A window into academia – via a resignation letter

This post contains excerpts of a letter sent to staff at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL, English: Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne) is one of the two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology and is located in Lausanne, Switzerland.

I wonder how many more letters like this we will see after AR5 is released. – Anthony

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

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.

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.

(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.

(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…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.

(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.

(4) Academia: Where Originality Will Hurt You
The good, healthy mentality would naturally be to work on research that we believe is important. Unfortunately, most such research is challenging and difficult to publish, and the current publish-or-perish system makes it difficult to put bread on the table while working on problems that require at least ten years of labor before you can report even the most preliminary results. Worse yet, the results may not be understood, which, in some cases, is tantamount to them being rejected by the academic community.

(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.

(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.

(7) Academia: The Violent Land of Giant Egos
[He must be talking about Mannworld here -Anthony]
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.

(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.

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).

read it all at Pascal Junod

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147 thoughts on “A window into academia – via a resignation letter

  1. Reality strikes a young mind. Sad that it has to be this way. A waste of talent and effort to result in disillusionment. Climate “science” will leave the world a much poorer place.

  2. Wow.. . . .

    Sadly, Academia is desperately in need of people with their eyes open and as honest as this young person. Of course, that’s why he probably would not do well in Academia. . . . ..

  3. That will leave a mark, sadly, the ‘movers’ in that sphere of influence will most likely move the mark to that poor sod’s name. He might have a chance as a plumber or roofer after this, though I wish him the best.

  4. My own experience of the academic circus would appear to be simsilar, though I was not studying for a PhD, merely a Masters. The ‘citation’ process is the most pernicious, since, in any dissertation, one finds oneself writing “I think this, because X, Y, Z and an entire alphabet of previous ‘researchers’ have all said it in published papers.” Sure fire way to fail is to write something original which challenges the accepted ‘truth’ as laid down by someone at least a hundred years ago, often in defiance of any scientific method or later evidence to the contrary. Heaven help you if you find that someone from another discipline holds evidence which challenges or demolishes the work of some “great name” and source of all truth in the discipline under study. I’m sorry to say it, but a lot of so-called academic work these days is simply incestuous promotion of whatever the latest “authority” says is the truth.

    No, I don’t plan to hand back my MA or my BSc, both were hard earned and though I played the citation game, I did still manage to challenge a few of the accepted “truths” then in vogue and still got my degrees. It wasn’t easy, and I had to argue my case all the way – but I guess I was also lucky to have tutors who were sympathetic.

  5. Incredible. And Brave. Yet entirely known amongst those in academia still not deluding themselves as per paragraph 3.

  6. We see this every day, in every disciple, usually in front of a government panel pontificating absolute nonsense as gospel, with a certitude bordering on fanaticism.

  7. I always thought the Anglia emails were released by someone who was like this person. Someone who really wanted to find the AGW causes and work to fix the problem and found a cesspit like the above and realized they’d been lied to, then, having some h@xx0r skilz, decided to expose it to the world.
    It is like when they bleat about Burt Rutan, they leave out he too looked into the issue to see how he could maybe help find a fix and realized the numbers they were spewing were never going to add up.

  8. Miles Mathis has been banging this particular drum for some time regarding the world of physics.
    Whether he is right or wrong Miles’ critiques of mainstream academia are pertinent to most fields of science.

  9. OT, but as if the alarmists needed to draw more attention to how they truly view this fight against Satan (read: CO2) as a religious crusade, we’ve apparently moved on from ‘unprecedented’ to now having ‘Biblical’ floods in Colorado, according to USA Today.

    Utter tripe.

  10. Read Candice Pert’s, “Molecules of Emotion” for an excellent peek at the inner workings of what this man speaks of. As Leif has stated, research is a blood sport. And there are no referees to call fouls. Those that get [past] the fouls and continue on with their integrity intact have my utmost respect. It is an extremely hard road for an idealistic Ph.D. wannabe who more often than not must walk around with his or her tail tucked between the legs in submission. Unfortunately, many are changed by the no-rules playing field, even enjoying it, and go on to become what this man describes. But there are standouts. And they are many as well.

  11. This gives an indication of why some of the best research is done at times of shortage in funding.

  12. The grad student wrote: “While I could give a multitude of reasons for leaving my studies – some more concrete, others more abstract …”

    What he goes on to state is true, but I would like to know all of the factors as he honestly admits that there are more reasons why he is quitting. If possible, I would urge him to put up with the system until completion, and then work to reform it within his own sphere of influence.

  13. Hes gonna have a hard time when he moves into the private sector expecting employees coming to work prepared and management thinking about whats best for the company.

  14. I personally view this as a decline in Academia. Living in silicon Valley, I do believe it came about largely because of Stanford and the WW II effort. Stanford remains a a training ground for peopel pursing new companies and ideas.

    My father is also a scientist, having worked in Academia and been very high up in the FDA. His work has had a pretty big impact on pharmaceutical companies, both his research and his FDA work. There is garbage going on at the FDA (I’ll never forget going to the FDA during the sachrine scare, and seeing a “Tab” on someone’s desk, so not all is lost).

    Meanwhile, something has happened to academia. I think it is an offshoot of the Western European monks, including the discipline associated with that. It’s being destroyed as many institutions are with leftism, which seems to have a different standard for “truth.”

    But also there is another problem going on. Blockbuster drugs are on a significant decline, for instance, and one reason is that it is simply harder, and the actual tools aren’t there to break through. There have been a number of articles in Nature about this.

    Also, there is this idea that computers can do more than they are able to. Computers are digital beasts. If you put in a set of data, and instructions, they always come out with the same answer. The real world doesn’t work that way, because you don’t know all the instructions, and you can’t know all the data (and its analog anyway). That doesn’t mean all results are useless (though a lot seem to be), but that many results can be accidentally tweaked by bias.

  15. “Everybody feels like that when nearing the completion of a PhD. You have to get through it.”

    - I’m glad you said that Matthew. I’m in my final year and reading that critique gave me shivers.

  16. Yep, Here is what Eisenhower predicted would happen decades ago…

    http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/ike.htm

    Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

    In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

    Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

    The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
    __________________________________________________________________
    Also, for the lighter side…

    http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2010/05/22/matt-groening-on-graduate-school/

  17. I work for a university, in a non-academic job, and it seems to me that goal of the academic community is to preserve the academic community–that is, the huge network of government and corporate grants that provide the money to pay salaries and keep the lights on.

    The idea of “Truth” as an abstract concept is not simply irrelevant to academia, it is positively antithetical to the primary purpose of universities, which is to get enough donor and grant money to keep going for another fiscal year.

    • MishaBurnett wrote: “I work for a university, in a non-academic job, and it seems to me that goal of the academic community is to preserve the academic community–that is, the huge network of government and corporate grants that provide the money to pay salaries and keep the lights on.

      “The idea of “Truth” as an abstract concept is not simply irrelevant to academia, it is positively antithetical to the primary purpose of universities, which is to get enough donor and grant money to keep going for another fiscal year.”

      That is the problem with modern “big” science generally. Because most scientists nowadays are paid to “do science,” there will often be a conflict between “seeking the truth” and paying the mortgage, which means that many (but not all) scientists will do anything it takes to ensure that the research funding continues to flow, even it means compromising with the truth. It all makes one long for the days of the “gentlemen naturalists,” who, because they were men of independent means, were free to “do science” simply out of the sheer love of discovery. Unfortunately, there are very few “amateur” scientists any more — from the French amateur “lover of”, from Old French and ultimately from Latin amatorem, “lover.” Instead, most scientists today are “professionals,” which sadly means that their profession often trumps their science.

  18. I am writing to the student who wrote the letter:

    Sir or Madam:

    I understand your pain and disillusionment. And I hurt for you. But I write to suggest two things.

    Firstly, I strongly urge you to finish your PhD study.
    You say you are only months from its completion so you will have wasted the time you have expended on it if you fail to finish the course.

    Secondly, when you obtain your degree then seek employment in industry.
    You will find that working in industry you will not get many papers published in the public domain, but your citation index will not matter. Industrial research is conducted for a purpose and you will find it is both accountable and rewarding.

    So, for your sake, I beg you to not despair at the past. I urge that, instead, you to look to the future which is a foreign place for us all but where you may find the personal challenges and rewards which you seek.

    You have courage and intelligence. They are great gifts which can be used for your happiness and, thus, provide benefits to us all. I sincerely hope you will use them to good effect.

    Richard

  19. “Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities, we didn’t have to produce anything! You’ve never been out of college! You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve *worked* in the private sector. They expect *results*.” – Dr Ray Stantz, Ghostbusters (1984)

    Students pursuing anything above a bachelor’s degree should be required to spend time employed in practical pursuits before being admitted. Your entire perspective changes when you actually have to produce something. It broadens your vision immeasurably when you must make something actually work, and find that there are innumerable ways to “skin a cat”, as the old proverb goes.

  20. They will retreat behind their academic sandbags if they have to.. Only to return later with the same slock under a new name.. They just have to figure out what the new trend is and follow it..

    I think this sums up what you dealing with nicely..

    Good luck turning academia around :)

  21. My translation, as someone who has hired a few disillusioned PhD candidates, I suspect he had his path towards a degree slowed by a staff member who needed another year of academic serf labor lest he blow his approved grant budget. Not to say I didn’t enjoy the benefit of paying guys like him without the paper less, but I was always up front about it.

  22. Dear Warrior for Truth,

    Your former “managers” may have academic prestige, but you have something they do not:

    your integrity.

    With admiration and prayers for you in the days to come,

    Janice

    **************************************

    Hey, D. B. Stealey! I got to see that obnoxiously persistent half-star change to FULL ON EXCELLENT with my #8 click on the stars above! #(:))

  23. denniswingo

    You beat me to the Eisenhower reference. He made some terrifically sage predictions, that’s for sure. (And he’s an enigma as he saw this coming and yet did his part in building the beast ever larger and more influential; not as bad as the “progressives”, but disappointing all the same).

    The State has grown to be a huge blood sucking beast whose monetary influence has corrupted and distorted so many aspects of our economy and society. We can still see small parts of the tech sector that remains independent enough to be productive and innovative, but alas even that is slowly being tainted by the reach of the federal bureaucrat, their power and their dollars.

    We’re doomed if we don’t find a way to beat back the beast.

  24. Finish the degree. There should be more, many more, among the degreed who possess the skepticism that lies at the foundation of such a crisis. And don’t take it all too seriously; what begins as a sincere movement, often ends as a hustle. You are wise enough to see the difference.

  25. An interesting topic that sits close to this letter is the Decline Effect.

    The New Yorker – December 13, 2010
    The Truth Wears Off
    Is there something wrong with the scientific method?
    by Jonah Lehrer
    Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the effect,” he said. “But the worst part was that when I submitted these null results I had difficulty getting them published. The journals only wanted confirming data. It was too exciting an idea to disprove, at least back then.” For Simmons, the steep rise and slow fall of fluctuating asymmetry is a clear example of a scientific paradigm, one of those intellectual fads that both guide and constrain research: after a new paradigm is proposed, the peer-review process is tilted toward positive results. But then, after a few years, the academic incentives shift—the paradigm has become entrenched—so that the most notable results are now those that disprove the theory….”
    [Page 3]

    “…The problem of selective reporting is rooted in a fundamental cognitive flaw, which is that we like proving ourselves right and hate being wrong. “It feels good to validate a hypothesis,” Ioannidis said. “It feels even better when you’ve got a financial interest in the idea or your career depends upon it….”
    [Page 4]

    “…Even the law of gravity hasn’t always been perfect at predicting real-world phenomena. (In one test, physicists measuring gravity by means of deep boreholes in the Nevada desert found a two-and-a-half-per-cent discrepancy between the theoretical predictions and the actual data.)…….Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true.”
    [Page 5]

  26. pat says September 14, 2013 at 9:42 am

    We see this every day, in every disciple, usually in front of a government panel pontificating absolute nonsense as gospel, with a certitude bordering on fanaticism.

    Just recently, testifying in support ‘for war’ before congress and high elected officials, that Elizabeth O’Bagy woman! Not even actually a PhD:

    The Institute for the Study of War has learned and confirmed that, contrary to her representations, Ms. Elizabeth O’Bagy does not in fact have a Ph.D. degree from Georgetown University. ISW has accordingly terminated Ms. O’Bagy’s employment, effective immediately.

    http://www.understandingwar.org/press-media/staff-bios/elizabeth-obagy

    - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - –

    In California, Hien T. Tran, author of a study showing that particulate emissions from diesel engine exhaust causes premature death faked his PhD:

    “April 9, 2009 CARB “Notice of Adverse Action” Against Hien T. Tran Regarding Misrepresentation of Ph.D. Degree”
    Details: http://www.scientificintegrityinstitute.org/tran040909.pdf

    .

  27. The ‘author’ might have commented downstream on the link.

    FeuDRenais
    on 10 Sep 2013 at 00:15

    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

    http://crypto.junod.info/2013/09/09/an-aspiring-scientists-frustration-with-modern-day-academia-a-resignation/?utm_content=bufferb7963&utm_source=buffer&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Buffer#comment-4739

  28. I’m 1 year into a PhD. I too see that there is pressure to publish and be cited (in the UK at least), but this is down to our government’s measurement system for universities: papers in 3* and 4* journals count towards research excellence which will be counted in the forthcoming reports. And yes, there’s encouragement to get grants (both public and industrial) for research because government funding for universities isn’t what it was, and if they’re going to attract the best researchers they need both funding and interesting work for them,

    So it’s not perfect. Academia is more commercial and results-orientated than it used to be. Since it’s part of the public sector that’s not surprising. Many people will otherwise wonder why their taxes go to fund something that doesn’t add value to their world?

    But then there’s a whole lot of other things happening. Real professors and senior researchers passionate about their work, attracting funding from multiple sources because they’re good, and publishing papers because they’re worthwhile.

    So my sympathies are with this PhD student, but I feel he’s tarring the whole of academia with the same brush. Some may be as he says but I’ve seen — and am working in — the “other side”. It’s not all gloomy, but perhaps it’s best where the people are best. With the massive expansion of academia not every professor can be brilliant and not every piece of research can be good. If this person can stick with it then I hope he/she will find things better elsewhere. Otherwise, he/she will just be seen as someone quitting before they fail, and that’s sad for everyone.

  29. It’s kind of strange. In order to be a science professor, one really needs a social, extroverted personality, completely the opposite from the introverted personality of a scientist.

  30. Back in the Middle Ages, when the great universities such as Oxford and Paris were created, students paid their teachers directly — no middleman as there is today, and certainly no “tenure.”. If a teacher was good, he attracted students and therefore made a living. If a teacher was bad, he didn’t. Natural selection of a sort. Ah, the good old days.

  31. “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”
    =============================================================================
    I think that is the problem we see in the AGW crowd. They think that science shouldn’t just search for the truth, that it should somehow move the world towards a better tomorrow. The young person who wrote this letter was lead to believe that is a goal of science. But that should not be a goal of science at all. The only goal of science should be the search for the truth. I should not matter at all to science whether F=MA or E=MC². The fact that E=MC² can be used to make nuclear bombs or used for nuclear energy should be of no importance at all to acceptance to the theory.
    Today’s AGW scientists are convinced they are doing something good for mankind and therefore have let their desire to do good outway the search for the truth.

    Young people going into science should not be told to expect that their research can or should be used to help mankind, they should simply be told that research is quest for the truth, for its own sake.

  32. An interesting read…..
    It reminds me of a story told to me by a friend who was a doing a PhD in plasma physics at the time and had come up with some small tidbit of insight. He knew it was small and judged it inconsequential but his advisor was appalled that he hadn’t written it up and tried to publish. Indeed, when he finally did just that, the advisor was still critical and advised that my friend’s paper could easily have been milked out to at least 2 papers instead of just the one.

    Publish or perish!

  33. I’m in 100% agreement with the theme of the “resignation letter.” The author should remember that the members of academia are first people (where money and glory trump truth) and second scientists. The author is going to find similar behavior wherever he goes.

  34. May I echo

    Ben Wilson says:
    September 14, 2013 at 9:24 am
    Wow.. . . .
    =====
    But I (as others above, and, I guess, below) would also suggest trying to complete the PhD. [It's going to help your future career in the private or voluntary sectors a very good bit]. Although, as noted above multiple times, there – it’s what can you deliver . . . .

    Finally – do keep close to your family and friends, plus any fellow academicians with whom you felt at ease. Human contact is essential, especially after a serious, life-changing decision.

    And – all best wishes! Manifold best wishes.

    Auto

  35. Wake up to the real world.

    The points Pascal Junod raises are also applicable anywhere outside academia, and they are of all times.

    Life is a struggle, Pascal. Go for some martial art lessons I would say. Stop wailing and get some confidence.

  36. g3ellis says:

    September 14, 2013 at 11:37 am

    Sent from my HTC smartphone on the Now Network from Sprint!
    ======
    I once sailed with a Michael Mary Mother Hastings; I guess he is now M3Hastings@ something

    Auto

  37. Well, as disappointing as it may seem, the fellow, who ever he may be, seems to have woken up and smelled the coffee and realize that he was among the mediocre, did not with to become mediocre himself and left.

    Good luck to him in his future endeavors.

    Maybe he’ll wind up in a real, lab somewhere doing real work. My dad was a Member of Technical Staff at Whippany back in the golden days of the transistor – maybe such places still exist. Or, maybe he’ll create his own thing. Good luck to him.

    On the other hand…

    Academia is along established institution. All long established institutions share a common phenomenology – they serve to protect mediocrity and stifle genuine innovation – absolutely, 100% in all times and places throughout history. Created for some original purpose as an innovative impulse, usually of an exceptional innovator, that purpose inevitably becomes self-perpetuation, rather that innovation – the rest becomes window-dressing.

    It is true that some great innovates create institutions to further their work – maybe you can think of some, I have my own list – but 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 get the hell out of the way of the innovators in their midst and let them try, fail, and succeed.

    Spengler has a new essay at AsiaTimesOnLine here: where he discusses, in the light of his recent death, economist Ronald Coase’s 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.

    Academia has become indistinguishable from Coase’s Firm.

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

    W^3

  38. From a personal view point I can understand the disillusionment that comes with academia but he shouldn’t have quit his thesis. He’ll regret that in years to come.

    The whole point of a PhD is that is a process. The level of detail and scrutiny is much more than a masters or an undergraduate. And it is your first professional work. You have to grind through it. That’s the way it is.

    Now if you don’t believe in it or your subject then deal with that AFTER you get the PhD. You may go onto industry instead of academia. But if you give up beforehand then you won’t have that choice and you’ll have let the challenge beat you. I know friends who gave up and now they wish they had stuck with it.

    It’s meant to be hard. It’s meant to drive you crazy. And some of the people in academia are institutionalised but you still have to honour your own commitment to finishing it. Once you get that “Dr” that’s you for life. Unless you blatantly lied and plagurised no-one can take it away from you.

    I’m glad I got mine (condensed matter physics) even though I did actually go mad for a month at the end. I’m glad because without it I never would have built space engines and got them flying over the Earth. Or had the courage of my convictions to always question the science.

    Basically it’s what made me a scientist.

  39. While all of the points raised in this letter can be supported by evidence, they do not apply to all academics, and where they apply, they do so in different degrees. Most of my academic colleagues I know try to cope with these pressures while still also trying to produce something of genuine value, and quite a few succeed at that. There are some that have adopted the entire set of absurd rules wholesale and wholeheartedly, out of either naivete or cynicism, but I’d say they are in the minority.

    If you want to be true to yourself and your ideals, you will pay a price. The author of the letter will find that this is not limited to academia, and I suggest he might as well finish his degree before finding out for certain.

  40. What a tremendous command of the English language he has. He may be better suited to writing than research anyway. Hopefully he will read this thread and develop a desire to apply his cynicism to the (linked) AGW taxation fraud.

  41. Sad but true….I have a nearly identical letter written in my mind for my university. On the one hand, doctoral-student burnout is very common, and attrition is very high. However, this young person really nailed it – the university systems, like carnivorous plants, are a business dependent upon a never-ending stream of new flesh. Tuition dollars and fees are all that matter, and employment after graduation isn’t even an afterthought. A sick system.

    I expect that applications to “climate science positions” will dwindle in the near future. Hopefully, future students will be drawn back into “real” disciplines, including advanced engineering of all kinds, energy & material sciences, etc.

    Right now, the Asian student influx into the US system guarantees that we will subsidize their education and enrich their home countries. T’aint fair. I teach and mentor these students & love ‘em, but our domestic education priorities are all fricked up.

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-u-of-i-enrollment-20130912,0,162195.story

  42. @MishaBurnett

    …I work for a university, in a non-academic job, and it seems to me that goal of the academic community is to preserve the academic community–that is, the huge network of government and corporate grants that provide the money to pay salaries and keep the lights on….

    I have some news for you from the outside world.

    Everybody has the primary goal of preserving their job. People in companies making consumer products aren’t doing it because it helps society. They are doing it because it pays them. And if another product looks as if it will supersede theirs they will try anything (legal, and occasionally illegal) to stop it.

    Under a market system, this is generally useful. But look at government work. There they will often try to maintain a particular policy because many people earn their living through it. Climate change is an example – it is now such big business that even if the scientists all agreed that it was rubbish and published the fact carbon trading would not stop.

    My particular ‘bete noire’ is the military and intelligence community. They are still operating as if the Cold War is in existence, and a lot of people around the world are dying just to keep the military and intelligence community doing what they like to do – finding threats….

  43. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the power elite learned to fear the imagination and curiosity of scientists as a threat to their hegemony. The academic system exists to try to contain that fearful energy within controllable bounds.

  44. Dodgy Geezer;
    Everybody has the primary goal of preserving their job.
    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    I’d echo the many recommendations above to the young person in regard to completing that PhD before moving on. But I want to underscore Dodgy’s comments above. Private industry is rife with politics as well. Internal fiefdoms will squelch each other’s ideas to the detriment of the company rather than let another fiefdom gain power. Companies that burst onto the scene with brilliant ideas often see their growth stall a decade later because their internal politics prevent them from continuing to innovate.

    One of my favourite examples is the Swiss watch industry which at one time dominated the global market. When a Swiss engineer invented the quartz movement, the watch makers whose entire careers were invested in mechanical movements scoffed at the idea and convinced their managers that it would never work. Most of those companies are now bankrupt because the inventor went to Japan and sold the technology to Seiko.

    Bottom line – the world is what it is. Learn what it is and how best to deal with it. Quitting simply delivers victory to the unethical and selfish. There’s good places to work in public and private sectors and there’s bad places to work in public and private sectors. The trick is to find a good place to work, regardless of where that might turn out to be.

  45. I’m getting towards the end of my professional doctorate and am being constantly pressured to publish in journals and promote myself via conferences. Luckily I’m funding myself and being a tad older can oppose much of this pressure. The crazy thing is that I teach grad and postgrads and have had three chapters published in well received and widely read academic books, but apparently in the ego driven world of academia all this counts for nothing compared to publishing something no one will read in some obscure journal or giving talks to small audiences on the conference ego trail.

  46. Surely this has always been a problem within academia. The problem with academics is that most have an inflated sense of entitlement. They see nothing wrong in acting deceptively in order to out do their competitors – and they have lots of competitors as you’d expect with people with huge egos.

    But the young student should finish their PhD. It might be hard, but you find many of the same problems in many walks of life. In private industry it’s kept in check by the need to actually make money in order to justify your position, but it is there also. It’s human nature I’m afraid but I would agree that it flourishes in academia probably more than anywhere else.

  47. Good article. I would have completed the PhD, even though the writer showed a lot of integrity by rejecting it. Players have more influence than non-players. They must be listened to, otherwise the critical PhD’s denigrate their own status.

    The way of the world these days is this: it does not have anything to do with right or wrong, or with morality, or honesty, or conscience, or the Scientific Method, or finding out as much scientific truth as possible. Today, it is all about what you can get away with. That is all that matters now. Gleick, Obama, Mann, and their ilk are perfect examples of this brave new world. Integrity does not matter any more. We have fallen very far in a very short time.

    On a lighter note, this is how assorted folks in acedemia see each other.

  48. When most anyone of at least average intelligence and in possession of sufficient ambition, will and tenacity can obtain a PhD, academia becomes the mill it is today.

  49. All true, but fighting ‘the system’ from the inside has a much higher likelihood of success. Get back in there and get your PhD, then take no prisoners. GJ Rebane, PhD

  50. The emphasis on citations and reviewing others work is not because they don’t want you to make a big discovery….The cruel fact is that it is unlikely that you will ever make a big discovery anyway, so they encourage you to make ‘small contributions’.

    That said, if it is unlikely researchers will make a big discovery from the start, then I’d say you’ve got no chance at all if you never try!

    I echo others and say finish the phd, and at the same time work on your big discovery during after hours.

  51. MishaBurnett says:
    September 14, 2013 at 10:20 am

    The idea of “Truth” as an abstract concept is not simply irrelevant to academia, it is positively antithetical to the primary purpose of universities, which is to get enough donor and grant money to keep going for another fiscal year.

    Which is why I say abolish the grants system entirely. Give academics a budget for research and let them do whatever they like with it. It is the only way to unpoliticize science.

    I could make a few other suggestions like appointing research positions by lottery among suitably qualified candidates.

  52. @Peter Ward

    Many people will otherwise wonder why their taxes go to fund something that doesn’t add value to their world?

    Ain’t that the truth, Peter. Ain’t that the truth!

    But you missed the bit where not only do we fund the no added value work, we are also expected to listen to the academics lecture us from their self-appointed positions of moral superiority about how evil we are and how our tiny intellects can’t match up to their great minds.

    Summed up in the ridiculous phrase ‘Trust Me, I’m A Climatologist’

  53. richardscourtney: Firstly, I strongly urge you to finish your PhD study.

    I am glad you wrote that. On rereading, my post with the same intent seems curt and almost mean.

  54. He should finish his PhD. I couldn’t submit mine through illness, and I felt pissed off and a bit of a failure for nearly 30 years about that, only partially ameliorated by eventually getting an MPhil in a different field. He could end up regretting it for the rest of his life.

    That magic title “Dr.” can help in other contexts: an acquaintance of mine who had a PhD in biology ended up with an academic job (after a spell in commercial IT) in a university computer department. It’s plain silly not to complete with only a few months to go, even if I do admire his principles.

  55. Relevant books:

    Daniel Greenberg: Science, Money, and Politics

    Henry Bauer: Dogmatism in Science and Medicine

  56. I’m a retired professor and I’m afraid this letter is right on the mark. Years ago I was chairman of a search committee for a new department head. The committee wanted to hire a truly despicable candidate based strictly on his extensive publication record. When I asked the assembled committee which of his publications they had read and thought most impressive, my question was met with dead silence. Of the nearly dozen people on the committee not a single one had read even one of his papers. I exploded and went into a giant rant about the stupidity of the publish or perish mania that had engulfed modern academe.

    I wrote a letter to the NY Times about this incident and it was published. Within a couple of hours of the letter being published I was flooded with emails and phone calls from professors all around the country (including many Ivy League and top notch schools) thanking me for the letter and telling me that I’d exposed the dirty little secret of modern acoademic research and publication. Namely, that no one gave a damn about substance and quality of research. The only thing that mattered was extending the list on your CV. Total BS.

  57. @Philip Bradley at 2:44 pm
    Which is why I say abolish the grants system entirely. Give academics a budget for research and let them do whatever they like with it.

    Oh, that’s a great lesson to learn in graduate school: “Attempting to sell your research ideas is beneith you.” /sarc

    It is bad enough there are government agencies with research grant approval boards and officers that pretend research proposals have value to others. Now you propose just giving a budget for research that interest no one but the researcher. That is the wrong direction for improvement.

  58. I was a PhD student about 20 years ago, ABD, in metamorphic petrology, at a leading American university. I love geology, but I was much older than my peers, in my late 30s, and I realized that once I got my degree my next step would be a postdoc for a couple years and then, maybe, an assistant professorship at the University of Nowhere, competing against bright kids ten younger than I and twice as smart.

    I did not choose my PhD thesis topic or field area, my advisor did. Eventually, I realized that I really wasn’t going to learn very much of interest, except how to operate an electron microprobe — more and more about less and less. More importantly, I realized that my primary objective had metamorphosed from the quest for knowledge, which had led me to return to school in the first place, to the quest for a degree, just so I could put “PhD” after my name. It no longer seemed like a good idea, so I dropped out and went back to my prior profession, software engineering, at which I am pretty good, and which certainly pays better, despite the absence of initials after my name. One of my best decisions ever. So, today, I make good money in software, and I still get to “do science” whenever I want, not because it pays the rent but simply because I love it. Works for me.

  59. I don’t see anything new in the above. I did much the same thing 25 years ago as an ambitious but frustrated young engineer.

    I left academia and went into private enterprise. Although the deal seemed much more honest in the business world, it’s not all that different in reality.

    Organisations ( academia, business, or others) reward effort and loyalty. Work hard and get your shoulder behind the team, and your team (as best it can) will reward and protect you as a valued member. If you disagree with the team or its goals, your talents may be better recognised and rewarded elsewhere – so be ready to go where you will perform best and be appreciated.

    If you are “a soloist”, life can be rewarding if you perform well and it can be harsh if you don’t. I remember being told (a long time ago): “Make your friends on the way up, because you’ll need them on the return leg.”

    The above letter appears to be from a young and ambitious individual who just needs to find a more suitable environment and purpose.

    I wouldn’t see it as anything new and WUWT should not fall into the “it’s worse than we thought” mentality.

  60. None of this should come as a surprise to any one who has been in a graduate level science degree program. Having gone through a grad science program myself, it was one of the very reasons I have been a skeptic from the get go – I know what goes on behind closed doors of science departments & it makes it easy to smell a rat. The whole CAGW hypothesis has stunk to high heaven from day 1, especially if you have any familiarity the geologic scales of climate change. Couple that with fact that the CAGW hypothesis sits comfortably with the traditional liberal academic bias & there has never been any reason to trust any of the academic research supporting CAGW.

    Kudos to the student for daring to say what many have thought. I hope that this will release the floodgates & many will join in the chant as this is the only way academia will have any hope of getting back on track

  61. He forgot one crucial issue: all academia is falling all over themselves to tell govt and other bureaucrats what they want to hear. Even when it is a total lie. E.g. A central bank centrally controlled system makes sense; carbon emissions need to be taxed; you can set up huge bureaucracies and tax the hell out of the people; they will be able to have central control and do better than free markets.

  62. Thank you Pamela Gray for providing a bit of fairness and balance that is sadly lacking in the post and many comments.

  63. Agree with some of the comments above that the student should have just go on to complete it. Despite the negative sides, there are positives too about modern academia where he/she should draw their motivation from. Not a wise move, unless they are really stuck on the thesis, being way far from completion state. Nobody is perfect, we just do our best, publish our results, and that’s how we progress,mistakes will be pointed out, and we ought to fix them. Striving for perfection is good, but being obsessed about it is not.

  64. He should have studied engineering, where real world results are all that matters and PhD’s usually mean you have done something useful.

  65. gjrebane says: September 14, 2013 at 2:30 pm
    All true, but fighting ‘the system’ from the inside has a much higher likelihood of success. Get back in there and get your PhD, then take no prisoners.
    ———————————————————————————-
    The tone of this comment is similar to many others, and I don’t agree. I see the letter coming from a person who has realized that he needs a career change. “If I continue on this path, I’m headed to work for an organization I don’t respect, and will be around people I don’t agree with.” My advice is to follow your heart. I’ve made major career changes twice in my life and they were tough at the time but I have no regrets.

    If you are a US citizen or hold a green card, send me your resume. The company I work for is looking for honest employees. Anthony has my email address.

  66. Now that I’m an elder, I’m all for respecting your elders, providing it’s me. Those other elders, however, are iffy….

    When I was young I hated a quote by Lady Melbourne, mother of the English Prime minister.
    It went something like, “Those who fly in the face of convention simply must expect to face the consequences.” As the years went by I came to sadly see it is true.

    To some degree we all have to break free of influence and sail single-handed and fly solo, but on the other hand few scale Mount Everest alone. It pays to have someone you trust who can give you a boost or lower you on a rope.

    I hope this young man finds some good team to be part of, for it truly sucks to go it alone for too long.

    • “It’s never worth a first class man’s time to express a majority opinion. By definition there are plenty of others to do that.”

      – G.H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology

  67. I know that most people will think of climate science when they see this, but it is more broadly applicable. String theory also comes to mind. Thousands of theoretical papers, no results.

    Less directly, it makes me think of all of the “X studies” PhDs. Replace X with almost anything and get a Phd for having an opinion.

  68. The devil is in the details of the Ph.D. candidate’s situation.

    However, I’ll repeat what several others have said.
    Everything else being equal, this person should probably finish his Ph.D. as the Dr. title will provide him with opportunities he would not otherwise have.

    After the Ph.D., he can choose another place in academia or work in industry.

  69. Once upon a time I was unsure whether such works as “The Peter Principle” and “Parkinson’s Law” were intended as comic spoofs or to be taken seriously. As I have aged I have come to realise that they are true and accurate depictions of the world. Perhaps the best of this kind of work is “Systemantics” by John Gall. The observations made are demonstrated to be true every day, and shown by this brave man’s resignation letter.

    Some of the axioms (I think that’s what they are called):
    Systems work poorly or not at all.
    Systems do not do what they say they are doing.
    Corollary: People in a system do not do what the system say’s they are doing.
    Systems once established grow to fill the known universe.
    Corollary: Systems once established cannot be dis-established.
    Etc.

    This gentleman’s situation is easily explained by these, and other, observations.

  70. Sadly, not an uncommon story. Good advice I received beforehand was “only do a Ph.D. if you really love your subject”.

    But spotting the uncommonly good supervisor who can make it the best time of your life so far, was probably down to luck.

  71. Wow, this makes academia sound like an amoral bunch of ego driven lawyers who will say anything for money. This can’t be true…

    ooops – just remembered the CGAW academic cow pie – I retract all the above.

  72. Remember that Peter Higgs (Higgs Boson fame) had his seminal paper rejected by Physics Letters. He challenged the status quo and they told him to get lost.

  73. He says what a lot think but don’t have the courage to say. The PHD industry is similar to most others where mangers [toe] the line even when they know what they are doing is all about money .

    The PHD industry relies on the constant supply of money from people at the bottom end. Some actually see through the scam and become coffee shop employees.

  74. Persistence is something I have admired in associates. Equally I have admired the adventurous associates who seize on starting totally anew on a uniquely different path.

    I cannot give the young person who is the author of that resignation any advice, since I do not know enough about background and personal info.

    As to what the person wrote in the resignation, it does not sound inconsistent with other assessments of academia.

    To the young person, find and follow your love / dreams. Bon voyage.

    John

  75. Onlooker wrote;

    “You beat me to the Eisenhower reference. He made some terrifically sage predictions, that’s for sure. (And he’s an enigma as he saw this coming and yet did his part in building the beast ever larger and more influential; not as bad as the “progressives”, but disappointing all the same).”

    Well, in retrospect he is not such an enigma after all. At the time there was great fear that the “other guys” (the Russians) had lots and lots and lots of nuclear tipped missiles (They did explode an “A-Bomb” and put Sputnik “Up There”) and that they could hurt the USA (the place Ike was charged with defending) badly. There was quite a bit of angst what with the building of backyard bomb shelters and “duck and cover” drills in the schools (I did in fact go through those).

    Some in the “military industrial complex” wanted the USA to build tens of thousands of missiles and bombers. Ike did in fact push back against that and insisted on accurate intelligence on “what exactly” the other guys where up to. As part of this He “sponsored” the “Corona” spy satellite project (formerly top secret) to try and figure out what the “other” guys where capable of. Even after 13 failed launches He insisted it continue. And then a whole treasure trove of information about the Russian Military Complex came through. Turns out there never was a “Missile Gap” and our (USA) defenses where more than adequate. Of course the source of that knowledge was “Top Secret” so Ike did not mention it directly.

    So by the time Ike made that speech he was privy to information confirming that we did not need thousands of bombers, but he did realize that only extraordinary scientific and engineering achievements enabled our ability to obtain that information.

    Ike was warning us that research is essential, but it has to provide REAL DATA. Early in the Cold War there were wild predictions about how the other guys could “wipe us out” with their missiles, and we had to respond with a total all out effort to “overwhelm” the threat. Sound familiar? We currently have government scientists telling us we need to eliminate human caused GHGs, back then we had government “advisors” telling us we had to “overwhelm” any possible nuclear capability the “enemy” had.

    In both cases once higher quality intelligence (data) came along the “panic” passed.

    Ike was quite wise, he probably would have told the climate scientists claiming that we have to totally restructure the way energy is obtained and used to; PROVE IT.

    Cheers, Kevin.

  76. Have not read the responses, but I do find one thing encouraging: Honesty, Integrity, and a broad understanding in a young person. Of course there are more like him, but not enough.
    Great character to be a politician, except, unfortunately, he would probably find even more of the same.

  77. Count_to_10 says:

    It’s kind of strange. In order to be a science professor, one really needs a social, extroverted personality, completely the opposite from the introverted personality of a scientist.

    It’s kind of strange. People think that to be a scientist, one must be introverted.

  78. I have one (PhD) and the results were relevant for a long time, then they seemed irrelevant, but recently I attended a conference where a researcher presented a paper that showed that the outcome of my research was more relevant than I thought.
    The presenter noted that in their study they had originally made a bunch of assumptions that did not match reality and so they went back and adjusted their assumptions. I thought that was refreshing.
    Overall my faith in some parts of the academic process was renewed…..something I did not expect.
    However, I would also note that many parts of academia are in the “me-too” mode.
    I suppose the greatest fallacy is the “disinterested academic”.. Like everyone else academics are trying to survive, thrive and build careers. It is only when they try to pretend that they have no interest in the pecuniary and are just doing pure research that the whole thing begins to become phoney.
    To some extent the current system sets this up – at one time academics, good or bad, had tenure – they were given this precisely so that they could get on with research without having to worry about pecuniary interests or KPIs. Unfortunately some abused this privilege and the whole tenure system was dismantled as lesser men became jealous of the “cosseted” academic. Now academics have no tenure and have to publish papers, get cited and do whatever research they can get funding for. Little surprise if now we we have potentially been foisted the greatest fraud of all time by academics desperate to generate funding.

  79. This is not new. When I studied at Cambridge at least half of PhD students would leave to take up appointments outside science. The most popular were jobs in financial companies where they would write the programs which nearly collapsed the world’s economy in the GFC. None of them went into climate science however…… The main reason then, and now, is money – being a scientist does not pay well.

  80. It sucks for him to find out he’s not all that special, that he’s a cog in some ghastly clockwork. Still, all I see is a quitter. And nobody remembers a quitter.

  81. Allen:

    I read your post at September 14, 2013 at 11:40 pm which was clearly written while you were looking in a mirror. It says

    It sucks for him to find out he’s not all that special, that he’s a cog in some ghastly clockwork. Still, all I see is a quitter. And nobody remembers a quitter.

    Well, reading your post, all I see is an anonymous whinger. And nobody likes and anonymous whinger.

    Richard

  82. Hi, anonymous author.
    I was fortunate in choosing the right major professor for my M.S. program. My thesis was quite original. (I had just one page of references.) And a part of it cut against the grain. I got two publications from it, one in the top journal in my field (Anal Chem).

    Most people contemplating post-graduate study should be very clear about what they want to do afterward. Be sure to read: What Color is Your Parachute?

    Studying a particular field simply because you love it is not necessarily sufficient reason. This is especially true for Climatology, a field that is currently dominated by the worst kind of hacks.

    Yes, there’s always room at the top. But what is your Plan B? What are you employment prospects outside of academia? What can you do to make yourself more marketable?

    I strongly agree with the advise given by Richard S Courtney and a few other commentators.
    Put up with the academic BS for just a little longer. Your PhD will give you a foot in the door of the real world, where your talents will be appreciated.

  83. KevinM says “Hes gonna have a hard time when he moves into the private sector expecting employees coming to work prepared …………”

    With respect, I disagree 180 degrees. This is precisely the type of person I used to seek out for employment. They were hard to find. He’d be more employable by stapling his letter above to his c.v.
    BTW, there is no feeling that I ever encountered in the throw-away “…………and management thinking about what’s best for the company”. Almost daily, I read of people with strange ides about private employment as apposed to government.

  84. @ The Gray Monk (BTW a winery close to me) .Your comment is great.

    And immediately brought to mind our latest addition to our family, a lovely kitten,
    she cannot seem to figure out what her tail is for.

  85. A bit of topic.
    @ caleb , not much of hope to conquer Everest by your self these days , and to add to that:
    the largest ever discovered cave (Vietnam) is now open to the public (:

  86. For what it’s worth I would agree with Richard Courtney, finish your Phd for no other reason that this will assist you further in turning your idealism in to reality.
    Whatever course you choose by all means modify and adapt your ideals but always maintain and protect the core of them.
    Best wishes for the future.

  87. And there you have it.
    An excellent compilation of the reasons I chose not to finish my dissertation, at 90% completion. For other reasons given by commenters above, I have lived to regret that decision.

  88. I reached similar conclusions around 20 years ago but never wrote a letter like that.

    I simply left academia and moved on.

    The one thing this young man hasn’t discussed is the relationship between science research and how it is reported in the Press. It’s something which genuine scientists would rage about, but those seeking more grant money will play the game to achieve the ends.

  89. Tobias: Unfortunately, no. I work in an industry that has tight regulation over technology transfer. We had a nice, short discussion with a Russian national who was driving a taxicab in Canada. He was an engineer who worked on the Russian RD-180 rocket engine that Americans buy to launch Atlas Rockets. None of the big aerospace companies would talk to him. He thanked us for at least telling him WHY we couldn’t talk.

  90. This thread has lots of comments on the work environment and joining a ‘team’ in the workplace. I submit that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Teams exist because teams can accomplish more than individuals. The complaint seems to be that teams inherently protect their own more than they provide their intended service. Hey, they’re composed of people, and people are only human. I further submit that this problem is worse in the academic/government/contractor environment. Workplace efficiency (getting things done, and figuring out what is the right thing) inherently decays in this environment because there is little competition to keep the organization on track. [fill in rant here on climate scientists] Remember when NASA could put men on the moon? Their current budget is about $17 Billion per year and NASA can’t even put people into orbit any more. They buy rides from the Russians. How sad is that? Parkinson’s law and the Peter principle rule in organizations like this, and you need a PhD to get ahead.

    Private industry on the other hand, must stay focused or it will die. Real commercial companies compete for consumer money and whoever provides the best value survives. I highly recommend “Barbarians to Bureaucrats” and “The Innovator’s Dilemma” to explain the life cycle of a private company. In this environment, it matters more that you can give the customer a better value than it is to have letters after your name.

    When making hiring decisions, the company I work for values honesty, competence, and your accomplishments above the letters after your name. There are lots of other organizations like this out there too, most of them smaller, and most of them in private industry.

  91. I agree with those who think the writer should finish the doctorate. But he really shouldn’t be quite so whiney about it.
    Finish the degree so he can change the system so that only research that saves the world is done, faculty are not banal, academic research is not a rush for publications and continuous grubbing for grants. Of course, there won’t be as much research done without the grants, nor will there be positions for post-doc and grad students.
    One of the running jokes when I was in grad school was that there was a “suffer quotient.” You got your degree when you had suffered enough. One of my advisors fondly told the story of is first year oral exam. He was asked a question, gave the correct answer and was failed and told he could come back in 9 months for a retest. 9 months later, same question, same answer and he passed. His advisor told him that they thought he had it too easy and hadn’t suffered enough.

  92. Just look at the way the universities operate (especially the one you plan on sending your children to.) Shortly after I graduated (*back in the 70′s) there was an article in the paper about the problem that “new” teachers were having getting a job. Seems like the state universities (not counting private) had conferred twice as many teaching degrees as there were openings for new teachers. Add in the graduates from private schools, and those that had attended college out of state and the newly certified teacher had about one chance in 3 or 4 to get a teaching position. I was an engineering major and had no problem. A good friend that was in many of my math classes but going after a degree in math with teaching certification was not as lucky. Talked to him later and he ended up using his math at an engineering firm and not teaching like his parents were and he dreamed of. All the universities care about is keeping themselves employed – don’t tell them being a teacher is a bad idea, that might make them change majors.

  93. This kind of thread is why I return to WUWT daily, sometimes multidaily. Bravo.

    It is impossible to express my delight at seeing Mr. Courtney return to posting comments at WUWT.

  94. This isn’t even the hundredth time I’ve heard this.

    Don’t build a system based on ego, featherbedding, lies, distortions, make-work and a culture of petty authority and expect good results from it.

    Unfortunately people are very good at building systems like that.

  95. Dear Former EPFL PHD Candidate:

    My sincerest condolences on the death of your idealistic ambition. Getting b!tch-slapped by reality hurts, but in time you may be grateful for it. And come to think of it, it seems that you caught yourself before reality did, so my congratulations as well. I have to admit that it took me much longer to wise up (assuming you are a mid-late 20-something).

    Plus, there is a silver lining! You seem to be someone who wants his/her life to count for something, and there is a group of people who do useful work throughout their careers, whose lives do count for something – they are called Engineers (in fact they do the world’s most important work, although very few of them would be pretentious enough say so). They keep lights on, water running, planes in the sky, boats on the water, etc, etc. True, engineers rarely get important-sounding titles & awards; they almost never get MacDonald’sArthur “Genius” awards, but since you have already outgrown academic vanity I doubt that this is much of an issue for you. And since society needs competence more than ever, no matter how much some of the scribbling classes try to belittle it, engineers are well paid. You will never find yourself in a pissing match over some $5,000.00 grant. Engineers are generally so good at their work that the rest of the world takes their work for granted.

    Best of Luck,
    PJ

    P.S. Since you’ve already given academe the heave-ho, I’m betting it will be less than a year until you’ve stopped using phrases like “. . . the goal of ‘science’ is to search for truth . . .”, and not just because “to search” is not in itself usually considered a “goal,” but because engineers and real scientists just don’t talk about searching for the truth. They know that if they keep their vanity under control and get their facts straight, The Truth will take care of itself.

  96. Sorry to be so late to a thread that is very important to me. Two points:

    1-As a Ph.D. student I would say that the writer is if anything over optimistic.

    I suspect that fraud is quite common in scientific research. There is great pressure to publish and almost no oversight. If you look at the cases that are detected they usually involve high profile research and reckless scientists. Cautious, intelligent fraudsters are unlikely to be found out.
    Even worse than fraud (it takes some guts to run the risk of faking results) are supervisors who assign graduate students experiments with one acceptable result, if the experiment produces it the student has a publication, if not they have failed. (I have seen this myself).

    2-There is no excuse to say that the problems that the writer describes are inevitable and there is nothing that can be done.

    Several examples.

    Usually when a prof has an interesting idea they have to find a graduate student to do the lab work. This can turn into an ugly pantomime as student typically has little lab experience and so screws up a lot and at the end of the process has to stand in front of an examining committee and pretend that the supervisors idea is his or her own. Sometimes this also involves the supervisor writing most of the publications that come out of the study (I have seen this myself).
    Why not hire more technicians who do lab work full time for years ? They would work more efficiently than Ph.D. students and would allow the supervisors to present their own ideas instead of using graduate students as sock puppets.

    Punish professors who abuse their graduate students. There is a case of a chemistry prof who has had three grad students commit suicide due to work pressure. Two corpses should end your career. There was a case at Columbia where the favourite grad student of a supervisor was found to have been faking data. Three students reported their suspicions and they were kicked out for this (check Chembark for this and several similar cases, http://blog.chembark.com/2013/08/06/a-disturbing-note-in-a-recent-si-file/ is a bit funny).

    Professors cannot police each other as they are too dependent on each other for favours. Have some non-academics who are administrators and not scientists in on these decisions. Non scientists should not have too much power but they should be involved in academic decisions as they are disinterested if ignorant so at least nothing egregiously corrupt will get by them.

    Finally I wish the writer all the best.

  97. I worked in academics as well as an “outsider” (finance and administration), and I can definitely attest that cronyism is alive and well. It was all about how long the publications section of a CV was. Husband and wife in similar fields keeping separate names so they can cite/co author each other on more publications. Lots of quid pro quo type of back room deals. Countless grant applications not written toward scientific conclusions drawn from data received but toward “what the reviewers are looking for.” Research fellows working night and day while tenured professors slept in their offices if they even bothered to come in at all. Some of the tenured professors were lazier than any welfare recipient you could imagine – and their welfare checks were MUCH bigger. Man, what a racket! And this was in a respected field – medicine – not the pile of doo doo called “climate research”.

    I got a graduate degree (MBA) just because I had to for job prospects, to make more money to better support my family. That piece of paper opens up jobs where I can get paid more by working at the same level of effort. I used academics the way it uses other people. I did as little as possible, I cut the maximum amount of classes, I was there to get the piece of paper and move on with my life. One of my profs got frustrated with me and said I was smart enough to move on and get a PhD so why didn’t I work harder? My blunt response: “so I can pay another 50 grand to get 3 more letters behind my last name that don’t mean a d–n thing to the guy on the other side of the desk doing the hiring? I think not.”

    There are plenty of good people in academics, but you have to look a little harder to find them. They are often not the successful ones. There are plenty of smart people in academics. Some use the system. Some do not. Academics is definitely not discovering the black and white, it is about the millions of shades of gray, and you can get lost doing this.

    I feel sorry for folks who got into science because they were wide eyed and searching for truths but had to make it into a career to pay the bills and became disillusioned. Those who believe this person has wasted his time quitting are wrong, this person has made a discovery earlier in life than many people and can hopefully find a better path to self fulfillment. It’s better to live happy as a failed PhD than miserable with one. He’s definitely smart; his observations are right on and any number of fields would benefit from that kind of perception. Good luck!

  98. Like in most places, few people are out-standing by DEFINITION, in academia, as elsewhere. If all were super-duper awesome, none of them could stand out (sic!).

    If this dude didn’t know that academia, too, is a cut throat business and not everybody is your friend, just like in ‘real life’, he arguably didn’t know what he was doing in the first place. His reason number 8 is a strong indication – sounds like a 3-year-old asking ‘mum, mum what is sciene, do we really need it?’ – Sorry, even if 80% in academia were to go wrong, this would still be an idiotic question. Which it is.

    Also, there is a clear frustration here with how his work has been received by others – maybe he was just crap, we don’t know. So him quitting his studies is not indication or proof of anything.

    On the other hand, I know, or know of, a few people who don’t deserve their PhDs, as they are either outright crap or are not ‘original works’. This even includes the former CEO of a leading international chemical company, who had it written by an employee; then, a person veeery close to me has written a PhD for a friend in about 2 weeks (not unusal for a dentist); just recently, one of my newly PhD’ed friends working for a recognized London uni told me how his Prof. asked him to do the experiments for a current PhD student, as he is simply too incompetent to do it himself. And on it goes.

    Espcially in the medical field PhDs are often of questionable value. Only recently, there was a case reported on the German news, saying that a first (sic!) semester student wrote his PhD in 4 weeks! – This is telling on a lot of levels: First off, how do you even liase with a Prof so that you can hand in your thesis before your fellow 1st semester students have even managed to find their personal locker on campus?! So there, another successful dentist.

    Just the other day, one of my neighbors wanted my advice before enrolling for a masters degree in islamic law – a masters degree that you can obtain without any written exams! This is not a fake online uni in America, this is a well known uni in London, GB. Actually there have been loads of new legal master programmes lately which are all rubbish, in that you don’t embark on an actual masters course anymore. You just go about your normal studies, and if you want a masters, you just write a 10.000 word essay on top of your studies and you got yourself an LLM behind your name.

    Meanwhile, in other countries, you don’t have to do anything AT ALL to get your PhD. – That is, nothing over and above anyone else does. I know from lawyers and pharmacists in eastern Europe that they are now all ‘Doctors’, well, by law, because they don’t need a thesis any more, they just get it when they finish their studies.
    Likewise, you do not need to write a habilitation in many places anymore to become a Professor at uni – they just make you one when hiring you.

    So it’s a mixed bag, but certainly it is awkward that our young friend here does not seem to understand what academia is good for, after all.

  99. Katabasis says:
    September 14, 2013 at 10:08 am

    “Everybody feels like that when nearing the completion of a PhD. You have to get through it.”

    - I’m glad you said that Matthew. I’m in my final year and reading that critique gave me shivers.
    —————————————————————————————————————

    Yes agreed. B.Sc, M. Sc straight forward but Ph.D. at least in my time was hard going specially the writing up bit. It requires the utmost concentration and effort and is difficult (its meant to be). But believe me good training for subsequent project report writing and completion. So stick at it its worth the effort as a once -in-a -lifetime personal achievement.

  100. “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.”

    Based on the letter, I have every confidence that this person will have much to offer somewhere else, and will find people to whom he can render service. The rewards and honors from doing real science and working for meaningful and useful ends, for better people, is achievable and within reach. Besides, you can’t go wrong being grateful for what you had, even if it is over with.

  101. I very nearly quit before my own dissertation. I went through with it, and passed easily, but I had become fed up with what academia had come to represent. That was 21 years ago. I truly cannot imagine how bad it is now, even tough I get a window into the inner workings of the pal-review-grants-at-any-price mentality from WUWT. Yep, it’s unimaginable,

  102. I hope when all the dust settles a world court is set up and bring these so called climate scientists to be accountable for this fraud

  103. Everybody has the primary goal of preserving their job. People in companies making consumer products aren’t doing it because it helps society. They are doing it because it pays them. And if another product looks as if it will supersede theirs they will try anything (legal, and occasionally illegal) to stop it.

    In some sectors of the economy this might be true but not all. Silicon Valley and the computer industry could have never made the tremendous advances that it has over the last 40 years with that type of attitude. When we began what was then called the microcomputer revolution we knew that what we were doing was changing society and the same thing in networking which brought down the cost of ethernet to the point to where what once cost a thousand dollars (in the early 80′s) had decreased to a few dollars by the year 2010.

    This type of advance does not happen under the conditions that you state “everybody has”. We knew that we were accomplishing things and providing new and improved services for the consumer and business customer, the paychecks then took care of themselves. Yes today we see a slow down of that but it is because people start working to preserve what they have rather than to continue to aspire to what can be.

    This is what must be changed.

  104. Poor Mr Junod. Fortunately I came to realise what science had become in my late teens. I think it was perhaps during the “Voyager” probe visitations to the gas giant planets. The scientists had all manner of “theories” about the gas giants and their rings and what-not that they had come to believe is if they were scientific laws, but once engineers had built the Voyager probe and it had gone out there to take a look, all their theories were cast to dust.

    How many more theories about the start of the universe, sub-atomic physics, micro-biology, evolution, psychology and so on are wide of the mark because we have not been put in the position of making the right observations? Almost every one of them I suspect. Without observations they are merely well-funded guess-work.

    And shouldn’t a great scientist be doing “great science”? Stephen Hawking is considered to be a great scientist because he speculated the existence of black holes direct from theory and was proven to be right. But wouldn’t his great intellect have been more valuable if he had applied it closer to home – to looking for a cure for motor neurone disease? For all his great ability, his work is actually of less value to us than Asimov’s science fiction (think about that for a while and you will realise how true that is).

  105. Hello everyone,

    I am the author of this letter and only learned yesterday that it had made it to this blog (albeit as an abridged version).

    I will copy my post from the main blog (Pascal Junod’s) to this one, so that people who are interested in tackling these issues may join our little “movement”:

    ——–
    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 juliette.colinas@gmail.com
    (2) e-mail me at eugene.bunin@gmail.com
    (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. I would add another point “You can’t graduate, you’re my cash cow” to the list. I was a PhD grad student in the early 90′s researching C60 Fullerenes. I had published 3 papers with some basic science that had not been reported before and was finishing my dissertation when my advisor told me I needed 2 more years of research to finish. By that time I was 5 years into the program and 10s of thousands of dollars in debt, married with 2 kids and an impatient wife. He thought he had me by the short hairs but I told him to “take a long walk off a short pier” and moved on with my life. Three others in my group had taken parts of my work and gotten degrees in the meantime but my work was bringing in grant dollars so I had to stay. BTW in the 20+ years since, no one has come up with a viable commercial use for the things yet.

  107. As presented here the anonymous letter is fraudulent. If it had really been written to the EPFL it would have been written in French. So where is the French version and who is the writer (and translator)? –AGF

  108. @agfosterjr: The letter is not fraudulent. Like many schools across the world, EPFL admits a lot of international students/faculty, some of whom don’t speak French. Everyone, however, understands English. This is why the letter was written in English.

  109. “Firstly, I strongly urge you to finish your PhD study.”

    I suspect that the reason he’s quitting is that his advisors are indicating that he’s going to fail. If he can’t pass his thesis defense then he may as well quit now. Perhaps he’s being ujnfairly drummed out for reasons expressed here, perhaps his thesis is just bad and not working out.

    We can’t really know.

  110. FeuDRenais says:
    September 16, 2013 at 8:55 am

    @agfosterjr: The letter is not fraudulent. Like many schools across the world, EPFL admits a lot of international students/faculty, some of whom don’t speak French. Everyone, however, understands English. This is why the letter was written in English.
    =========================================================================
    So tell me, if you were writing to the Swiss faculty at large, what language would you use? The writer’s native language is almost certainly English. Why should the writer of a protest letter choose to remain anonymous? He says he’s quitting. Without an author this remains internet gossip regardless of the validity of the message. Fraud has little to do with the message but much to do with delivery. My guess is the author never attended a Swiss school. –AGF

    REPLY: Guessing doesn’t cut it, sorry. – Anthony

  111. agfosterjr says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    September 16, 2013 at 9:15 am
    =============================================================
    So you are “Pascal Junod” and you are the author. Where are you from? –AGF

  112. FeuDRenais says:
    September 16, 2013 at 8:55 am
    ======================================================
    So you are “Pascal Junod” and you are the author. Where are you from? –AGF

  113. @agfosterjr: I highly recommend that you read the letter in the original blog, as well as the comments there (which are quite interesting). If you want to learn more about me concretely, then Google is your friend (and no, I am not Pascal – Pascal simply posted my letter on his blog).

  114. agfosterjr says:
    September 16, 2013 at 9:31 am
    ==========================================================================
    So you are asking questions of the author. What institution are you in? -RSC

  115. richardscourtney says:
    September 16, 2013 at 9:38 am
    ==============================
    I’m with the Interpol agency for the containment of upstart undergrads. Just curious to know if English is his native tongue (yes) seeing his French nom de guerre–means something like “firefox” I guess. –AGF, MA

  116. Here’s the thing. There is actually a marketplace for research and science. And like any other market, it’s imperfect. But its purpose is to identify what’s valuable – not in an objective sense, but what is valuable to someone because they can use it – for a device, a patent, a next step, an improvement in something, or even the aesthetic pleasure of understanding. But there’s also research that’s tiny, irrelevant, misdirected, or useless.

    In the real marketplace of goods, the producers of the tiny, irrelevant, misdirected or useless are typically put our of business by those who produce the useful and cost-effective thing customers want.

    In the world of academic research, it seems to me that the marketplace is the world of publications. You can stay out of the marketplace, polishing your gem of knowledge, but, really, who’s going to care? You can do research that yields results in ten years, but who will support you with nothing to show for it over a decade and with the ultimate risk of the complete uselessness of the result? Or you can perform research that has an incremental benefit, get it published, and, as your reputation increases, gradually put the puzzle together to solve what you want. Maybe it will take twelve years instead of ten – so what? Show your value, earn promotion, get better grants and support.

    It seems to me that this writer wants to do science in some perfect, crystalline world where research isn’t subject to the complex, difficult, apparently chaotic and self-interested process of the marketplace of ideas. Just doesn’t work that way, good to leave if you can’t deal with it.

    And when we look at things like global warming, is it any different that the distortions government wreaks on real markets through regulation, bailouts, or subsidies? Is tenure that different from union featherbedding? This is why government should not be allowed to pay for research, why tenure is a bad idea, and why freedom is a good idea – even though it allows both success and failure and even though it is so hard for those who want to participate.

  117. seems to me after reading here for a good while MANY folks with those advanced degrees either are not very bright or are 100% dishonest(hansen and mann leap to mind)……….credentials to me are like the shania twain song, that dont impress me much!

  118. To further the point I made above….

    Writing, period, bores the crap out of me. i wasn’t cut out for it. Following my abdication of academic BS, I went into corporate research where the tertiary degree is unnecessary. I’ve made considerably more money than I would have with the nth degree. The only regret that I have is the old cliche……But you don’t have a PhD so you can’t comment.
    I reply, “I was too smart for that”.

  119. As an academic refugee (although I stayed long enough to be awarded a PhD) I agree completely with this letter. I threatened to leave midway through for the same reasons outlined but just wasn’t brave enough. I got the degree and then got “a real job” much to the disappointment of my advisors who did all they could to give bad recommendations to ruin my employment chances. Sorry, didn’t work.

  120. There was a time when I planned on an academic career in electrophysiology and pharmacology. What made me decide otherwise was the issue of research funding. I spent years working at a university where I’d be wondering every year if I’d have a job because of the need to obtain grant funding. The whole grant application process is a political one where one has to pad ones grant application with material the granting agency wants to hear. One has to specify exactly what one is going to find which is ludicrous since, by definition, fundamental research is venturing into the unknown.

    The prof I worked for was a master at the grant application process and managed to get grant funding which allowed us to carry on a long term project which was bleeding edge electrophysiology; when I see our work being quoted far more 20 years after we published our papers rather than immediately after I know it was good original work. However, that’s not the type of research that is encouraged.

    My solution was to switch from a research career to medicine. I was far more interested in the human neuropharmacology than the effects of drugs on single ion channels studied via patch clamping of chunks of membrane (where the labs research focus ended up going). I now have the ability to fund my own research or carry out simple observational research on my patient population. Getting my medical degree was my last contact with academia and I suspect that I’ll likely never set foot on a university again as what used to once be an organization dedicated to the pursuit of free inquiry and truth has since become the primary disseminator of a doctrine of political correctness and statist ideology. Universities have dispensed with the notion of objective truth and replaced it with socially acceptable truth. I refused a clinical associate position at UBC because to do so I would have to submit to the dictates of a state which considers certain lines of inquiry totally off limits. In Canada, the truth is considered to be no defense in matters dealing with “hate crimes” which one can be charged with for simply noting that HIV is almost exclusively a homosexual disease.

    What is needed is a return to the self-funded researcher. By prostituting themselves to the state, universities have as a result become extensions of the increasingly totalitarian state. Once the education bubble bursts it might be possible to rebuild universities in a form where free inquiry is the norm rather than indoctrination of students into acceptable modes of thought as well as providing junk “science” to support statist ideology (most noticeable in the area of climate “science”).

  121. I have to add some thing here. In the 80′s I worked on a farm that was dissected by a heavily (and narrow) traveled road. One early winter cold snap there was tremendous winter kill to over 75% of vineyards in our region. ( primary and secondary buds)
    But for some reason rows on either side of the roads were not damaged. Scientist, delegations and farmers from all over came to see this, at the time I was not “one of the chosen”. But in earshot of everyone I said ” what effect does all this traffic with their exhaust and other heat emissions have on these vines right besides the road??
    Well the reaction I guess in hind sight was priceless , instruments were set up observations made, air movement , temperature, etc, etc were done for weeks until??…….

    I told everyone the difference was that those vines were actually grown on a cold resistant root stock, even after all these years none of those guys ever forgave me LOL LOL!

  122. I’m just relieved at how distant from my own experince of academia this is. At the same time, it’s a shame that the author thinks his experiences characterise the whole of academia.

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