Monday, January 28, 2013

In Which I Wish To Give Unsolicited Advice

There are currently three young women in Dr. S's lab.  All three are grad students, and one just joined.  (There are several not-as-young women, ranging from about 30 to about 60, who are all able to take care of themselves.) 

The two older grad students are hopeless.  They cry in lab meeting* (italics are insufficient to convey my horror!) when asked to justify their conclusions.  They don't tell people to shut up.  They're told to do pointless, won't-get-you-out projects - and they do them! 

The third grad student is a little more clever.  She had the sense to ask Dr. S (the longest-serving lab member at present) what the lab was really like and what was good and what was bad.  But.

She's not tough.  I have met very few grad students coming out of Cold University who are tough.  My theory is this: They get pushed, but not enough.  Their advisors don't mentor them well and don't encourage them to be independent- for example, at Snooty U it was pretty standard to spend a month reading up after quals, before picking a project- and then bully them into taking bad projects.   And somehow, most of them never get pushed far enough to tell their advisors to take it and stuff it.  And their colleagues are the same.  (I once told the postdoc with the next desk over to shut the !@#$ up because I was talking, thank you.  We were then the best of friends.)   So when they leave, they're completely unprepared to be anywhere less nice than here, the nicest place in the Midwest.   

I'm not saying that the piranha tank is good.  But academic science is a piranha tank. Scientists are pushy, naturally skeptical people who ask "Why do you think that?  Are you sure you didn't label your tubes wrong?  Is it possible that Thing X has contaminated** your experiment and you're completely wrong?"

What I want to do is take the third young lady aside and say, "Look.  You need to know a few things.  One: nobody but you has your best interest at heart, and most especially not this advisor.  Two:  A week in the library will save you six months in lab; read a lot at the beginning and your work will go much better.***  Three: it's pretty hard to fire a grad student, so you have a fair bit of freedom.  Four:  you need to think about every single experiment, "What will I learn from doing this? Will it get me out faster?"  And if it's not a useful answer that will get you somewhere in some way, don't do it.  Five: if you've done an experiment correctly twice and it didn't work, it's not going to work, and don't do it again.  And six: only 20% of grad students end up with tenure-track academic jobs.  The seventh thing is optional, and it's this: If someone's trying to take you down, hit back hard, so you only have to do it once." 

*There's no crying in lab meeting.

** Famous Russian (?) retraction about alternate ice structure; was actually a contaminant in their tubes.   

*** They don't do this here.  It's a travesty.  


  1. I could have used this talk as a grad student (even though my program was pretty decent) and I have given this talk as a postdoc. My grad advisor is a wonderful advisor, but I was way too scattered as a grad student and was unwilling to stick up for myself. I could've saved myself 6 months to a year if I was willing to just tell him no. I've given this talk as a postdoc now to grad students and it's not really been useful. Mostly I get the reactions of "Oh! But X,Y,Z that has happened to everyone else will never happen to me!" Sigh.

    1. "And I'll work EXTRA hard and graduate in five years!" Yep.

  2. Sigh. It's hard. I found a wonderful mentor towards the END of my career, and I often wonder how things would have been different if I'd found him at the beginning. Or been less scared, or been less socially awkward... I am sympathetic. Any chance you could have her over for dinner and actually DO this?

    1. Yeah, I was once a dumb little bunny of a young grad student (no offense meant toward your bunny self), and completely miserable, but I was eventually smart enough to go talk to another, much-older and much-tougher grad student, who basically had this whole conversation with me while I sobbed on her couch. So, I don't know, does one need to wait until asked for such things? But this set of young women never got around to asking someone. Maybe coffee and a brief lecture, and then she can remember it in three more years and think "I wish I'd paid more attention."


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