My 2 cents

Over at ScienceBlogs, Janet Stemwedel has begun a series of posts entitled “The project of being a grownup scientist.” She first talks about being a graduate student and realizing that being a “grownup” scientist is not just a matter of being able to do research. There is grant-writing, networking, mentoring, managing a lab, determining where to submit a paper, how to deal with reviewers, how to be a reviewer, and so on. She then speculates about why advisers don’t talk to their trainees about these sorts of things.

Drugmonkey, has a slightly different take. His post is entitled, “Scientific Careerism 101: Yes grad students and post-docs it IS your fault.” His is the perspective of the adviser and he wonders why students are not more proactive. He asks why trainees do not pay attention, why they do not ask for help, why they do not go to seminars anymore (I admit, I’m confused about that one as well, this doesn’t seem to be much of a problem at my institution since at most seminars there are far more students than faculty), and why students don’t realize that graduate school is a job. These are all good questions.

Well, I am a student. And I have a few questions of my own.

Why, when students request programs to help them with career development (as we have at so many curriculum committee meetings at my institution) are we told, “That’s not what you should be focusing on?”

Why, when we wish to pursue career development opportunities, are we chastised for not being in lab slaving away at research?

How, after four years of undergrad work where requirements are specifically laid out for you, are we supposed to figure out that there is more to being a scientist than research, and, if by some chance we do figure it out, how are we supposed to know how to accomplish that part of our education without any instruction? Divine revelation?

In short, why don’t advisers realize they have responsibilities to their students above and beyond funding and troubleshooting experiments?

Frankly, if someone tells me one more time, “Oh, you just pick that up as you go along,” as an explanation for whatever arcane aspect of careerism I have just asked advice for, I am going to bash their head in with a crystal ball. Pick it up how exactly? Could you please be just a tad more specific? I ask you, would you send a student down to the electron microscope and say, “Oh, I’m sure you’ll figure it out sooner or later”? Seriously, why are we given so much training in important things like “how not to break this absurdly expensive piece of equipment” and not given any advice at all in how not to break our careers*? Why are we required to sit through hours of radiation safety training about how to properly fill out radioactive waste disposal forms and not given one–just one–seminar writing a successful grant?

Now, as it happens, I agree with Drugmonkey to a certain extent. I do think that students and post-docs should be more pro-active about career development. Some students really are quite good at this. However, some students do not even seem to realize that the decisions they are making now have a large impact on their future careers. Forget networking, I mean things like, “If you want to be faculty at a top research institution, you are going to have to have a phenomenal post-doc career. You are going to have to get a position with a super-star. You are not going to get that position if, as a graduate student, you only publish one paper in a 3rd tier journal. You just aren’t.” It’s like they have forgotten everything they ever learned about getting into a good college and then getting into a good graduate school. And, it can take awhile for students to catch on that there is more to being a scientist than benchwork, sometimes too long (I know one student who, in his 4th year, still thinks there is not much of a difference between being a tech and being a graduate student; this explains a lot about how much progress he has made on his thesis work). This is not acceptable.


Students are in graduate school to–not to put too fine a point on it–be trained. We are there to be educated. If graduate school were strictly a job, then there wouldn’t be a question of tuition, nor would there be a degree at the end of it. And our advisers would probably get into trouble for how many hours they expect us to work.

We are not little data-making machines. We are not “cheap labor.” We do not exist solely to provide data for papers for advisers to pad their CVs. We are not fully formed scientists who are only there to put a little time in so that we can go on to become little perfect clones of our advisers. We are trainees. Yes, we should be proactive about our own education and career development. But our advisers (and degree programs) should be, too. There needs to be acknowledgment on the part of The Powers That Be that they have some role in training us to become fully-fledged scientists with all that entails.

I’m not talking about spoon-feeding us information. Not only is that not desirable, it’s not helpful. Someone who is spoon-fed everything is ultimately not able to eat on her own. What I mean is that advisers and students need to be partners in the students’ education. Each side should recognize that they have responsibilities and act accordingly.

Degree programs also should recognize that they need to provide more than classwork on various scientific subjects. In the ideal situation, the student’s thesis adviser would provide all of the training that student requires. But, as we know, many situations are far from ideal. Advisers may either not recognize that they should be doing a little more for their students than paying their tuition or they may simply not be very good at some particular aspect of being a “grownup” scientist.

Now, I try not to be the kind of person that sits and complains that there are problems but not provide any solutions. Those are in the next post.


*A student’s future career is actually quite a bit more expensive to the adviser than most pieces of equipment if you consider that, by paying tuition and a stipend, advisers are investing in that student’s future.


6 thoughts on “My 2 cents

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  2. This boggles the mind in retrospect, but I was completely unaware my department even HAD a seminar series until well into the second year of my Master’s program. Students weren’t included on departmental emails, seminars weren’t physically posted, I worked in a remote building, so didn’t get the news “through the grapevine”, and my advisor assumed I knew, so never mentioned it to me. I was new, so didn’t even know such things as seminars existed. Even if I’d seen a posting, I think I would have thought it was for a faculty meeting or a class, or something I wasn’t part of. Finally the department head asked whey I never came and was completely taken aback that I didn’t even know it existed. They promptly put students on the mailing list!

    I’m now in a PhD program (different school), and although I know to ask and to attend, students still aren’t included on weekly mailings (my advisor forwards them on), and the announcements still aren’t posted anywhere but the main building (my department is so large it covers three buildings). I can easily see other naive students being unaware of our seminar series.

    So, one half of the coin is students not stepping up and taking advantage of what “grown up training” is offered, but the other half is definitely the department/faculty not inviting/informing students that such training and opportunities exist.

    I’m reminded of getting a tour of a new facility once, and being asked “Did I show you everything?”. Impossible to answer if you’ve never seen the place before! Likewise impossible to ask all the needed questions of your advisor if you haven’t been employed in academia before.

  3. Why are we required to sit through hours of radiation safety training about how to properly fill out radioactive waste disposal forms and not given one–just one–seminar writing a successful grant?

    The university where I went to “grad” school in Australia gave postgrad students a seminar on how to extract money from the university’s own fund for nearly-finished PhD students, right down to examples of successful applications and precise comments about the kind of phrasing to use. Pretty cool 🙂

  4. Excellent set of posts Ms. Whatsit! I totally agree. I know that I did push my advisor to do many of the things you asked and he refused. He didn’t want us to see his grants because he didn’t want us to know exactly how much money he had, he didn’t want us to go to meeting because he thought we would embarass him, he didn’t want us to even network within his lab because he was afraid we would talk about him, he himself didn’t attend most seminars (and cut his toenails during them if he did), and I’m still fighting him to publish my thesis b/c he thinks it “should age” (as if science improved like wine or cheese!).

    It is definitely up to both to be sure they get the best but as Pranda points out, you don’t always know what you are missing until it is too late.

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  6. I am a graduate student in a biological sciences department. My advisor several times scolded me without any reason when he came to know that I have a child to take care of. He said to me ” you are screwed up”, “you have problem” and ” You have to get a good results, otherwise I will throw you out from the lab”. He also told me “Since you are female, even if you finish your PhD you will not find a good job”. Finally, he insisted me to quit my studies.

    He threatened most of his students in the lab. If students do not get “good results”, he scolds them in uncivilized way. I want someone to speak up loudly against this academic bullying. I did not see much posting about this bullying behavior. I also noted no mainstream media ever talked about this bullying behavior in higher institutions where we think we can learn to become good citizen. Because most of the graduate students are poor Indians or Chinese, they do not speak up against these professors’ bullying behavior. Please, keep alive this blog. Do something to protect our future student generaration. STOP THIS BULLYING IN ACCADEMIA.

    Now, this professor is being interviewed in good universities for the faculty position. What can we do to prevent these bullies to get good positions?


    Please post here your experiences in universities.

    My blog

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