My parents are sitting opposite of me at an authentic ceramic table. We are in their new garden. They moved into this urban environment quite recently, leaving behind the economically dead village in which I was raised. They rather like it here. We drink wine and talk, about their new neighbours, their jobs, my travelling, the economic crisis…. Suddenly, my mother announces: “We organised a party to celebrate your PhD graduation.”
I felt my eyes enlarge, my body stiffen and I pressed my hand to my mouth to keep the wine inside while I swallowed with effort. Then I burst into uncomfortable laughter.
“Why on Earth would you want to celebrate that?” I blurted out.
My mum looked surprised.
“Well, it’s worth a celebration, isn’t it?”
Almost four years earlier I had graduated with an MSc degree in molecular biology, with good marks, and I had started my PhD at a high-ranked university, like a good girl. At the time, I truly believed that researchers in the ivory tower were idealists driven by the desire to make the world a better place through the advancement of knowledge. My faith in the university system, as the crucible of meritocratic refinement, was absolute: only the extremely knowledgeable and wonderfully intelligent would ever hold chairs and professorships. If you are not smart enough you would have to leave.
I believed in the goodness of people, I believed in the goodness of the ivory tower. I was ambitious and energetic, manically driven with the desire to become a scientist. I saw professors as intellectual role models. I would follow their path, as far as I could…
But four years later, in my parents’ garden, that seems like another person in another life. I was a disillusioned and defeated doctor now, without any future plans, to whom a degree from a famous university meant marginally less than a Girl Guides’ camping badge. I was drained and bored, run-down physically and spiritually. Ifelt useless and asked myself over and over again how my presumptions about the PhD could have been so naïve.
My parents knew little about my PhD. They knew that on the first day of my PhD it turned out that I did not have a desk or a computer- which even they were incredulous at. They also knew that I had a domineering supervisor. But my parents remained unaware of the full grimness of the situation – and were oblivious to my lack of research results.
They didn’t know that the rigidity of academic hierarchies would make Medieval Japan look like a hippie commune, and this would be writ large in the size of the lab and the equipment therein… not all group leaders at the university have the same academic status and not all conduct ground-breaking research. And if you were conducting unfavoured research in an unfavoured lab, it would be made plain to you on a daily basis that, in science, you ranked somewhat lower than the slime on a snail’s belly.
They didn’t know that I was sharing a tiny office – that would just fit a small car – with nine PhD students, a postdoc and several undergrads, like chickens in a battery cage. Not all of our grants had money for consumables, and the resultant financial stress was compounded by a nasty element of interpersonal power-plays.
They didn’t know that my boss wasn’t a mentor, as I expected him to be. That he was a foul-tempered, unpredictable megalomaniac whose mood might swing on football results.
They didn’t know that I was never even asked what drives me. My supervisor never showed the faintest hint of interest in the person carrying around four limbs, two of which could hold a pipette. It was other professors who helped me finish my degree, not him. I think my parents never realised how it felt to work for him and be dependent on him for all those years.
They didn’t know how I struggled with failure after failure, being tossed from one research project to the next, without ever seeing any light at the end of the tunnel.
They didn’t know that this was a world where unreachable glory was the goal and desperation was the order of the day.
They didn’t know I saw a world of collaboration of course, but also a world of brutal backstabbing. Or that the conferences I attended were mere talking shops, where discussing unpublished results – to advance the greater good of humanity – would bring punishment.
They didn’t know that it was a world where integrity was regularly slaughtered on the altar of financial desperation.
They didn’t know that research theft was unremarkable, and career advancement can be based entirely upon getting your name onto a paper… possibly for your great contribution, possibly as an entirely unmerited act of back-scratching.
They didn’t know that I had a profound lack of research results and, daily, I witnessed my life as a researcher go down the drain. My self-confidence dropped like a meteorite hitting Earth.
But they also didn’t know how I had met many hilarious personalities in the ivory tower. That those characters made me feel like sitting in a slapdash sitcom set and made me smile every single day. That I knew exactly which lab had the best coffee machine or the best espresso. That the last year of my PhD I mainly spent in the pub. That I made friends for life. And that I met good, beautiful intelligent lecturers and professors who fought hard on my behalf. People with the door wide open…People other PhD students in similar situations might not meet…
Ultimately, I was lucky.
But that day in my parents´ garden… My parents were still on cloud nine about their daughter having finished a PhD at a highly-ranked university, doing ground-breaking research on cystic fibrosis. They were talking about it as if I had been on a wonderful, noble mission which would – in the long term – save and enrich lives. I knew my dad would beam like a Cheshire cat whenever someone enquired what his daughters were doing. They probably did not have to enquire; he always contrived opportunities to brag about us as children. He is, like any good dad, embarrassingly proud of us. How could I tell him his youngest daughter, who just graduated with a PhD, has not generated one remotely significant result, nor learned anything scientifically useful, but had discovered that her passionate faith in the education system had been pure folly?
For them the title was still worth something; the two letters I had once craved made them proud. I have a PhD. I am a doctor – though that day in the garden I felt much closer to a tormented lab rat that survived against the odds.
I looked my mother in the eyes and said, “Okay, I come to your party.”
Written by Karin Bodewits, author of the campus novel ‘You Must Be Very Intelligent – The PhD Delusion (Springer Nature, 2017),’ speaker and co-founder of NaturalScience.Careers