Why I...think bad management, not lack of cash, puts off would-be science PhDs

April 5, 2002

There are many explanations as to why the number of science PhD students is declining in this country. The government has sought to bolster numbers by raising stipends to quite sizeable amounts, but this alone will not solve the problem.

As an undergraduate who was thoroughly infatuated with his degree, my natural move was to embark on a PhD with a view to becoming an academic. I started as an enthusiastic, optimistic, open-minded 21-year-old driven by the fact that I was about to embark on a project of discovery. I end my PhD feeling no emotional content for what I have achieved. Why?

The answer is simple and is based on my experience and that of many other students I have spoken to - poor management and communication.

The following is a common scenario. PhD students often begin their research with supervisors giving only vague, cryptic advice about their ideas, which they are then left to interpret as they wish. In the short term, supervisor and student are happy - the authority of the academic is still in check and the PhD student thinks that all is on course as planned.

Later, the PhD student begins to realise that their ideas have been sidelined and that the supervisor is dictating the progress of the work. The student may feel they have little or no creative input. This damages the contract between supervisor and student.

Some diligent students might try to deal with this by working late and doing experiments on the sly to strengthen their theses. But the presentation of data gained from these experiments will inevitably cause friction between student and supervisor and further weaken the relationship. This threatens the supervisor's position and leads to attempts to put an end to their recalcitrant student's antics.

Eventually, the student loses faith, unless, by trying the official channels, they can get support from other staff in their department. But many students find that these are often run like cartels. So, there is nowhere to turn. The only option is to face considerable conflict or to divorce their emotions from their daily work.

It is at this critical stage that most PhD students decide to become management consultants or investment bankers. They complete their PhDs but put it down as a bad experience. They start to buy the Financial Times every day and to visit careers centres regularly.

I was asked by my careers department to stand as a representative of postgraduate research at a careers fair. The advice I gave was simple. Do a PhD only if you have an inexorable need that can be quenched in no other way - and even so, have a plan B. Otherwise, don't bother. Although the extra time at university is enjoyable, it does not measure up to the undergraduate experience. And the psychological trauma is not worth those extra few letters after your name.

If, however, universities were to consider skills other than a person's academic publication record when recruiting staff, there might be some hope for the future. The key abilities that City firms seek in those they recruit are interpersonal and team-working skills. Until universities rethink their recruitment policies for research group leaders, the number of PhD students will continue to decline, leaving an ever-decreasing pool from which they can pick their lecturers.

Although not every PhD student has shared my experience, I know of many who have gone through a similar one. The research is the easy bit - it is the rest that turns us away, and people like me who tell others not to bother.

Ben Snowman recently completed a PhD in biochemistry

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