Sunday, March 18, 2007

I'm Never Going Back to My Old School

I spent part of spring break visiting friends from graduate school. It was really nice seeing old friends and labmates. Much beer was consumed, good food was made and eaten, and gossip was swapped. I’m very proud of my little group of friends; almost all are working on a Ph.D., and their projects are all interesting, with a brilliant one or two thrown in.

One of my former labmates just completed her M.S., and it was just by the skin of her teeth. My major professor had been hers, too, and they had had major disagreements over statistical minutiae. In the end, he had resigned from her committee, leaving her scrambling to find another advisor. As she recounted the story of escalating arguments and increasingly personal attacks, I flashed back to my last year in grad school, when this same professor had somehow become convinced that I was trying to usurp his research program. He thought that I was intent on hijacking his funding when I left to find a job, even though nothing like that had ever crossed my mind, and even though I wouldn’t have known how to do such a thing. I spent my final year in constant fear of being ejected from the lab, not knowing for sure that I’d receive my doctorate until I actually had the parchment in hand.

My major professor had kicked another student out of his lab several years before. This student, another of my closest friends, found himself without a master’s project with no warning and no explanation. He was forced to complete a non-thesis degree, which made it more difficult to find a Ph.D. slot. He eventually did so, and is now finishing his second post-doc; he’s a brilliant, driven student, but my major professor’s erratic behavior cost him at least two years, and to this day no one but the professor knows why.

Ours is not the only professor that has unreasonably ejected students from his lab. At the same university, another professor kicked two students out of his lab when he decided that his research program was going to change direction and that these two students were going to take longer to complete their projects than he wanted to spend with them. A colleague of mine who got his degree at a different university was nearly ejected from his major professor’s lab because when his father got a brain tumor, the student spent too much time with his dying father and not enough on his research project.

Graduate degrees in field biology often take much longer than those in other sciences. It isn’t unusual for a student to spend three years on a master’s or five years on a doctorate. Bad weather or uncooperative study organisms extend dissertation projects past university deadlines and beyond funding. During this time, grad students are subject to the whims of the major professor. Students may have to teach their professors’ classes and assist with his research or that of their labmates, all while taking classes and performing their dissertation research. There are some conscientious professors that don’t abuse the system, but there are others that treat their students as slave labor, take credit for their research, or give them poor advice and instructions or none at all. The professor can also terminate a student’s research and dismiss him from the lab without giving a reason. The student has very little recourse in such situations. Although the university involved may have supposed safeguards against capricious actions by professors, in reality there is almost no way to force a professor to act in good faith if he or she has decided to do otherwise.

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