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Unions Won’t Work
My Take

Unions for PhD Students?🔗

Matthias Felleisen

14 November 2017

The relationship between an advisor and a PhD student is one of trust and sponsorship, not employment.

As I have explained in a separate thought, a PhD student picks an advisor after a careful search based on technical interests and personal alignment. The idea is to have an extremely strong common passion and to feel comfortable to discuss the whole range of research and its implications (industry, society, politics).

Once an advisor and a PhD students commit to this relationship, the advisor’s tasks are manifold:
  • provide pointers to technical material so that students can fill inevitable gaps

  • explain the "playground" of common research passion

  • educate the student in how the community shares research results in writing and in presentations

  • train the student as a teacher if the goal is a position at a university

  • raise enough money for a reasonable life (bread to eat, water to drink, straw to sleep on, an umbrella for the rain, and a bit of pocket money for the occasional movie).

Some 100 years ago or so, Central Europeans called such an advisor a "Doktorvater", no, not Darth Vader, "doctoral father." Like a father. an advisor isn’t necessarily a friend but a friendly and protective person who guides his students and, if they end up in academia, takes care of them until they have tenure (with advice and occasional active support).

Clearly, such arrangement demands trust from students in their advisors and the advisor’s trust in students. Students need to believe that the advisor knows the field and, to some extent, the community well (enough), teaches them to the best of his abilities, and can bring in the money it takes to work on their joint passion. In particular, a student must know that he isn’t just a "warm body" to be reported to the funding agency. Conversely, an advisor must be able to trust a student, both as a research colleague (no fake data, no fake processes, no science fiction prose in papers or dissertations) and as a person (discussions on implications of research sometimes veer into personal opinions and experiences that must remain private, etc.).


Clearly, many universities neglect to observe advisor-advisee relationships, sweep problems with advisors under the rug (they have tenure, don’t they?), or simply don’t pay attention to problems. Worse, some universities exploit the legal status of PhD students (which they create thru lobbying the State Department via CongressDid you know that higher ed is the only industry whose lobbyists are allowed to make direct financial gifts to members of Congress? And in return, universities abuse the tax-law terminology of non profit to look like the best thing for society since sliced bread.). Some universities induce domestic PhD students in "rarefied" subjects to become teaching assistants, that is, employees for a small salary.

Yes, there are many problems with universities and advisors. Every faculty with an open mind could write volumes about it.

Unions Won’t Work🔗

But make no mistake, unions will not solve any of these problems.

What unions will do is turn the trust relationship between advisors and PhD students into an employer-employee relationship. Advisors will hire students to perform work, and that work will often not be what the students looked for. Advisors will hire students even if they don’t care about them—simply to fill funded slots.

Unions will gradually remove passion and substitute it with career. Students will simply do what they are asked to do because they will no longer wish to satisfy their passion but "obey the rules to get a PhD." Advisors can then treat their PhD students like they treat office furniture, as interchangeable pieces of a puzzle game that creates a comfortable life via comfortable career.

Yes, this trend already exists, but unions will reinforce and accelerate it, and what society will get in return is "careerized scientists" The idea of a "career" in science needs another thought-post. who will put their career success over the trust that society endows them with.

My Take🔗

I don’t want to work with people who substitute trust with employment rules and passion with careerism. If the union ever affects my relationship with my advisees, I think I’ll just focus on teaching and research with undergraduates.







You may wonder what PhD students can do about the actual problems.

First, spread the idea that science cannot ever be about a career. A career will come accidentally.

Second, tell future PhD students that finding an advisor is a non-trivial problem. It’s not like a finding a job. Not even remotely.

Third, current students need to leave their advisors if the relationship of trust is violated and tell the world about it. Such advisors should not have any more students. From anywhere. Ever.

Yes, you may feel like you have put too much time and mental energy to give up. Economists call this the "sunk cost" problem, and staying with an inappropriate advisor is the "sunk cost fallacy." Get out before it is too late.