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.