Ideas are what make a successful independent researcher….not having PhD after your name

I was reading today yet another story about how hard done PhD students are. I nearly choked on my Frosties, however, when it started with this….


“Why is it, you might be asking yourself, that very bright, talented individuals clutching phenomenal CVs ”


Does ANY PhD student have a “phenomenal CV”? Isn’t one of the points of doing a PhD to get this? If you’re lucky you’ll have a couple of papers, hopefully first author, and training in experimentation, hypothesis testing and statistical knowledge. I wouldn’t call that phenomenal. I would say “as expected” and “pretty much like every other person with a PhD”.

I do take exception to the idea that because you are doing a PhD you are “very bright” and “talented”. With the effective move over to taught PhDs (i.e., your supervisor designs all your experiments and you have no input or ideas), a 5 year old could probably meet the criteria. Everyone doing PhDs these days either have a first class undergrad degree or a distinction at Masters. All this tells me is that you are good at writing and have a good memory.

The reason I say this is that I’ve seen a decade of students go through this effectively taught system. I can count on one hand from a pool of about 70 students those that could or have gone on to have an independent research career from their supervisor. The rest can talk the talk, but can’t actually produce testable ideas. They can’t even produce untestable ideas. Some of them manage to bluff their way into a lectureship position and then the emails to the supervisor start….”do you have any ideas for an experiment?”….”I need experiments for my final year project/MSc student”. Now, they make GREAT postdocs, but crap collaborators. They are a weight that you’ll be dragging round for the rest of your career. For them they have years of misery and stress until they inevitably get shifted over to a teaching contract.

So, when I hear about how PhD students can’t get jobs, I must admit, I don’t have a huge amount of sympathy. Yes, there are some wonderful students that the system is failing as they would make wonderful independent researchers. But many of them are about as useful as a chocolate teapot. My advice would be to call it quits now.

Academia is based on ideas. Publication and research income come from those ideas. If you’ve never had a single idea during your PhD, what makes you think you’ll have one in the future?

As academics we are under huge pressure to take on PhD students. The policy of many universities is to increase PGR numbers. But this is not to the benefit of the students. We should only be taking on those that we think could become independent researchers. We shouldn’t be taking their money if there are no jobs for them or they don’t have the skills, or any chance of developing them, to get those jobs. I think we should cut the number of PhD students by at least 50%.

Of course, it is exceptionally difficult to determine from a freshly minted undergraduate, who will make a success of their PhD and become independent researchers. There is so much spoon feeding at undergrad and MSc level that people can skate through them without having really given any indepth thought to anything.

And, if you still think I’m just being an elitist snob, think about how such a PhD student fairs during their viva. Inevitably, questions are asked by an expert in the area about info not in the thesis….watch student flounder, burst into tears and run out of the room screaming about how they are a bunch of cunts….

If you can’t come up with your own ideas, you’ll get found out either (1) at the viva, and fail, or (2) in your first academic post, and eventually get side lined to a teaching post. If this is you, save yourself the misery and plump for the teaching post now, or get out altogether with your self image and ego intact.


Academia is a vicious business


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