Grad school was great! I recommend it to everyone!


The latest Ask a Science Blogger question is one I’ve already answered, so I thought I’d just repost this unpleasant little vignette to answer this question:

What’s a time in your career when you were criticized extremely harshly by someone you respect? Did it help you or set your career back?

But first, I have to mention that every scientist must have a nemesis or two, as has been recently documented in the pages of Narbonic.


Thinking about graduate school? Here’s a little story, all true, about my very most unpleasant experiences as a graduate student—and they all revolve around one person. It is a fact that you will find honest-to-god flaming assholes in positions of considerable power in academia.

Imagine some quiet nebbish of an undergraduate, a bookish kind of guy who is naive and completely unaccustomed to asserting himself in a classroom. That’s me. Maybe it was you, too—artlessness of that kind is endemic among college students. I traipsed off to graduate school in biology, not knowing much more than that I liked science and thought it would be a wonderful career (which it has been, so stop worrying; you already know this story ends well, so it can’t be all that bad).

I was expected to take a few classes to deepen my knowledge of subjects in which I was going to do research, a plan with which I was comfortable. Taking classes was familiar, much more comprehensible than this independent research stuff I was also supposed to be doing, so I was taking a grad level course in physiology. It was terrific. The professor was a brilliant guy with an international reputation, someone even callow PZ had heard of in his undergrad days, and the subject was enjoyable. The labs were challenging, and we had to do a lot of writing, but that was all good. I was learning.

Then, one class day after we’d turned in a major term paper, I sat down near the front of the room as I usually did. The prof sat down with the stack of term papers in front of him, and made an announcement: he had just read the most ghastly paper ever turned in to him, and he read the first sentence aloud.

Yeah, it was mine.

This was cringeworthy enough. I was thinking that at least he hadn’t made my personal humiliation public.

So then, of course, he turns to me and hisses, literally sneering at me, “Well, Mr Myers, what do you have to say for yourself?”

I didn’t have anything to say for myself. My brain was busy trying to burrow its way out my cranium via the foramen magnum, and the compression as it was trying to squeeze by my spinal cord had shut down my speech centers. What little motor control I had left was dedicated to the task of keeping sphincters clamped shut.

Getting no satisfactory answer, and seeing only my rather impassive expression (entirely an artifact of the growing separation of my panicky cerebrum and my trigeminal ganglia, I assure you), he started to read my term paper. Every sentence. With scathing commentary, and the odd snide query spat out in my direction. It just went on and on.

I want everyone to know that I graduated with my Ph.D. in a fairly typical amount of time, 5 years. However, I think two of those five were spent in that classroom on that one afternoon, so I really ought to be credited with completing my degree in record time.

But wait, don’t leave yet. The misery isn’t quite over.

I made it through the term, although I really didn’t find the class quite as much fun afterwards, and I was treated like some contemptible pariah. At the end, we all had to come back individually to his office to get our lab notebooks back, and to get his personal evaluation. You can imagine how much I was looking forward to that. I had to sit in a nice, comfy, low, cushioned chair, while he sat behind his desk, peered over his glasses at me, and gave me his assessment. At least it was in private.

It was no less unpleasant. Once he got on a roll, he really could dish out the venom. We started with the usual dry discussion of lab results, worked up to a solid, “you do not belong in science, I suggest you immediately leave graduate school and seek employment elsewhere”, and wound up with a truly vicious declaration that he would make sure I did not complete my preliminary exams and that I would never, ever graduate from this university while he had any say in the matter. I dealt with it with a total loss of affect; my mind had long since given up on trying to run away and had just shut down.

And of course he ended up on my preliminary exam committee. I had resigned myself to that inevitable expression of unavoidable destiny, so it honestly left me unperturbed. He had succeeded in becoming such a pervasively inimical presence that it had become unimaginable that he wouldn’t be there with the knives sharpened.

The exam didn’t go as badly as I feared. It was an oral exam on a relevant topic of my choice; I was going with the cytoskeleton. My bête noir fired off the first question: “Enumerate for me the biophysical parameters that determine the spike rate of a bursting pacemaker neuron.” If you aren’t familiar with the subjects, I’ll tell you that the question has pretty much nothing to do with the cytoskeleton.

I may have passed the exam with my answer: “No, I don’t think so.” I felt good about that reply. The committee just kept me there for the next four hours, grilling me on actin and tubulin and intermediate filaments, just for form’s sake.

The poor man was mostly impotent against me for the next several years. I remember that every once in a while we might end up in the elevator together, and he’d always take the opportunity to make some malevolent remark about my research. I’d shrug.

The son-of-a-bitch actually died on me before my final Ph.D. defense, which I thought was terribly unfair of him. I half expected to see his rotting corpse pounding at the door of the seminar room, like something out of EC comics, and that he’d point a bony finger at me and demand that I derive the Goldman equation for him, or join him in hell. Didn’t happen. I even kinda missed him. Oh, well.

Maybe this story doesn’t sound so awful now. It could have been worse—I could have been a coalminer and had to struggle with firedamp and cave-ins and hard physical labor, after all! All I had to deal with was self-doubt and depression and intimidation and fear for four years, which are relatively small things, and fairly common in graduate school, and that’s really my point. Grad school can be petty and demeaning and vicious, and most of the time you have to plug along with no encouragement of any kind (although I should say that I was also lucky enough to have a good and supportive advisor, which makes an immense difference). But I survived. I came out of it with a bit more independence than I probably would have without that mean old man hovering over me. My current students can also thank him for teaching me that public humiliation is probably not a good classroom management tool.

I should also mention that despite the cruelty, I actually respected and sometimes even liked the old bastard. Another thing he taught me was that you can value someone even if they aren’t at all nice to you; it’s a useful perspective to have.


  1. Jolf_Moosenhoeger says

    Just curious: do you have any idea why the old guy had it in for you? Writing one bad paper — if it even was bad — doesn’t seem like enough motivation.

  2. says

    No, not really. I think I may have naively stepped into an ongoing debate between a couple of the bigshots in the field of neuroscience I was writing about, and unintentionally took the side of that professor’s ARCH-NEMESIS. I don’t remember much about the paper, but the first sentence was something about the modulation of synapse strength in learning and memory in which I mentioned some of the ideas Eric Kandel had published at that time.

  3. redneck says

    Maybe this story doesn’t sound so awful now. It could have been worse–I could have been a coalminer and had to struggle with firedamp and cave-ins and hard physical labor, after all!

    … just like a redneck.

  4. CCP says

    Grad student (who is to become my wife some years later) turns in her first dissertation-chapter draft. She has worked very hard on it, putting everything she knows and every original idea in there. Advisor sez come back next Friday at 2 and we’ll talk about it.
    Friday. 2. She knocks, walks into his office. Without even glancing up from his work, he picks up a pile of paper (she recognizes her chapter) and drops it unceremoniously into the waiting wastebasket.
    “Start over,” he sez, still not looking up.
    Conference over.

  5. says

    I don’t understand — how did someone you dislike end up on your committee? Didn’t you get to *choose* the committee? We did. Of course, it turned out that one of the people whom I chose (a famous scientist whom I idolized) turned out to be a rather tough critic during my oral exam.

  6. Stuart Weinstein says

    Well, my thesis advisor once said to me, although tongue in cheek (I think),

    “You can tell how influential someone is in their field by how much they can hold back progress”

  7. Stuart Weinstein says

    I don’t understand — how did someone you dislike end up on your committee? Didn’t you get to *choose* the committee? We did. Of course, it turned out that one of the people whom I chose (a famous scientist whom I idolized) turned out to be a rather tough critic during my oral exam.

    — Was this person fair? A Ph.D. defense is not supposed to be a rubber stamp.

  8. gg says

    Your response to the utterly irrelevant question reminds me of something I learned at my PhD defense and try and pass along to all grad students I meet now: your committee are not omnipotent and they will often ask questions that are completely irrelevant. Sometimes I believe they do so intentionally, just to see how you’ll react (after all, at conferences, we all get used to being asked lousy questions). In my thesis defense, when I was asked, “How does your work relate to subject XXX?” I was able to answer, “Not at all, I think.”

  9. says

    Oddly enough, it sounds a lot like a novelist’s career. Which may explain why there are so many academics working in fiction.

    Did you ever get that copy of Jeff VanderMeer’s The Exchange that I sent you, btw? A little chapbook with a beautiful block print of a squid on the cover.

  10. says

    Was this person fair? A Ph.D. defense is not supposed to be a rubber stamp.

    Yes, in retrospect. Some of his questions weren’t particularly relevant to my proposed project, I thought, but his main concern was that I shouldn’t run off and focus on my research without having sufficient background. I ended up passing my prelim under the condition that I take a couple of courses (which I did). He was trying to be constructive by increasing my chances of having a successful project.

  11. J. J. Ramsey says

    PZ: Another thing he taught me was that you can value someone even if they aren’t at all nice to you; it’s a useful perspective to have.

    Man of Peace: So the way to get you to value or respect someone is for them to be mean, unlikable and unpleasant to you?

    What part of the “even if” in the “even if they aren’t at all nice to you” do you not understand?

  12. Sammy says

    I had a friend in college (whom I’d love to hear from – Judy B, you reading this?) who told me about some advice her father had received from his advisor while working on his dissertation.

    In a very thick Russian accent, he addressed friend’s dad by his last name (which I won’t repeat for privacy reasons, but for some reason it makes me laugh whenever I think of it) and said: “If you vomit upon looking at the title page, it is almost ready.”

  13. speedwell says

    My experience has been that creationists are generally not disrespectful to, nor do they insult evolutionists.

    Hello, Ambassador from Backasswards Land; I believe you’ll find things a bit different on Planet Earth.

  14. Molly, NYC says

    Did he act like that to other people? I can’t imagine he had time to read everyone’s paper in class, especially if he had to stop every few sentances to hone his snideness. Did anyone else notice?

  15. justalabtech says

    “Grad school can be petty and demeaning and vicious, and most of the time you have to plug along with no encouragement of any kind (although I should say that I was also lucky enough to have a good and supportive advisor, which makes an immense difference).”

    So it IS just like being an undergrad, only with fewer people having greater power over your education and future career. Well, and also the good stuff like learning independence, etc. And the chance of a rotten advisor, in which case you’re really screwed.

    “It could have been worse–I could have been a coalminer and had to struggle with firedamp and cave-ins and hard physical labor, after all!”

    Maybe it’s because I’m too weak to take five more years of that skool treatment, or maybe it’s because I come indirectly from a lineage that actually did work in coal mines for a living, but I think I can understand why people choose physically exhausting jobs (coal doesn’t talk back, though the foreman might) rather than going for a degree. Who knows, maybe I’ll go back to school eventually. But stories like yours aren’t exactly motivating, although I love their honesty and candor.

  16. says

    My original Ph.D. committee, back when I was a grad student in olden times, included a faculty member from outside my department (as required by the university rules) and he did not want to be there. My department chair had twisted his arm. He asked the first question at my quals — it had almost nothing to do with what I had been working on — and I didn’t know enough (or have the cojones) to just say, “Well, I really don’t know much about that. What’s the next question?” It turned into a fiasco.

    Good times. Good times.

  17. says

    Re: Arch-nemesis – At least you weren’t in pre-med/life sci. These crazy whackos think everyone is their nemesis. I was doing biology but was taking a chem class with a bunch of pre-meds, and my lab partner arbitrarily decided that a highschool classmate of mine was going to be his archnemesis, and quickly developed real hatred. Now, considering this former classmate narrowly beat me for top academic standing in my highschool, it would make more sense for me to take the crazy archnemesis route, but that didn’t happen.

  18. Krakus says

    PZ, sounds like things are just as bad on both sides of the border. But I’ll give you some scorchers. Earlier in my grad career I recall working during the SARS outbreak in Toronto at one of the major hosiptals. The hospital admin instructed all non essential personnel to stay home until further notice. This was followed by an email from the thesis supervisor saying, ‘get into the lab or else.’ Having gotten back to the lab, the prof was nowhere to be found. He let us know that he wouldn’t be coming in because he didn’t want to get his kid at home sick.

    Lesson 1 learned: Grad students are dispensible

    Another story, involves the same prof instructing me to ‘steal’ a certain reagent from another lab via another grad student. When I asked why we couldn’t just ask the supervisor for the reagent, he informed me that he didn’t wish to have said supervisor on any published papers that might result from our studies.

    Lesson 2 learned: being number 1 is more important than academic integrity

    I have more stories and lessons, but I think this is satisfactory for the time being. Needless to ay. I left grad school disgusted. I took several years hiatus add after earning another degree I came back and decided to start again. Science is wonderful but it’s peppered with a number of jackasses who ruin it for everyone.

  19. Jim in STL says

    Regardless of whether or not he intended to be constructive, do you ever think that the cranky, demeaning, old-bastard routine helped? I find that there’s never a shortage of CDOBs around and that I handle them far better having suffered through the first few.

    I had a great graduate advisor for my MS in geology. He’d studied under one of the great masters at the forefront of the science who was also apparently a master CDOB. It made my life much easier since my advisor had pledged against, and zealously guarded against, being a similar CDOB.

    On a side note, I would go in to pick up chapters of the thesis and, while hearing “great work, only a few minor things to consider” (which set my expectations), I’d look down and the text would have a new red background – corrections and comments were in red ink. I saved the best pages for framing. There would be corrections, comments on the corrections, and corrections and comments to the corrections and comments. On the bright side, they were never malicious and we’d go to the coffee shop and discuss. I later realized that he was thinking out the problem in red – something I do to date – and the result was that I had a better grasp of the process.

    PS, thanks to all the post pre-med students who set the organic chem and p chem curves. Thanks a lot.

  20. Frank Schmidt says

    Advice to all grad students: Read “The Examination” by W.D. Snodgrass (can’t find a link, sorry). It got me through on numerous occasions.

  21. A lemur says

    WHAT? WHAT? You mean science and academics are not populated by people who’s only goal is the advancement of knowlege and the betterment of mankind, to which they welcome you to their fraternity of saintly practisioners with open arms and a ‘hail-fellow-well-met’?

    I’m shocked, SHOCKED I tell you.

    At least in Art school the only thing I had to face was sitting in class with about 15 other young struggling artists with our quarter’s final drawings neatly matted and leaning up against the chalkboard. The instructor walked in, studied the drawing briefly, walked along the row and swept them to the floor. He then proceeded to walk all over the drawings, kicking some aside until he picked one up, tore pieces off it until he held up a scrap and said ‘this part’s ok. The rest of you suck.’

    Well, at least it got us over being precious about our work…

  22. steve says

    I had to deal with several abusive faculty members during grad school. I let their abuse roll off my back, but tried at every convenient moment to evoke more abuse. Why? Their responses usually directed me to new areas of the literature, and after several years, they were of no further use to me as educators.

    I went on to a successful career as a chemist, and forgot about them. This blog posting motivated me to Google them. They’re all dead. Must be a drag to be remembered as an asshole.


  23. Doc Bill says

    My advisor asked me to make a presentation to the Head of Chemistry on a research proposal. We needed his OK to proceed. The Head of Chemistry was also a Nobel Prize winner.

    I stood in front of his desk while he skimmed the proposal. There were no guest chairs. We all stood. He sat, however. Finally, he peered over his glasses and spoke to me.

    “Analytical chemists,” he intoned, “they’re like carpenters, aren’t they?”

    If I could have willed myself into the bowels of Hell, I would have.

  24. Mark C. Chu-Carroll says

    I didn’t have a cranky old bastard on my dissertation committee. Instead, I had a total loonie. I hold the never-to-be-beaten record for the longest qualifying exam in the history of the CIS department at the U of Delaware. At UD, the quals are an oral exam on the subject area of your planned dissertation that come after you’ve passed with written preliminary exams. They’re supposed to be a 30 minute talk, where you present your research plan, followed by 30-45 minutes of questions from the committee. Mine broke the three hour mark – and I didn’t get more than *half-way* through my presentation. Not because anyone was being hard on me, not because I was having trouble answering questions, and not because I was being overly verbose about my answers.

    Because the loonie guy kept interrupting with just plain *goofy* questions that were incredibly long-winded. The one I remember was basically a question about “Is data-parallelism currently the predominant model of parallel computation for technical reasons, or for historical/political reasons?”. But instead of asking it that way, he had to go into a whole story about how when he was a child, he never understood why they had cranberry sauce on the table at thanksgiving and he never ate it, but then at the first thanksgiving with his second wife, he accidentally got some cranberry sauce on his turkey, and it was good. And that was contrasted with sweet potato pie, which is just gross, and doesn’t go with turkey, but everyone has it on thanksgiving because it’s tradition. So, he wanted to know, is data parallelism more like cranberry sauce or sweet potato pie?

  25. says

    Wow, you’ve got me beat – I thought I had a world-class “terrible grad school moment story”.

    During my M.Sc. (recently completed), I had many more committee meetings than is normal or average – because my work was highly technical (Radiolabelled-PAGE, quirky PCR) and my advisor didn’t have the experience in the techniques I needed to complete the work, so the other person on my advisory committee wanted lots of chances to correct problems with my techniques before too much time was wasted on minor problems. Anyway, during one such technical-steering meeting, he was dissatisfied with my progress:

    “The most parsimonious explanation for your data is that you are incompetent.”

    He then went on to describe my career prospects should I ever wish to work in any of the local biotech and biomedical research labs as a technician (“If you were working at X, you’d have been fired by now for incompetence”). His opinion of my ability to a) graduate with a Master’s and then b) go on to a PhD was so low that this option wasn’t even discussed.

    I start my PhD in 3 weeks. He and I are currently co-authoring a paper, with no hard feelings.

  26. MAJeff says

    As someone in the midst of writing his dissertation, I can not agree with the title of this post. I’m questioning my entire career choice and the utility of any work I will produce (indeed of the academic enterprise), and I’m reinforcing my very intense hatred of writing. If it weren’t for my love of teaching (and the fact that i won a fellowship to write the thing), I’d have been out of here.

  27. rjb says


    Well, I was 99% certain that I knew who you were talking about (knowing where you went to grad school, the approximate time, and the fact that it was a fairly well-known scientist who died a while back), but after reading your first comment regarding Eric Kandel, now I’m certain. One of my undergrad professors was one of his first graduate students way way back. I also have one of his books sitting on my shelf. Given that my work is in invertebrate neuromuscular development, it’s not surprising that I figured it out quickly, I guess.

    I had a rough time of grad school too, and I can completely relate to the idea that you can respect someone that you don’t really like. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but it’s pretty much the way I feel about my graduate advisor. He nearly killed me (not literally, mind you, but I’m sure he thought about it).

  28. says

    I defended my dissertation last month and this post fit in with my reminiscings of the past five years. During my general exam, a member of my committee (a Very Important Scientist) asked me how I would address a certain question if I had infinite knowledge. I had prepared myself for many questions, I even tried to think of questions that might come from left field, but this one left me momentarily speechless.

  29. minimalist says

    As someone in the midst of writing his dissertation, I can not agree with the title of this post. I’m questioning my entire career choice and the utility of any work I will produce (indeed of the academic enterprise), and I’m reinforcing my very intense hatred of writing. If it weren’t for my love of teaching (and the fact that i won a fellowship to write the thing), I’d have been out of here.

    Oh pah. Is there anyone here who didn’t feel that way writing their dissertation? That’s normal, son, welcome to the club.

    (Actually I part ways with you on the ‘writing’ issue — it was by far my favorite part of the entire enterprise, and the only part I was semi-decent at. Once I dove into the literature in earnest, for my papers and my dissertation, it all started to click and I had a euphoric sense of the “big picture.” Nothing else like it.)

    (Also I’m pretty sure the title was meant ironically.)

  30. says

    I’ve got one of those ‘hyper-critical’ types in my committee meetings. I value his advice deeply (he’ll find EVERY possible error in your methods/analysis/etc). But sometimes, standing in front of people, proudly presenting your new ideas just to have them chewed out can be REALLY demoralizing.

    I’ve found an excellent solution. I’ve added a new member to my committee who is quite well known to be very positive. They work to cancel each other out so that I don’t get too full of myself but retain a sense of pride in my accomplishments!

  31. Krakus says

    Hey Carlman,

    He’s not a DICK is he? I think I still got you beat with my SARS story….but then is grad school a competition, even through this mutual exploration of epicaricacy?

  32. says

    Wow. Painful.

    I have a couple good ones. Comittee wise, I had a prof that I absolutely worshipped from a class he taught. I learned more from that class than I did with any other class. He was also on the opposite side of a department politics game from my mentor.

    Simply put, one side kissed butts and ignored problems with the program (them), one didn’t, and offerred suggestions on how to improve the program (us). I really can’t figure out any other reason for the crap he put me through. One time, he told me that no journal that HE read would accept my work or anything with similar findings. When we pubbed it a few months later in the journal of record for our field, he pretty much shut up at the rest of our meetings. It didn’t hurt when my mentor mentioned that the editor of the journal, who had visited the university while we were getting ready to submit the paper, had praised my work and told us to send him the paper instead of to a lesser journal.

    My other story goes back to classes, similar to Mark C. Chu-Carroll’s story about quals. It was a presentation for a topics class, where the person running the class had asked an “expert” to come in and offer thoughts on the presentation. The presentation didn’t was supposed to last about 20 min with a 10 minute Q&A. My presentation started with a history of the field, which was immediately attacked because I didn’t go straight to the facts, but rather briefly mentioned the hyperbole that infected the public knowledge of the topic (cocaine as a nervous system teratogen), before moving on to initial findings and the state of the field today. I was lucky enough to have a combative expert, and my talk went over by an hour.

    It was bad enough that one of the people in the class with an overdeveloped sense of fairness had to get up and leave a few times to keep from telling the prof off. The person running the class was still pre tenure, and didn’t know how to deal with the situation. The next day, somebody who wasn’t even in that class joked that they heard that I had defended the day before. To this day, I know that if I can make it through a presentation about a field that I have only a passing interest on, while being harassed by an expert with anger issues, I can present on anything. Neither quals nor my defense were nearly as bad for the experience.

    I have to say that anybody who decides to go through grad, med, dental, vet, etc. school, if they aren’t “crazy” yet, they will be soon. Every student, when they go through orientation, should be given a coupon for an evaluation and scrip for some anti anxiety/ anti depressant of their choice.

    For all that, I would do it again, but pick a different comittee, along with getting on meds a few years earlier. You would be amazed by the number of PhDs and MDs that are quietly on meds, afraid that their peers will look down on them for recognizing a problem and dealing with it. But being an uncontrollable drunk is OK…

  33. says

    All these stories make me almost irrationally glad that I quit grad school a few months ago. If you think science academia is bad, try visiting the humanities (I was in music history). At least the sciences have a potential effect on the real world. Nobody really gives a crap about music history except music historians. Whenever anyone asked me what I was going to to with a PhD in musicology, I’d say — only partly in jest — that it was pretty much only good for teaching other people how to be musicologists.

    Now that I’ve quit, I work with an after school program at one of the high schools in town for which I get paid to play games and hang out, I bought a house, and I’m happier than I’ve been in at least 15 years.

    In retrospect, I wonder why I put myself through all the struggle and strife.

  34. Ichthyic says

    Of course, it turned out that one of the people whom I chose (a famous scientist whom I idolized) turned out to be a rather tough critic during my oral exam.


    Oh yeah, boy did i learn that lesson the hard way. In fact, I would add a corollary:

    NEVER pick people for your orals committee that your primary advisor does not approve of, even if you like them and have tremendous respect for them.

    I picked two people he REALLY disliked for my orals committe, and both of them slapped me upside my head during my exam.

    coincidence? not hardly.

    the message was loud and clear:

    don’t challenge your major advisor until AFTER you get your degree.

  35. Ichthyic says

    Every student, when they go through orientation, should be given a coupon for an evaluation and scrip for some anti anxiety/ anti depressant of their choice.

    that’s seriously good advice, actually.

    I’m reminded of an ex ER nurse, who, after 15 years of doing it (and that’s a LONG time), relayed similar stories of how nurses are undercut at every turn by the rest of the staff, and there was no support system for them to fall back on when the stress got overwhelming; hence the massive burnout ratios in that field.

    Fortunately, many hospitals are now implementing support systems for nursing staff to mitigate some of the stresses.

    It made me think that something similar would be very usefull for graduate students in just about any field.

  36. windy says

    don’t challenge your major advisor until AFTER you get your degree.

    This might be the safest bet, except I would never have got my @!*& degree without challenging my advisor – I’d be re-running those %!%=*! samples for the 20th time instead of just writing the shit up :)

  37. Ichthyic says

    Regardless of whether or not he intended to be constructive, do you ever think that the cranky, demeaning, old-bastard routine helped?

    nope. Moreover, at times it can cause enough friction that the advisor can catch some serious heat for that kind of approach; it just depends on the exact circumstances.

    I’m sure we all have stories along those lines.

  38. Ichthyic says

    I’d be re-running those %!%=*! samples for the 20th time instead of just writing the shit up :)

    well, that’s sometimes the case too; one of the students prior to myself in my old advisor’s lab actually sued him to get her degree (she won easily, btw).

    I’m just saying that unless you HAVE to go up against your advisor to even get your degree, it makes life much easier if you don’t.

    there’s always time later to bring challenges that aren’t absolutely necessary.

  39. MAJeff says

    Every student, when they go through orientation, should be given a coupon for an evaluation and scrip for some anti anxiety/ anti depressant of their choice.

    Or given the name and number of a reliable weed source.

  40. Ichthyic says

    Friday. 2. She knocks, walks into his office. Without even glancing up from his work, he picks up a pile of paper (she recognizes her chapter) and drops it unceremoniously into the waiting wastebasket.
    “Start over,” he sez, still not looking up.
    Conference over.

    Thinking about that one, I’d bet her professor had been teaching grad students for at least a couple of decades, and from hir experience, I’m sure, had rarely seen any first draft worthwhile to pursue, so had simply gotten into the habit of automatically insisting on a rewrite before even delving into it.

    Were they right?

    is that teaching?
    not at all.

    which leads me to make another recommendation to prospective graduate students, based on much experience:

    try to find younger profs who haven’t spent so many years teaching grad students if you want a “teaching” type experience.

    If you want someone well connected with a good perspective on the history of your field, and you’re SURE you already have all your “shit” together, THEN go with the ancient tenured curmudgeon.

  41. MOMUS says

    My my scntsts cn b nplsnt nd nprfssnl? Rlly r y sr sch ppl rn’t rlly cvrt thsts?

    s fr y rn n wth th nsty Prf, PZ h ws rght wsn’t h? Yr ‘scntfc’ crr sn’t nythng t rght hm bt s t?

  42. says

    So, he wanted to know, is data parallelism more like cranberry sauce or sweet potato pie?

    So …

    What is data parallelism more like?

    Or is some completely different?

  43. says


    I make the free psych meds suggestion every time there is a campus health care meeting focusing on grad/med students. Sure, it is included on insurance, but you go over what the university will pay for in a year very quickly (hence the free part), and unless your doc knows how to game the system, therapy isn’t paid for (one case I know of got visits paid for as migraine treatments (stress triggers), while I got mine for insomnia (anxiety kept me from sleeping)). It would keep students in the program, get them out faster, etc.

  44. Tinni says

    Wow,Ichthyic my husband and I have the opposite experience. My advisor is tenured, nice, understanding, and very helpful. My husband’s is a new faculty, crazy slave-driving evil bastard. He calls my hb’s cell at night (constantly) to complain he left to early (is 7-8pm too early? should you even care if we have good data?) and refused to give even one day for holidays. And that’s just the latest…

  45. Great White Wonder says

    I may have passed the exam with my answer: “No, I don’t think so.”

    Omigod, PZ, that is brilliant: the Spock maneuver!!!!! Remember the episode where the crew beams down to the planet and Spock gets stoned and discovers “love”? And he’s making out with some woman and Kirk (aboard ship) demands that Spock beam up? Spock’s reply: “I don’t think so, Captain.”

    Well done, PZ.

    The big bastard who sat on my preliminary exam committee was content to pass me with the caveat that “The only reason I’m doing this is so I don’t have to sit through it again.” Then he told me that I was doomed to fail at every endeavor unless I changed my attitude.

    Whatever. He’s dead. I’m alive.

  46. A regular commenter says

    My arch-nemesis was one of my co-supervisors. B. was a fluid dynamics guy, and wanted me to take a fluid-dynamics approach to my project. I refused to do this for what I felt were pretty good reasons: (1) I knew very little about fluid dynamics, (2) we didn’t have the computing power needed to include fluid dynamics in the model, and (3) we didn’t actually NEED fluid dynamics to answer the question I was investigating. (Fluid dynamics was an important part of the process involved, but it was possible to abstract the FD bits of the puzzle into something much simpler.)

    B. was offended and stopped talking to me, except in reviews where he did his best to tear strips off me in front of the other staff. It wasn’t until I went to my postgrad coordinator that I discovered B. was as unpopular with his fellow academics as he was with me; I’ve never seen an academic so happy to receive a written complaint about one of his colleagues.

    (I think it’s probably wiser if I leave my name off this one; for all I know some of those who were involved read this blog.)

  47. Great White Wonder says

    It wasn’t until I went to my postgrad coordinator that I discovered B. was as unpopular with his fellow academics as he was with me

    In my case, after I told my adviser about what a dick this bastard was during my prelim, my adviser set me straight: “He’s an asshole. Fuck ‘im.”

  48. says

    My thesis advisor turned out to be my arch-nemesis. I did manage to graduate within the usual time-frame (4.5 years), but the damage, material and emotional, our feud caused me seriously compromised my subsequent career (and probably still does), although I had my committee and department’s chair full support. Sadly, I can’t even say my story is the among the worst I’ve heard. In view of all this, I can never bring myself to recommend graduate study wholeheartedly. I feel there are people (I was in that group) who will do it no matter how difficult it may be, and then there are the “undecideds”. I’m afraid I’m inclined only to say “flee!” to the latter.

    It may be important to note I was a foreign student, studying on a F1 visa tied to the institution that offered me the scholarship, with little knowledge of the US school system and very different expectations, my background being very Old-World European, with near-military hierarchies and authoritarianism, and feeling very vulnerable should I displease the witch. I don’t think an American kid would have put up with her–indeed, she’s never HAD a US student–in fact, I was her first non-Indian, non-Chinese student. Oh well. I lived and I learned but I can’t say the experience was worth the trouble.

  49. PengieP says

    I was told by a kindly grad student colleague to pick people for your committee that wouldn’t give you trouble. I had pretty much done so, though the member of my committee chosen to ask me the first question did so in German. I had taken German as one of my foreign languages in pursueing a degree in Entomology and I guess he was just seeing how good I was at it. I replied that my foreign language requirement was that I learn to READ German, not speak it. Good thing too, because the spoken German I knew, I had picked up from my Schwabisch soccer teammates and it wouldn’t have done much good in the exam, save to insult someone.

  50. ThomasHobbes says

    Being a bit literate in addition to being an engineer, more than once I’ve found myself reviewing colleagues’ or students’ papers that were quite bad–terrible sentence structure, poor reasoning, grammatical errors, you name it. They were bad, bad papers, and more than few deserved to be mocked for how poorly they were written (being a nice guy, though, I don’t mock the writing quality of people who have asked me to review their work).

    It is quite a different experience–humbling and humiliating, in fact–to have a logically-, syntactically- and grammatically-correct paper savaged because your advisor doesn’t like the topic, doesn’t like the argument, or simply doesn’t like you. There’s a real venom that comes out in the kinds of encounters that Dr. Myers describes that is absent from the kind I usually take part in. I suppose, though, like so many unpleasant things in life, such experiences “build character.”

  51. says

    I was actually advised that a diverse committee was good (although in my case, I didn’t get to pick the examining committee). The idea is that you could get them into a good brawling argument with each other while you hid in a corner until the shouting was over.

    It didn’t quite work that way for me, though — there was argument, but since there also wasn’t a time limit, they still had plenty of time to rend me.

  52. says

    Krakus, I’ve talked with Carlman23 in meatspace about the nasty person who rips apart presentations. I’ve not met him, but I don’t think he’s a DICK, I think he’s just completely round-the-bend-batship-crazy loco.

    Carlman, tell us the story of his criticism of a published paper based on the fact they used empirical data. I love that story.

  53. Anonymous says

    Does this count as a grad school horror story, or not:

    I was supposed to go to one the top schools in my subject area, near east languages & cultures, with full funding (tuition waved, 20,000 a year stipend, etc.) but my parents decided that it was a good idea to call me the “laziest child ever” the whole time I was in college because I “wasn’t doing anything” (just working 2 part time jobs and taking a full course load), and sabotage my ability to complete my course assignments by shutting off the electricity every time they wanted to work on some damned home improvement project forcing me to take 10% and 20% hits off my final paper grades for papers that were worth 40% of my overall grade, and to top it off they decided that because they were paying for it (yes I’m grateful that they paid, but I seriously think they only paid so that I could graduate ‘on time’ to beat my cousins) I could only take 15-16 credit hours a semester and had to graduate after four years (my sister got to go 21 credit hours at a time for 4.5 years). Well my degree was 135 credit hours for the major, minor, and general education classes and taking language classes was ‘stupid’. (Since I was supposed to be going to a languages and culture graduate program, foreign language proficiency was an absolute necessity.) Instead of graduating with a B.A. in History with a Computer Science minor, I graduated with a B.S. in History just because I was stupid enough to think that if I graduated ‘on time’ my parents might actually be proud of me. Graduating ‘on time’ meant that I did not have the qualifications to get into the school that my professors were trying so hard to get me into. I went on to go to the cheapest Library Science graduate program that I could find only to come back home after I finished and have my parents sabotage my attempts to find a job. I’ve been trying for years now to recover and attempting to finish my education, preferably by getting a masters & doctorate in Near East Languages & Cultures but it just hasn’t worked out unless I want to pay through the nose to go to the same school that had considered giving me full funding until my GPA and B.A. with a minor were trashed.

  54. says

    I went into grad school with only one intention: earn my PhD so that I could be qualified for a lecturer/instructor position at the university level. I had no intention of the doing the post-doc/migrant-worker thing, followed by the hell of the job application cycle. I just wanted to teach at the college level.

    I stacked my committee with people who wouldn’t give me a hard time, and it worked great. I got a great job right out of grad school and have been there ever since.

    My only negative experience came on a trip to Europe when I was asked to present the latest simulation research of a faculty member I had been warned to stay away from. I figured, why not, I was pretty familiar with his work and it was a free trip to Europe.

    I didn’t realize I was being thrown to the lions. I presented this guy’s research essentially to a convention mostly filled with his arch-nemesis and colleagues. I got totally savaged in front of the whole conference when I couldn’t respond to every question and criticism, and at the conference wrap-up speech, the jackass couldn’t resist a parting shot at my “unprofessional” talk.

    It was pretty humiliating to get beat up on like that, but in the end, I suppose I didn’t mind so much. It just made me completely confident that my decision to follow a career in teaching instead of research was the right move. The stage fright I got as a result of that experience really only affected me at other conferences (still suffer from that a little bit) but not in the classroom.

    I’ve been quite happy at a job I love (and my department loves me, fortunately) for the past 10 years, and as far as I’m concerned, all those involved in that dispute can rot in their private hell. They don’t GET to be my arch-nemeses because they’re stuck doing mostly pointless research while I get to do what I love. Our mutual cross-section is now zero, though I would love to show up to a class of one of theirs one day and have a good laugh at what crappy teachers they are.

    As an aside, I would love to see a post about what the scientific community is like over in Europe. I found that I really enjoyed being around the Dutch, the Belgians, the Germans and the Canadians. The French, English and Americans were all insufferable, like they were unhappy to be there, better than everyone else who *was* happy to be there (this wasn’t in France or England) and wanted everyone else to share their undeserved misery.

  55. says

    Wow…the Thread of Pain….

    Some funny items from my lamentable academic career:

    1- Pre-Meds: Indeed, the pre-Meds bear watching. As an undergrad, taking a practical in Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy (say it with a heavy Hungarian accent), the kind where the class has to rotate from station to station every few minutes. I kept noticing that the questions at each microscope station did not match with where the pointer was. So each time, I’d as the check it, and he’d have to re-adjust the stage. This happened maybe five times in a row. Finally, he goes to the person ahead of me, stares at him, and then announces to the class that anyone seen touching any controls but focus “vill be ejected.” It stopped immediately. The person ahead of me was a pre-med,and had also chosen me as a nemesis.

    They also had a tendancy to steal common study materials, necessitating a raid one night to liberate cross sections of squalus acanthius from a certain off-campus apartment.

    Committees: In my grad department, there were two Professors whom it could be useful to both have on your committee, because they were known to get into looooong arguments about arcane points, thus shortening the candidate’s suffering considerably. Neither was on mine, alas.

    Nausea: I used to literally belch bile as I fired up the old PC-AT to work on my dissertation. This led to my progress growing more and more like Zeno’s Paradox as the writing progressed.

    Saddest Day: When I realized I was done, finished, has shot my wad and had absolutely nothing left to give. That it had all ceased to mean anything to me. That a single erg more expended on my doctorate was more than I could afford. That it had all been long and expensive detour, and that I had to stop or die.

    How long? That was the same day that I mailed the copies of my dissertation to my committee….

  56. Ivan says

    My thesis advisor turned out to be my arch-nemesis.

    From my experience at a couple of the high pressure institutions, it is a huge mistake to choose an asshole as an advisor. I have seen too many students choose the assholes as their advisors because they were the top dogs in the field. This is a really risky strategy: the student may make it through and be very successful, but they end up being much more likely to burn out. It is really hard to tell how many YEARS of bullshit you can put up with. Usually it seems like they start to have trouble 2-3 years in, when it feels like it is getting too late to switch (it may not be, I switched labs after three years to another area of research, really glad I did it).

    Research is really important, but when selecting an advisor/grad school try to make sure that there are good people doing what you are interested in.


  57. c says

    I’ll have to remember this one.

    “The most parsimonious explanation for your data is that you are incompetent.”

    One of my mentors also had what I came to think of as the all-purpose question: “you can’t be serious.”

    My experience was actually pretty good. I hope anyone reading this who is going into grad study takes home the message to check potential advisors out very carefully with their current and former students. It’s better to work with someone who is slightly lesser-known but who is a decent human being who will take the time to write you nice recommendation letters than with a prima donna most of whose students are in therapy. Even if you have to shift the topic a bit — your Ph.D. work is an apprentice piece, not the thing that will determine the rest of your research life.

  58. Krakus says


    I too have spoken to Carlman23 in meat-space, and I know of the ‘member’ of whom he speaks…personally.

    [whispered] The horror, the horror…

  59. JJR says

    As a grad school survivor (twice!), I feel obliged to chip in.

    My first Masters was in German Studies, and while the intellectual growth during those years was very gratifying, when it came time to write the thesis, I really hit a brick wall. I was quite disillusioned with the way they taught the subject at my alma mater, but couldn’t quite place a finger on why, exactly. How they took a subject I loved so much as an undergraduate and utterly sucked the life out if it and turned it into a joyless shell of itself; I managed to alienate more than a few professors, some unwittingly, others not-so-unwittingly. I could have signed on with the resident Linguist, who was looking for an understudy who knew a Slavic language (unlike most Germanists, I took Russian as my second “research” language–and by the end I was wishing I was a Slavic Studies grad student, except they didn’t TEACH that at the graduate level at my particular institution), but this linguist was working in such an obscure field, on a topic of nearly zero interest to me, that I declined; plus my unabashed atheism deeply offended him, so that was the end of that (He was himself deeply religious, also taught Medieval German lit, which is heavily based in religious tradition, which I simply had no patience for…and made the mistake of saying so, and why–I outed myself as a vulgar modernist, and that was simply that–he treated me like the devil incarnate the rest of my time there).

    My first thesis advisor actually specialized in literary Modernism and so seemed like a natural person to approach for the kind of interdisciplinary thing I was interested in doing (that was another mark against me–the department as a whole frowned on interdisciplinary ANYTHING). But I was unfocused that second year when I was supposed to be solidifying my topic, regularly meeting with my advisor, etc. I managed to piss him off enough that he stopped being my advisor, though reluctantly agreed to stay on the committee. The Department had a change of Chairpersons while I was still a student, and the incoming Chair, whose specialty was German Lyrik poetry (which again for me was, like, gag!), took pity on me and agreed to take over as my thesis director. Now I normally enjoy writing, very much in fact, but this thesis was quite a tough slog. It took me 3 years to graduate, and the fact that I didn’t finish in 2 made me an automatic “terminal masters” (e.g. will not advance to PhD in this program). I also had to take my advisor’s poetry class, which I dreaded, but it turned out not to be so bad, and he even let me do a comparison of two German translations of a original Russian poem for my final term paper in that class, which was sort of fun. It was excruciating, but I did manage to get my thesis done. The happy ending to this chapter is that my original advisor and I managed to mend fences and better relate to one another, such that by the time of my thesis defense, he was unexpectedly one of my strongest defenders…partly due to the fact that he was the only one of the bunch that even remotely had a clue about a lot of the Slavic elements I was examining in the literary works I was analyzing in an overarching theme. The other committee member was a Goethe specialist who had few questions and even less interest in my topic–he was satisfied that obviously I’d done the requisite amount of grunt work, sounded as if I knew what I was talking about, and that was good enough for him. My advisor (the Department chair) was toughest of all, but my former advisor kept passing me enough rhetorical ammo and providing covering fire that I managed to defend myself satisfactorily.

    My second time in grad school was to get my MLS (Master of Library Science), which thankfully, had a non-thesis option. It was a good deal less demanding, though library research methods–essentially a statistics course–nearly kicked my ass, but I boot-strapped my way to an A-. My second semester I had a lot of free time and even engaged in some personal research on the pedagogy of German Studies that I’d stumbled upon quite by accident in the library, and found a couple of American German professors who co-wrote a book about the topic…mainly comparing the way Germanistik is taught in Germany versus how German Studies is taught in the USA, and if US universities should simply emulate the way it’s done in Germany (their opinion and mine: No) or break new ground, taking a more holistic, anthropological approach more beneficial to American students. They gave eloquent expression to my whole sense of frustration with my alma mater’s graduate program…which was essentially trying to do pure Germanistik (as done in Germany) on American soil. It was very much a Eureka! kind of moment. A kind of personal vindication, after the fact.

    After my first MA, I did try teaching High School German for a year–positively hated it, and kicked around the idea of going back for a PhD in, say, Cinema Studies or something a bit more interdisciplinary like that, rather than a straight up German program. But then I read a series of books by Cary Nelson and Michael Berube that painted a true picture of what the job market really was like for unemployed and underemployed and misemployed Humanities PhDs…specifically English majors, but I knew what they were saying was just as applicable to German Studies and other Lit Crit or Cult.-Stud. people…and I decided getting my MLS was more prudent, that the PhD could wait…

    I do sometimes ponder a PhD in Library & Info Science, but my interests have broadened so much I couldn’t imagine going back of a PhD in just German anymore. Linguistics is fun to dabble in, but I’ve no interest in doing serious research in that field myself. I mostly just want to become a successful academic librarian with an independent life of the mind–publishing because I want to, not because I have to. I’m not there yet–still on the job search trail, still working for my insurance industry employer that helped put me through the last year of Library School, but that’s still the ambition–though I would also gladly accept work in a decent public library to start off with.

    Having an MA/MLS should make me more attractive to a prospective employer, but solid work experience seems to count more than academic endeavor (which is mere icing on the cake)…and that I don’t have a lot of–yet.
    But at least Librarianship is the one field where my peculiar reading and media consumption habits–namely, a little bit of everything…jack of nearly all trades, “Master” of only one (besides Librarianship itself).

    I can’t really honestly say if I would have the self-discipline to narrow myself down to a cogent dissertation topic and really push through to the end; I suspect it would be very hard for me to do, and probably without much payoff career-wise in Librarianship. Part of the problem with my first master’s was always trying to bite off more than I could reasonably chew. One bit of advice I picked up from one of my undergrad mentors, when I turned to him for some sympathy and guidance through grad school was “first just get your degree–you can always try to change the world for the better later” ;-)

    I deeply admired the biology grad students I hung out with, and at my lowest moments felt very humble around them…felt like “look, they’re doing REAL research that matters, not this pretentious crap I’m kicking around…”
    But then something happened one day; my biology grad student peers started pontificating on history and politics (something I thought I knew at least a little about), and ended up revealing themselves as utter ignoramuses, and I called them on it. Small moment of glory for the liberal arts geek. I even helped some of these biology students with editing their papers to make them more readable…and really was shocked at how bad the writing was. I cleaned up their prose considerably, though I did always have to double check with them to be sure I wasn’t mangling the science along the way (which sometimes I did, inadvertently, and had to get them to explain to me what they were trying to say, and then find a more cogent way to express it in prose–it was a mutually enlightening learning experience I still treasure). Anyway, helped me somewhat get over my inferiority complex I suffered from having to rub shoulders predominantly with hard sciences people in graduate student social circles. I had a few friends in the English department, and I mostly got on well with my fellow German Studies graduate students…it’s funny to remember that I fell in mostly with biology grad students for a social circle, but there it was…I guess because my favorite intellectual sparring partner was actually a cell biologist from Ireland doing research at a neighboring medical school who was also well-read in the humanities, utterly brilliant, a joy to talk to, and hung out in the same grad student pub on my campus as I did…it was through him that I met all the other biology grad student folk that became my wider social circle. I learned more from that funny, cantankerous Irishman than any of my professors. He had been trained by Jesuits and even aspired to the priesthood at one point, but then realized religion was bollocks and became a much happier atheist and committed scientist–PZ sort of reminds me of him, actually. Rounding our our trio was an older friend in his 50s who was a washed out hippie who was also a photographer, vagabond, Israeli army vet and a secular Jew all in one. I learned more intellectually reading on my own then intellectually engaging with these two men over far too many beers night after night than I ever did pick up in any of my academic courses…I can’t say I really regret it (except for it enabling me to push deeper into the alcoholism that I am in recovery from now thanks to Rational Recovery–but in certain respects the price was worth it).

    And yes, perhaps a little more prozac or paxil and a little less alcohol the first time around in graduate school would’ve been the more prudent choice–such is the wisdom of hindsight (and overcoming denial about one’s own addictions).

    Something the Music History person can relate to, I do remember one of my professors telling a mordant joke along the lines of…”The Humanities….Aren’t” (e.g. humane)

    I also enjoyed reading some of Page Smith’s gripes about academic work & life in the field of History some time ago.

    It was quite a revelation for me when I concluded that a successful academic career and having a rewarding intellectual life-of-the-mind…don’t always go hand in hand. One doesn’t require the other, and sometimes are even at cross-purposes with one another. When you can find a way to merge the two, wonderful…but don’t count on it.

    Good lesson to learn, because it seems to me that Academic Librarianship is now facing a similar jobs-squeeze that the Higher Ed Humanities experienced first…so maybe I only delayed my day of reckoning by chasing the MLS instead of the PhD. I do sometimes ponder Law, but that’s some SERIOUS debt and a field I have strongly ambivalent love-hate feelings about.

    If I won the Texas lottery I’d probably take a good many more foreign language classes, but also try once again to overcome my personal demon of Mathematics competency. I *can* do it when I have to, but it’s really grueling–but I do retain a perverse fascination and respect for mathematics and mathematicians. But that’s purely fantasy…in real life I have neither the available spare time nor disposable income to do that…I’m lucky enough just to keep my German going and to have taught myself to speak Spanish moderately well, and try to at least keep some of my Russian going (I’ve forgotten a lot–and my Russian language knowledge seems to fight for brain-space with my newly acquired Spanish skills–a very subjective feeling, I suppose, but maybe there’s some hard-wired anatomical truth behind that experience, too..)

    Anyway, glad you made it, PZ, and keep it going–I love this blog. Sorry to ramble on so…pretty endemic to us liberal arts types.

  60. Emily says

    Thread of pain indeed, as was mentioned earlier ^

    I’m a 4th year grad student and so far I haven’t had any extremely bad experiences with professors or committee members or advisor in grad school (I consider my advisor the bestest advisor ever in the history of the universe), but I had one undergrad professor who was a big jerkoff.

    It was a small department, so everybody knew each other. This professor was the embodiment of the word “elitist”. He looked down on everybody, save one or two people. I was one of those looked-down-upon. I had three classes with him during those four years, unfortunately (no one else taught those classes).

    When I was expecting graduate school acceptances and rejections, he let me know one time (when I went to his office hours to ask a question about a problem in class), that he thought I wasn’t a good enough student to be accepted into any PhD program. That my grades aren’t good enough (3.85). That my GRE scores were bad (they were actually somewhat average but definitely not bad). That I’m “too emotional” (no clue where he got that from). He basically destroyed my spirit right then and there and I went home and cried my eyes out to my roomate. The next day I got my first acceptance letter. I eventually got four of those, including one to a rather prestigious school (which I declined because I didn’t like the environment in the department there). I rubbed all those acceptances in his face, with glee.

    Since I got along with many other professors in my undergrad department, they told me to keep them updated with grad school progress — which I did, by emailing them whenever there was a milestone (e.g., finishing my first year, passing the first quals, passing the second quals). When I passed my first quals, I emailed them to let them know. I got happy replies from pretty much all of them — except for the asshole. He sent me an email dripping with contempt. He said he was surprised that I passed a qualifier, and wondered if maybe my committee had passed me out of pity. The email went on and on like that. I was furious over what he wrote. I was enraged that I had even kept in touch with such a vile human being. I closed my laptop in anger and tried to forget about it, but I couldn’t. A couple of hours later I wrote him an angry reply, refuting his email point by point, and offering to give his contact information to my advisor, so that he (my advisor) may inform him that I did not pass out of luck or pity, but rather because of my hard work and determination. He replied to my angry reply in a very apologetic form, but brushing off the whole thing as, supposedly, a “joke” that he made in that email and I didn’t have enough sense of humor to get it.

    I’ve visited my undergrad department a few times since, to say hello to old friends who are there as grad students now and to visit professors with whom I got along. I’ve passed by his office a couple of times. I have ignored and avoided him every time. I would be very happy if I never cross paths with him again.

  61. says


    Usually it seems like they start to have trouble 2-3 years in, when it feels like it is getting too late to switch (it may not be, I switched labs after three years to another area of research, really glad I did it).

    I spent half my time there wishing to switch labs, depts, uni even, and the second half regretting I didn’t do it. But the investment, as you said, begins to look too steep, and I was feeling especially vulnerable as a foreigner (technically, my visa would’ve become invalid the second I left the uni, meaning I’d have had to secure a new position beforehand etc.) Also, I truly loved the research topic–rather an esoteric one at the time–nobody else was involved in it there (certainly not at that level of success), and the results of my very first WEEK in the lab got published a couple of months later. Heady stuff.

    I made a number of mistakes–all dealing with (a lack of) “people skills”. I think many budding scientists aren’t warned or sufficiently appreciate how important they are. We are so used to solving problems with Vulcan logic. I was reluctant (too proud, too “stoic”, even too pessimistic) to look for help. I needed advice and guidance and didn’t do all I could to find it. I ignored general opinion, which was devastating; many people warned me against my choice, most of them students, but even a few professors expressed reservations. I thought they were misinterpreting her style (reminiscent of my own European experience: no palling around, lax manners, first names, soda and food in classes chez nous…)

    If this helps anyone, great. Unfortunately, it seems like such crapshoot: I’ve known people who had awful time with advisors who seemed like Gandhi in comparison. On top of everything else one is expected to deal with routinely, the challenges of research, miserable pay, uncertain future, you are held hostage to this one person’s opinion until they decide to set you free–and for a good while thereafter.

    Something oddly medieval about the whole thing.

  62. Phoenician in a time of Romans says

    On reading this thread, I can’t help wondering if Dr Evil was merely grad student Mildly Ticked Off until he had a bad oral…

  63. Science Goddess says

    I once took a class from Elvin Kabat, the grandfather of antibody structure. I was a mere technician at Columbia University, unsure of my graduate plans. He was reluctant to admit me to class, saying that technicians generally didn’t make good graduate students, but I persevered. Then I had to give an oral presentation. He asked me a question I couldn’t answer, and I tried to BS him (stupid, I know). He told me to “shut up and sit down”. I thought I would die right there. After class, I looked up the correct answer, and since I already worked at Columbia where he worked, I saw him later that day. Before even “hello” passed his lips, I blurted out the correct answer. After that, I could do no wrong, and boy, did I ever learn not to BS the greats!

    I subsequently went on to graduate school at Cornell-Sloan Kettering, and a (more or less) successful career in research. Now I’m retired and teaching part time at a community college. Having fun!


  64. says

    By popular request:

    I was giving a presentation about how there’s a lot of gene transcription before meiosis during Drosophila spermatogenesis followed by a complete shutdown of transcription in all spermatogenic progression during meiosis and beyond (proteins are translated from the existing pool of mRNA). Now, on my powerpoint slide I had a direct quote from a Nature paper that said that this system may be error prone due to lack of post-meiotic transcriptional regulation (many Drosophila interspecific hybrids demonstrate post-meiotic defects in spermatogenesis, possibly due to lack of proper regulation).

    Anyways, this ‘highly-critical’ participant in my committee meetings says, “But that’s only based on empirical evidence!” To which I replied, “Umm, I’m sorry, I don’t understand…”

    “Well,” he continued, “all they’ve got are observations from experiments, and they’re just making up a hypothesis to explain them!” Well, my perplexity continued in a back-and-forth discussion for a few minutes before my supervisor told me to simply ‘move on’.

    Afterwards, my fellow lab-mates and I tried to figure out what kind of science we were ‘supposed’ to be doing…

  65. Gaurav says

    I feel having those snotty SOBs screwing with your self-esteem can have a really good effect. My younger brother is TA’ing for a early-mid PG course – he said his students go into depression if they don’t score 90+ marks on homeworks/mid-terms. So the course instructor basically asked him to freely hand out grades. No real incentive to learn in the course. On the other hand SOBs really make you work. I personally think I have been the better just because of SOBs that happened to be around at strategic moments of my life. There is enough time to repair your self-esteem. If your self-esteem is too fragile to handle an academic SOB join a support group or something – there are more SOBs in the world who can do real harm than any academic SOB.

  66. melior says

    One remarkable truth that I learned is that if someone is a flaming a-hole to you for no deserved reason… there are almost certainly many, many people who already know this about him or her.

    That bit of knowledge has allowed me to keep my cool when otherwise I would have just been mystified and angry, taking it personally.

  67. Steve LaBonne says

    I didn’t have anything but good experiences (including a kind and supportive advisor) in grad school, and my postdoc advisor was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met (in addition to being a superb scientist). But to make up for it I had horrible experiences with a-holes later on in my career (both careers, actually, academic and forensic)- I suppose few people are lucky enough to go through life without encountering any of those. Illegitimum non carborundum, living well is the best revenge, and so forth.

  68. says

    The son-of-a-bitch actually died on me before my final Ph.D. defense, which I thought was terribly unfair of him. I half expected to see his rotting corpse pounding at the door of the seminar room, like something out of EC comics, and that he’d point a bony finger at me and demand that I derive the Goldman equation for him, or join him in hell.

    So that’s how I can combine my grad student work in vocal performance (opera) with my major in evolutionary ecology! I can simply have a malevolent dead thesis advisor drag me down to hell, like Don Giovanni.

  69. TTT says

    I feel blessed not to have run across these demonic, “Paper Chase”-style old farts in my own graduate studies in evolutionary biology. I did encounter one faculty member who would berate his students (including me) in public, declaring that there was no possible way we could have fairly finished college because we didn’t yet fully understand his pet topic; on several occasions reducing some (not including me) to tears. But as the years went on, it grew apparent that the guy wasn’t a competitive academic out to crush the young upstarts, but rather that he was a maladjusted geek who happened to be old and famous.

    The same suite of clueless obnoxious behavior that you find in the comic book shop or on the movie line for the latest Star Wars prequel, is also on display in high academia, because of the great overlap among the scientifically-minded. People don’t seem to realize that fullbore social-stunted geekery existed before MTV and can continue throughout life. A lot of those monstrous faculty members were friendless, undiagnosed-Aspergers, adult virgin types, and you only just noticed it because you depended on them for career advancement, whereas you don’t have to kowtow to the morbidly obese loudmouth wearing a Thundercats t-shirt at the Rocky Horror screening who probably also studies molecular bio. He will be someone else’s problem 25 years from now.

  70. says

    OMG, PZ, I almost never read entire comment threads on any blog, but this one had me alternating between laughing and boggling. My beloved PhD advisor is the type who believes public humiliation to be the best teaching tool, and I did call him to task on it – but only after I’d finished my degree. I’ve gotten through the whole process of my education (BA, MS, PhD, postdoc) with only a few uncomfortable moments, but those were mostly in front of people who knew me well (and thus the critic was dismissed instead of my work), but I did have 2 different people tell me to get out of science and research (once as an undergrad, once as a Masters student). To hell with them. I’ve done well by anyone’s standards.

  71. says

    Hmm. Yeah, good times indeed (I’m now a postdoc, for context). Let’s see.

    The total dick on my committee had the good grace to die (after I defended).

    My total bitch of an advisor had the good grace to get into an auto accident 4 days before I was supposed to turn in my dissertation (and she still didn’t read it; she read it later and told me to rewrite it, in 2 days).

    My first high school biology teacher was horrid and vicious.

    One of the professors I worked for actually denied me a letter of recommendation (I still don’t know why) (and in hind-sight it was probably a good thing; better no letter than a poor one). I did manage to have a successful lab experience later with a great guy who wrote a wonderful letter which was key for me getting into this top notch grad program.

    And, oh yeah, my former adviser pulled my name from her one and only Cell paper. This just happened two days ago. She didn’t bother to tell me. Neither did my two ex-colleagues that I spent a week at a conference with.

    Folks, science is hell, the people are miserable tripes with no personality, no life, and nothing helpful; they could care less about promoting your career. The mentor who actually cares about your science career is extremely rare. Remember to look out for yourself, since literally no one else will.

  72. says

    I now have a much better understanding of why some of the commenters on this blog use so much sarcasm and demeaning language. It’s merely what they were taught.

  73. says

    It’s not the grad school that’s the problem, it’s the Parents from Hell, or “Pig Parents” as Eric Berne called them in his book about life scripts, “What Do You Say After You Say Hello?” They are the ones that lay curses on their children instead of blessings. The sooner you get some emotioal, physical, and financial difference between you and them the better. If your parents give you a headache, don’t visit them. And good luck!

  74. Alain says

    A lot of those monstrous faculty members were friendless, undiagnosed-Aspergers, adult virgin types

    Might i suggest that you retract the Asperger bit from your comments, from what i’ve been reading, some of the a-hole described here sound a lot more Narcissistic than anything else.