Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Grad school horrors

Sorry for the blog neglect, I've been more lethargic than ever...

With so many newly minted graduates shuffling their way off to graduate school come September, locked into Ivory Towers for two to seventy billion five years of research, I thought I might share some inspiring anecdotes encouraging them to lament laud their good fortune.

I myself am not a graduate student. But friends, acquaintances, and siblings and have successfully traversed that road and returned with many stories of fire and tarnation involving buddies, peers, and fellow grad students. The problem with graduate studies in science is that you're entirely at the mercy of your supervisor. They decide when you are ready (or not ready) to approach your defense. They may want to squeeze you for a few experiments, a few papers, or inexhaustible cheap labour. And when it comes to taking sides, the university will often pick the one with whom they'll be stuck working with from now until forever... that is, the supervisor.

It's not that good supervisors and good graduate experiences don't exist (in fact, they're probably the majority), it's that bad supervisors with god-complexes and a serious sadistic streak do exist (likely traumatized from the early stigmatism of being the helpless science geek). And given one of those, you're completely and utterly screwed.

Where should we begin? With the fellow who was so at odds with his supervisor that he only entered the lab at night (so as to never encounter the said prof)? The lady whose New York professor up and left for a new position in Tennessee? No, there are stories better yet.

...

This is a true story. It happened to a friend of a friend of mine...

Lady W was a grad student when my sister was an undergrad and TA-ed one of my sister's courses. My sister graduated and went on to work on her PhD. Lady W continued working on her own degree for years and years... and years...

What went wrong? Once upon a time, there was a fire in the chemistry building. W was busy working at her fume hood down the hall from the fire. With the fume hood on, she couldn't at all hear the fire alarm. You see, the university had recently installed a newfangled alarm system. Where once there was a jarring screech, now the fire alarms emitted a pleasant "ping".

Using her woman's intuition to detect something amiss, W stuck her head out the lab door to be greeted by smoke and alarms. She made a break for it and got out safely. Later, she complained to her professor. "I could have died," W explained. "I'm going to file a complaint with the safety commission."

"No, I don't think you should do that," replied an angry professor. As it turned out, W's supervisor had been on the committee that had implemented the new alarm system. He was not about to be questioned. W took the issue to the safety board anyways. A large scale investigation was undertaken and it was found that in a dozen or so laboratories, the fire alarm was inaudible with the fume hood on.

W's supervisor, however, would not forgive this usurpation of his judgement and authority. W would continue to be strung along for as long as she could bear. Years of work with little to show for it.

...

This is a true story. It happened to a friend of a friend of mine...

Mister G was working on his Masters degree. He could see no end in sight to his work - every time he finished an experiment, his supervisor simply assigned him more work. G didn't know how to say no.

Anticipating his graduation, G was scheduled to return to India for an arranged marriage. However, with his supervisor never letting up on the cheap labour, G received one new experiment after another. Eventually, he even postponed his wedding.

Months later, G finished up his last set of experiments. When he notified his prof, he expected a pat on the back and a, "Great, now we're done." Instead, he received a brand new battery of work. Already flustered at his ongoing Masters and postponed wedding, G snapped and broke down in tears.

"Oh..." commented his supervisor. "Okay, you don't have to do it."

The prof went on to encourage G to return for a PhD once he was married.

6 comments:

shirls said...

Brutal!

sandlot said...

first, thanks for linking me!

second, is this suppose to make me reconsider grad school? because it sure as hell is working. Although, maybe it will be a bit different? I'm not in sciences per se. I'm in health science and we deal more with people than bacteria on a tray, so maybe my profs will have to possess some people-skills.

Well, here's hoping...

a_ndy said...

Well I wouldn't say that I was trying to make you reconsider. It was more of a worst-case-scenario tease rather. Though from the stories I've heard, it does sound important to a) not be too easy to push around and b) know a little bit about what it's like to work with your supervisor before you sign on. None of these stories dealt with culturing bacteria on a petri dish though, they were mostly chem grad students.

Joyce said...

LOL! I'll have to link Adam to your post everytime he feels screwed about graduating, to remind him that it could be so much worse. xD;;;

Joyce said...

(Oh and is it sad that I got your Freaky Stories reference before I looked at your link? How old school are we? D: )

sandlot said...

I should be tagged in this post.