I am a PhD student sponsored by a company and considering leaving after three months.
This is a opportunity offered by my supervisor because he has a good relationship with the company and the company started a meaningful project. Right after I graduated my master degree, my supervisor suggested the company to offer my a three month pre-PhD summer job that I could start the project earlier while waiting the start date of my PhD.
To be honest, I found myself under pressure during the three months summer job because I was assigned heavy workload and something I’m not familiar with. This is a tiny size company (less than 10 people), I would say it is very not organised too. The development team has only one full time employee but he’s also working like a part time on this project. Even the project manager is a part time employee. Thus, everything relied on me. I did consider not starting the PhD and just let go the “golden” opportunity.
I thought that I would be protected by the uni once I officially started my PhD. But I am afraid this is not correct. After I started, things even got worse, the company lost 2 managers in a very short period. As I am a full time PhD student working on the research part of the company’s project, I don’t think I’m supposed to be assigned operational work. I was happy to accept this kind of workload as I think the company is paying real money for sponsoring my PhD. They requested 40% of my work time, which means 2 work days to focus on the company work. They kept adding workload, sudden meetings and very tight deadlines, I was under great pressure and that ruined my schedule.
I have been keeping weekly reports and have reported issues to my academic supervisors. I am very surprised that I have raised the same issue three times within the first three months of my PhD. We have a big meeting every after I “complain”. The CEO (my industrial supervisor) of the company agreed he would change the situation, and promised that I have the right to say no to the non research related work. From my experience, he forgets what’s been agreed after two weeks and just keeps asking for 40% of my work time.
I had the third meeting regarding the same issue with them this afternoon. From my point of view, what the CEO said today was pretty much the same as the last 2 times. What I remember the most from the chat today is the CEO mentioned even the tight deadline could be changed when needed, we have to keep both internal and external communication running. However, this is a little bit different comparing to his actions. Last month, he didn’t even consider pushing back the deadline but requested me to finish the limited demo in 2 days, which put me under great pressure and ruined my schedule, I had no time to prepare the conference presentation. He told my supervisor things are flexible and not seeing me as a developer. But what I’m feeling is he treats me like a full time product developer, leave me no time for research, and nothing can be changed after he decided.
For my academic supervisor, he is 50% helpful in this case to be fair. He guides me how to exploit the company’s project to finish my PhD. He also listens to me carefully when I need help. However, it seems that he doesn’t want to touch the internal issues of the company, I feel like he has no such power to change the situation I’m facing.
Let me know what you guys think.
You are right to be looking at exit strategies, sadly. You've done the right thing by insisting on time to focus on study, allowing these problems to be identified; but there's no quick or surefire solution.
Having supervised a PhD with a small company before, I've seen these issues and it put me off working with SMEs towards the 'very small' end of the scale, funding a PhD.
On the one hand, yes they do pay the fees/stipend. But this is also a cheap, tax/NI free, talented member of staff if they abuse the system by giving that person a load of unrelated work. They may well have entered into it with the best of intentions, but with 10 people they don't have the capacity to reliably guarantee you'll not get repeatedly drafted in to solve problems elsewhere. Covid has probably exacerbated this, as the shifting financial situation of the company will also be a factor in whether something behind schedule is well-managed or an all-hands-on-deck panic.
I'm sure your supervisor does have a good relationship with them if he's enabling them to abuse the system, as it's a cosy win-win for the supervisor (who gets research funding on the CV), and the company (who get a cheap member of staff), whilst the student is the one that loses out, with two full-time job equivalents. I don't know if it's the case here, but as with any supervisor you'd probably want to know how many of their students have successfully completed or dropped out before, and if there were any with the same company.
With the company hemorrhaging managers this is also a worrying potential sign they either can't retain staff, or have a politic-y environment, or are flat out running low on cash and offering people the opportunity to resign, as is the fact the relationship with your industry sponsor is already starting to grate.
I don't want to be all doom and gloom though - it is worth reading the studentship agreement carefully, before making any decisions. If the company cuts the funding at some point in the future, what's the implication for you? Will the University step-in to cover the shortfall (unlikely but possible in the terms), or will you be left self-funding the remainder? Will that be affordable? You want to identify a Plan B so if you do need to dig your heels in and ask for better terms it can be on the basis of 'or I'll accept this alternate offer'. A strategy to try is setting immediate actions that you have control over - e.g. 'I will only respond to emails for company work on Fridays'. If you do choose to stick in there, you want to be agreeing tangible things and concrete tasks at meetings, not what an immeasurable % of your time will be spent doing.
Sorry for not replying sooner. It sounds like your boss is unintentionally exploiting you by not respecting boundaries and overworking you. I agree with abababa that you should try to have set day for production work and research work agreed with your boss but with some flexibility. If that doesn't work you can try physically distancing yourself by moving to another part of the office or simply not replying to production requests on your research days. I can understand that it is difficult to set the boundaries but usually after the first few encounters they stop asking and adjust to the new situation. What is the worst that can happen, fire you from the job you want to quit? Also, I might recommend doing some time wasting, ie take longer to do tasks than you need to or wait a few hours before sending the reply. Not only does it make them less likely to ask you again but you also reclaim some time for research
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