The Scientists’ New Clothes.

The argument of this book in a single paragraph

Briefly, the argument of this book is that real science is dead, and the main reason is that professional researchers are not even trying to seek the truth and speak the truth; and the reason for this is that professional ‘scientists’ no longer believe in the truth ….….


The Germans were shocked to learn that an “Armistice” meant a surrender, which is how their government regarded it. They felt betrayed. Meanwhile the British interpreted it as a victory. The machine gun, representing high technology, was blamed for the massive number of deaths, and funding for science was under threat. To safeguard the continuing supply of money to science, a more “user friendly”, softer science was invented, less brittle than true science. This led to the unscientific concept of wave-particle duality and the Uncertainty Principle – that what an observer thinks he sees is central to science. The brightest young students were alienated by these unscientific concepts, and switched to careers in law or accountancy, leaving science with the more gullible “scientists”, and those attracted by the increasing funding and status coming to “scientists”, rather than those attracted by true science.

I believe this apparent "victory" exacerbated the belief that Germany was betrayed by civilians at home (ie: the Dolchstoßlegende

). The armistice wasn't officially a surrender, but apparently the terms were not very good for a country that wasn't really defeated.






·         HOME

·         IN A NUTSHELL


·         TEACHING


·         CONTACT



·         HOME

·         IN A NUTSHELL


·         TEACHING


·         CONTACT


09/09/2013PASCAL  246 COMMENTS is a mind-blowing text that was sent to all EPFLresearchers (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 first hand 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 is 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 labelled 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 labour 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





Post navigation




1.       REPLY



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.      REPLY



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.      REPLY



@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.

o    REPLY



I totally agree with your comment, @Carl. Nothing to add.

o    REPLY



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.      REPLY



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.       REPLY



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.      REPLY



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.       REPLY



@ 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.      REPLY



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.      REPLY



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.   REPLY



@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.    REPLY



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.   REPLY



In response to “Glenn”:

Keep living in the matrix, agent Smith.

13.   REPLY



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.

14.   REPLY



Bring in more conmen Indians. That will fix it.

o    REPLY



@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.

15.    REPLY



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

16.   REPLY



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.

17.    REPLY



@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.

18.   REPLY



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.

19.   REPLY



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.

o    REPLY



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.

o    REPLY



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…

o    REPLY



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.

o    REPLY




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.

20.  REPLY



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.

o    REPLY



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.

21.   REPLY



@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.

22.  REPLY



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.*

o    REPLY



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

23.  REPLY



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

24.  REPLY



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.

25.   REPLY



J’abonde dans le sens de l’auteuranonyme” de ce texte. Bien que la plupart des scientifiques soient anglophones, voici sa traduction en français :

26.  REPLY



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

27.   REPLY




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.

28.  REPLY



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!

29.  REPLY



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

30.  REPLY



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.

31.   REPLY



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

32.  REPLY



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.

33.  REPLY



@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.

34.  REPLY



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.

35.   REPLY



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

o    REPLY



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.

36.  REPLY



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.

37.   REPLY



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.

38.  REPLY



@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.

39.  REPLY



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.

40.  REPLY



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

41.   REPLY



‘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…)

42.  REPLY



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.

43.  REPLY



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.

44.  REPLY



@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.

45.   REPLY



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.

46.  REPLY



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.

47.   REPLY



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.

48.  REPLY



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,


49.  REPLY



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.

50.  REPLY



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.

o    REPLY



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.

51.    REPLY



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.

52.   REPLY



@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.

o    REPLY



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…

53.   REPLY


H. C.

‘. 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…

54.   REPLY



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

55.   REPLY


K. B.


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.”

56.   REPLY



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.

o    REPLY



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 

57.   REPLY



“(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.

58.   REPLY



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

59.   REPLY



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.

60.  REPLY



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 “*%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.

61.   REPLY



@ 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

62.  REPLY




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.

63.  REPLY


very interesting to read about scientific discourse and controll
from michel foucault, as inauguration lecture at the collège de france 1970

64.  REPLY



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.

65.   REPLY



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”!

66.  REPLY



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.

67.   REPLY



@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.

68.  REPLY



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

69.  REPLY



Frustra fit per plura quod potets fieri per pauciora

70.  REPLY



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.

71.    REPLY



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.

72.   REPLY



“(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.

73.   REPLY



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:

74.   REPLY



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.

75.   REPLY



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?

76.   REPLY



@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.

77.   REPLY



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

78.   REPLY



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.

79.   REPLY



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

80.  REPLY



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.

81.   REPLY



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.

82.  REPLY



83.  REPLY



For a sidelong look at the same essential debate see the zen pencils cartoon:
Bill Watterson’s: A cartoonist’s advice

84.  REPLY



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

85.   REPLY



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.

86.  REPLY



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!)

87.   REPLY



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.

88.  REPLY



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:

89.  REPLY



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.

90.  REPLY



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,

91.   REPLY



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.


92.  REPLY



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.

93.  REPLY



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.


94.  REPLY



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.

95.   REPLY



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.

96.  REPLY



Just a recommendation – Science and Method by Henri Poincare.

97.   REPLY



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.

98.  REPLY



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.

99.  REPLY



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.

100.          REPLY



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

101.            REPLY



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,

102.           REPLY



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!

103.           REPLY



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

104.           REPLY



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.

105.           REPLY



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.

106.           REPLY



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

107.           REPLY



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?

108.           REPLY



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.

109.           REPLY



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.

110.            REPLY



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.

111. REPLY



Interesting rebuttal to the letter here (from a very different perspective):




@ 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.




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.




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. …

115. REPLY



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.





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.


117. REPLY



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.




A courage to be saluted.

Reminds me of Hal Lewis’s resignation from the APS:




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.

120.           REPLY



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




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?

122.           REPLY



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.

123.           REPLY



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??

124.           REPLY



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.

125.            REPLY



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.

126.           REPLY



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.

127.            REPLY



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.

128.           REPLY



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

129.           REPLY



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.

130.           REPLY



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.




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.

132.           REPLY



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?

133.           REPLY



@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.

134.           REPLY



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

135.            REPLY



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.

136.           REPLY



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

137.            REPLY



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!

138.           REPLY



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.

139.           REPLY



“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.

140.           REPLY



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.




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.

142.           REPLY



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.

143.           REPLY



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.

144.           REPLY



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.

145.            REPLY



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.”

146.           REPLY



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.

147.            REPLY



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!

148.           REPLY



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.