Science

A PhD experience

Robbed of illusions

Karin Bodewits was young and idealistic when she swapped Groningen for Edinburgh and a PhD position. Four years later, she left, feeling disillusioned. ‘Young academics don’t deserve to be treated like garbage.’
By Christien Boomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Illustrations by Vanessa Czerwenka

Perhaps she should have known better. Her supervisor in Groningen knew people in Oxford. In Cambridge. He was convinced he’d be able to get Karin Bodewits a doctoral position at either of these institutes when she got her microbiology degree. But she’d have to wait a year.

And Bodewits didn’t want that. What was she supposed to do during that year? ‘Get a job at a bakery or something?’

She found a PhD spot herself, at the University of Edinburgh, an old university in an old city, at number 32 on the Shanghai rankings. That’s where she wanted to go.

Four years later – in 2011 – she had earned her degree, but she had been robbed of her illusions. She wrote a book about it: You must be very intelligent. The PhD Delusion. The novel – call it Sex and the city and science, as she describes it herself – is emphatically not autobiographical, even though the main character is called Karin, just like her. And studied in Groningen, just like her. Worked at Unilever, just like her. And tried to survive in a lab in Edinburgh, with an incompetent professor, facilities as old as Methuselah, and colleagues who let nothing stand in their way in order to move up the academic ladder. Just like her.

Is she sure it’s not autobiographical? She laughs. ‘It’s inspired by my own experiences’, she says. ‘I could have gone for pure fiction – a PhD student in a non-existent university – but then it wouldn’t have the impact I want it to have.’

This means there is no such place as Lab 262, and her supervisor was not called Mark. But her first experience, when she arrived for her very first day in her new lab? That one is true.

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I look around to hang my coat and drop my bag, but all desks and chairs seem to be in use. “Which desk may I use?” I ask, brightly of course.

One girl, who has bubblegum pink hair cut in an asymmetrical bob that makes her face look much longer than it actually is, moves her head in my direction, opens her eyes as wide as possible, sniffs and says, “You don’t have a desk.”

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Not only did she not have a desk, but she didn’t have a computer, either. She tried to make do with her laptop, but connecting an Apple device to the university network was a no-go, and in 2007, no Wi-Fi signal could penetrate down into the basement lab. She would soon find out that she would have to beg for even the most basic chemicals she needed for her research into cystic fibrosis.

There was a reason everyone had looked at her with sympathy when she applied for the position. And why it had been so easy to get it, even though she had been severely hung over during the interview.

‘I never got the idea that there was any strong hierarchy among the professors in Groningen’, she says. ‘Everyone was respected equally. And the labs weren’t very different from each other, either.’

But in Edinburgh, she ended up in a lab run by a man who had started out as a ‘lecturer’, the lowest staff position in the ranks. But in the British system, anyone simply doing their job eventually automatically moves on to ‘senior lecturer’ and eventually to ‘reader’. ‘Like working for the municipality.’

In other words, talent has nothing to do with it. Not to mention leadership qualities.

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Breathe, breathe, bloody breathe! Don’t shout back at him. You are above all that and it will get you nowhere.

‘I am working on WaaA an LpxC,’ I reply, fearing this will confirm I am a bad person.

He scowls. ‘Have you ordered the primers for LpxA yet?’

‘No,’ I say, ever so softly, head bowed.

My knees are getting weak, my heart starts beating at high speed and I want to sink in the ground. I am sure we agreed I should work in WaaA and LpxC. Why does he suddenly bring up LpxA? Did I misunderstand? No, I didn’t!

‘I want you to work on that now,’ he snarls.

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It led to constant confusion about what she was expected to do. Her supervisor was prone to unexpected outbursts, repeatedly led her astray in her research, was rarely present at the lab itself and when he was, he gave conflicting advice. ‘In those four years, I never once got a compliment.’ The question remains whether he even understood the work his PhD students sent him. Or whether he even read it.

Bodewits knows she was not the only one to have this experience, and that ‘Lab 262’ wasn’t the only lab where things like this happened.  After getting her degree, she went to Munich to mentor PhD students. In 2012, she started the company NaturalScience.Careers, which offers seminars and coaching courses for PhD and post-doctoral students all over Europe. Young academics have been telling her about their experiences ever since. They are shocking, she says.

Her experience in Edinburgh led to a light depression, something she didn’t actually notice until she had got her degree. ‘It took me eighteen months to get over my PhD’, she now says. During her time there, she did not allow herself the luxury of having doubts about her situation. ‘When I start something, I finish it. That’s how I was raised.’

From stories from PhD students who knocked on her door, she knows it could be much, much worse. ‘Many of them end up in a full-blown depression. People whose supervisors lose interest in their research, meaning that even after three or four years they don’t get their doctoral degree and no one bothers to explain to them why. It never even enters their minds to quit. I certainly never thought about it.’

And that’s ridiculous. So much time and effort is spent on making sure that bachelor and master students are happy, she says. ‘But no one cares whether PhD or post-doctoral students are happy. We’re talking about smart, driven young people here. At the very least, they deserve a professor who has taken a course in leadership.’

PhD students are cheap labour, she says. There are too many of them; people who will never have a permanent position in science. Their passion and idealism are poorly rewarded, says Bodewits. ‘We should treat them better, and not just drop them when they reach the age of forty.’

And let us not forget the cut-throat competition. When Bodewits left for Scotland, she was hoping to meet smart, driven people who shared their insights in an effort to help science forward. No one had told her about the insane competition, the might of people with money, or the powerlessness of PhD students without money. ‘I have nothing against competition per se, but this was just unhealthy,’ she says.

She went to conferences where colleagues refused to share any actual information, because they had been told not to say anything. One of her friends died of cancer while doing his PhD. His project, she writes, was offered to someone else the day after his funeral. Its supervisor felt that the project had lain dormant for too long due to the student’s illness. And when she herself was almost done with an article, her lab’s post-doc paid her a visit.

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‘Uh… about this article you’re writing,’ he says, opening his mouth a bit too far, moving his lower jaw from left to right, as if he isn’t yet sure what words to use next.

‘It’s already finished. What about it?’

I speak guardedly, but I am eager to know where this can possibly be going. The article concerns the project I took over from Erico and it has nothing to do with Barry. He did help Peter when I had been in Firbush, plus on the one morning I had been too hungover to come in. And we did ask him for advice on the protein assays when we got stuck, as he is supposedly ‘an expert’ on that, but that was it.

‘I want to be first author on that paper,’ he says.

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This, too, happens all the time, both in labs and between labs. Labs who collaborate to get something published, who make deals about authorship, but when push comes to shove, they take credit for things they haven’t done. ‘You can choose: either you’re listed as a second author in Nature, or you can publish alone, in a second-rate journal.’ Academic performance doesn’t even come into it.

She wants to tell people, to effect a change. And so last year she finished the book she had started writing a few months after she started her PhD. It’s not meant as a lament, but rather as a humorous, sharp take on that world.

Yet she wouldn’t have missed her time in Edinburgh for the world, she says. She learned so much, and made great friends who are still dear to her. And yet. It could have been such much better. And she feels that today’s scientists deserve that, too.

You Must Be Very Intelligent – The PhD Delusion

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