25

My field is extremely competitive for tenure track jobs that I:

  1. will most likely be unable to land after graduation
  2. don't even really desire anymore.

In comparison to my classmates, my research productivity is absolutely pitiful. It is stymied by an apathy for my subfield and academia in general that has developed over my 2 year tenure in the program.

Problem is, I can't get the industry jobs I want right now due to underdeveloped programming skills and inadequate networking. My best bet is to stick around and beef these up until I see an opportunity to leave.

If I drop out now with my master's, I will have to start out at square one and get entry level work that uses none of the skills I have developed (we're talking competition w/ HS grads).

However, I have already told my advisor about my doubts for a future in academia. They approved an academic leave request due to some issues in my personal life. At the end of my leave period, I have to tell my advisor that I wish to complete the program and stay in academia.

On one hand, my situation is not so different from any other PhD student forced to go alt-ac due to disinterest or poor performance, but on the other hand, I will have to mislead my advisor to return.

I only want to continue at this point for job prospects, and my advisor won't be inclined to take me back if I tell them this.

I am willing to pick up the pace with my research and get the PhD, so it won't be a complete waste for my advisor, but it will still be largely a waste of their resources.

A similar question by another PhD student can be found here - When is the right time to tell my advisor that I plan on leaving my PhD program?

  • 98
    I'm confused. Why can't you tell your advisor that you're not interested in academia, but are interested in finishing your PhD and getting a job that takes advantage of your PhD-level research skills? Why would this be a waste of your advisor's resources? – ff524 Oct 24 '17 at 7:37
  • 4
    That's a good point. Thanks for your response. However, my advisor seems to be especially invested in making me a viable academic researcher because I am their first student and have used a lot of their startup funds. My field is also not typically industry-bound like, for example, engineering, so any reputation boost my advisor could hope to get from me is nil. [It's also why a transition to industry is going to be incredibly rough; only a tiny fraction of my PhD work will be applicable] I'm not sure if they will go for it. – user81856 Oct 24 '17 at 7:49
  • 55
    A graduating PhD student is not a waste of an advisor's time or resources, no matter where they go afterward. It's your PhD. Your career goals matter more than your advisor's. – JeffE Oct 24 '17 at 12:23
  • 4
    And note also that advisors usually already know that, eventually, some, possibly many, of their PhD students would not end up in academia anyway. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 24 '17 at 12:35
  • 5
    @SKOR2 Now all his efforts go to prepare you for an academic career, that means wasted time on his and your side. If you tell him, he may be able to help guide your career towards a career in industry. If you only tell him that it's never been an option after he spent all the time trying to guide you to an academic career, he'd have all reason to be somewhat angry about the wasted time and in particular, he cannot retroactively help you (and might not be inclined to go out of his way to help looking for a job / write a recommendation letter after you just wasted part of his support efforts). – Frank Hopkins Oct 24 '17 at 13:06
37

Questions of ethics are always murky. Let's try to untangle it a bit.

Staying in PhD program with no intention of being an academic.

There is no ethical dilemma in this. Really. I don't know where the notion came from that PhD studies should only develop future professors. It does not and cannot work like that, otherwise every professor could, on average, only supervise a single student his entire career, or professors would proliferate exponentially.

Misleading my advisor about this.

Misleading your advisor is quite obviously a problem. The question is why you need to mislead your advisor in the first place. As said above, it should be completely ok to work hard on your PhD and go to industry afterwards.

to stick around and beef these up until I see an opportunity to leave.

Ok, now we have a big problem. You are essentially intending to misuse your funding to not work on your research, but to ramp up your industry career. That's not ok and you probably know it. Contrary to your statement, this is also decidedly not the same as trying for an academic career and not making it. It's the same as getting a grant / stipend to do research and then using it for unrelated personal training.

Let me make this clear: you are paid (in salary or stipend) to do research, not to learn to program and build a network for industry job searching. Pretending to do the one and then doing the other is obviously unethical, even if you would not need to lie to your advisor about this. There may be some synergies (e.g., you build your network through research interactions with industry, or you learn to program because your research requires it), but doing things entirely unrelated to your research because you suspect they help you find a job is not ethical. It only gets worse if you need to lie about doing it.

I am willing to pick up the pace with my research and get the PhD.

Great! Do that instead. Do not misuse your time to train for an industry job, but finish your PhD. Conduct the best research you can. Collaborate and write papers. See if you can twist your research in a way that you learn more skills that will help in industry (not do things unrelated to research, but try to find synergies if possible). Train for a potential industry career on the side, outside of work.

Tell your advisor exactly this. You are not sure if you would want to stay in academia, but you will be writing the best dissertation that you possibly can. Don't get all emotional about it, or talk about apathy for your field. Don't make it your or your advisor's fault either - you just found over the long time of a PhD that academia, while interesting, is ultimately not for you. It happens to many (most?) students. Your advisor may be disappointed, but unless there is already a big conflict between the two of you, I cannot imagine him kicking you out over this.

I think the big misunderstanding here may be that you think your main contribution to your advisor's CV is you becoming a professor yourself, and otherwise you are worthless to him. Without knowing your university, your advisor's promotion case, or any other details, I am still willing to bet that this is not the case.

The main career benefit to your advisor lies in the research results you produce, and the papers you write. A secondary factor may be that you graduate, independently of what you do after. That is, in many universities, it is important for tenure and promotion cases that you have a certain number of students that graduated successfully. It always looks nice to be able to say that your students have been successful afterwards (for some definition of "success"), but I really think that the other two factors are much more important to your advisor. Just make clear that your decision to go to industry does not mean that you will try to do the weakest PhD that they let you graduate with (and mean it), and you should be fine.

  • 5
    The OP can both work to finish your PhD, and beef up the industry skills using spare time. – Rui F Ribeiro Oct 24 '17 at 14:26
  • 1
    I have to beef up both my stats and programming skills to either continue in the program or leave for industry. – user81856 Oct 25 '17 at 18:22
  • otherwise every professor could, on average, only supervise a single student his entire career - I morally agree, but technically this wouldn't prevent faculty at research schools from supervising many PhDs as many faculty (at least in the US) never have any PhD students (e.g., most faculty at non-research schools). – Kimball Oct 25 '17 at 23:08
  • @Kimball Yeah, ok - so it's like 2 or 3 PhD students per professor. I don't think this changes the sentiment of my remark. (also, I wonder if those people that look down on students going into industry after their PhD would call a position at a non-research institution a success) – xLeitix Oct 26 '17 at 10:49
69

As a PhD student, you don't have to want an academic career. It's not unethical to pursue a PhD with no intention of staying in academia afterward.

But lying about your plans and deliberately misleading is wrong and unfair to your advisor.

You wrote:

However, my advisor seems to be especially invested in making me a viable academic researcher because I am their first student and have used a lot of their startup funds. My field is also not typically industry-bound like, for example, engineering, so any reputation boost my advisor could hope to get from me is nil.

If your advisor is a new professor whose own career success really depends on graduating PhD students who go on to academic careers, letting them invest everything in you under false pretenses is obviously wrong and unethical.

It sounds like you don't really want to finish your PhD (I infer this from your "apathy for my subfield and academia in general"), and you think your advisor wouldn't want you to stick around for a few more years under the circumstances, either. On the other hand, finishing out the academic year - giving you time to look for a job, and giving your advisor time to find another PhD student in this application cycle, while you wrap up and publish your current work - sounds like a win-win. But you should tell your advisor right away, so that the two of you can make informed plans for the future.

I suggest you come up with a plan for preparing yourself for the job market during this academic year, then have that talk with your advisor, and make the most of your remaining time.

On the other hand, if you really do want to finish your PhD, tell your advisor that you're not interested in academia, but are interested in finishing your PhD and getting a job that takes advantage of your PhD-level research skills. (Many of the skills acquired by successful PhD students are fairly transferable.) Your advisor may be more willing to support you than you think - successfully graduating PhD students is important for new professors, even if the student isn't interested in academia in the end. But you need to let your advisor make that choice: lying to someone so that they will give you multiple years of research support just so that you can buy time to train yourself for an unrelated career, is wrong.

  • It wouldn't be a win-win for the reason that I literally have about zero chances of landing anything besides retail or secretarial work. – user81856 Oct 24 '17 at 8:15
  • 4
    @SKOR2 after finishing out this academic year? It's only October. You mentioned wanting to do some networking and practicing programming skills - why can't you do that this year, then apply for jobs in April/May? How many additional years were you planning to take to prepare for the kinds of jobs you are interested in? – ff524 Oct 24 '17 at 8:34
  • At least a year. And because I am on leave, I am not even in town at the university; I'm out of state, so networking using the school's resources is pretty much out of the question. – user81856 Oct 24 '17 at 8:43
  • 24
    @SKOR2 I think you must realize that asking for multiple years of research support just so that you can buy time to train yourself for an unrelated career, is wrong. I suggest you come up with a plan for preparing yourself for the job market during this academic year, then have that talk with your advisor, and make the most of your remaining time. – ff524 Oct 24 '17 at 8:52
  • 11
    @ff524 I assume both you and OP are in the same academic culture because you mention academic years and OP does not ask ‘what is that’ but note that for example in Europe a PhD project is typically not tied to any type of academic year or semester structure in the slightest. You start when you start (I started in January, mid-semester) and you finish when you finish (I defended in May, second month of the semester). Also, at least in Germany academic years are practically not referred to anywhere (semester is the defining unit). – Jan Oct 24 '17 at 13:17
4

I am a PhD since many years now. I have been in and out of academia since 2005. I was just like you.

I think that you really should consider completing your PhD programme. The reason for this is that you cannot judge, yourself, whether your progress is going well or not. Some students start really slow, but get some insights or discoveries later that are really impressive. I know that "others" performed more than me during their first years, but in the long run there is another discussion. Science is a slow process, and we cannot tell beforehand if a graduate student will become a good or successful researcher. I was also shocked how different professors thought of us grad students. Some where really impressed with one student, while others were not at all impressed. As a more seasoned academic, there are many different qualities in researchers that are important. Students, however, rarely see this. Instead, they compare with each other. This is a huge mistake.

I remember one professor who was very encouraging to me, despite the fact that I have smaller productivity. He said, look at the others' publications. How are they different from each other? Usually, there is just one idea or question for an entire dissertation, and this idea was generated by their supervisors. Subsequently, the professor told me that I hade the mind, independence and pre-requisites to become a great researcher in the future. This changed my "envy" of my competitors' productivity.

Furthermore, don't look ahead and make guesses about your chances to land a job in the future. You cannot predict the future, and hence you shouldn't worry that much about it right now. You can do that when your thesis is about done. My job prospects are still very limited, but I have created a new job that didn't exist before.

Also, we are talking about your education here, not the resources of your department or supervisor.

I would advice you to do a game theory solution. I would keep grinding the halls of science, but apply for a job that you find really, really interesting from time to time. If you suddenly land a great job opportunity, your advisor will understand that you got an offer you cannot refuse. If that happens, drop out. If not, graduate and be really proud of your accomplishment.

Finally, this is advice I give to all grad students. A thesis should be done, not perfect.

  • It sounds like you did the PhD the right way - just one that can be really incompatible with the "publish or perish" culture. Unfortunately for me, I'm in league with the other students from your program. A large part of why I'm freaking out is that I don't know how to proceed with independent research, at least not in my subfield. It's not unreasonable in my subfield to be where I'm at because it's highly specialized/technical and has a steeper learning curve from undergrad compared to other subfields in my broader discipline, but I feel too locked in to pivot to them. – user81856 Oct 25 '17 at 18:36
0

As others have said, you have no obligation to pursue or want to pursue an academic career after your PhD. Frankly I think that your supervisor has been extremely unethical by attaching that condition to your continuing in the program. So if I were you I would not be worried in the slightest about concealing your post PhD plans from him/her. It is absolutely none of their business what you plan to do after your PhD. It sounds to me (based only on what you said) that your supervisor is only in it for his own benefit - he wants to be able to say on his CV that he supervised someone who has gone on to great things in academia and possibly wants to benefit from future collaboration with his student. That is what is unethical in this situation. He should be first and foremost concerned with helping you to complete if that is what you want to do - regardless of your post degree intentions.

Having said all that, my tentative suggestion is to make whatever decision is best for you. If that means continuing and trying to complete, then tell your supervisor what he wants to hear regarding your plans, work hard to complete and then when you complete, go and do whatever you want and ignore anything that you may have said to your supervisor. I guess that you may want some letters of reference from him, so if necessary put in a few token academic job applications so you get a reference and then you can apply for whatever you want at that point.

I say this as someone who has supervised 2 PhDs to completion and is currently supervising 2 more. I would never dream of imposing ridiculous conditions on my students. It is hard enough to complete a PhD without having to deal with a selfish supervisor. Look after yourself in this situation first and foremost.

-1

I will try to make this short. I was in your shoes 2 years ago. I was passionate about my field when I entered the program, but my interest had waned within 2 years into the program. It was impossible for me land a job in my research area because of security clearance issue as I was an international student, which was one of the reason why I lost interest, and I didn't consider myself smart enough to have successful career in academia. Let's say I was one of those average student and being average in academia is equivalent to be a failure.I told my PI that I am not interested pursuing my Phd and wanted to leave with my masters. He reduced my stipend for final semester and let me walk away.

Looks like you've drained yourself out mentally as I had once done to myself. I'd suggest that you should put your well-being first and foremost, have an exit strategy, don't think too much about being ethical (nobody knows about your struggle), get your shit together, and leave if you have to. Also, be prepared for the struggle of landing a job once you leave school.

  • Yeah, you did a good job picking up on the subtext. I am really at a very low point right now. Even with lost passion for the field, I would still have produced good work if I was at my best. I bet we are in similar research areas if you also think being average is akin to failure. The competition is incredibly fierce. Unless something magical happens in the next 2-3 years and I get my mojo back, academia is really not in the realm of possibilities. It's not quite as bad as some of the humanities folks have it, but it's still pretty intense. – user81856 Oct 25 '17 at 18:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy