Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Being Smart Doesn't Mean You Can't Be Dumb Too

PLS has a post up, "I'm too smart to end up like that". Man, did that hit a little too close to home. As I've probably made abundantly clear, I am not in a good advising situation. It's one of the major factors that drove me into blogging. As of last week, more students from my group have quit grad school than graduated  which is NOT typical for my department. Nor were any of these of the "I just don't belong in grad school" variety. Two of the students had been here for 5+ years and had at least one paper before finally leaving, and they weren't subtle about their reasons.

In my second year, I was seriously contemplating leaving. Senior students (one of whom ended up leaving) told me to switch groups while I still could. I had fellowship money, anyone would take me. But I had what I thought was four papers worth of data, and I didn't want to leave that much data. Well, two years later, my advisor finally read the first manuscript, and the reviews come back with a reference which effectively killed the next three papers. It's very easy for me to look back and say I should have left then.

But when you join a group, you have to be optimistic. You have to assume that the students who are willing to voice issues have personality conflicts with their advisors, because many times, that's the truth. You can't start assuming failure, or it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Until you find conclusive evidence to the contrary, you assume things will work. And as time goes on, you know certain things are lies, but you hope for once they won't be. "I'll get to it next week." "We'll meet soon." "Our collaborators will send us the code later this week." Because the alternatives are depression, or leaving, and where are you going to go?

The realities of Ph.D funding and departmental politics can make it very difficult to jump ship by the time you've been in a group long enough to have real problems. There may be 30 professors in your department, but half of them are doing projects you are absolutely uninterested in or have no background in. Most of the remaining professors have no more funding, depending on the time of year, or have proposals submitted without any firm cash in hand. Then there's the professors who are too buddy-buddy with your old boss. If you take can take a Master's and change universities, you may have to go through course requirements and qualifying exams all over again. Sometimes, you can change departments within a university, but courses and quals still present a very large obstacle.

There are days when I think I am very, very stupid for continuing with my advisor. But there are also days when I look at the data, and realize that I've done good work, and if I can nag him into reading it, I will put out good papers. I enjoy my project (most days) and think my research is interesting. I'm not in a position that's threatening my safety. And frankly, I don't have the willpower to start over in another group.

Your advisor doesn't have to be blatantly abusive to end up in a very bad situation. It may not even be noticeable until a year or two in, when you notice the student who has to do "just one more experiment" or "just one more paper" before they graduate. It can be simply always having you as one of their lowest priorities. And it's much harder to notice until it's too late.

And maybe the students in PLS's course will scoff and say they're too smart to end up like me. Maybe they're right. But sometimes, being smart does nothing to prevent you from making bad or unlucky choices.


  1. I just want to pipe in and tell you to hang in there. My grad department was/is infamous for its disfunction. Sometimes, you can't leave your project for reasons beyond your control. Sometimes, the only way to get into a good advising situation is to join a lab that is doing something that you are not interested in basing your career around. You have my sympathies. I know you'll find a way to push through and get onto your advisor's radar. Sometimes it requires being more of a squeaky wheel than one may initially deem proper. Do other people in your department know your problem? Are they willing to help?

    1. My department is pretty aware of my advisor's issue, but short of locking him a room with nothing else to do, there's no good way to force him to edit faster. I do have some other supporters in the form of the professor I TA'ed for and the former grad chair, but not someone who can give me good technical feedback. I am also incredibly lucky to have a husband outside of academia, making it more financially feasible to be in grad school longer. Thanks for support!