Four years ago I expected a PhD life that resembled that of the characters of PhD comics: endless work hours, low pay, no work-life balance, a disrespectful supervisor and a constant  feeling of miserableness.

I repeat, I EXPECTED to have a miserable life whilst doing my PhD.

But then I was lucky to be in England. The University’s guidelines were clear on what type of relationship was expected to exist between PhD students and their supervisors. You were there to develop yourself as an academic and researcher, they were there to facilitate that development.

You were not there to be their unpaid personal assistants. You were not there to work for them. It is a partnership, not a slave-master relationship.

Unfortunately, I got a supervisor who, as I, came from another system. A system where the relationship is supposed to be unbalanced, where your position in the academic chain determines whether you’re treated with contempt or respect, where the PhD student “learns” from slaving around its master.

It’s a rotten system, a fake, superficial, each-man/woman-for-him/herself kind of system. A system where people “above” you only listen if they feel they can gain something out of it, where higher ranked academics can’t be bothered with “little” lives (yup, I’ve been told this one). 

We’re rude, often selfish, and, above all, extremely inconsiderate. When you’re “brought up” in this system, you feel it to be wrong (alas, you’re miserable all the time) but you endure it, find comfort in sharing your story with others in the same situation, and once you get your degree and climb the rank you do the same because you think that’s how it should be.

Well, you may not know any better. Or you may simply be that much of a horrible human being.

When I started, it felt wrong but I didn’t know better. I did have my own project and, in a way, did expect to work on it, particularly because I had my own grant for that specific project and that was not coming from either the University or the supervisor. I was coming there to work on this specifically. It was my own project with my own grant.

But, even though I was in England, I didn’t know the system was different from Europe. I had never experienced the UK system. Nor did my supervisor (well, he really didn’t give a rat’s ass about it!).

You see, he was coming from Germany and apparently the German academia is quite difficult to go up the rank if you stick around the country. So it is common for German academics to do a couple of years in England or US, to get some status, before going back to Germany and get their Professorship.

They don’t really give a crap nor even try to do a good job. Just two or three years and they’re good to go. They can simply say they’ve been there and it’s amazing. The same will happen to me if I go back to Portugal with my PhD in England. It increases your “wow” factor. As if you’ve done something incredibly amazing!

So, for a couple of months, there we were, in the old rotten European/American/Everywhere-else-that-is not-influenced-by-the-UK system.

Fortunately, we were enacting a system outside the system and inaccuracies started to emerge. I was lucky to be surrounded by dozens of other PhD students who not only had done their undergrads in the UK system or similar, but their supervisors were also in that system.

The way things were going for me were extremely odd in that context and I don’t even think many of these PhD students ever got to understand what I and a couple of others were going through.

How could they? Theirs was a professional, respectful relationship whereas we were just lost pawns in a game that had nothing to do with us. We were just caught in the middle.

All they knew, and kept telling us, was that what we had was not normal. When everyone around you tells you that, and you do feel it’s wrong, you start wondering.

When it’s just your colleagues you may think “ah, they’re just lucky, they don’t understand” but what when a Professor learns about your situation, calls on you and tells you that these other PhD students are right? Now you have confirmation from someone higher in the rank saying “no, this is not how things are done around here”.

If you’re like me, you act on it. After three months of people telling me it was not right, I decided to just go and talk to the head of graduate school and clarify things. I wanted to know whether what I had was indeed what it was supposed to be. As it turned out, it was not.

Thank you UK academic system!

It seems that, even if I hadn’t acted on it, the guy who was supposed to be supervising my work would have bailed on me anyway, as he was already working to go back to Germany (though he “forgot” to mention that).

Well, I have to wonder whether this had happened had we been getting our grants from the University. Probably not! I guess there are rotten layers in every system!

Anyway, it was the toughest personal struggle in my life but in the end I ended up meeting two people who were to become my supervisors in another University, also in England.

What a change! When you finally get RESPECT you really do see how sad and wrong academia is. 

When I hear other PhD students from outside England sharing their tales of woe, it makes me feel anxious as it reminds me of my first year. It reminds me of all the days during that year of uncertainty when I couldn’t even get out of bed. It reminds me of that horrible meeting in the end of the year with my second supervisor, also a German, when she told me that I should understand my first supervisor was “a star” (her words, not mine). WHAT THE F*CK?!? A what now?! I hadn’t realized I landed in some second class Hollywood movie!

So it also makes me feel angry. Angry that there are other people out there who are actually going through that! It is wrong and it shouldn’t be happening! 

Even if you are an experienced academic, what makes you think that you can go about your life thinking you’re any better than anyone around you? That these people are there to work for you, to enhance your career, to give you their laptops when yours crashes?!

Sure, you may be surrounded by PhD students but what makes you think that this is a fact that should grant them any less respect than a Professor?

It is all about power isn’t it. We, the PhD students think we have none and are at the mercy of higher ranked academics who may decide whether our work is published or not, whether we go to that conference or not. “Oh thank you very much Mr Professor, thank you for letting me be a first author”. WTF?! Isn’t it your work? Who else would be the first author?!

Lucky for me, I am no longer restrained by those chains and could NOT care less. Unlucky for you, until this issue starts being approached and discussed, I WILL make a fuss about it.

People like this make me sick. They make me not want to be in academia. I do not wish to be part of this system or contribute to it in any way, as I used to.

Academia is as rotten of a system as any other. But we are all to blame. We all play a role in it when we don’t stand up and point out it is wrong.

As it is, academia is developing uncertain, scared little minions with no confidence in themselves or their work. But I guess that benefits some people!

PhD students are being restrained and prevented from flourishing and it is knowledge and science that suffers from this unhealthy competition that goes on.

Having experienced respect, consideration, support and understanding, I can say I have been allowed to develop and flourish, I feel safe to explore and discuss my ideas with anyone and I feel confident doing so.

If I ever stay in academia, I hope to have the opportunity to support someone’s growth that way. I don’t even understand how anyone sleeps at night knowing they have had such a negative impact on someone else’s life that they loose the will to get up in the morning!

PhD students, you’re not a doormat. Please, take action. Demanding respect is not asking too much. When you don’t, you’re just perpetuating a system that fails us all.


About Rita BA

I read, I write, I think, I dream, I write a bit more...
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