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.


angrygrad said...

This is a most excellent post.

aurea said...

Sorry if I'm double commenting, my internet connection crapped out.

You hit the nail right on the head with this post. I understand what you mean by "honeymoon period." I quit my old research group after four years. The straw that broke the camel's back was observing how my ex-supervisor treated senior students who were about to graduate.

Anonymous said...

I agree with angrygrad. This is a most excellent post. I was one of the students who "sucked up" and suffered through it.
The observation about "honeymoon period" is great too. I did think of quitting too. Luckily I did receive help from other faculty and some friends to keep myself focussed on completing.