Picking Your Poison

I said something a little (actually more than a little) harsh about Humanities grad students in the comments of one of Ginny’s posts.  That reminded my of how I began to see myself as a misanthrope in grad school. Upon leaving the Academy, I discovered that I was not misanthropic, I merely didn’t like Academics – either profs or larval profs, all that much. While I have much less patience with people in the Humanities (and they tended to try my patience with educated stupidity much more than techies), scientists are not easy lot to deal with, either. Early in my blogging career I came up with the taxonomy of scientific graduate advisors below. I had always planned to come back and do the grad students, so spurred on by Ginny’s post, I’m going to do both Humanities and Science / Engineering grad students in a future post.  But for those of you uninitiated into the arcane world of gradute work in technical fields, and especially for those of you about to enter that world, I’m reposting this:

Like most scientists, I usually assume that people know a lot more than they really do about University life and graduate school. Some of my peers’ parents were utterly confused when they came to visit and found out that junior, now a third year graduate student, wasn’t taking any classes. “What do you do all day?” they asked, fearing that junior was about to get kicked out of school for academic negligence and was going to wind up living at home for the foreseeable future. Well, aside from drinking away our sorrows, and in some cases trying to seduce our advisors (ick, ick, ick) we pretty much did twice as much of the same type of research that an M.S. or Ph.D. (depending on the maturity of the student) does outside the University, only for a lot less pay. A lot less. And we had more of that to look forward to as a post-doc. The salary for a post-doc is about double that of a grad student, but twice zero is still zero, isn’t it? But hey, at least we got paid. Humanities grad students often didn’t, and the few available teaching jobs over there were handed out to brown nosers talented students, so a grad student with a part time job was common among the literati, whereas in science and engineering, a lack of support for you from your advisor’s grant money or a departmental TA position was a pretty strong hint that you were about to get the giant-sized, purple, University-funded schlong, and should be considering an alternative career.

So, one of the least-trained-for and most important decisions an intrepid geek had to make was the choice of advisor. For some, who came to a particular school to work with a particular advisor,* the choice was easy. Others, who had only a hazy idea of what they wanted to do as a scientist actually had to pay attention to all of the seminars given by each advisor in turn in order to troll for students. Most Ph.D. caliber students had done at least some research as an undergrad, so we knew where we were heading in general, but not in particular. Those of us with an idea of what sub-discipline we wanted only had to pay attention to the seminars in our field.

For me, Organic seminars were torture (they took attendance, so I had to go). Back before PowerPoint took over the world, Organic chemists used to travel with slide carousels full of white-writing-on-blue-background slides displaying a dizzying array of chemical structures. The structures all looked alike to me: squiggle squiggle double bond squiggle CO squiggle hexagon. Oooh, look, a metal ion! If you’ve ever tried to look at a digital clock with a blue LED from a distance, you know how badly blue light scatters, and how hard it is for the human eye to focus on same. Assuming the projector was in focus (usually not), on the best of days I got a headache after two slides. I used to sit in the seat directly behind the projector and sleep, which was fine unless the slide got stuck and the speaker came back to un-jam it. I never had the guts to ask “who the @$%# came up with that white-on-blue color scheme, and what’s that say about your creativity if every one of you Organikers use it?”, when the time came for student questions. The demise of those slide carousels was one of the few good deeds that Microsoft has managed in its entire existence. 

Most grad students picked an advisor based on the science, and completely neglected personality, unless the prof was a World-Class Peckerwood, instead of just a contender for League Champion, as many were. The life of an academic ranges from larval picked-on high school geek to college science-major-without-a-date geek to grad-school semi-pro geek to post-doctoral fellow geek to professional associate geek to assistant geek-master to full geek-master. That means that, on the whole, the average professor’s EQ resides, how did Moebius Stripper put it? Ah yes, on the left tail of the distribution.

So here is a list of personality types as I remember them from the halcyon days of graduate school. I’d welcome additions or corrections from anyone with more recent experience, as I have blocked out some of the less pleasant aspects of indentured servitude.

The Micromanager: Usually an eminently respected scientist who is keenly aware of the ponzi scheme that is grad school in experimental science: i.e. there is a huge need for researchers at the graduate student and post-doc level, but the Boomers have all the tenure-track positions locked up until 2017. Is usually a Boomer his or herself. Your graduate project and publication output will be planned from Day 1 Year One to Day 364 Year Five. Often has “research assistant professors” who actually manage the lab, so you may see your advisor only once per quarter in a one-on-one situation. The RAPs are paid on year-to-year contracts from grant money, and so are desperate for you to publish something to which they can attach their names. The RAPs have all of the personality caveats of real professors, added to which they are too chicken to go out and compete in the marketplace of ideas on their own, so be ware. This whole setup means that your research will be mundane and predictable, but will be published. If you settle for one of these, pick one who sits on the editorial board of some journal, as that pretty much guarantees that even if you produce meaningless results, your papers will be published. It would be nice if the advisor also has a Nobel or similar prize to his or her credit, but those labs usually have no open slots for walk-ons.

Advantages: Usually gets you out in 5 years or even less, with a respectable publication list.

Disadvantages: Usually does not impart a lot of the ancillary skills that other advisors provide their students. The ones that picked up this style from a period in a National Lab may expect you in the lab every day at a specified time, and will actually take attendance.

The Ambitious Geek: Usually a younger professor. Absent tenure, this choice of advisor is fraught with peril, as tenure denial results in having to pack up the lab for another institution, which adds about a year to an experimental Ph.D. He or she is counting on you to come up with a way to execute hair-brained schemes to get enough results for a publication. The untenured ones are often NSF Young Investigators with some sexy theories, but remember, unless you come up with something good for them, they are stuck. Please note that there are no NSF Old Investigator awards. Will often send you emails at 3:30 in the morning. Usually has not developed even the rudimentary people skills of the older professor, so be prepared for shouting matches. Once tenured, the hunt for prestige begins, so he or she may often be away at conferences. That won’t stop the 3:30 AM emails, though. If you really, really get seduced by the science, at least pick one of these with tenure.

Advantages: You can always talk to them. Honest. Even at 3:30 AM.

Disadvantages: Likely to prefer Chinese and Russian grad students because of their reputation for living in the lab 24/7.

The Creative Genius: An older researcher who, at one point in the past, struck a home-run or two and is now flush with cash. Usually has more than one sub-group, and misuses time switching his or her attention back and forth between them as fancy strikes. Usually gives students a lot of room to pick their own projects, and has the money to let you develop your ideas. That’s great if you, yourself are creative, but a nightmare of a 7-year Master’s degree if you are not. (For real. I know of at least one 10 year Master’s). Be honest with yourself, and if you are just not that creative, go for the Micromanager.

Advantages: Money, money, money, and room to run free.

Disadvantages: Has a lot of ideas to start you out with in your first year. No one in the history of the lab has ever gotten any of them to work in the advisor’s entire 20 year career, so find a new idea quick, or prepare for Master’s hell.

The Absentminded Professor: Likely more interested in teaching than most, and may be writing an undergraduate textbook. Look out, because you can never get him or her to focus on your project long enough to get a paper out. There are very few Ph.D.s given to students with no publication record. Likely to have a lot of departmental administrative duties if funding begins to slip. Despite the University’s pious assertions to the contrary, they do not hire professors in experimental science to teach, they hire them to bring in those grant dollars.

Advantages: Usually fun to talk to, and may have money or have some standing in your field.

Disadvantages: May or may not be paying enough attention to keep a steady flow of funding. Once you are working on a real thesis project, being forced to teach by a funding hiatus is a major pain-in-the-rear.

The Bitter Fundless Twit: Usually has low-to-no funding because he or she either ran out of ideas post-tenure, or is not politically astute enough to write grant applications that bend with the prevailing winds. Sometimes is kept on because the University hired a more famous spouse and he or she came with the deal. If male and unmarried this is the type most likely to sexually harass grad students and undergrads. In fact, as he ages he is likely to sexually harass anything female in the Phylum Chordata. I don’t think you need me to tell you to stay away, and if you do, perhaps grad school isn’t for you after all. Sexual harrassment is one of the few things that can un-tenure a professor.

The Political Player: Smooth operator. More interested in policy than science, this one may be an officer in a professional society, and definitely has a role in the NSF / NIH, or other governmental agency. As with the Absentminded Professor, may be hard to reach, but boy-oh-boy will you have connections if you graduate.

Advantages: Connections, especially if you have had it with the lab and want to do something else.

Disadvantages: Other professors resent your advisor, and your dissertation committee will give likely give you a very hard time. Don’t expect help on that front, as your advisor may enjoy the confrontation.

The Emeritus-in-Training: Very old professor with a magnificent scientific reputation. Usually is not as picky about quality as he (almost always a he) once was. OK if you want to slide by, but the danger is health and patience. If he gets sick or gets fed up with University politics, he may just retire on you, and you’ll be out begging other professors to take you in. This will probably add years to your Ph.D. and turn you into a bitter alcoholic. If he spends more time giving seminars about the trip to Antarctica that he wrangled from his old friend at the NSF than he does giving seminars about your field, it’s time to jump ship.

Advantages: The scientific reputation of your advisor trumps all when looking for a job.

Disadvantages: The age factor.

Whoo-hoo. That was a fun trip down memory lane. Not.

*Famous graduate advisors will often accept students into their group via an arrangement with the student’s undergraduate advisor whom the graduate advisor knows professionally, setting up a sort of scientific reciprocal farm team system.

9 thoughts on “Picking Your Poison”

  1. Once again, I thank my lucky stars for overwhelming me with engineer father and practical necessities at the time of my schooling.
    Otherwise, I could submit to my natural instincts and engage in Humanities program…somewhere in History of Art domain.

    What COULD be worse than that?!?

  2. True, that.
    Luckily, at the age of 17 I was pretty self-assured individual and was convinced (by myself, my mother and all my Russian/R.Literature teachers) that there is nothing I could learn from further studies in Creative Writing.

    Life proved me mistaken, but (see pt. above re: practical necessities), there was no place for such frivolities later.

  3. Funny and lack all funny things, a more than a little true.

    I find it interesting that we still train scientist and other academics in the old apprentice system. If you substitute “Master” for “advisor” or “professor” and “journeyman” for “grad student” I think people from the medieval ages would have recognized those personality categories.

    Perhaps it is ironic to say so but there appears to be a art to sciences that can only be passed on person to person.

  4. For one who learned to dislike academics, you sure seem unable to tear yourself away…time prhaps to let go and move on?

  5. Joseph Hill – I am an Industrial scientist. I have no choice but to interact with Academic scientists, and I have great respect for their abilities, while retaining little respect for their personality caveats. The reason I am in Industry is to limit my contact with Academia to a short enough time that retain my sanity.

    You have not seen prima donnas until you’ve seen two full professors get into a shouting match over the placement of a table in a departmental conference room.

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