I recently dropped out of my PhD at a UK university. My background is that I'm a middle aged technologist.working in the city who enlisted with a British university for a PhD program in explainable ai.
So I self funded a part-time PhD as I wanted a change in direction but after much thought dropped out this year and wanted to offer my thoughts to anyone who is thinking of doing a PhD based on my experience.
1. Check that the university is actively engaged in research - conference and journal papers that are recent as well as papers in the pipeline. Without this I would not recommend engaging in the program - the university need to establish their credentials. I unfortunately believed that they were going to build up the capability in explainable ai but never did.
2. Fail fast and fail early - the warning signs with my supervisor were there in six months - no knowledge of the area, no understanding of ai/ml, didn't read papers etc. Basically it was obvious that they were unable to participate in the program and so it would have been better to call it a day then.
3. Be aware of constant excuses from supervisor why things were done, unavailable for long periods of time and never reviews research and unable to offer reasonable opinions.
4. See what the university actually can offer - for me I have superior technology in the cloud with the latest libraries where the university was five years behind on computers that were lower spec than my home pc :( with the advent of arxiv and a bit of chutzpah I am able to maintain a network of academics in this area. So what do I need a university for if I just want to do research?
5. When I did decide to leave I received no support from the wider university including other staff and student organizations. For all the stated support I felt there was near zero available surprisingly when you wanted a conversation about leaving.
Overall, coming from industry, I found my unfortunate experience to be least intellectually stimulating experience in recent times. I am lucky enough to work with really smart people who have provided a much higher and deeper standard around explainable ai that available at the university I attended.
I hope this helps someone at some point.
Not too sure how useful this is going to be for anyone else. It sounds like a case of academic research not being what you thought it was going to be. There is no shame in that, clearly it wasn't for you, with an industry background. And congratulations on your nice computer I guess?
What kind of support were you looking for if you'd already decided to leave?
These kinds of problems are par for the course, unfortunately, in a lot of PhD programmes. PhDs are about independent research and those who successfully come out the other side will usually have learned to overcome these kinds of obstacles - though of course the supervision situation you describe is not up to scratch.
I don't mean to sound dismissive. The attitude of people coming from industry to do a PhD often rubs me the wrong way. These things you describe aren't necessarily true of all PhD experiences, as you imply, and nor do they have to derail the entire thing. It just wasn't for you. That's fine. The main lesson here is to be clear-eyed about what you're getting into before you decide to take on a PhD - especially a self-funded one!
Thank you for sharing your experiences, I wish you the very best in your future avenues.
A PhD supervisor has the responsibility and are paid to guide the PhD students. Unfortunately good supervisors are few and far in between as they too are under the stress of continuous grant application, labwork and other admin tasks to secure their next funding and employment. And some just outright see students as numbers to prop up their career and do the bare minimum to train the students. What you are searching for, a person whom you can have many scientific discussions with is extremely rare. Supervisors are generally pretty overworked and simply don't have the time. So under the excuse that you are meant to be independent, you can be intellectually abandoned and left to your own device to sink or swim.
Leaving a PhD is a personal decision but unfortunately can be seen as failure by the academic community. Hence there will be no support and people who do leave normally do so under a lot of stress and do not want to openly discuss it. Ex supervisors never mention the student again and it doesn't get reflected in the supervisor's profile how many students did not complete.
It is actually quite refreshing that you leave very early in your PhD when you saw all the red flags and are able to reflect on your experience so rationally. Most find out too late.
Many universities do basic research due to limited fundings whereas industry has more funds to go deeper. In fact, it is hard to do good research if the environment of academia preferentially support the Profs/PIs and does not support the growth of upcoming researchers. Not great salary, limited career trajectory, no job stability and security despite lots of hard work. That's why more and more leave academia. https://www.science.org/content/article/professors-struggle-recruit-postdocs-calls-structural-change-academia-intensify?cookieSet=1
It is wonderful to hear you are in the company of colleagues who can mentally stimulate you. I hope you are happy back in industry. All the best.
I think this *is* good advice.
I also think a lot of the problems stem from the fact that traditionally, a PhD was basically expected to function as an assistant to the supervisor. I.e. helping them with whatever task they needed help with. This is still somewhat the case at the top-end of the academic spectrum, where someone with minimal competence can do a PhD-by-numbers and be pushed through whenever the supervisor feels they can afford to lose an assistant as they're well-networked enough to guarantee a successful viva.
This contrasts harshly with much of the rest of the sector, where the PhD is an income source paid by the student (or a grant, to which the student is appointed); and the student, as a paying customer, expects to receive, rather than provide, a service.
The problem then is, the academic, particularly if they're of this older school, will be expecting the student to help them (they certainly don't get the fees themselves as a bonus!); whilst the student, paying fees, will expect the supervisor to help them.
In many cases, a functioning middle-ground is found, but this is not guaranteed, as seems the case with the OP. I say the OP is good advice as it's no doubt the case that many universities will take on PhDs without actual expertise in the subject area, because, more is better for senior management when it comes to fee-paying students. I would say, though, it's never really a case of whether a University, as a huge, mangled entity is engaged in research - it's more the case that the group, and field you're working in, and your supervisor are a good match. You can get terrible supervision at any University, and you can also get excellent supervision from any University, because it's such an individual thing.
It is also definitely smart to drop out when you realise it's not for you, and as early as possible - particularly if you're paying money to be there. Because it's so hard to fail a PhD, but very easy to waste 6 years of your life (and money) before giving up, it can be a real trap, particularly if you get into the mindset that leaving is a failure (it isn't).
Just another poor soul finding out that academia is full of impostors.
This has little to do with what end of the academic spectrum one is at. The emptiest lab coats I have met were at "world-renowned" universities. Unfortunately, networking and political skills, as well as recknlessness and bullying - and increasingly: playing the diversity card - can make up for virtually complete lack of competence in academia. Public appearances in science and research, e.g., conference presentations and other types of talks, are generally superficial and generally merely a stage for well-rehearsed acting. Actual academic competence is only visible to a small number of close collaborators - mostly students, whose career depends on their "supervisor's" goodwill and who are thus forced to play along.
For fun, just check RateMyProfessor and the like to see how many "well-known researchers" are completely incapable of teaching the absolute basics of their fields. Not a coincidence in my experience.
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