Back in October of 2014, the AAAS decided to start an advice column for graduate students and early career scholars. This is possibly the worst plan ever enacted, not because the scholar chosen to answer the questions is lacking, but because anyone who has undergone a PhD program recognizes the incredibly dysfunctional nature of the relationship between graduate students and early career scholars, their departments and advisors. After a number of questionable columns, the advice was finally held up for the mockery it so richly deserved after the author advised a graduate student to put up with her married male adviser looking down her shirt, cheerily finishing with “His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice.”1 Here, we hypothesize about possible questions and answers for upcoming AAAS advice columns, but we are not sure we can actually top the real answers.
So, while you are reading these and thinking “this is insane, no one would give this kind of advice!” – let us assure you, these were modelled on the very real answers of the AAAS column, “Ask Alice.”
And, you may see a particular pattern: that no matter what the circumstances the answer is always the same. Regardless of the cost to you, keep your relationship with your supervisors intact. Don’t make waves. And that is because that really is the advice anyone who’s been through the process would give. Because this is Academia. And it never ends. Not as long as you’re a part of the system. No matter whether you’re a newbie grad student or a tenured professor, the only thing that should make waves is the research.
Dear Professor ScarredbyAcademia,
I recently embarked upon my 10 week lab rotation in Microbial pathogenesis. While I am enjoying the field immensely and it is a great lab, there is one small problem. My supervisor is a great scientist and has an excellent reputation in the field. But last week, he set my hair on fire and then laughed with glee while I ran through the laboratory looking for a fire extinguisher. What should I do?
Imagine what life would be like if no one could take a joke, pretty boring right? Well, lab rotations are a part of life. Sometimes that unfortunately involves hazing the new recruits.
It’s true that hazing has been banned by many states, but this ban generally applies only to fraternities and other student based organizations, as illustrated by this language in the California penal code: “‘hazing’ means a method of initiation or preinitiation into a pupil organization or body, whether or not the organization or body is officially recognized by an educational institution.”2
Obviously, faculty support such a ban because student organizations can’t possibly haze with the sort of panache of one who has already earned a doctoral degree and has academic life-or-death authority over other individuals.
Of course, if the behavior rises to the level of assault, there are steps you can take: report your supervisor to the head of your department. Of course, as we all know the two may have worked together for years, or perhaps your supervisor is actually the head of department. In that case, there is surely a grievance resolution procedure at your university. But, has this really risen to the level of assault? I don’t mean to suggest that having your hair set alight by a supervisor is appropriate workplace behavior, because it isn’t, but think of the ramifications of reporting this: you’ll lose an excellent resource for continuing your studies, and it will be difficult to overcome the perception that you have no sense of humor or are too attached to your hair when applying to future laboratories.
Unless this behaviour rises to the level of assault, I recommend taking it in stride, and if possible with a sense of humor. Just make sure that your supervisor is listening to your ideas and taking your work seriously, because isn’t that more important than the hair on your head?