Sunday, March 18, 2007

I'm Never Going Back to My Old School

I spent part of spring break visiting friends from graduate school. It was really nice seeing old friends and labmates. Much beer was consumed, good food was made and eaten, and gossip was swapped. I’m very proud of my little group of friends; almost all are working on a Ph.D., and their projects are all interesting, with a brilliant one or two thrown in.

One of my former labmates just completed her M.S., and it was just by the skin of her teeth. My major professor had been hers, too, and they had had major disagreements over statistical minutiae. In the end, he had resigned from her committee, leaving her scrambling to find another advisor. As she recounted the story of escalating arguments and increasingly personal attacks, I flashed back to my last year in grad school, when this same professor had somehow become convinced that I was trying to usurp his research program. He thought that I was intent on hijacking his funding when I left to find a job, even though nothing like that had ever crossed my mind, and even though I wouldn’t have known how to do such a thing. I spent my final year in constant fear of being ejected from the lab, not knowing for sure that I’d receive my doctorate until I actually had the parchment in hand.

My major professor had kicked another student out of his lab several years before. This student, another of my closest friends, found himself without a master’s project with no warning and no explanation. He was forced to complete a non-thesis degree, which made it more difficult to find a Ph.D. slot. He eventually did so, and is now finishing his second post-doc; he’s a brilliant, driven student, but my major professor’s erratic behavior cost him at least two years, and to this day no one but the professor knows why.

Ours is not the only professor that has unreasonably ejected students from his lab. At the same university, another professor kicked two students out of his lab when he decided that his research program was going to change direction and that these two students were going to take longer to complete their projects than he wanted to spend with them. A colleague of mine who got his degree at a different university was nearly ejected from his major professor’s lab because when his father got a brain tumor, the student spent too much time with his dying father and not enough on his research project.

Graduate degrees in field biology often take much longer than those in other sciences. It isn’t unusual for a student to spend three years on a master’s or five years on a doctorate. Bad weather or uncooperative study organisms extend dissertation projects past university deadlines and beyond funding. During this time, grad students are subject to the whims of the major professor. Students may have to teach their professors’ classes and assist with his research or that of their labmates, all while taking classes and performing their dissertation research. There are some conscientious professors that don’t abuse the system, but there are others that treat their students as slave labor, take credit for their research, or give them poor advice and instructions or none at all. The professor can also terminate a student’s research and dismiss him from the lab without giving a reason. The student has very little recourse in such situations. Although the university involved may have supposed safeguards against capricious actions by professors, in reality there is almost no way to force a professor to act in good faith if he or she has decided to do otherwise.


TenaciousK said...

[I hate flashbacks...]

An acquaintance of mine in the Experimental Psych program was failed on his dissertation defense and discontinued from the program. As were many of us, he was about a 12-year student.

What the hell does somebody do with a masters in exerimental psych? I hope he's making a fortune in advertising, instead of slaving away at a community college.

Other people I know were discontinued after years and years of committed research and study. Narcissistic professors are the bane of graduate programs.

There are some people and programs who are of the opinion that the best professionals are trained in a competitive environment, where the best prevail and the lower half fail. What a crock.

You know, finishing a PhD does say something about capability, or knowledge, or something, but mostly it says something about pure damn stubborness. My nic - an old joke between my son and I, from when I was discouraged in grad school [which was usually, now that I think about it], and we'd just seen the simpsons episode where they rescue the circus horse [FuriousD]. I'd recently decided that courage and bravery are all well and good, and all, but the times when I've been the most at the end of my rope, it's nothing more than stubborn tenacity that's seen my through. The first time I used the nic was playing lasertag with my kid [everyone was picking tough-sounding silly nicnames].

Tenacity and luck saw me through (and the efforts of some saintly professors), more than intelligence, capability or bravery. Like it or not, the same can be said for about all of us, I think (with one or two notable exceptions, in my experience).

Maybe one of us should write a post about the arbitrary nature of grad school applications - there's a topic that makes me shudder, thinking back on how many bullets I dodged. And the few I didn't.

People of conscience, Arch; I'm glad you're an academic. Maybe there's some hope yet.

Keifus said...

Some opposing combination of inertia and an unwillingness to be a ten-year PhD student is what got me through. If you wanted to be generous, you could maybe call that tenacity and capability.

Didn't know any criminal narcissists, not the types who made for misery and pain in perpetuity, but there were a few groups from which it was difficult to graduate. Usually that was due to a certain sort of bureaucratic or organizational failing on the prof's part.


Schadenfreude said...

Not just biology. I had a similar experience doing an MBA, for God's sake. Then again, I had one professor give me a B+ on a research project that deserved a failing grade, so it all evens out somewhere.

Archaeopteryx said...

TK: I'm glad I'm an academic, too, but I'm not at an institution with a graduate program. I guess that's just that much less chance of me doing irreperable damage to someone's life.

Grad school was actually one of the greatest times of my life, but it could have been so much better. I learned a lot--how to ingratiate myself with professors, how to remove every last original thought from a paper to get it past reviewers, that a comma always (usually)(sometimes) goes in front of the word "which." Okay, I learned some biology, too. I interacted with some brilliant folks, made some great friends, and drank a zillion kinds of beer. But I still look back on it and see wasted opportunities, and a bunch of that was because of the capriciousness of my prof.

Keifus: "TenaciousK" is already taken. How about "InertialK?"

Schad: We were always told that people in business school had it much easier. I'm glad to hear that wasn't so. (Wait--what do you call that when you take pleasure in someone else's misfortune?)

august said...

great post. advisor/advisee relations are often Wagnerian. Best when advisor refuses to read advisees dissertation. Good times!