Sunday, June 21, 2015

Italian PhD students abroad: what doesn't work?

Since I moved abroad as post-doc (March 2010), four PhD students originally from Italy have quit the PhD. Four out of… six or seven I met. Three of them belonged to my research group, in two different countries. This high failure rate might depend on the specific field or it is just an incredible coincidence.

The post title is provocative. Every story is different and has a reasonable justification, if considered individually. The guys who quitted are both male and female and are originally from different parts of Italy. The weather isn’t that terrible in the cities I’ve lived and I don’t think that colder temperatures and a greyish sky are enough for leaving a job. Neither the food. Nowadays Italian products and restaurants are available everywhere, especially in Europe. In the worst case, there is a pretty large free baggage allowance for many airlines. The income cannot be the reason, as it is everywhere much higher than the salary of a PhD student in Italy, even though I must admit that the part-time contract offered in Vienna is not really appealing. The local mentality can be different, but we are still in the old Europe. So, what’s the problem?

In my opinion and according to my own experience, Italian PhD students generally fall short in independence and self confidence, due to the education we received. We expect the supervisor being a “father” who follows, trains and encourages us in every step, like the master thesis advisor did. We look for a mentor, not for a manager. But, this is wrong! The transition from the master to the PhD school is traumatic. This is why I would suggest to work in industry before deciding to try the academic career. A PhD is not an extension of the university, but with a salary and no exams. It is a job, which requires passion, skill, and an incredible amount of willingness. Especially abroad, where students are used to write their own PhD projects and proposal for getting funding. The Italian PhD students who achieved the title abroad have often done a previous experience in a foreign country (master or Erasmus program) or have good reasons for staying in a specific country. Supervisors are generally full professors with little time to look after the students. They are generally very good managers who find money for research and motivate students and post-docs to go on. Whenever they can, they prefer hiring post-docs, because more independent and productive (in publications). It follows that the actual supervisors are the post-docs and other more experienced PhD students. I got the impression that many Italians are still confused between power and expertise.

Furthermore, the field of research I’m currently working on has scarce visibility. This implies limited availability of samples (especially in the case of rare meteorites) and funding (no or very little interest from privates). The result is a very competitive environment, where a young Italian PhD student might feel lost. Academia and generally science are not the heaven that common people think. Sometimes an industry mentality is much more successful than the innocent love for science and knowledge. It’s a war.

I was personally quite lucky. My Italian PhD supervisors helped me understanding this, before being traumatised by the sharks outside. Actually I learned the most after moving abroad. Again, I was lucky enough to have exceptionally good bosses, but the position of a post-doc is quite different from a PhD student. I’m still fighting for gaining the expected independence and self confidence, and by time to time I wish I could leave academia. All attempts failed, so far. Honestly, I feel bad when an Italian PhD student quits. I feel partly responsible. In the recent case, I have repeatedly warned the guy about the situation… but it was like forbidding to use the fire to a child. As long as she/he does not get burned, she/he won't believe you.

In conclusion, I don’t think that there is a real problem for Italians to get a PhD abroad, but our education, broad and deep about science but incomplete or absent about science policy, can make it much more difficult. Congratulations to those who did it!

P.S. Just for the record. Two PhD students who quitted in Vienna found soon a job in industry. Another one has been admitted to an international PhD school in Italy and recently graduated.

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