project was to produce something much better: convincing, i.e. with the ring of truth.)
    It remains the case, regrettably, that in the real world, decades later, people will accept a piece of paper (in this case a PhD) as a qualification, and dismiss you as an imposter if you do not have the piece of paper. It does not matter that those with the papers are obviously inferior, whereas you can demonstrate de facto competence – you will always be at a considerable disadvantage. Mostly you will not even be given a chance to prove yourself, however certain it is that you can prove yourself. This is a matter of a cultural failure. Hence my recommendation is to complete your qualification if you are close to achieving it. But do not even begin if you are doubtful about its intrinsic value.
    Once “qualified”, feel free to abandon the established career path, and be ruthless in your criticism of conformity. Even be personal in your attacks, despite this being unfashionable.
    The point one commentator made about the investment of parents (or equivalent persons) in one’s education is a valid and deeply serious one. There are times in life when one must forgo authenticity for a while.

  179. I find it interesting that this went viral for one major reason: nothing said in lines 1-7 has ever been hidden. Historians and philosophers of science have been talking about this for decades. More recently, scientists like Lee Smolin and Ben Goldacre have written about the faults in peer review and academia. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Michael Mann have also talked about what happens when brave scientists simply dare to address the big issues in a public forum. Carl Sagan was literally denied membership to the USA’s national academy of the sciences because many of his peers were vindictive about him taking sciences to the masses (despite this, his publication record was on par with even the most prestigious members of the academy. Look up Michael Shermer’s presentation of it on YouTube if you are interested). Of course science is done by people with big egos who are trying to get money. This is because it is carries out by human beings. It is kind of shocking that you did not know this beforehand.

    However, my gripe with this article is two folds.
    The first is that it does not come to grips with the fact that academic and research science, despite all of its imperfections, still delivers the goods. Through government funding and grants via academia, NASA, the NIH, the CDC, and the NSF (and their counterparts in Europe), the natural sciences and modern engineering have harnessed the power of the atom, discovered the structure of the quantum world, put a man on the moon, cured many diseases, mapped the human genome, and corroborated the existence of the Quarks and the Higgs Boson. All of this was done in around 100 years. All of this was possible (while at the same time your 1-7 complaints being entirely real) because science is a practice carried out by flawed humans and defined by a tension between conservatism and revolutionary new ideas and breakthroughs. I am not going to go on too much about this because there are already books and books about this topic.

    My second gripe is that the idea that science should quickly turn around and be applicable is not a good standard. This is because curiosity driven research can yield dramatic, and unexpected, revolutions decades later. A good example of this is the research into mathematics and physics at the beginning of the twentieth century. Despite being seemingly esoteric at the time, this research yielded the foundations for gps technology (which uses relativity), medical equipment (fmri’s, x-ray, microscopy, etc…), and the computing revolution (from the chips to Turing’s logic). If one were to complain about this standard when people like Einstein, von Neumann, and Godel were at Princeton and Turing was working for the British government (and before with Einstein and Planck working for the German academy), they could have quashed a lot of profound and revolutionary ideas. Likewise, some pundits in my country recently complained about the NSF pouring a good bit of money into snail research, yet this is pivotal to the study of Schistosomiasis (which passes itself around through snails and ravages the developing world).

    I am not saying the author disagrees with any of this, but it still needs to be pointed out.

  180. This lengthening thread has accumulated rich lode. It is interesting that, in 1989, the well respected evolutionary biologist, and iconoclast, Michael Ghiselin published “Intellectual Compromise” that covered the downward spiral of academia. (A pdf can be accessed on Library Genesis)
    Appended a review of the book in Bioscience (1990)

    Intellectual Compromise. Michael T. Ghiselin, Paragon House, New York, 1989. 226 pp. $24.95 (ISBN 0- 674-30775-5 cloth).
    The heart and soul of science is its rationality, its logic, its adherence to reason. Scientists search for truth according to the rules of theory and experiment. They are selfless and rational beings. But why do the strange codes of scientific behavior exist?
    Michael T. Ghiselin’s thesis is that scientists’ credos, including their self-proclaimed rationality, come from economic drives. Ghiselin, a zoologist and evolutionary biologist, defines economics broadly as “how the availability and utilization of resources affect the organization and activities of organized beings” (p. 2). All life, individual as well as social, scientific as well as natural, is the product of competition for resources. The “real subject matter [of economics] is resources of every kind. Scarcity and competition affect all organisms everywhere, whether social or not. . . . How much time we allocate to love or to art is just as much an economic problem as how much we allocate to work or rest. . . . A scholar’s life is no exception” (p. 3-4).
    In the world of science and theories, the resources are grants and professorships. Self-interested economics shapes how scientists act and the choices they make as they compete for the fruits and berries of funding and reputation. How should scientists allot their resources? Time of course is the most important resource.
    In the cause of economic self-interest, spending time teaching is useful because it complements research. Paperwork, on the other hand, is not. Students are useful because they double as contemporary and future colleagues.
    Scientists also have personal re-sources: lab equipment, knowledge, skills, students, colleagues, and sponsors. They have invested in this capital over the course of their careers. Redirecting these resources to a new line of research increases risk; retool-ing is prohibitively expensive. This, Ghiselin argues, is the economic reason for conservatism among older scientists.
    Scientists, like intellectual stickle-backs, exhibit strong territorial behavior. An economic balance is struck in staking out intellectual territory: it should be as big as possible to maximize idea-hunting range, but not so big that you cannot patrol and defend it. Competition between schools of thought is economic: “academics will try to destroy those branches of learning that reduce their own prosperity, and preserve those from which they derive a benefit” (p. 184).
    Science balances, in an economic sense, low return but surer investment in short-term applied (“trivial”) re-search against high-risk but higher-payoff basic (“difficult”) research. Successful scientists are successful investors: “bold but not rash, cautious but not timid.”
    At the same time, researchers, like good consumers, go where the money is: “Now, there is nothing wrong with doing applied research, or work-ing on problems that society wants solved, so long as one really wants to solve those problems and those problems really are soluble. But a scientist who works on problems he knows cannot be solved, simply because money is available for working on them, may reasonably be compared to a prostitute. The problem is not simply that certain people opt for that way of earning a living in a free-enterprise economy out of mere cupidity. Rather, the state of the economy is such that many have no realistic alternative” (p. 200).
    The same cost-benefit approach guides scientists’ decisions about when to release results of research in progress. Publishing is an issue of diminishing returns: it is inefficient to verify results to the nth degree, but risky to publish in haste. Recognizing this difficulty quandary, the scientific community has developed a diverse portfolio of communications, which carry different degrees of risk: Nature papers (the equivalent of AA-rated bonds), letters (accessible to the com-mon investor), and conference presentations (junk bonds).
    Science is a market, where scientific entrepreneurs produce, consume, and market ideas. The ethos of priority has an economic fount, akin to pat-ents: establishing priority by publish-ing gives a scientist rights to an idea, but also encourages him or her to get the idea out for others to build on. Reputation has economic value. Ghiselin spends a chapter on au-thority, a pet peeve. Authority takes the place of the brand name. Because generic is usually cheaper, and what is sold in Sharper Image or Tiffany’s is usually of the best quality, name be-comes a quick and easy way to pre-judge worth. The smart shopper doesn’t price everything every time. If one wants quality, it is most efficient to assume that the best quality is found in the well-known stores. This assumption may be slightly wrong now and then, and seriously wrong once or twice, but in the long haul it seems to work. And there is enough double-checking to keep the relation-ship between price and quality, or reputation and competence, fairly honest. The imprimatur of Elite Private University goes a long way toward establishing a researcher’s reputation. A theme of Ghiselin’s is that academia corrupts the free enterprise of science. “The tendency for the values of the academic life to override those of the scholarly life is one reason why bad scholarship drives out good” (p. 5), and “It is not research that keeps teachers out of the classroom, it is paperwork. ..Academia has usurped …scholarship” (p. 68).
    Just how generally applicable is the seemingly ubiquitous paradigm of evolution and resource competition? Ghiselin generously finds applications of evolutionary economics in psychology, law, economics, and cultural development, as well as in university science. What is interesting is that so many different theories-sociology, psychology, organizational behavior, and economics-can credibly be brought to bear on the behavior of those strange creatures called scientists.
    Ghiselin ends up advocating a sort of bioholistic approach to understanding science. Although he phrases his discussion in thoroughly economic jargon, the rules of scientific behavior are not too different from those derived from sociobiology, psychology, or epistemology. Scientists are opportunists just like anyone else. They want maximal return on their effort, time, and knowledge. The recipe for understanding science might read: blend economics into sociobiology (which already has a healthy dose of struggle for resources), toss in some psychology (because we are dealing with humans, not honeybees), and add a dash of rationalism (because the coin of the scientific realm is truth, not reproduction).
    The best part of the book is the first two chapters, where Ghiselin lays out his intellectual strategy. The rest of the book rambles, albeit interestingly. Ghiselin is a good idea person, but disorganized and shallow when it comes to analysis. The writing flows smoothly but is joyless. He calls his book criticism rather than theory, and that certainly is true.
    One unpleasant though minor aspect is the scattering of petty digs at those who have apparently at one time or another offended Ghiselin: Paul Feyerabend, Thomas Kuhn, students clamoring for recommendations, picky and unconstructive reviewers, school textbooks, those who expect schools to be babysitters, book editors, university administrators (“intellectual Edsels”), textbooks, citation analysis (a “witches’ brew”), grantsmanship, trendy science, and the convention-bound establishment in general. (Ghiselin writes from outside the establishment, from the museum world of the California Academy of Sciences.) Although most of the criticisms are not wholly unjustified, they are needlessly unmannered and come across as bitter grudges rather than thoughtful commentary.
    But overall, Intellectual Compromise is stimulating and controversial in the best MacArthur-funded tradition. It lays out intellectual paths for others to follow with more substantive and mundane research. Read this book. Ghiselin is a libertarian of science, antiauthoritarian, a self-aggrandizing elitist, and a defender of science. Intellectual Compromise may make you self-righteously indignant, but it should also spur thought on why you, your colleagues, and universities do what they do.
    LISA C. HEINZ Office of Technology Assessment US Congress Washington, DC 2051 0-8025

  181. An interesting topic. Unfortunate the author ultimately did not complete the degree. But if that wasn’t their personal goal, and they became fundamentally disillusioned with the particular operation in which they found themself, good on them for making the break. Academia “traps” many (if not most) in careers which severely limit their employment prospects outside the sector. That’s especially true in some of the sciences, particularly given the proliferation of extraordinarily narrow sub-sub-specialities supported essentially only within an academic operation…but increasingly less supported financially or in terms of appreciation within the sector itself. That can lead to a type of internal desperation and fear that might contribute to the overall stress vibe of academia one often encounters.

    Academia is a different “world”, and it’s operations are deeply impacted by its self assessment mechanisms, self perception, finance and human resources. While those are generally common to most operations, academic or not, the “higher education” “ivory tower”, “benefit of mankind” ethos and marketing puts self-induced pressure that perversely warps its administration. When that occurs within a system with such Nobel goals, it’s not surprising it falls short.

    As someone who has been a science academic research Professor and in the private sector (now permanently in the latter with adjunct in former) I can certainly see where the author is coming from. My experience (and opinion) is that the sector is in slow decline due to the unattractiveness of the profession in terms of required education and skills versus renumeration and workload. Particularly compared to the private sector. Additionally, in many countries, the “hard funded” support of institutions has declined, at first precipitously, now gradually, or is variable to a degree that it affects operations on an annual basis. That’s what’s expected in the private sector, but is corrosive in essentially quasi-governmental operations.
    Another aspect that I feel has sort of grown to become the stereotype about which academics always complained is the growth of managerialism. That is, management for management sake rather than to effectively control and run operations. Academics always complained (loudly) about “administration” or “bureaucracy” (who doesn’t generally?), but often overlook the need for administration through being assaulted by steeply increasing amounts of record keeping and operational paperwork. In the Internet age, every unit sees its individual information collection as minimal, while the whole buries academics in associated “paper”work. Another aspect of managerialism in academia has been the astounding rate of uptake of management jargon and nonsense speak. Virtually any term, no matter how vacuous-indeed, the more vacuous but intellectual sounding the better-had become a substitute for clear thinking and communications. Indeed, academic management has taken bullsh*t speak to its pinnacle. My experience is that operations that go down that road corrode more broadly from the inside, and it is symptomatic of a broader malaise.
    And academics have to operate within such a management structure, Nobel goals regarding advancing knowledge or not. “Leadership” is quantized and expected of all, ignoring the most basic tenants of management-that there are leaders and those whose productivity is optimal when not focussed on leading. There is also a more basic and intractable problem that those who become academic managers in many fields are most often not trained or intrinsic managers in the broader sense. However, over the past 30 years, academia has required greater degrees of management in more administrative areas, increasingly with an often vague, managerialism-focussed structure.

    With funding declining per scientist (both due to reduced per -capita inflation-linked spending and an astounding growth in postgraduate completions, institutes and academics), comparatelely poor salaries per year degree of education and/or experience and the above managerialism, even the most dedicated and forthright scientists become disillusioned. It’s just unfortunate that the positive aspects of academia and scholarship are increasingly trapped and constrained within such structures. Some of the aspects have always been there. Any history of science illustrates this. But newer structures, particularly around funding and management have negatively impacted overall operations to a much greater degree.

    Regarding the vicissitudes of personalities, I’ve found more tolerance for bad personality and/or management types in public or quasi-public operations than private. That may explain some of the authors observations. But one certainly encounters that in many sectors. However, in the private sector, bad personal behaviors are less likely to result in advancement or employmeny longevity.

    The above isn’t meant to justify the factors that have led to the authors disillusionment with science within the academic setting. I agree with all of their points to varying degrees. And they are certainly all valid observations. I’ve tried to present some factors I believe have influenced the current state of play in the industry.

    But the bottom line is that, for the renumeration -v- workload, if the sector additionally leads to a more holistic disillusionment, you certainly made an understandable decision.

    Best of success in your new endeavours.

  182. I am a PHd like the author. I have experienced all situations he found. Under this kind of environment, we can not change anything but adapt it. What we should do is to learn more and more useful knowledge as possible as we can. As the author said “nothing can take away the knowledge that I’ve gained “.

    Best wishes for all PHds.

  183. A system run by mediocre, politically correct people who think that real science and new breakthrough discoveries can be administered and managed in terms of Gantt charts, ESFRI lists, and five-year plans that guarantee “deliverables”, and where creative people who dare to sacrify bibliometric tallies in favour of spending time thinking out of the box are being ostracised, ripped off of their means and their dignity, is doomed to die. Are we witnessing this death now? Or is something even more dangerous going on?

  184. OK – I’ll engage in this discussion. I have talked about this with many people. Right now, any tenured faculty member virtually anywhere in the world can spend their time more or less as they see fit. If I wanted to think deeply about something for five years before putting pen to paper, and offered no publications as proof, then all that would happen is (maybe not even) my “merit” increment would slip, costing me perhaps 2 or 3 k$ in salary. I argue that academics are presently in a better position to think deeply than at any other time in human history…… What academics fret about are the “trappings”. What one loses by not publishing is not salary, but rather travel money, money for laptops, etc. What we write grants for in most cases is travel money (apologies to soft money US researchers who have to write grants to pay their own salaries… I’m talking about tenured profs in most if not all other countries). Think about Einstein…. he did his best work while a patent clerk in Bern. Hardly lavish support by the system by today’s standards…. I feel very bad for the guy who quit his PhD. I agree with some of his points, but his quitting hurt him and no one else. The first thing that comes to mind for me is the question of whether or not he was actually close to being completed (I was “two months from graduating” for 18 months). By quitting, all he has done is denied himself a voice that could make things better…. I think the reality, though, is that most of us chase trappings while we ignore the incredible freedom that our position affords us.

  185. What researchers need is freedom of choice and thought, and other avenues to express creativity, like engineering. Apply what you theorize.

  186. I’m going to take the phD for pragmatic reasons but I must express that over the last 3 years I have accumulated such “hatred” towards my colleagues unethical behaviour that I will fill no “pride” in having been “officially recognized” by them.

    Okay, I’m exagerating a little bit. Some of them are okay.

    The practice that bothers me the most is not actually reading each other’s articles. For example, I know that one of my examiners didn’t read the proof, because there was a fairly serious error in the proof pointed out by the other examiner (which I was able to fix).

    As a mathematician I only ever use a result unless I have read and understood the proof. This does not seem to apply to some of my colleagues who will happily build upon unverified results. Mathematics doesn’t work that way. It has to have have solid foundations.

    If the examiner didn’t understand the proof he could have asked me to explain it to him. Probably a pride issue.

    Also, I have my own personal judgment, based on having read people’s papers on whose a unbelievably awesome, whose exellent, whose great and whose okay. There are okay people who are ranked higher and earning more money than the excellent people.

    The system rewards those who publish a large number of short papers, on obscure subjects, with multiple authors always using the same handful of techniques. These papers are not of the same value as a long paper which introduces new concepts and unifies a large number of previously known results into a single context.

    That’s my 2 cents

  187. The world is not a perfect place and most of the comments in this contribution may well apply to a wide variety of scenarios even outside of the academic world.

    But I heavily judge the fact that the writer abandoned his Ph.D. just months shy of completion. Being a Ph.D. student may well be an underpaid job, but is still a job. You’re getting paid (hopefully) for doing said job; if you’re unfortunate, even if it doesn’t align with your moral/ethical/whatever compass.

    Regardless of moral and ethical observations, by abandoning your Ph.D. at such a crucial moment you are damaging yourself, your supervisor, your colleagues and your institution, as it is the epitome of irresponsibility.

    I wouldn’t rely on someone that takes 4 years (!) to make a decission like this without extenuating circumstances.

  188. @D,
    I agree it does seem odd to leave at that point in time. What also strikes me as odd is that the student called the experience “enjoyable and hard.”

    I wish my PhD experience had been enjoyable and hard. Instead it was dysfunctional, hypocritical, humiliating, and not at all what a person who graduated at the top of their master’s class expected as the next level of education. It’s largely a farce.

    What I would call the epitome of irresponsibility is the fact that the faculty do not do their jobs – which is teaching students and mentoring them and guiding them so that they, in turn, can achieve their best and, in turn, the institution gains some respectability.

    Instead of getting excited about testing an original theory that I was excited about or any new ideas, I watched my supervisor tweak data (data that he told me exactly how to collect for months and didn’t bother to do a pilot test on it after a few weeks) so that something useful for publication appeared instead of admitting that the actual data was non-significant and meaningless.

    I could write a letter about my experiences that makes the letter on this blog look like a love letter. I quit after two heartbreaking years of being diminished, neglected, and treated like one in a herd of cattle with the intelligence of a calf.

    I expressed my disappointments loudly and frequently. Whenever I told them I wanted to leave (to go somewhere else more professional) they always talked me out of it: “It gets better!” “No no no, don’t quit.” “Take some time off.” “Take a year off.” So I stayed hoping things would get better. But of course they didn’t. We are just statistics. I finally left after two years after realizing I’d never achieve MY goals there – only their goals.

    I don’t believe the person who wrote this letter is damaging the institution, the supervisor, their colleagues because they are the ones damaging the state of education by having excuses for EVERYTHING. This is merely one kind of outcome for narrow-mindedness. And, only the author knows whether or not he/she damaged themselves.

    I, for one, deeply disappointed to not be a phd student at the moment, am proud of leaving and have gotten cheers from many in my field for not putting up with the “irresponsibility.” Now that I’m extremely content in the working world doing what I love (that my master’s prepared me well for), I have to think whether or not to go back to a school that may be more professional and open-minded, and finish working on the theory I had wanted to. Or whether to just do research independently.

    I had sent my supervisor a link to a blog where the author stated:

    “it’s all summed up nicely in a bromide a friend told me when I started my PhD: You go into your PhD trying to maximize greatness, and come out trying to minimize humiliation.” He said, “Yup, that just about sums it up.”

    Well, congratulations to you and your university! – you managed to humiliate me in a mere 24 months; I didn’t even need a full four years!

  189. I think Science doesn’t need new Phds that don´t breeze through graduate school.

  190. I have just finished my PhD. I had completely different experience. Both of my supervisors have tenure and probably have gotten bored by publishing usual papers. So we started exploring a new field (in which my supervisors have very little experience), and have discovered quite a few totally unexpected things along the way. The discoveries don’t appear to have any direct applicability to today’s business world, nor do they change any fundamental paradigms, but it’s still a heap of new, counterintuitive and amazing stuff. The only complaint I may have about my supervisors is that they don’t seem to care about publishing, so I have 5 papers waiting to be proof-read. However my supervisors have always been super supportive in trying to unravel the truth and were basically learning together with me along the way.

    On the negative side, now I realise that this may have been a great jolly ride both for me and my supervisors, but unfortunately it is likely coming to an end. My supervisors are tenured and don’t have to worry, but I barely have any citations and have few papers due to the exploratory and out-of-hot-topics nature of my PhD. I am fearful about my future career, since I am unlikely to be successful in academia. I am also not sure how to approach getting a job outside of academia at this point. So I can fully relate with the author of this letter that the academic system does not encourage what I did in my PhD. Nevertheless I still enjoyed it.

  191. Having worked in academic research admin for years (after realizing the costs of pursuing a PhD were far greater than the benefits of spending 5 years crunching someone else’s numbers), I’ve watched how the system rots people to their cores. MDs and PhDs who start out with the best intentions, wanting to help, wanting to further understanding, loving research; become Machiavellian, omnipotent monsters over time. Operations within these organizations are often a joke because of the high turn-over and relative inexperience of those charged with running labs and departments. Those without advanced degrees, regardless of their expertise, are treated as dispensable and inferior. Working in academia has been a huge disappointment to me. As a side note, much has be written lately about why girls don’t pursue careers in science – the life just isn’t attractive to anyone with resources and a working emotional intelligence.

  192. Well, now that this letter has generated close to 200 comments and has been up for almost 3 months, I’ve decided to take some time to reply to all the comments that people have posted here (200, though a lot, is still doable). Hopefully, this will provide some insight and maybe even give some sort of conclusion to the discussion generated here. I would also like to use this chance to kill two birds in one stone and defend myself against some of the criticisms that this has generated, as well as to clarify some things.

    I am going to reply to all of the comments posted here one by one, but a couple of other things before I do.
    First, here’s the plug for the Facebook group (“Just Science”) that has formed as a reply to this letter:

    It’s still alive and well, with almost 200 members, and appears to be organizing projects/teamwork to address some of the issues in academia. Any help is welcome. Even if you don’t agree with my letter, I would recommend checking it out and giving your opinion because, you know, it’s good to be open-minded and try to understand how people with different opinions think, even when those opinions are diametrically opposed to your own.

    Second, as there were multiple themes that appeared again and again in the comments, I’ve decided to write some general comments of my own so as to handle these points en masse. This will allow me to shortcut a lot of my personal replies, thus letting me simply say, for example, “see General Comment A”.

    So, what are my general comments?

    General Comment A: On Getting the PhD and Changing the System from the Inside

    This is by far the most popular theme, with many people telling me in their comments that if I really want to improve the system, I should stay in it, advance in it, and use my reputation/credentials to fix it from the inside. I’m going to argue against this twice – first from a general, abstract point of view and then from how it relates to me personally.
    For the general case, I am reminded of a quote I like from Nietzsche:

    “He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself; and if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you.”

    Of course, this is not an absolute truth, but it makes a point that I personally find very true, i.e., that your environment rubs off on you, and that it rubs off more the longer you stay in it. Trying to “change/fight the system from the inside” is a noble endeavor and I don’t criticize the intentions of the people who do, but it is inevitable that you cannot continue to fight a system at full efficiency while it continually surrounds you and tries to fit you into its workings. Believing in the wisdom of compromise, you will find yourself doing things that you don’t agree with while telling yourself that it’s only temporary, or that it is necessary until you get into the position to “really change things”. But while such a position may be slow in its apparition, the concessions you make may turn into habits, complacency, and eventually, as your youthful passion dies out, complete acceptance. These are the potential drawbacks that I see from staying in a system you don’t like and trying to change it from the inside. In the general case.

    Now, for me personally. The first thing I need to do here is to state some assumptions and definitions. I will define “developed academia” and “non-developed academia”, which clearly span all of academia because they’re complementary. I will define “developed academia” as academia where ample resources are dedicated to scientific pursuits, and “non-developed academia” as academia where such resources are not allocated. As a rough approximation, I will assume that developed countries have “developed academia” and developing countries have “non-developed academia” – this is, in most cases, true. My letter was clearly intended as a criticism of “developed academia”, as “non-developed academia” has not even reached the level where these criticisms can be applied (as confirmed by some of the comments on my letter that were posted in “non-developed academia” regions like Russia or ex-Yugoslavia, which I read with great interest).

    I say this because about three years ago I decided that I would dedicate my life to helping improve “non-developed academia” by using the training I received in “developed academia”. This is something I am truly passionate about and thus am willing to spend my full time doing – I want to teach and train potential scientists in places where the kids want to work hard but don’t have the resources or the qualified teachers. From personal experience, I believe this to be both extremely rewarding and, more theoretically, I believe it to be extremely necessary given the brain drain that is currently draining “non-developed academia” of its talent (in some sense, I want to try and contribute to reversing or nullifying the brain drain). If one day, though I doubt it likely in my lifetime, “non-developed academia” disappears from this world and all academia becomes “developed”, with qualified professionals/teachers everywhere, enough money for equipment/salaries in every country, and no brain drain to take talent out of one place and to pump it into another, then at that time and only at that time would I seriously consider working on improving “developed academia”, as it would now be the only academia in existence.

    All that I say in order to clarify this one point: it makes no sense for me to stay inside a system that I never intended to spend my life improving. My decision to reject my PhD, though it may seem incomprehensible to some people, was purely pragmatic, since (a) I would not need it so much in “non-developed academia”, my knowledge and current qualifications being enough to suffice, and (b) by rejecting it in the manner I did I felt the potential to send a powerful message that could benefit “developed academia”, which, though not my main focus, is still something I care deeply about. I resigned in hopes of doing something useful – I wanted my peers to try to understand that a PhD was not as important as they believed it to be, that it’s not a flaw for them to be more courageous and to disagree with their superiors when they see things in the system that they don’t like, and that the goal should not be the degree but the knowledge and the skills gained. I believe this to be important because a young person only has so much time before they fit into a niche and stay in it, and it is absolutely vital that we fit into niches that we ourselves choose and that we ourselves believe to be worthwhile, and not into those that are forced on us by whatever career path we choose. In short, I wanted to demonstrate that it’s okay to go against the flow, and that you can be just as successful, or even more so, if you do. Well, I suppose the pressure is on me to prove that last statement now, and I’ve got the rest of my life to do it 🙂

    General Comment B: On the World Being Imperfect

    A lot of people have also written rebuttals saying that the world is imperfect, and that I am naïve in believing that academia – a human activity – should somehow be exempt from this. To be clear, I do not believe this and I don’t recall ever saying so in my letter. My reply to the people who accuse me of having “unrealistic expectations” of academia or of being naïve is to accuse them of reasoning in Boolean logic. Yes, 0s and 1s. As I understand from the comments that have stated this point of view:

    1 = Perfect academia, which is impossible
    0 = Imperfect academia, which we must accept because 1 is impossible

    … by which logic I am naïve because I am telling people that we are guilty for not having 1.

    Except that I’m not. For me, 1 is perfect academia, while 0 is absolutely corrupt academia, and then one has all the non-integers in between. I said in the beginning of my letter that I no longer believed academia to be bringing a positive benefit to society, or equivalently, that I believed it to be closer to 0 than to 1 (0.45, let’s say). I certainly did not accuse it of failing for not being at 1, since that’s impossible. In fact, if it were greater than 0.5, I’d probably be happy and wouldn’t have written such a letter in the first place.

    So, saying that “the world isn’t perfect” reads to me like a lame excuse formed by Boolean logic, and only encourages irresponsibility and gives the carte blanche for us to go all the way to 0 (since, you know, 1 is impossible). The real thing is much more complex than that, and we have to decide, each one for ourselves, where on that spectrum between 0 and 1 we think we stand and how low are we willing to go before it becomes unacceptable for each of us personally. My numbers, again, are 0.45 and 0.5.

    General Comment C: On Actually Reading my Letter

    Okay… I understand that the letter was very long, and I’m sorry. I cannot expect everyone to have read every sentence in detail, but I would at least hope that you read and understand everything before deciding to comment or to pass judgment. There were comments that completely seemed to ignore some parts of the letter, or told me that I did or felt certain things that I explicitly said I never did.

    General Comment D: On Interpolating and Extrapolating

    A fair number of people also made certain assumptions about me that came out of the blue (e.g., “he did not like his topic”, “he had trouble with his advisors”, “he just wrote this to vent his personal frustrations”, “he was failing his PhD and therefore quit, pretending that he did it in protest of the system”). I take issue with those people who make such statements with amazing certainty, as if they knew me personally and knew exactly what I was thinking. Please don’t jump to such conclusions without more information. You’re only obfuscating the discussion.

    General Comment E: On Everything in the Letter Being True or Not

    This one is a can of worms. I knew when I wrote this letter that not all of its problems would be relevant to every branch of academia, but I felt that the points I limited myself to would be general enough to reach a lot of people and, judging by the replies, I wasn’t wrong. Is this letter “truth”? No. Are the reactions to it a sign of truth? Most certainly.
    To be fair to myself, I never stated that “this is how it is”. The title was not “8 Facts Academia Doesn’t Want You to Know”. I used words like “probably”, “seems”, and “appears” sufficiently many times to ensure that I was not proclaiming facts but observations. The goal of the letter was to provoke discussion and to spark thinking – it was not intended to be a report (to those who pick fault with it for lacking citations, foolproof arguments, and whatnot).

    General Comment F: On Rejecting the Letter Point-by-Point

    I’m sorry, but if you go through all of my 8 observations and only provide counter examples/arguments without giving real concessions, then the only thing you’re proving is how passionate you are about defending the system being criticized. Another quote I like (by Aristotle this time): “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”. To go point-by-point and reject everything reads like an in-denial or defensive mind to me.

    All right. I think that that’s it for my general remarks. Now, for the individual replies in chronological order (though many of you may not come back to check this, but oh well):

    @Jan de Ruiter: Thank you. Although, see General Comment A, as I’m not leaving academia.
    @Bill Skaggs: I didn’t know we had met. See General Comment D.
    @carl: I find myself largely agreeing with you.
    @Glenn: Other people have responded to you already and I mostly agree with them. But see General Comments B, C, D, F.
    @Andy: As said in an earlier comment, I am in optimization.
    @Terry A. Davis: I wouldn’t put it so simply, but I agree wholeheartedly with “so much wasted potential”.
    @Sandy: In complete agreement.
    @Jacob: Mostly in agreement. More labor laws would likely be a good thing.
    @Michael Toomim: You are more extreme than me! Good luck to the both of us, I guess.
    @Plain Average Mind: Flip over the table?
    @Martin: Might be a lost cause.
    @Alfred Charles: Regarding MOOCs, I’m not sure if they will really do us a favor or simply make things worse. Sometimes efficiency comes at a very high price, but this is a different (and long) discussion.
    @Wakjob: No comment.
    @Chad: In your case, I would imagine an even stronger moral/ethical conflict. In my field, a lot of applications are still relatively abstract and so it’s easy to dissociate yourself from them. But in medicine…
    @Pau Fernández: You’re welcome.
    @mkb: In agreement.
    @Rob: Well, we met and discussed in person, so I’ve no more to add here 🙂
    @ResearchNewbie: The arguments were not intended to be new, and I would disagree with you regarding how detrimental the problems are, particularly because of the derivative (i.e., they’re only getting worse). Was it better before? Well, read some papers from 1960 and compare them to what is published now. Academia wasn’t so saturated many decades ago, and there was less pressure to output things. You can tell the difference. For your other comments, see General Comment B.
    @NameName: Mostly in agreement.
    @Adria: The only problem with any position that is intended to allow a researcher complete freedom is that researchers who want that freedom to do nothing (instead of trying to actually pursue hard research) will target them as well, and it may be hard to tell the difference, or to even evaluate them.
    @Raphael: General Comment D.
    @Selina: I’m very sorry if this has been your experience.
    @Boudah Talenka: Merci mille fois pour la traduction, mais il manque une ou deux choses 🙂
    @Lee Smolin: General Comment A.
    @Anon: Not much I feel like adding here.
    @Bojana: I’m glad you liked the letter.
    @Jay: No comment.
    @Luca Benazzi: No comment, as this was intended for Lee.
    @Kyle Gustafson: I don’t accept any argument that points a finger at another group and says “look, it’s even worse there, so why are we complaining?”, as any such argument is unbounded – i.e., you can loop it to justify just about anything. Also, the letter was not anonymous – Pascal simply took my name off for the reasons he stated in the preamble. Otherwise, see General Comment B.
    @Masha: General Comment A.
    @Anon: Not sure if I agree with you. Certain parts of academia should inevitably be treated as a business, because it is the most efficient way and makes sense. However, adopting certain business-esque tactics or mentalities that go counter to honest research is where I think science starts going corrupt.
    @Dave Fernig: General Comment D. Regarding the times changing… well, I hope you’re right.
    @Chris Habeck: I agree that the problems are very complex. However, regarding your specific points… (1) I do not believe that saying that government funds can/are used in more destructive ways than academic research is comforting or justifies anything; (2) yes, education is good, but isn’t this more related to teaching rather than research?; (3) are these advances sufficiently large to justify the costs?; (4) is this stimulation of the economy at large really substantial?
    @Ashutosh GUPTA: I’m sorry that you found my analysis weak. I’ll refer you to General Comment E, and remind you that this letter was an e-mail and not a serious publication. It was intended to spark discussion. See also General Comment A.
    @Anon: I don’t disagree with you, but I wouldn’t be that extreme. Staying inside the system is a valid approach – it just shouldn’t be viewed as the only valid approach.
    @Filip Vercruysse: Very good words.
    @Stephen J. Crothers: I am not Pascal, and Pascal is not me (as he made clear in the beginning of the post). I would actually not be as negative as you are towards academia, but I do like your final paragraph.
    @There is no spoon…: I don’t agree with your first two suggestions, as simply sacking people seems a bit authoritarian and is unlikely to be effective in the long term. For the third point, I don’t like the idea of reducing the number of students taught (as this limits education). I do agree with the fourth and fifth points, though.
    @Helena: Oddly enough, I think that I would still recommend people to do a PhD, because it’s a great opportunity to learn and to see the good sides of the academic world that you wouldn’t see otherwise.
    @NameName: I find your points quite valid. From the economic regulation point of view, people in academia do put up with some pretty ridiculous stuff.
    @ex-grad: For you, sir, I can only give General Comments A and B. Pessimize much?
    @Le Dude: General Comment D.
    @Life isn’t fair: Our e-mail exchanges were a bit better than the anonymous a-hole comment you posted here. For this comment in particular, I can only point you to General Comments B, D, and F (the latter in reply to your blog post).
    @Juliette: I think we’ve corresponded sufficiently that I don’t need to post a reply here 🙂
    @Grant: I agree with you.
    @Michael: General Comments B and D.
    @UChicago grad: No disagreements here.
    @Big Fan: I like your marathon analogy. Thank you, as well, for being one of the few posters who clearly understood me and my ideals.
    @H. C.: It wouldn’t surprise me if you simply weren’t allowed to quit your PhD in the Netherlands without returning all of the salary that you were paid over the 4-5 years spent working for it. At least, this seems to be the case in many places (not at EPFL, thankfully).
    @Pera Detlic: Great comment. This really touches on a pet peeve of mine – putting names on the paper of people who do almost nothing for the paper.
    @K. B.: I guess I’m glad that I didn’t go to study in the Netherlands…
    @Le Dude: Very good post. I certainly was not aiming for any such complex analysis with my letter, and you’ve added a lot good food for thought.
    @PhdCandidate1: I wasn’t going for full rigor with my letter (General Comment E), and like to think that I’m allowed to put forth my own hypothesis on why people behave a certain way. As the vast majority of our adult behaviors seem to be rooted in our childhood experiences, regardless how much we fight to overcome or evolve out of them, I believe that there is some truth to my theory. Of course, what you say also makes sense (though I don’t find your first point as convincing as the second).
    @Shankha: Glad I was able to be of service.
    @Sascha: I read a part of this and it really is quite similar in a number of places (although he’s in astrophysics, which is quite removed from what I do).
    @BBQ: Thank you very much for this extremely insightful post. I only make reference to General Comment A.
    @Stephen J. Crothers: Without knowing either you or the other guy, I ultimately cannot judge whom to believe, but your point is a good one – it’s difficult to avoid hypocrisy when you yourself are challenged directly.
    @Empathetic PhD: In general agreement.
    @ronald: Thank you for the link.
    @-: I don’t know if there is anyone “blaming it on academia”. On the whole, I find your post very political and even a bit extreme, though I agree with parts of it.
    @barbecue: Thank you for the comment. Unfortunately, it sounds like many professors who recognize these problems hope that the young generation will fix them, and so I like your comment for at least extending that burden to the more capable and older generation.
    @Researcher: I’m glad that you had a good experience. See, however, General Comment D.
    @villarejo: Check the Facebook group if you haven’t already.
    @Daniel: Yes.
    @Ewan Cameron: Yes, judging by the different reactions, they appear quite widespread. To the best of my knowledge, mathematics seems to be the only field I’ve encountered that’s relatively removed from many of these issues, though certainly not completely and maybe not for long.
    @Andreea: General Comment A.
    @Michael: First, I don’t remember drawing any major conclusions. Second, I don’t agree with you on this point. I think that a PhD student who actively works on a given topic for two years while an advisor only manages it is capable of understanding which problems are important, which are possible to solve, and so forth. As Sandy pointed out earlier and as I can also confirm partially, there are PIs/advisors who aren’t even aware of the literature in their fields, from which I cannot see how they would be qualified to guide the field’s development. Also, I don’t find it proper to use words like “wrong” and “correct” in an open-ended discussion like this one.
    @Cytopolis: Thank you for the references.
    @Sociologist: General Comments B and D.
    @beyond science: I guess this was answered in a later comment by vpynchon.
    @BBQ: Nothing to add here.
    @VsonicV: 🙂
    @Sun Kwok: Pretty much, yes.
    @Fernando: Academia compared to what is expected of academia. I also don’t see why the letter is obligated to be objective. In any case, see General Comments B and E.
    @m1234: Regarding EPFL, I think that this depends. Not every lab expects you to publish from the start (ours certainly doesn’t – at least, not yet). But I have heard horror stories about other labs. I want to also add that life choices are not limited to only academia and industry, and leaving one does not imply entering the other, or vice versa.
    @H: …?
    @Sridhar: Thanks for the link.
    @Kish: I’m glad you agree.
    @Dende: Good post. Sorry you found the letter hard to read. See also General Comments A and D.
    @Erik P: In many ways, yes.
    @Bubblewrap: There’s a lot in your analysis that I would agree with.
    @Vighnesh NV: Unfortunately, my current plans do not involve India, but maybe some day. I’m glad you liked the letter.
    @Philippa: It’s true that the “immigrant labor” in the PhD community is also contributing to the problems, since it is easier to abuse PhD students who need to get through their PhD study for financial reasons. I guess this is the brain drain’s influence with respect to the PhD context.
    @Shahrzad: Yes, a few people have made the analogy to the “Emperor’s New Clothes”.
    @amIhappy: Thank you for your post. I agree that spending 3-5 years doubting your choices is no way to live.
    @slehar: As an aside, your comment slightly reminds me of what writer Mikhail Veller said once about writers and the government, in that the only time writers should be grateful to the government is when the government leaves them alone and doesn’t force them into its messes. Otherwise, yes, of course there is a bright side in this all for an academic, and yes there are certain freedoms that others in other professions do not have and which we shouldn’t take for granted. Still, I find that reasoning to be too self-oriented – the complaint is not that it is impossible for a given scientist to make a good living these days and to enjoy his/her work, but that the science that is being done is not contributing to society in the way that we would like it to contribute.
    @vpynchon: Thank you for this very insightful post. We’ve already discussed it somewhat in private, and so I won’t post more here.
    @Sam: Friendship accepted.
    @RJ: Unfortunately, your complaints sound all too familiar.
    @arun: Thank you for the recommendation.
    @prometheus: Not all work needs to be groundbreaking. My criticism was largely that pursuing groundbreaking work does not appear to be very much encouraged in today’s system.
    @Tami: Yes, that makes sense. However, General Comment D.
    @alex: Completely in agreement with your comment regarding industry.
    @mokhliss: Yes.
    @Tamaghna: What you say is extremely reasonable and I agree with pretty much all of it. At the same time, I feel like this is one of those golden generalizations, in that we could say that EVERY major problem that humanity encounters is essentially a supply-and-demand problem.
    @D: Can’t really disagree.
    @tommaso tufarelli: Glad you liked it.
    @Alan Wright: Indeed, I suppose that the letter has touched on all of those things, as well.
    @Peter Murray-Rust: I agree about the potential of the digital era, but I would say that academia is now starting to exploit it in full force (via things like MOOCs). For better or for worse, we’ll see.
    @SI: I don’t like answering loaded questions nearly as much as you like asking them. You seem, however, to be heavily insinuating that I somehow wasted public money, which is not true. I was paid to do a job, which I believe I did very well. Every worthwhile result that I obtained during my PhD I’ve either already published or am publishing or will publish (even when EPFL no longer pays me $4k/month to sit at my desk and do it). All of it is applicable and all is open-access. I’ve also released open-source software, purely on my own initiative, because I wanted to provide useful tools to the public and not just academic papers. And, as you know, theses in our lab/school are generally copy-and-paste jobs consisting of articles that we’ve already written or will write, and so I don’t see what benefit there would be in my accepting another 6 months of public funding to produce a redundant document in exchange for a piece of paper that won’t really help me or others. On the contrary, *that* would seem like a waste of public funding. See General Comment A, as well.
    @Paul: General Comments C, D, and E. Also: the point of the letter is not to stop people from pursuing a PhD.
    @Christian Schmemann: There’s a lot in your post that I recognize and agree with, but your conclusion left me speechless.
    @Iftikhar qayum: General Comments A, B, D, and E.
    @DiffeoMorph: Hmm, interesting rebuttal. General Comments A and B. And no, my answer to the problem is not to quit – I’m sorry that you interpreted it this way.
    @DrJohnGalan: I think it would be good to know who this man and his colleague were, and what the theory was.
    @alessandra: Thanks for the article.
    @isomorphismes: General Comments B and D.
    @w.w.wygart: Thank you for the press summary :-), as well for the entry in your own blog (though I’m not sure about how I feel with regard to my letter being compared to a suicide note). I find myself very much in agreement with your analysis – “institution” and “originality” will, in many cases, be mutually exclusive.
    @AstroDoobie: Let’s hope that the number of these passionate, hard-working people is on the rise, and that they are working on the right things.
    @EJ: Thank you for the reference.
    @Lloyd: Thank you for the reference.
    @Mike Haseler: See General Comment A as it touches on the circumstances. However, while the problems described in the letter appear standard, the personal circumstances (if this is what you mean) are probably not in this particular case. No clue as to how you would cite the letter as it is not an official document that I ever really released… Probably just citing Pascal’s blog is the way to go.
    @Piezen: What is to be done…? Excellent post, most of which I found quite insightful.
    @Mark: Your arguments are very pragmatic, but please see General Comment A. In any case, I’m well past the point of no return at this point, and call me stubborn, but I don’t regret any of it, and, knowing what I know, seriously doubt that I will.
    @Marco: There is also a Google Group called “justscience” that keeps the debates and cuts out the social aspect of Facebook (though it’s not as popular). However, in many ways Facebook isn’t that bad – certainly with respect to raising awareness. To be clear though, my intention was never to stay on Facebook and I tried several times to propose alternatives, such as creating a dedicated website. There wasn’t a sufficiently overwhelming approval/excitement and so it was never done. But hey, who knows what’ll happen in the future. I agree that it would be nicer for people with power in academia to join the discussion as well, although a few have, I think.
    @alexandre: General Comment A. If criticizing is so easy, then I expect you to go and criticize your superiors the next time they do something you don’t like – openly and free from anonymity.
    @Lucas: BS in two years…? Crazy.
    @Joel: I understand.
    @Dom: Yes, academia does seem to be experiencing a bubble.
    @Nick: Next time that I prepare to write an internal resignation letter, I will ask myself if I should not send it to Nature instead.
    @Prince: Thank you for the kudos.
    @hlm: Thank you, again, for the reading list.
    @Matt: In this case, it is *not* academia in Switzerland. Academia in Switzerland is still relatively good in many aspects when compared to many places (i.e., the States). Although it is changing…
    @Still Stunned: Your observations are disturbingly familiar. Like I said in my letter, I know that there are “good people” in the system (there always will be), and I wish them the best of luck. See General Comment A.
    @agfosterjr: As I have already told you before, EPFL has very much turned into an English-speaking school already, with the position of French secondary as the “social language”. In writing a letter to such an institution, where almost everyone understands English but not everyone understands French, it makes sense to write in English if you want the message to be accessible to everyone.
    @Pshaffer: In full agreement with you. Milking a large project for papers for years to come is something that sounds hauntingly familiar as well.
    @agfosterjr: PJ does not admit authorship (quite the contrary). Please read the preamble to the letter at the very top of the page.
    @David Bailey: In agreement with your observations.
    @JR: General Comments A and D.
    @Piezen: Not much to add here.
    @Lisa: I’m glad you liked the letter.
    @Jack: Nothing to add.
    @Strephon: General Comments A, B, C, and D.
    @TJ Marin: General Comment A. Yes, the GSD metric needs a good refresher.
    @Kay: General Comments A and C.
    @Gene: Thank you for your comments, although for your third point, no, I had quite a lot of freedom during my PhD – no projects were “dumped” on me and there was never a “push came to shove” moment.
    @rosst: General Comment B.
    @Sebastien: I think you would benefit from reading all of my general comments.
    @Fr.: Yes, absolutely.
    @Kavi: Yes, I guess the fact that it went viral does say something. However, viral alone is unfortunately not sufficient, as people in academia who would deny the contents of this letter could easily use the “ten thousand flies can’t be wrong” argument. Without the public at large capable of evaluating academic research and its quality, we have a sort of elitist system in place, which I guess goes back to Sagan’s quote: “We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology.” If the public wanted to defund science despite not understanding it, it would most likely lead to total disaster (a largely imperfect academia would still be better). From that point of view, I can understand why certain people in academia would have negative reactions to this letter, although it still doesn’t justify simply nay-saying all of it.
    @impressed: I doubt that it will start a movement. If it gets some people thinking, then that already will make it a success 🙂
    @Mark Hunter: I will leave this to you and Terry.
    @Casper: I agree that it seems odd to be “offended” by this letter. Unless, of course, it hits really close to home… in a bad way.
    @Chris Reeve: We probably are going in circles, but with any luck, the circles are getting smaller and smaller and converging to a point. Thanks for the reference.
    @Piezen: Love the Colbert reference!
    @Gary Deering: This comment almost reads like spam.
    @Krishnan: I’ve been fortunate to not have had the luck of attending any faculty meetings 🙂
    @Ed: General Comment B.
    @Dreamer: Good luck.
    @wrong timing: General Comment A.
    @Abdul Basit Ahmad: While I would expect people well entrenched in academia (i.e., the professors) to defend it and for those who aren’t (i.e, the students) to be more open to its criticism, I feel like your conclusion was made before reading this letter or its comments. A number of professors have agreed with the things in the letter, while some students have criticized it. So, I would not say that the divide is so clear, and am not sure what justifies your conclusion.
    @Mohamamd H. Ansari: Thank you for your interesting use of the “second law of thermodynamics”.
    @Dan Singleton: Thank you for sharing your experience.
    @nickchop: General Comment A.
    @Former academic: Thank you for adding your perspective.
    @i had one of those: A bit over the top, but thank you for your post.
    @Olivier: I’m not sure if I understood your comment.
    @JongAm Park: Thank you.
    @Will MOON: Thank you.
    @Gary McDowell: Despite all of the negativity of the letter, I am an optimist as well. Yes, the thing does seem to be international.
    @Kim: You’re welcome.
    @Lee: Thank you for commenting!
    @Blasio: The ways may be obvious, but what’s not obvious is how to get people to actually do these things.
    @Egg Head: I don’t have much to add, but you bring up some interesting points. Thanks.
    @colonel: But is that the impression given to most people?
    @rosa: Good luck with your blog.
    @Jaded: I agree with you. Good luck with your break and hopefully you’ll make the decision that works out for you.
    @Richard Ransom: A million thanks for this comment.
    @Remi: I didn’t blame the entire field. If I blamed anyone, it’s that weak part of human nature in all of us that creates and then accepts these problems, which is something that we’ll have to overcome if we want these problems to be solved. Regarding your other points, peer review is definitely a major problem, and one that is being discussed a good deal in many circles. Regarding tenure, I wouldn’t say “let’s get rid of tenure, period”, although I think that there is more harm than good in the current tenure model.
    @gotphdin2004thenquit: I think we’ve corresponded already, so I won’t add more here.
    @Jeni: Nope.
    @mirka: General Comment A.
    @Phil Goetz: Thank you for adding your list to my list, even if they don’t always intersect.
    @Unconventional: Feel free to join the Facebook group and propose these there if you want more feedback.
    @Paul Gregory: I agree with much of what you say, but how does one objectively judge “character”? See also General Comment A.
    @ScienceAndSkepticism: Truth is viral, perhaps. Otherwise, see General Comments B and D. I’m sorry for writing something so trivially obvious.
    @FWC: Thanks for the reference.
    @Maitland: Thank you for your very lucid analysis. I must say that I agree with almost all of it.
    @yuan: Thank you.
    @Bo Thidé: Pretty accurate description, I fear 🙂
    @Eric: General Comments A, B, and D.
    @Solution: Don’t even get me started on the problems in engineering academia… That’s where I’m from, you know.
    @fish: I agree with your 2 cents.
    @D: Thankfully, it doesn’t look like you’re the kind of person I’d ever go to work for. General Comments A and B.
    @AK: Thank you for your refreshing post. It does sound like I may have written a love letter, huh?
    @norkuat: ?

    Phew! That really took a long time, but I think that’s everyone who’s posted so far. A big thanks to everyone – I really learned quite a lot from all of your comments!

  193. @FeuDRenais:
    Thank you for sharing your experience with us and I (a 4th-year PhD student) whole-heartedly agree with almost every single line that you wrote, except one point: towards the end of the letter you suggested that the academia is not truly needed by society since most of the research won’t produce results that will eventually benefit society at large or even be comprehensible to the general public. While I agree that this is indeed a real problem (along with all the other problems you discussed in the letter), it doesn’t necessarily forfeit the fact that we need the academia (which has existed since ancient times) in order for significant progress to be possible in the human society. It is true that the number of “true academics”- those who care about scientific truths in a curiosity-based, non-profit-driven way – is lower than it should be in today’s Western academia. However, where else would you expect to find them? Granted that research can exist in the industries as well, but there are things that just can’t possibly be done in with commercial funding. For instance, what kind of commercial company would be stupid enough to build something as “useless” as the Large Hardron Collider? If we got rid of the academia whole-sale just because it has problems, the long-term development of our society would be seriously crippled since any intellectual pursuit not associated with short-term profits/benefits could not receive sufficient support.

    The fact is that despite the perceived “crisis” in today’s academia, conscientious researchers with more scientific integrity than ego do still exist. However, I find it alarming that many such people (e.g. you) are quitting the academia out of sheer frustration that they are being out-competed by their less conscientious peers. Your personal decision to quit the academia is absolutely understandable, since I myself at one point considered that route as well. However, I have come to realize that there is much more at stake here. If good people all abandon ship, leaving the “wicked” behind, wouldn’t the ship sink even faster? If, god forbid, the academic community should one day become completely corrupt, then I truly fear for the future prospect of human civilization. Therefore I have decided to stay in the academic world for as long as possible and effect as much change as I am able to from inside the system. Such efforts might eventually turn out to be futile, but someone has to be the last line of defense in some way.

  194. Currently studying for my maters as a mid career practitioner. Can honestly say I’m only doing it because most companies / organisations worldwide in my field ask for this at this point. The academic side is an absolute joke. The library is full of phd thesis and master dissertations that no one has looked at since they were written. Today, I was told that there is an academic term called ‘ethnography’ which I must use to describe what I do everyday as part of my work yet no one in my workplace has ever heard of this. Thankfully, my main tutors are industry experienced people who still work but lecture part time. The full time staff are mostly ‘Eternal’ Students’ who are 30+ and haven’t moved on from uni years.

  195. An aspiring scientist’s frustration – is quite a universal phenomenon and unfortunately so is the day’s decline in scientific rigor in acdemics. But why a ‘Resignation’ — unless on the count of the thesis work is inconsequential.

    Your intellectual honesty on your professional predicament speaks for your acute ‘scientific temper’. Keep it up with
    due interest in your presently pursued subject as well as all others around – science-humanities and arts… You are sure to develop a very sharp and fast grasping power .. and then you can even get intuitive enough – enough to do away or get independent of the – unwilling or insufficiently sincere academic resources around.

    I – now in my seventh decade – having unable to work through my Ph D status in Sociology– later managed to
    keep my ‘professional interet’ through self-study and self-paid research works out in the field. and with my adherence to the empirical facts and to the sequential and consequential truths behind and before them – have managed to acquire enough social-scientific confirmed knowledge – thereby maturing into a social-anthropologist !!
    Withe due participation in the academic conferences and public talks. And – the doctored professionals therein insist on referring to me as Dr Veda – as they feel that theirs is less deservedly earned !!

    SO KEEP UP THE SPIRIT —– Ignore Instinct and Institutions and Tag on to Your Intuition – That is the real ‘Sailing Ship’ . GOOD LUCK TOO !!!!!

  196. Finish the PhD, I had such strong deja vu reading the email, and I know it is all true. The foolishness of putting the smartest brains into such destructive competition is a dumb waste of human resources. But you can finish and the drive a taxi if you want. One day you will be glad that in spite of it all you didn’t quit.

  197. Someone already said the author didn’t compare Academia to something else, just disdained the state of affairs surrounding this life.

    Although I fully empathize with the author, it must be pointed out that corporate research and development is quite similar. It’s hard to stand out and shine with one single brilliant and seismic idea, regardless of your field of activity. It’s how humans interact, how general opinion and behavior is built.

    Prof. Lee Smolin offered a rather romantic view: change the system from within. Quitting and expressing your disgust is something I also intend doing, but I am fully aware it’s a matter of personal choice. Sadly, nobody worth the beating will be bitchslapped in this way..

  198. The text has lots of truth in it, expressed cristal clear… but here it goes another gem; if critical, enthusiastic people with love for science, like the author, see the situation in the academia and decide that is better to run away, how would it ever change? how would it get healthy? you are deploying the good material and leaving the bad one behind. Since you already knew how was industry is, then it’s ok to go there… ? One has to flight for what one loves… If you love science fight to change the academy

  199. The EXACT same things can be said about the humanities. How sad, what dysfunction. Aaaaaanndd….I’m outta here! Three articles in top journals, book under consideration and stellar student evals….earning 12,000 this past year. No more, baby, no more.

  200. BINGO @Silvia!

    I was waiting for someone else besides me to say that. I had received a very generous federal scholarship/stipend (~$19k per year) to complete my degree. As far as I know, unless you are a genius, that’s a pretty good stipend.

    Since I left the phd program (last fall) I got a job at a non-profit making $60k with a ton of benefits. and, i’m helping the neediest in society, using and improving my research, supervisory, and technical skills, my co-workers respect and listen to every single suggestion I make, and I only have to work 40 hours a week.

    Why on earth continue to work for minimum wage and be treated like dirt in the hopes of “improving the system from the inside”? Come on now let’s be real … work for 12 hours a day every day (when you include travel and prepping for conferences, publication deadlines, student emails, grading assignments, seeking funding, fulfilling university requirements, sitting in on committee mtgs, etc.) when you can achieve your moral, scholarly, and financial goals without all the egos and the headaches?

  201. Refreshingly in touch with reality, thank you for sharing what so many of us have encountered in the ivory towers of the academic world. A change is necessary, if not urgent.

  202. @FeuDRenais

    I wouldn’t be commenting right now, unless I felt the same way as you stated in your email. Even though you state experiences at EPFL mostly, it sounds eerily similar to the systems in place in at least 3 different institutions I have worked as a researcher. It is easy to agree with you completely on all points.

    Having been in academics for almost 5 years now (first as a master’s student for 2 yrs and then as a researcher-non degree at a University for nearly 3 years presently), I have come to conclude independently almost everything you stated; which I think, is quite interesting. Currently I am a research employee at a University (non degree seeker) and therefore I am not committed to anyone. However, my boss (Professor at the University) wants to enslave me and make me a PhD student. But, I have spent enough time in academia to realize everything what you wrote and that has kept me vacillating decidedly on a PhD.

    My intention was autonomy and intellectual pursuit, however, I don’t think the current academic system supports such endeavors. I am tired of this so-called publish or perish culture, even though this year alone I have already published 3 articles in so called top tier journals. This was done mostly due to my supervisor pressuring me, but , personally I think it was a complete waste of my time. My supervisor, on the other hand is extremely pleased with my work, as he gets to sign off his name on the papers, and that is all that matters to him. Most often the work done is wasteful incremental work, and in my case I thought it wasn’t worth more than a regular assignment, albeit more tedious and mathematically involved. Another thing that you stated, which resonates with me is this whole cheer leading attitude of the professors. I have worked with several groups and the PI’s are merely interested in making the graduate students and post-docs under him write proposals for grants. In some cases, they have even never read the proposal themselves. They just use their subordinates to accumulate grants and completely pointless papers, with no genuine interest in actual science themselves. What I completely abhor is their hypocritical outlook and pretentious attitude.

    Anyways, I have decided to do something useful with my life, although I still need to figure out how I can also pursue my interests in mathematics and computing simultaneously. I want to thank you for the post that exposes the reality of the present day academia and it saves me a blog that I intended to write myself.

  203. A very objectionable comment : Why the author felt dwarf in such circumstances?

  204. Very great summary. I am a second year master student in science, when I first start to research, I love it so much. But after a year’s experience in this field, I am disappointed with the way how it works and disappointed with what most researchers are doing. I decided not to go to a PhD program.

  205. You’re deserved to PhD because you finally get to know the real academic life.
    I certainly know enormous creative persons exist in real life than in academia in ratio.
    PhD is necessary only for being to a professor. Otherwise, it is worthless indeed.

  206. Exactly. Well, I anticipate being the recipient of many honorary degrees once I publish what’s sure to be a Pulitzer-prize winning book about my phd experience, entitled “Demoted to Idiot”


  207. Finished my PhD and financially bankrupt! Thanks goes to Starbucks of allowing me to set for hours using their WIFI and space.
    Finally, someone put the facts forwards.
    Welcome to the Phd-slavery life! It is an universal phenomenon of todays’s academics.

  208. Ways to fix problems with PhD

    1) There should not be any adviser. They are the main crap in the whole system. If a PhD student wants to defend his/her work in front of a group of experts, it should be the student’s choice.

    2) Instead of one PhD adviser, there can be a group of advisers who will guide the PhD student with equal responsibility.

    3) Universities should provide additional financial benefits to the professors based on the feedback given by graduated PhD students.

    Key point: Tenure track professors are pure evil. They should be kicked out from the system.

  209. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the system. I think all that’s wrong is students’ expectations going into it. Kids imagine that a PhD program is like a Greek Aristotle / Socrates thing, just by virtue of admission to the program. It’s not. Aristotle and Socrates were two people that have existed in time. There are hundreds of thousands of grad students each year. “Free thought” science scales out to a couple people, not to millions.

    It’s the same way with other things. Watch “The Wire”. Everyone in the police force “knows” they should be going after the crime kingpins, not just doing street busts. In an ideal world, that’s absolutely how it should be done. But it simply doesn’t scale that way, and ends up causing more trouble than it helps. So it’s not that the academic system is “flawed”, it’s that the whole concept can’t scale out to the level desired of it.

    I’ve got a kid now and my feeling going into it is, if she can get into a top-3 grad school and/or work with a very respectable advisor, then *maybe* it’s worth it, but to go even a #4 or #5 school (unless to work with a great advisor) then I’ll advise against it.

  210. The author of the text is likely to discover that the same holds true in most of the professional labour market.

  211. As a PhD student I feel that the post was truthful and with a strong basis, but I do feel it’s a little bit naive. Now, my particular issue with this post is that he/she missed the most important point about what completing a PhD is all about. That is, completing a PhD is not about the dissertation topic. “It is mainly about learning the research process.” Sure you want to pick a topic that you like enough to stick with it for as long as it takes. And yes, your PhD adviser will definitely try to direct you to an area they know, as otherwise it’d be more work for them. Actually, picking a good dissertation adviser is even more important than picking the topic itself. Thus, if you picked a bad adviser, you’ll be swimming against the current unnecessarily for a long time. And by a bad adviser, I don’t mean a bad individual. I know professors that are great to get along with, but will not be of much help throughout the dissertation process, which is something to keep in mind. Again, the key point in all this is that completing a PhD is about learning how to do thorough academic research and not about doing major groundbreaking work. Sure, there has to be originality in the work and you need to make at least a small ding in terms of groundbreaking, etc, etc, but at the end of all it’s really about learning the process. In terms of funding, etc, yep that’s the way it works. The deal here is competition. A lot of the funding comes from government (aka tax payers) and no politician (or appointees) want to be caught giving money to institutions that are not producing. And you can be sure that the other institutions that are competing for those same funds are going to be complaining if that money goes to organizations/institutions that don’t have anything to show for. So yes, that’s the way it rolls!

  212. Thank you for your bravery.
    The world has been deceived in a big way by the Academic-Big Science complex. Witness the circus around the Higgs particle ‘discovery’. Nobody could describe what it was that they discovered, how it changed anything or enabled any new capability, yet billions in tax dollars had been spent.

    In the computer field we have the same issue, which is why the only people that have done anything great in this field have quit long before they got their PhD.

    Not to worry though, we are on the verge of a new era where people of all walks of life will be able to make their own discoveries for a very low cost, and contribute them back to the world, without any intermediary.

    Cheers from a fellow dropout that never looked back.

  213. Thanks for having written and posting this! Having quit my phd (applied EM) not too long ago, I find this to be quite honest and very comforting to read. It can be difficult to meet people in real life who have faced the same and aren’t deluded. I’ve come to a conclusion that scientific research these days, for the most part, is best done as a serious hobby with like-minded people. I remember, after quitting, a senior faculty member told me, my problem was that I was too honest!

  214. @ Bill Skaggs: Criticizing someone’s character doesn’t invalidate their experiences. Please tell me you’re not making the absurd argument that “ is simply part of becoming a Ph.D.!” line…

    The concerns above are mirrored in my experience as well. I left a graduate program after having publishable work stolen outright (though I pulled the article). There is nothing “wrong” with people who decide not to tolerate theft, abuse, sexual harassment, or favoritism in an academic program, though there are always people making arguments similar to Bill’s.

    Fortunately for me, I have marketable skills and interests in other areas, but many people who resign these programs don’t have those luxuries. They then become the subject matter of the departmental scary story: “Student X left our program and now she’s a clerk, so you can’t leave”!

  215. Thoughtful suggestions – I am thankful for the analysis – Does someone know if my assistant could grab a template OT Recruitment Resignation Letter form to fill in ?

  216. //At the EPFL, the dean sends us an e-mail every year saying how the school is doing in the rankings, and we are usually told that we are doing well. I always ask myself what the point of these e-mails is. //

    Nice post, I was till point 7, when this one caught my eye.
    The main work of Dean is to ensure that college’s or universities board of governors are given the results which they actually care, which is branding, profits, which in turn, would ensure that Dean is able to get more funding. It gives him right that look EPFL, or for that matter, any university stands at this position today, an improvement by 20 margins from the previous ranking, and if you can invest a bit more in this, then we would improve a lot.
    Actually, there’s another reason for ranking. With an economy which is totally stagnating, and people not willing to join universities, as it is a huge debt with absolutely no job security, because universities have to play by the corporate rule, or else, it would be a mess for them, the rankings and branding help them to create an environment in the minds of students, and parents, that if your kids join our university, they would reach on top. But yes, once again, the blame is on the students, for not ‘working hard’, for not ‘showing interest’, for being ‘lazy’, being a drunkard on campus, running behind girls etc.
    At the end of the day, academics is a business now, and no one really cares whether the actual knowledge is being imparted. These are mere ‘idealistic’ talks in the books of american capitalism, and not ‘practical’ methods of ruling the world.

  217. To the author: I quit my PhD at a Dutch university a few months ago and I find that your letter resonates strongly with me. I realize that your story is almost four years old now and that you may never read this, but I still wanted to thank you for it.

    An additional complaint that I had about my personal situation (and that others may recognize) is that the work I was doing was simply very boring. Like pretty much all PhD students, I am exceptionally intelligent and have a great capacity for abstract thinking and reasoning. I was hoping to apply these assets in my work, yet, on a daily basis, I found myself simply repeating the same experiments again and again, grinding to produce data to satisfy my supervisor’s vain ambition.

    We were not working to solve a problem, nor were we testing a hypothesis; we were just gathering data blindly, trying to independently vary as many experimental parameters as we could, with the utterly uninspired hope that we might see some pattern appear if only we could gather enough data and vary enough parameters, which meant that I had to keep on grinding. We needed to do this because data means figures. You can always conclude *something* from a figure, which means that, so long as you have data, you can write a paper, which is the goal, because so long as you can write papers, you are deemed to function well as a scientist. The absurdly extrapolated implication of this thinking is that you can subject any arbitrary sample to any arbitrary experiment and likewise obtain data and draw conclusions. What deeper insight have you obtained? What conflict in our theoretical framework have you resolved? What hypothesis have you tested? Those have sadly become irrelevant questions. I’m confident that as scientific disciplines become narrower and narrower and the communities correspondingly smaller, the practice of science will converge ever closer to this absurdity. If everyone in a field produces worthless papers, cites each other and prospers, while no-one outside the field can understand and thus criticize the contents of the work, this is what you’ll get.

    On many occasions did I ask my professor what, exactly, the scientific question was that we were trying to answer with our research. Every time, I got a vague and evasive reply. Now I realize that deception and hype-creation are essential skills of a successful “scientist” and my professor was very skilled at those aspects. I realize that there was not really a scientific question beyond “what will the graph look like if we put this on the x-axis and this on the y-axis?… and what if we put this other thing on the y-axis?” ad nauseam. I have often felt that many PhDs – and many obedient, hard-working, uncritical PhD students –
    don’t know what the “Ph” in their title stands for.

    My whole PhD experience (I slogged through two-and-a-half years of it) felt like a great waste of my mind and I felt like I was learning nothing, developing no new insights, not growing as a person or a scholar. When I finally got fed up and demanded more intellectually challenging and meaningful work, I was told I was naive and that this was simply the way things work. That was the last straw for me.

    If all academics do what I did, then academics can be replaced by robots within a few decades at most: calibrate apparatus, align optics, place sample, run experiment, save data, remove sample, rinse, repeat. I chose this profession because I wanted to be a thinker and eventually a teacher (anyone remember what the D in PhD stands for?), but in practice it was more like how I imagine work in a factory: repetitive, mind-numbing and soul-crushing. Add to that all of the systemic problems in academia mentioned by the original author and I think it’s no wonder that all I got out of it was depression and bitterness.

    One final point that isn’t addressed often enough: if the only way to have a career in academia is to become a professor and a professor “produces”, on average, X PhDs in his/her career, then *by design* only 1/X of all PhD graduates can stay in academia. No wonder jobs are scarce! Why are there no permanent positions for scientists to do research but not continually produce new PhDs? In a way, it’s like the American dream: *anyone* can make it, but not *everyone* can make it, so there are a lot of losers *by design*, but to each loser individually you can say that he/she is to blame for his/her own misfortune. It’s a sick system.

    I didn’t mean to write this rant, but I’m glad I did. Thanks again to the original author and also to the many people writing supportive comments here. I feel for those who cannot realistically leave academia anymore because they are in their mid-thirties and still struggling in the post-doc racket. I guess I’m lucky for getting out in time.

  218. I realized all of these academic problems after spending almost 2 years as a Ph.D scholar. As soon as I realized it, I left the academia and decided to do some meaningful work.

  219. Well, this is nothing new for me. I recently got my PhD, and I also decided to leave academia. I think the system is stagnated; proffessors who don’t publish anything new, and don’t leave room for new talent. In my case, my PI wanted to prove something really useless with no solid background, just becasue in his head this was some kind of breaktrough that would help him get into a top journal. He just wanted to get an ego boost, and he has persued this for almost a decade with only one article published, not even in a good journal. I really wonder how he manages to get funds to continue doing nothing.

    Everything the author describes must be a wake up call. Or maybe it is just how it must be: the end of academia, so something new can emerge. Just like everything else.

  220. To be honest I find this a bit disappointing. The post is already 4 years old and there are still many people who feel identified by it. How do you guys manage to cope?

    I am considering doing a PhD myself and I need to carefully evaluate what I am getting into, because it would require me to live abroad for a minimum of three years. During that time, I will probably not be able to save enough and at this point in my life (30 y.o.) I am not in the position to continue depending on my parents financially. Besides, I have read in other places that getting a job as a professor is next to impossible unless you are a Postdoc which should take about 2 years after a PhD. I mean, is the situation that bad?

    I have worked in the IT industry for nearly 10 years now. I have a steady income and yes, during my experience I have had my share of miserable experiences, too. But if something bad happens, I can always look for another job and move on. I don’t think that is a possibility when you are doing a PhD.

    At the moment I am considering two options. Whether I should go back to college for a PhD or if I should start up my own business. I need to carefully gauge each one’s pros and cons before I make any decision. Everything seems to point in the direction of a startup, but something deep inside tells me I should still do a PhD. Many of my friends tell me I should consider the latter, too. However, I can see there are big cons involved. What do you think? Is it really that worthwhile? For example, if you want to work on machine learning and AI, is it really that necessary to hold a PhD? Your comments are appreciated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *