Saturday, September 30, 2006

Things seem to be finally moving along

I found out today that the department put forward the request for my external examiner to the Faculty of Grad Studies. Yay! I only had to bug my supervisor about getting that done for two months now. I hope this means things will get moving along and I'll be defending soon. Now just to get a date set.

I've realized I really liked working from home when I was writing my thesis over the summer. However it was kind of lonely and it's nice to be back around the university more regularly. Although I blame the influx of students this month for my cold, which is still lingering and really starting to annoy me.

Speaking of the thesis, I am so sick of revisions. It's to the point that sentences are just getting re-worded and they end up meaning the same thing. Recently my supervisor came up with this idea for a new figure he thought would be good to add. It required me to do some analysis on my data, boring analysis by the way and statistics! Ugh. It turns out it wasn't so bad. I think that is partially because it wasn't more revisions and I actually made a figure, which is more exciting than re-wording sentences. I thought my supervisor was just being picky when he asked for me to add this figure but now that it's done I must agree it really adds to the chapter. I guess he is right some of the time.

On a totally unrelated topic, I want to change my Blogger template and add an image for the header in the new template instead of whatever is there. I've figured out how to add the image but my problem is that the title and description of my blog is still there and I want to remove it. My image has the title and description of my blog on it so I don't need the blogger one that shows up. Anyone know how to remove the title? Thanks.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The problems with grad studies - part II

Now that I'm finally getting over the cold that kicked my ass, as I lovingly refer to it, I figured I'd post part II of the problems with grad studies. It was either that or work on the revisions of a chapter my supervisor initially said was great and then when he re-read it he shredded it to bits. Umm... I'll take door #1.

The one big problem with grad studies is the student-supervisor relationship. The short version is, when it's good, things are great but when it's bad it could mean the demise of your PhD. A former grad student colleague of mine described the relationship between grad student and supervisor as "the most important relationship behind that of the one you have with your spouse and your parents". Come to think of it, she might have just said spouse. In any event, you work closely with your supervisor, they are your mentor (usually) and they essentially hold your PhD degree in their hands. At times it can seem like they are holding it hostage. Therefore, it is essential that the supervisor you choose (and yes it is your choice) to work with plays a huge role in your success as a PhD student. Most people going into their PhD know the importance of the supervisor in their success and some universities have even adopted the grad student rotation idea where new grad students do a short rotation in the labs they are interested in in order to choose the one that fits them best. Oh, they make it seem all so easy. The problem is supervisors know how to wine and dine the students they want. I call it the honeymoon period. Whether it's during a rotation or after you have started in their lab as their grad student, supervisors will make it seem like they are the best thing since sliced bread. Things can and do change.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that all supervisors are bad. There are some good ones out there and then there are those other one. The problem arises when you get one of those other ones or your seemingly wonderful supervisor ends up becoming one of those other ones. Then what? Well, let me tell you, from personal experience there is no then what. Sure, departments and universities will make you think that you have options when you are having problems with your supervisor but really it's all just talk. What's that? You say your department's chair of grad studies handles student-supervisor problems and your university has a grad student obudsperson? Hold a moment while I chuckle....

Okay, to be fair, yes at times these services do help, however, you do risk pissing off your supervisor by complaining to someone in the department or at the university level about the problems with your supervisor. And yes, they can mediate discussions between you and your supervisor to come to a mutual understanding but in the end you are the one that has to face your supervisor the next day and most likely they won't be too pleased knowing that you think they suck. Also, keep in mind that you need your supervisor to sign off on your thesis in the end. There's a fine line between resolving conflict and creating underlying turmoil when it comes to dealing with your supervisor.

However, what I want to get at here is beyond mediation and discussion. The bottom line is your supervisor has final say in whether or not you get your degree and even if he/she is being completely ridiculous in their demands or whatever, no one can make them do anything. In the end you are at the mercy of your supervisor. Sure you have the option to go to a different lab or even quit but either way you are at square one and have to start all over again. The reason why is due to intellectual property rights. Your supervisor's grants paid for your research, and/or your salary, and/or the space and equipment you used to conduct that research. This means they own your data. And because you did the work and analyzed the data you also have a stake in the intellectual property rights, which is why, by rights, your supervisor can't publish your work without your name on it. So the problem with switching labs is you need your supervisor's approval if you want to continue on with that project. Ya, like that's going to happen being that you left their lab because you had problems with them. As well, no other prof is really going to want to take you on. The reason being is you're there for, oh lets say 5-6 years, but your supervisor and the other prof have to work together for, oh perhaps another 10-15 years or more. You are just a drop in their bucket and they (and the department) don't want to end up with bad blood between profs due to one grad student. So in the end, you're the one that gets screwed. Either you put up with your supervisor and their crazy demands or procrastination on setting your defense date or you quit. Yep, those are your options. I once asked the grad student obudsperson about student-supervisor relationships and if you couldn't resolve your conflict with your supervisor were quitting or just sucking it up your only options. After a long pause she lowered her and quietly said, "yes". Oh now that's encouraging!

So after my long blabbering on, what I'm getting at is that this old school idea of grad students being solely reliant on their supervisor for their PhD is ridiculous. This is also the root cause of grad students being taken advantage of. Supervisors know grad students are at their mercy so they dangle that degree in front of your face and get you to do many mundane tasks that aren't at all related to grad school - can you get my mail? here's $10, can you go grab me a sandwich and a pop? can you photocopy these for me?. I'm sure many grad students have wondered the same thing I have at some point, is this grad school or personal assistant training?

As for a solution, so far I don't have one. Intellectual property rights leave grad students stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The problems with grad studies - part I

I'm sure there are many problems with grad studies, I have two in mind hence the "part I" in the title. Some may say I'm just a bitter grad student at the end of her program but I like to look at it as the rose coloured glasses have finally come off. All the hype professors tell you about how great a PhD is and how academic research is so flexible and that you can follow whatever your heart desires seems so wonderful in the beginning but the honeymoon phase is over.

I've been thinking about the numerous problems with academia for a while now. This is part of the drive behind my search for a non-academic career. A recent article in The Scientist titled Are We Training Too Many Scientists? reminded me of one of my bigger complaints with PhD training. The article goes into the statistics behind the number of PhD granted and the number of post docs and how the numbers have risen drastically, yet the number of tenure-track academic research positions have not kept pace. This leaves a lot of highly skilled and highly educated scientists at a loss of what to do next. Now I'm not going to focus or speculate why the numbers are different and how we could fix them. No, that article reminded me of my frustrations with leaving the Ivory Tower and obtaining a career outside academia. Besides the gasps and the comments like "well what are you going to do then?", "but you can't direct your own research there", "isn't it time you started having babies anyways?" (that one especially annoys me) very few people have had any advice on what jobs there are for those with PhDs who don't want to go into academia. For a while there I was getting so frustrated and stressed about how I took so many years of schooling and yet had limited career choices beside academia. This, however, is not true. Upon further investigation and speaking with a career counselor I realized I did have numerous option. However, I never realized these options existed until I actively searched them out. In academia your mentors are professors, usually your supervisor. These people live and breath academic research and to do anything else, in their mind, is somehow considered lesser. I realize mentoring a grad student is like raising a child. You want to teach them as best as you can and see them succeed. The problem is that most academics only see success as obtaining a tenure-track position. As such, they don't really counsel you in alternative career options. It could be that they aren't familiar with them or that they don't want to open all those other doors for you for fear that you will take the time and money they invested in you and do something that is considered, by them, to be of a lower standing. However, all schooling, whether it's a Bachelor's degree or a PhD, is about training people for their future careers. Why in the case of a PhD does that career have to focus on academia?

With the decrease in tenure-track positions and increase in number of PhD graduates you would think that training or career counseling in areas outside academia would be beneficial to universities. Potential PhD students wouldn't see a PhD as a dead end degree and many of those recent PhD graduates would not be so disgruntled and give up on science altogether. As I mentioned, I did seek out career counseling. Although it was through the university I still had to pay for it and it wasn't soley focused on science. It was just general career counseling. It was helpful although it would have been much more helpful to have career counseling focused on jobs you can obtain with a PhD in science. I've found that most of my knowledge on careers outside academia has been self-taught since the university has limited resources in that area.

A PhD program shouldn't just center on getting the degree but should include career counseling and specific courses to prepare you for a career, whether that be in academia or outside academia. This idea of [B.Sc. + M.Sc. + Ph.D. + Post-doc = tenure-track position] is outdated. Academia needs to change with the times and better prepare the students they are training so that when they graduate they can enter into successful careers in a broad range of areas and not just tenure-track or unemployment.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Damn writer's block

Why does this always happen to me? Whether it's a paper, a report, or my thesis, whenever I'm so close to the end I get writer's block. For my thesis I have about four pages of general conclusions left to write and I'm stuck. My main problem is I don't want to be repetitive. My thesis chapters are written as papers so each chapter has it's own conclusion; however, the thesis needs it own general conclusion. Every time I write something in the general conclusions I realize I've already said that in some other chapter. It's getting really annoying. Yesterday I tried the theory of just write even if it's crap. That usually works for me but this time not so much. I re-read that page today and it is not good. I just want to get these last few pages done but it's agonizing!

On a related note, my supervisor still is skirting the issue with respect to setting a defense date and an external examiner. I think that is contributing to my lack of effort in finishing the last few pages of my thesis. In my mind, I wonder why I'm putting so much effort in when he wants to put off my defense for months. I will spare you my endless complaints about my supervisor and defending because I could go on forever. The short version is that I'm sick of him prolonging and dragging this out so I'm going to talk to the chair of my department about my options. We'll see how that goes. This is the main reason I haven't updated my blog lately. I've been very bitter and as my mother always says, "If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all". I'm still bitter but I've managed to rein it in somewhat to appear cheery on the outside.