Masochistic PhD


‘Why are most PhD candidates unhappy?’ blogger Nadya Karimasari was asked by a student. In today’s column, Nadya reflects on the culture in academia that unintentionally encourages unhappiness.

‘The ability to constructively deal with criticism is one of the most important traits for a scientist,’ said professor Jan-Willem van Groenigen during a general PhD course last month. Being critical about oneself is a good sign for a PhD candidate. It means she is aware that her knowledge and capability are limited. This great quality would encourage her to be open-minded, stay curious and learn deep and wide. Jokingly, Jan-Willem gave an example of one of his best students who was almost masochistic in the sense that when she didn’t receive enough criticism on her paper, she thought the reviewers had not read it well enough. ‘However, I am not like that and neither are most people,’ he added.

Unfortunately, sometimes unintentionally, there is a culture in academia in which professors discourage PhD candidates who do not seem to be unhappy enough. It is as if something is wrong when the PhD candidate is not agonizing over how lost, confused, and incapable he is. Perhaps it is a pedagogical approach to remind PhD candidates to be humble. But it suggests that you distrust and underestimate the ability of the PhD candidate to judge his own research capability in a balanced and proportional way. When taken too far, it contributes to bringing PhD candidates to the brink of mental depression. It also normalizes the general aura of unhappiness among PhD candidates.

Of course, Jan-Willem was not advocating for academic masochism to PhD candidates. Jan-Willem himself is a very positive and exuberant person. But it is quite widespread among professors and peers to give students the impression that a good PhD candidate is very self-critical and treats themselves as if undeserving of any good comment on their work.

Other professors practice daily criticism on their students in order to train them to perform convincingly. Being able to have a ‘convincing performance’ is a useful skill to survive in academia. By treating PhD candidates in a way that encourages her to doubt herself, it is expected that she could develop the reflex to push back and be convincing.

‘I never read her comment on my paper before I sleep, because I know I wouldn’t be able to sleep afterwards. I would rather sleep and read it in the morning,’ said one of my PhD friends about her professor.

Peter Tamas, a professor of qualitative research methodology, mentioned the common personality traits of PhD candidates and scientists in general, in which they tend to be internally insecure and are in constant need for external validation. PhD candidates who are prone to identity crisis would look up to an image of the good PhD candidate. It is a pity that the image provided is often of a somewhat masochistic PhD.


2 thoughts on “Masochistic PhD

  1. It is very interesting that academics must validate through torture essentially. Even though I did not go beyond a 4-year degree, as a philosophy major and lover of Kierkegaard I often long to don a sackcloth and carry a staff. It is similar.

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