Recent particle physics PhD
11 October 2004
First, I must congratulate you for your bravery and hard work in writing Disciplined Minds. My story may be of some interest to you, if only to add another yes vote to your tally. I embarked on a particle physics PhD program at a UK university, full of optimism and never having considered a search into unofficial opinions of the doctorate process beforehand. Perhaps if I had consulted your book then the story would have been different. Instead, I have recently finished the PhD "successfully" with the feeling of having slowly and painfully emerged from a huge mistake. My PhD included an extended work period onsite at a major accelerator center in the US, and the wide exposure to methodologies, politics and mindsets allows me to feel comfortable commenting on your work.
Your book examines a number of issues that I had become aware of independently and later on through a circle of disillusioned companions. I tended to split PhD students into two major categories. The first type, in which I classify myself, is curiosity driven with global interests in relationships between objects, and between people and objects. Physics can then initially appear as a discipline offering an unparalleled number of insights into the world around us. The other type seems generally reward driven, with their internal drive determined by approval from authority figures such as parents or teachers. The reputation of physics as a "brainy" subject has appeal in such cases. I found that these latter types are obviously more controllable and hence desirable on a large-scale experiment, where bright young people are essentially conned into menial work. As illustrated by your parallels between university and workplace, sadly there appears no place in professional society or mainstream science for the former type of student. Your description of the two types of female student able to find success -- masculinized or ultra-feminine -- was completely accurate in my observations.
My experiences could be generalized further among several concepts not seen in your book. The first concept at play, the British "class system," is perhaps not specific to the PhD system but a wider spirit of professionalism in the UK. The students who seemed to be given a degree of warmth, support structure and teamwork within the British contingent were either those from the educational institutes (private schools and the Oxford-Cambridge sectors) that most heavily mould behaviour or those that aped such behaviour. The divisions of such a hierarchy within staff members at my university department and others was quite clear, with the foreign researchers placed subtly yet perpetually on the lower rungs of power and social ranking.
Another concept was that of a constant guilt trip to always do work. A number of students commented on the feeling that whatever you do is never seen as enough, although there was no intellectually satisfying reward for completing assigned tasks -- just more work of the tedious variety and responsibilities akin to speeding up the treadmill pace (hence my earlier description of the "authority approval" students as the models of success in particle physics). Many researchers worked long hours, depriving themselves of the possibility for a balanced lifestyle.
The atmosphere in the "cold, logical and intellectual" scientific establishment was such that none of the students who wanted to "get on" were spontaneous or ever discussed feelings, seldom permitted themselves to smile or relax, and for the most part "talked shop" about the technical details involved in their job outside of the workplace through either guarding their emotions or simply having nothing of variety or interest to say!
One aspect I feel that you did not touch on deeply was the marked social skill set of typical establishment figures in physics. By this, I mean that the successful physical sciences researcher generally has very poor social skills, a highly conventional mindset and strong disapproval of stepping outside the boundaries. I believe social skills deteriorate partly because of peer reward for a cold, logical detachment, and a person will quickly learn to adapt by means of social disapproval and exclusion or plan their escape from the field of science. The fact that society labels the job holder as highly intelligent no doubt plays no small part in researchers believing they have little need to learn about the world around them and consequently often have zero interest in art, politics, general science and so on. Training process associations such as these killed interest in a science career for a number of PhD student friends alongside my disenchantment.
It seems doubtful to me that the attitudes we hold will ever have any impact on those figures accepted into senior scientific establishment roles. Nevertheless, I have widely recommended your book to aspiring scientists, and the hope is that with the sacrifices made clear at least some of these bright young people will turn toward alternative careers with a far greater likelihood of personal satisfaction and benefit to our world.
Name withheld, PhD
PS: Please hide my personal details before posting this letter on the Web, as I still need job references from the PhD process.