If you’re thinking about grad school in science or engineering, you’ve probably read some advice columns on how to succeed and avoid common pitfalls. I mostly found the “feel good” type of advice – essentially, that if you work hard and you aren’t a total dick, your science career will basically be smooth sailing.
Frickin’ hell, how wrong I was. In my research group, laziness was rewarded and hard work was punished, I faced asshole personalities left and right, and many of my “colleagues” regularly sabotaged my work.
This advice column is the real thing; very bitter, nothing like a “Dear Abby” letter (unless I missed the one entitled, “Go fuck yourself”).
Lesson 1: The more work you do, the more harassed you’ll be.
Who the hell would have thought this? You see, there are two broad classes of grad students: lazy and not lazy (the former greatly outnumber the latter).
If you’re a lazy bastard, you have it made. Your advisor knows you’re worthless, and expects nothing from you. If you actually do your job, that’s when you’re in deep shit. Your advisor knows you’re capable, and relies on you for data; who the hell else is going to run the enzyme assay?
The sad truth is that the more work you do, the more is expected from you. In biology, this is known as a positive feedback system. According to Wikipedia, “Alarm or panic can spread by positive feedback among a herd of animals to cause a stampede.” Among harassed hard-working grad students, this kind of positive feedback can cause hatred of your advisor and gruesome murder fantasies.
What to do? I’ve got nothing here, besides to be cautious of “colleagues” out to steal your data.
Lesson 2: There’s no avoiding it: your advisor will probably be an asshole.
The most common advice I read pre-grad school was on how important it is to choose your advisor wisely, because the relationship is so important in grad school and for your future career. That’s sound advice.
Unfortunately, no one told me that so many professors are world-class Grade A jackasses, at least when you work for them, so you essentially can’t avoid being chained to Satan for several years. Being sort of generous here, I’ll grant they have a lot of stress in their careers,and most of their students are lazy bastards. I’d probably be pissed too.
I suppose I understand their lashing out at those who realistically have to just sit there and take it. The upshot is that you’ll probably be working for an extremely bitter, borderline psychopath, no matter who you choose.
What to do? Just remember how awful it was to work for a total prick, and vow to not act that way yourself towards those who work under you in the future.
Lesson 3: Your grad student “colleagues” will probably also be assholes.
As much of an asshole my advisor was, many of my grad student “colleagues” were even worse. There’s no other description for people who deliberately add water or other chemicals to your prepared solutions, deliberately destroy your equipment (e.g., rip out the cord from your specially ordered microscope stage, or slice the cord to your piece of equipment and carefully cover their tracks with electrical tape), and deliberately give you false or incomplete research protocols.
If you work hard, it’s not unlikely that you’ll be a target for deliberate sabotage, because you’re making all the lazy bastards look bad. At the very least, your “colleagues” will be reluctant to help you; they’re jealous of your success and they don’t want you to keep on doing well.
What to do? Value those around you who actually do their job, and help them out whenever you can. Don’t be a jerk.
He who fights with assholes might take care lest he thereby become a asshole.