A Resignation at EPFL – A rejection of mediocrity in academia or academic suicide? Cassandra or a wake up call?


EPFL

In the last few days an interesting missive has been circulating in the blogosphere, a letter of resignation from an anonymous PhD candidate at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, one of Europe’s top research institutes, outlining his frustration, and disappointment with the system of academic science and ultimately his rejection of continuing to participate in the system.

I picked up on the story at Pascal Junod’s blog in his post: An Aspiring Scientist’s Frustration with Modern-Day Academia: A Resignation.  Different people in the blogosphere have picked up on the note and are making hay of one type or anther with  it.  I have some thoughts which I will share below which I hope are not merely manure.  Opinions elsewhere vary:

It’s worth noting that Junod himself says his experience at EPFL

  • I don’t think that the exposed facts are a problematic unique to EPFL, nor to any other Swiss university: to the contrary, this is probably a worldwide phenomenon.
  • Finally, I would like to make very clear that I did not experience the same feelings at all during my (very happy) PhD times at EPFL. So, don’t try to make any parallel with my own experience.
  • Like the author, I don’t have any good idea how to change the system towards a better one.

Sean Summers an achievement oriented post-doc at ETH Zurich had a rather scathing response The Value of a Degree at his personal website.  He seem to have been grossly offended by the letter and didn’t seem to want to admit to any of the problems it outlined – and conducted a point by point rebuttal of the letter. He also doesn’t seem to allow comments on his articles either.
To boil his mindset down the “nitty gritty” [my ginsu editing]:

I know you didn’t mean to, but you offended me. On behalf of my friends and colleagues who are current and former PhD students, you offended me more. In fact, on behalf of everyone who has ever achieved something of personal importance, you have offended me…

…Here’s the thing. In the process though, you threw everyone (myself very recently included) with a PhD under a bus….

Your claim of widespread dishonesty in academia is offensive I don’t appreciate that you have thrown hard working individuals under the bus…

Mostly, I don’t like the way that you have devalued individual achievement.

I’m here to say that a PhD is remarkable; it is an amazing personal achievement worthy of pride.

Personal achievement in all shapes and form should be celebrated, with head held high.

Anthony Watts and crew over at WUWT have their own conversation rolling on the subject, A window into academia – via a resignation letter, which, predictably, runs the gamut.

Most interestingly of all, this is what the author of that note had to say in comments on Junod’s blog [emphasis added].

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, Pasca

And a little lower down in the comments:

One final point, and a very important one as many people seem to have this misconception:

My advisors were reasonably good, and I don’t want people assuming that I’m complaining about my own bad experiences with bad advisors.  As I said in the letter, I am not pointing fingers at anyone – these are conclusions reached after four years of study and conversations, and are quasi-objective as they reflect a multitude of opinions. I should have emphasized this in the letter, but didn’t due to lack of foresight.

I for one seemed to get that on the first reading – it was not a gripe, a whine, or a hit piece in my estimation.

This sees to be a historically significant document and one which has been released more or less freely into the noosphere.  It is some degrees akin to Mitchell Heisman’s September 2010 “Suicide Note” – both are a unique look into the thoughts and minds of an intelligent and articulate person who had become disillusioned with the system they were participating in, gave a careful and impersonal l critique of the system and then opted out.  Let’s hope that things wind up more positively for this fellow than they did for Heisman – he seems bright and full of talent.

Who am I to edit that?

I am reproducing the note in its entirety, as it has been on numerous websites worldwide already in the past few days.  The formatting has become a bit mangled in transmission, so I’ve repaired it as best I can.

The Note

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 advisers. However, as I prepared to write it I realized that the message here may be pertinent to anyone involved in research across the entire EPFL, and so have extended its range just a bit. Specifically, this is intended for graduate students, postdocs, senior researchers, and professors, as well as for the people at the highest tiers of the school’s management. To those who have gotten this and are not in those groups, I apologize for the spam.
While I could give a multitude of reasons for leaving my studies – some more concrete, others more abstract – the essential motivation stems from my personal conclusion that I’ve lost faith in today’s academia as being something that brings a positive benefit to the world/societies we live in. Rather, I’m starting to think of it as a big money vacuum that takes in grants and spits out nebulous results, fueled by people whose main concerns are not to advance knowledge and to effect positive change, though they may talk of such things, but to build their CVs and to propel/maintain their careers. But more on that later.
Before continuing, I want to be very clear about two things. First, not everything that I will say here is from my personal firsthand experience. Much is also based on conversations I’ve had with my peers, outside the EPFL and in, and reflects their experiences in addition to my own. Second, any negative statements that I make in this letter should not be taken to heart by all of its readers. It is not my intention to demonize anyone, nor to target specific individuals. I will add that, both here and elsewhere, I have met some excellent people and would not – not in a hundred years – dare accuse them of what I wrote in the previous paragraph. However, my fear and suspicion is that these people are few, and that all but the most successful ones are being marginalized by a system that, feeding on our innate human weaknesses, is quickly getting out of control.
I don’t know how many of the PhD students reading this entered their PhD programs with the desire to actually *learn* and to somehow contribute to science in a positive manner. Personally, I did.  If you did, too, then you’ve probably shared at least some of the frustrations that I’m going to describe next.
(1) Academia: It’s Not Science, It’s Business
I’m going to start with the supposition that the goal of “science” is to search for truth, to improve our understanding of the universe around us, and to somehow use this understanding to move the world towards a better tomorrow. At least, this is the propaganda that we’ve often been fed while still young, and this is generally the propaganda that universities that do research use to put themselves on lofty moral ground, to decorate their websites, and to recruit naïve youngsters like myself.
I’m also going to suppose that in order to find truth, the basic prerequisite is that you, as a researcher, have to be brutally honest – first and foremost, with yourself and about the quality of your own work. Here one immediately encounters a contradiction, as such honesty appears to have a very minor role in many people’s agendas. Very quickly after your initiation in the academic world, you learn that being “too honest” about your work is a bad thing and that stating your research’s shortcomings “too openly” is a big faux pas. Instead, you are taught to “sell” your work, to worry about your “image”, and to be strategic in your vocabulary and where you use it. Preference is given to good presentation over good content – a priority that, though understandable at times, has now gone overboard. The “evil” kind of networking (see, e.g.,http://thoughtcatalog.com/2011/networking-good-vs-evil/) seems to be openly encouraged. With so many business-esque things to worry about, it’s actually surprising that *any* scientific research still gets done these days. Or perhaps not, since it’s precisely the naïve PhDs, still new to the ropes, who do almost all of it.
(2) Academia: Work Hard, Young Padawan, So That One Day You Too May Manage!
I sometimes find it both funny and frightening that the majority of the world’s academic research is actually being done by people like me, who don’t even have a PhD degree. Many advisers, whom you would expect to truly be pushing science forward with their decades of experience, do surprisingly little and only appear to manage the PhD students, who slave away on papers that their advisers then put their names on as a sort of “fee” for having taken the time to read the document (sometimes, in particularly desperate cases, they may even try to steal first authorship). Rarely do I hear of advisers who actually go through their students’ work in full rigor and detail, with many apparently having adopted the “if it looks fine, we can submit it for publication” approach.
Apart from feeling the gross unfairness of the whole thing – the students, who do the real work, are paid/rewarded amazingly little, while those who manage it, however superficially, are paid/rewarded amazingly much – the PhD student is often left wondering if they are only doing science now so that they may themselves manage later. The worst is when a PhD who wants to stay in academia accepts this and begins to play on the other side of the table. Every PhD student reading this will inevitably know someone unlucky enough to have fallen upon an advisor who has accepted this sort of management and is now inflicting it on their own students – forcing them to write paper after paper and to work ridiculous hours so that the advisor may advance his/her career or, as if often the case, obtain tenure. This is unacceptable and needs to stop. And yet as I write this I am reminded of how EPFL has instituted its own tenure-track system not too long ago.
(3) Academia: The Backwards Mentality
A very saddening aspect of the whole academic system is the amount of self-deception that goes on, which is a “skill” that many new recruits are forced to master early on… or perish. As many PhD students don’t truly get to choose their research topic, they are forced to adopt what their advisers do and to do “something original” on it that could one day be turned into a thesis. This is all fine and good when the topic is genuinely interesting and carries a lot of potential. Personally, I was lucky to have this be the case for me, but I also know enough people who, after being given their topic, realized that the research direction was of marginal importance and not as interesting as it was hyped up by their adviser to be.
This seems to leave the student with a nasty ultimatum. Clearly, simply telling the adviser that the research is not promising/original does not work – the adviser has already invested too much of his time, reputation, and career into the topic and will not be convinced by someone half his age that he’s made a mistake. If the student insists, he/she will be labeled as “stubborn” and, if the insisting is too strong, may not be able to obtain the PhD. The alternative, however unpleasant, is to lie to yourself and to find arguments that you’re morally comfortable with that somehow convince you that what you’re doing has important scientific value. For those for whom obtaining a PhD is a *must* (usually for financial reasons), the choice, however tragic, is obvious.
The real problem is that this habit can easily carry over into one’s postgraduate studies, until the student themselves becomes like the professor, with the backwards mentality of “it is important because I’ve spent too many years working on it”.
(4) Academia: Where Originality Will Hurt You
The good, healthy mentality would naturally be to work on research that we believe is important. Unfortunately, most such research is challenging and difficult to publish, and the current publish-or-perish system makes it difficult to put bread on the table while working on problems that require at least ten years of 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. I acknowledge that this is difficult, and ultimately cannot criticize the people who choose not to pursue such “risky” problems.
Ideally, the academic system would encourage those people who are already well established and trusted to pursue these challenges, and I’m sure that some already do. However, I cannot help but get the impression that the majority of us are avoiding the real issues and pursuing minor, easy problems that we know can be solved and published. The result is a gigantic literature full of marginal/repetitive contributions. This, however, is not necessarily a bad thing if it’s a good CV that you’re after.
(5) Academia: The Black Hole of Bandwagon Research
Indeed, writing lots of papers of questionable value about a given popular topic seems to be a very good way to advance your academic career these days. The advantages are clear: there is no need to convince anyone that the topic is pertinent and you are very likely to be cited more since more people are likely to work on similar things. This will, in turn, raise your impact factor and will help to establish you as a credible researcher, regardless of whether your work is actually good/important or not. It also establishes a sort of stable network, where you pat other (equally opportunistic) researchers on the back while they pat away at yours.
Unfortunately, not only does this lead to quantity over quality, but many researchers, having grown dependent on the bandwagon, then need to find ways to keep it alive even when the field begins to stagnate. The results are usually disastrous. Either the researchers begin to think up of creative but completely absurd extensions of their methods to applications for which they are not appropriate, or they attempt to suppress other researchers who propose more original alternatives (usually, they do both). This, in turn, discourages new researchers from pursuing original alternatives and encourages them to join the bandwagon, which, though founded on a good idea, has now stagnated and is maintained by nothing but the pure will of the community that has become dependent on it. It becomes a giant, money-wasting mess.
(6) Academia: Statistics Galore!
“Professors with papers are like children,” a professor once told me. And, indeed, there seems to exist an unhealthy obsession among academics regarding their numbers of citations, impact factors, and numbers of publications. This leads to all sorts of nonsense, such as academics making “strategic citations”, writing “anonymous” peer reviews where they encourage the authors of the reviewed paper to cite their work, and gently trying to tell their colleagues about their recent work at conferences or other networking events or sometimes even trying to slip each other their papers with a “I’ll-read-yours-if-you-read-mine” wink and nod. No one, when asked if they care about their citations, will ever admit to it, and yet these same people will still know the numbers by heart. I admit that I’ve been there before, and hate myself for it.
At the EPFL, the dean sends us an e-mail every year saying how the school is doing in the rankings, and we are usually told that we are doing well. I always ask myself what the point of these e-mails is. Why should it matter to a scientist if his institution is ranked tenth or eleventh by such and such committee? Is it to boost our already overblown egos? Wouldn’t it be nicer for the dean to send us an annual report showing how EPFL’s work is affecting the world, or how it has contributed to resolving certain important problems? Instead, we get these stupid numbers that tell us what universities we can look down on and what universities we need to surpass.
(7) Academia: The Violent Land of Giant Egos
I often wonder if many people in academia come from insecure childhoods where they were never the strongest or the most popular among their peers, and, having studied more than their peers, are now out for revenge. I suspect that yes, since it is the only explanation I can give to explain why certain researchers attack, in the bad way, other researchers’ work. Perhaps the most common manifestation of this is via peer reviews, where these people abuse their anonymity to tell you, in no ambiguous terms, that you are an idiot and that your work isn’t worth a pile of dung. Occasionally, some have the gall to do the same during conferences, though I’ve yet to witness this latter manifestation personally.
More than once I’ve heard leading researchers in different fields refer to other methods with such beautiful descriptions as “garbage” or “trash”, sometimes even extending these qualifiers to pioneering methods whose only crime is that they are several decades old and which, as scientists, we ought to respect as a man respects his elders. Sometimes, these people will take a break from saying bad things about people in their own fields and turn their attention to other domains – engineering academics, for example, will sometimes make fun of the research done in the humanities, ridiculing it as ludicrous and inconsequential, as if what they did was more important.
(8) Academia: The Greatest Trick It Ever Pulled was Convincing the World That It was Necessary
Perhaps the most crucial, piercing question that the people in academia should ask themselves is this: “Are we really needed?” Year after year, the system takes in tons of money via all sorts of grants. Much of this money then goes to pay underpaid and under appreciated PhD students who, with or without the help of their advisors, produce some results. In many cases, these results are incomprehensible to all except a small circle, which makes their value difficult to evaluate in any sort of objective manner. In some rare cases, the incomprehensibility is actually justified – the result may be very powerful but may, for example, require a lot of mathematical development that you really do need a PhD to understand. In many cases, however, the result, though requiring a lot of very cool math, is close to useless in application.
This is fine, because real progress is slow. What’s bothersome, however, is how long a purely theoretical result can be milked for grants before the researchers decide to produce something practically useful. Worse yet, there often does not appear to be a strong urge for people in academia to go and apply their result, even when this becomes possible, which most likely stems from the fear of failure – you are morally comfortable researching your method as long as it works in theory, but nothing would hurt more than to try to apply it and to learn that it doesn’t work in reality. No one likes to publish papers which show how their method fails (although, from a scientific perspective, they’re obliged to).
These are just some examples of things that, from my humble perspective, are “wrong” with academia. Other people could probably add others, and we could go and write a book about it. The problem, as I see it, is that we are not doing very much to remedy these issues, and that a lot of people have already accepted that “true science” is simply an ideal that will inevitably disappear with the current system proceeding along as it is. As such, why risk our careers and reputations to fight for some noble cause that most of academia won’t really appreciate anyway?
I’m going to conclude this letter by saying that I don’t have a solution to these things. Leaving my PhD is certainly not a solution – it is merely a personal decision – and I don’t encourage other people to do anything of the sort. What I do encourage is some sort of awareness and responsibility. I think that there are many of us, certainly in my generation, who would like to see “academia” be synonymous with “science”. I know I would, but I’ve given up on this happening and so will pursue true science by some other path.
While there was a time when I thought that I would be proud to have the letters “PhD” after my name, this is unfortunately no longer the case. However, nothing can take away the knowledge that I’ve gained during these four years, and for that, EPFL, I remain eternally grateful.
My sincerest thanks for reading this far

The Meme Merchant Response

Well, as disappointing as it may seem, reading between the lines of his argument, the fellow, who ever he may be, seems to have woken up and smelled the coffee and realized that the work he has been doing doesn’t represent either what his individual interests are or are scientifically or socially worth while,  and left.

I think this may be good for him.  Obviously he seems to feel that walking away from all of that work isn’t in his worse interest.

Good luck to him in his future endeavors.

Hopefully he’ll wind up in a real, lab somewhere doing what he feels is real and valuable 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…

This seems to be a symptom of a larger problem that many outside of academia have been commenting on for years, namely the degradation of institutionalized science into some kind of academic racketeering operation.

Academia is along established institution.  All long established institutions share a common phenomenology – they serve to protect mediocrity and stifle genuine innovation.  Institutions are often [though not always] created for some original purpose as an innovative impulse, usually that of an exceptional innovator.  That purpose inevitably degenerates into self-perpetuation of the institution, rather that innovation – the rest becomes window-dressing.  Of course it is often the case with political institutions in particular – and academic institutions are by their nature quasi-political – that they are founded precisely to shore up a status quo and stifle any outbreak of novelty or innovation.  The exceptional and innovative of course do exist in academia and elsewhere, but the academic institution is often at odds with them – my outsider take on the situation.

A totalizing statement yes, but could somebody please find me a strong counter example?

In the cases where institutions are created as an auxiliary to some innovative or creative impulse, for example that of some great innovator who creates an institution to further his work, once that innovator leaves the scene the decline sets in; the institution has lost its original function, realizing the innovators genius.  You cannot institutionalize innovation, innovation and institutionalization are contrary impulses.  The best that an institution can do is recognize the real innovators in their midst and get the hell out of their way and let them try, fail, and succeed and give them the necessary resources and support along the way.

Spengler  ©2012 Atani Studios

Oswald Spengler                                                                                                  ©2012 Atani Studios

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 con-men on one hand, and disruptive innovators on the other… …For every Thomas Edison there are a hundred candidates for commitment to state mental health facilities.

Most people don’t like disruption. They want to acquire a skill, work reasonable hours, secure reasonable pay, watch television in the evening and play golf or whatever on the weekends. They don’t look deeply into the matters that concern them and are content to do what other people in their position do. If they are diligent, reliable, well-mannered and polite, they are just the sort of folk that the human relations types at corporations prefer.

In this way, academic science seems to have become indistinguishable from Coase’s and Spengler’s Firm.  With this letter of resignation we have an insider’s acknowledgement of the situation.

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

W^3

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