Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Do you understand the words coming out of my mouth?

When I was at the Ecology Meeting a couple of weeks ago, I actually spent great deal of time talking to graduate students and post-docs. One interaction in particular really hit home for me. A graduate student was seriously depressed about their advisor. Not necessarily shocking in and of itself, but the stories that began emanating from this student were eye-popping. I mean stories that would make the hair on your toes curl in horror. You might be wondering right now if this graduate student had interviewed with the advisor before accepting the position - and the answer is yes. In this student's defense, the advisor in question is very charming and there were no glowing eyes, cloven hooves, or even the subtle but disturbing smell of sulphuric smoke to indicate that this might be an advisor to avoid. So, next question - did the student talk to other students in the lab? Yes. And this is where the title of this piece comes to play - they all told the prospective student to not come under any circumstances period. They explained why and they all gave a consistent message (as the depressed student ruefully admitted). Apparently, this has been going on for a while in that lab - current students tell prospective students that the lab is hell, not to come; that they themselves would have chosen differently if they had to do over again. Still the students come. And they all seem shocked to find out that every word was true.

I honestly don't understand this as the words coming out of the current students mouths seemed to be brutally clear. But this direct and brutal communication about a potential advisor is not always the case.

Fast-forward to another conversation witnessed at the meeting - a young scientist receives a post-doc opportunity with a well-known person who is also a gigantic ass. While the individual's science is known broadly, that he is also a gigantic asshat is less broadly advertised. Young post-doc mentions the prospective post-doc position to someone in passing - obviously oblivious to this person's personal reputation - and receives this advice: "I think you would really find it helpful to talk to FormerPostdocX." This advice is reiterated several times during the conversation. There is no mention of the myriad of problems that absolutely everyone who has ever worked with this individual has experienced, but it is clear to those in the know that the individual is pointing the young post-doc to a person who will spill their guts. This indirect passage of information is frankly more common than one might think because science is such a small world. Besides let's face it, I might never see a certain prospective student/post-doc ever again, but not only will I see Dr. Jackass at least once a year, he may be reviewing my manuscripts/grants or sitting on committees with me for the next 30 years, so life is more pleasant if there is at least not open warfare.

Even if you are open-minded and truly listening to what people are saying, this subtle form of "feedback" is the most difficult to detect and process. I have one simple piece of advice that can help: ask the same question over and over and over again of as many people as can reasonably be expected to answer (I learned this one while interviewing for faculty positions). You can learn some interesting things by what people consistently say, what they consistently don't say, or by the mixed messages that you receive (do equals or superiors speak highly of the individual yet underlings burn him in effigy every morning before starting work?). And here's my best piece of advice: if all the answers come back loud and negatively clear then, frankly, it is likely that something is wrong with that advisor and not that there's a wonderful advisor waiting to be discovered who just needs the right student to come along. It doesn't work with boyfriends (trust me, I've tried) and it doesn't work with advisors either!


PhysioProf said...

People ignore this kind of advice because "I am a unique snowflake who is so utterly scintillating and outstanding and earth-shattering that no one could ever possibly treat me like shit".

Anonymous said...

Women in particular have the "it won't happen to me" complex.

If an interviewing student is not born with an internal detector of external shit from PIs direction or the grad program... they will 1) la la la, be fine or 2) get screwed.

I warned people about my previous advisor and yup, while I was transferring to another PhD program, these people were signing on the dotted lines to work with him. whatever. their funeral. And yes, I heard all about their regrets through the sciencevine.

People who WANT to know WILL ASK. I certainly don't volunteer any info anymore to non-asking people.

Professor in Training said...

Clueless Mentor has taken on a grad student that rotated through our lab who still decided to join CM despite (1) having a shitty rotation, (2) two postdocs (including myself) telling him it was a very, very bad idea AND (3) his program advisor suggesting he find a different lab. Needless to say, he is now complaining endlessly about Clueless Mentor and, while I am sympathetic to a small degree, I just want to shout I TOLD YOU SO.

Some people just don't listen.

yolio said...

There is a "blame the victim" syndrome that is part of this, I think. It is common in academia for people to view the complainers as just not being "tough enough" or "smart enough" or the "right kind" to hack it.

Also, I think it is hard to appreciate just how horrible a bad boss/mentor is until you've had one.

Candid Engineer said...

This problem is completely ubiquitous. I second what everyone else has said. There is no helping these people.

drdrA said...


Mad Hatter said...

I agree with PP and anonymous that some people have the "it won't happen to me" delusion. But I've also known a couple of people who heard the warnings, believed them, but thought that they could simply tough it out for the X years it would take to get their Y high-profile papers and leave. Some people are just so attracted to the idea of working for Prof. Bigwig that they'll knowingly sign themselves up for years of shit.

Anonymous said...

I was so impressed with the openness of current grad students when I was selecting a program. I have only had confirmation about how accurate their advice was, and know without a doubt that I avoided a terrible advisor at the fanciest Ivy of them all.

I try hard to return the favor now, but there is that issue of how open to be -- how much can you trust the discretion of someone you've just met. I think advisors should tell their students and postdocs when they go for interviews to remember to keep what they hear in the vault, and not abuse the kindness of those who are looking out for naive strangers.