Monday, April 16, 2012

The Human Games

Question from a reader:
What would cause you to treat grad students like they were people?*

What a great question! The answer is probably obvious, but I will explain it anyway. 

Of course, the first thing I do is throw students in a pond. It doesn't have to be a large pond, but it should be quite cold and there should be some unspecified monsters in it. Then I just stand back and see what happens!

Here's the interesting part: 

If a student sinks, it means they are human and I can treat them accordingly, in most cases by firing them without explanation or notice because who wants to work with a human? 

If they swim, either because they already know how or because they somehow figure it out by themselves, then it means they are not human and will likely do a successful PhD and will become a professor just like me and can continue these fun games with their own students.

But you already knew that and hence your perceptive question. I hope, however, that it is at least somewhat helpful to see it typed out here in a cold rigid font. 

* Note: Although this is a direct quote from an e-mail sent to me by a reader, there was also other text in the e-mail that was worded in a more polite way, and I don't think the question was intended to sound quite as rude as it appears. So, my response it not entirely fair in terms of addressing the individual who sent the question, but I get this and similar questions from time to time, and thought I would give a general reply.

22 comments:

KHecht said...

and unsubscribing now.

Anonymous said...

You crossed the line, FSP. I'm no longer reading your blog. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

I think that if someone writes and implies that a professor doesn't treat their students like humans (even if there is lots of evidence from older posts to the contrary), it is very appropriate to respond with absurd humor. This was funny.

Anonymous said...

Skip swimming--that's for wimps. I only take students who can walk on water, and I want to see a utube video link in their CV

Mark P

PS Guess professors are supposed to have a sense of humor but not expect students to have one

Anonymous said...

A question like that definitely deserves and answer like this one. Why are some people so upset? Either you think it's funny or you don't, it's not a crisis.

Anonymous said...

I am really glad you responded to this question, as most of your responses focus on questions from students/pdocs/untenured wondering how to deal with some dilemma with those more senior to them, rather than the reversed. And I am rather horrified to learn that you receive questions like this. I know some of my colleagues consider it "all good fun" to jest about being a slave driver or how many "grad student years" it took to get something done. I find these jests distasteful, and I get the impression from your commentary that this question was not even said in jest. Shame on them -- I hope they lose (or have already lost) the privilege of supervising graduate students.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Do grad students not understand why a question like "why don't you treat us like people" is offensive and deserving of a flip response?

Female Science Professor said...

I should say that I was not offended by the email, which overall was sincere and respectful. I think the student genuinely wanted to know how advisors deal with all sorts of "human" issues that happen to many of us, professors and students alike (health problems etc.). It's just that when I got the particular question that I included in this post, a particular response popped into my head. I knew it was strange when I wrote it down..

I should also explain that I am on the road, and comment moderation will be even more sporadic than usual today. Apologies for that.

Anonymous said...

Lolz.

For the grad students who are getting their panties in a twist (from a fellow grad student), I give a slightly more serious response: Some advisors suck and some do not, if your advisor belongs to the former category there is nothing to do about it because some *people* (professors or not) are jerks- get away from them as quickly as you can. However, you should not confuse advisors who push you to work hard, harder than you think you should have to work, as being jerks- I bet you they are slaving away just as hard as you are on lab management, grant writing, teaching, advising, committee work, etc. And the hard work is necessary if you want to succeed in academic science. So buck up.

Anonymous said...

Y'know, I'm kind of in the "grow up" category here, and I'm not going to be flip, but blunt. Grad school is a subset of the real world, and it should train you to function in the larger world. When you become a professor, the students in your class won't give a damn about your human problems. If they perceive you as substandard, they won't care about the reason, they'll just slam you on your reviews and ratemyprofessor. The funding agencies don't really care either. Heath problems may simply mean you submit the proposal in the next round. Being a grown up (professional) is about figuring out how to get the job done despite the things that happen to all of us.

For all you know that professor you think doesn't consider you as human also has had tragedies, set backs and illness. There are allowances that can and maybe should be made under some circumstances, but I don't think any mentor is doing any student a favor by altering overall expectations. As a mentor, it might be their job to help them you ways to manage their life challenges (and we all have them, even professors). Some advisors will do this directly and supportively, and some will take the "I did it; figure it out" approach. Finding the right match for you is important. If you can handle 'sink or swim', great. If you need more guidance, fine. But this is grad school, intended to be rigorous training. No one should get a ribbon just for showing up.

If you were in your first job, there would be expectations. A lot of people fresh out of college make the adjustment in the workplace. It's a different set of adjustments in grad school, but your expectations still need to be adjusted to the reality of the expectations of the career path you've chosen, whether science, law, business, or barrista.

Alex said...

No, see, here is how you do it. If a student floats, that means they are made of wood. Because wood floats. But a duck also floats. So you could just see if the student weighs as much as a duck.

Sofia said...

Heh. I get this sort of question from undergraduates. They feel that I am not treating them as human if I ask them to turn in work on time and complete all aspects of an assignment, or if I do not excuse them from work for being involved in sports events or having a weekend full of negative emotions. On the other hand, when I am vomiting on the couch all weekend or having a weekend full of negative emotions, I get some students who are upset that I don't get 50 midterms graded, entered, and returned in three days. At some point the absurdity must be pointed out.

(Usual disclaimer for the non-discerning reader:) Many students are very understanding and treat us as real human beings, and many professors treat students as real human beings. Having standards is not a sign of inhumanity -- this goes both ways. It is my job to grade a student's work rather than their emotions or extracurricular activities. It is not personal.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mark P. Forget swimming - walking on water is what I am looking for. If you can't walk on water but you can turn culture media into wine (or beer...), then I may consider you.....


Also, a sense of humor is always a plus.

mathgirl said...

I have to say that I find the post sad rather than funny. The truth is that I know way too many professors that treat their students in that way and that think I waste my time because I work my ass trying not to do the same.

Anonymous said...

Anyone whose skin is thin enough to be profoundly upset by that post shouldn't be in academia, or any other field that requires interaction with other human beings.

EliRabett said...

Eli senses some bad times in the lab and home

Anonymous said...

Dear FSP,

Just keep in mind that many of your readers are in the middle of qualifying exams. Perhaps that's why they are so sensitive.

nicoleandmaggie said...

She's a witch!

Now I will have Monty Python and the Holy Grail going through my head all day.

pramod said...

I'm a grad student and I found this funny. Those of who you are offended might want to read through the FSP archives. AFAICT, FSP is an extremely understanding and patient advisor.

Anonymous said...

I personally insist that a prospective student sit on a chair that has a garbanzo bean under the cushion and see if they are uncomfortable. If they are, they are clearly going to be high maintenance and I reject them as an advisee. Extreme professors use a pea, but I consider that unreasonable and inhumane and prefer to allow students the latitude of a garbanzo-bean sized object.

Anonymous said...

I dont think most faculty intend to have this attitude but end up doing so because they insist on keeping their cushy faculty position at 9 to 5. If they really cared, they would work harder. Most will not.

Anonymous said...

Well, as they say:
those who can't do, teach.