Some harsh realities about PhD

Some harsh realities about PhD

George C. G. Barbosa's photo
George C. G. Barbosa
·Jan 14, 2023·

3 min read

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This is a repost from Sreedath Panat.

I want to share my piece of mind about the impact of advisor relationships and lab culture on one's PhD experience. Some of the below points are publicly unspoken but privately agreed upon. The only reason I am writing this now is that I am getting several messages from students who have applied for PhD programs and are expecting admits; and they would like to know how to reach out to professors.

1. Your PhD experience is by far determined by your advisor, regardless of the university you attend. PhD is so different from an undergrad or masters program. In a course based program, you are experiencing the university. For the most part, you will arguably have similar experience as your batch mates. In PhD, the personality of the advisor can have more influence on you than the science you are investigating.

2. On average, the number of hours you work, the quality and number of papers you publish, the years it takes for you to graduate etc. heavily depends on the lab. You might feel like you are super smart and can get things done better that everyone else through hard work. But if people on average publish 1 paper during PhD in a certain lab, you are likely not going to publish 10 papers (not that numbers matter over quality).

3. I had the fortune to have an incredible advisor and lab during my PhD at MIT, and therefore had a great time doing research. However, this was not the case with some of my close friends who worked in the same department, a few blocks from my lab. When I write this post, I feel like I am speaking on behalf of some of them. The power dynamics between advisor and students in academia is so unfavorable to the students that your mental wellness for 5-6 years will depend on just one person. Departments and universities cannot do much about this.

4. If you have applied to or plan to apply for a PhD program, please, by all means, try to identify and avoid toxic labs and advisors when you get your admit. You might be incredibly passionate about some research area. But your passion for science will not help you survive a toxic work environment. Such labs do exist at all universities, including MIT. You cannot do much about it other than avoid them. If you already happen to be in one of them, try to switch labs before it is too late. I am speaking from second-hand experience here.

5. When you get an admit, you might feel like an imposter. You might feel like you don’t deserve a spot in any lab and might feel so grateful if any advisor takes you into their lab. As much as advisors do a thorough vetting of your profile, please talk to people and try to identify how a certain lab operates. Please avoid labs if you think your life can get difficult there.

PhD can be very rewarding. But I place your mental health over your scientific discovery. Please be very careful when you chose whom to work with, for the sake of your well-being. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions. Much love.

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