Built on Facts

Movin’ on Up

Graduate school is like the previous 16 years of school in that you learn things and take classes, at least for the first couple of years. On the other hand it’s also much more like a regular job than the previous schooling. You do work that’s unrelated to class, and you get paid. Maybe not a whole lot of pay, but it keeps a roof over your head and food on the plate. Roughly speaking the paycheck will come from one of two things: teaching assistantships or research assistantships. In the former you are involved in teaching classes/labs and grading the resulting work. In the latter you do research under the direction of your advisor.

As of yesterday I have taught what is probably my last class as an RA. As of next semester I’ll be supported under a research assistantship helping on a new project, which sounds like it’ll be especially interesting even compared to the rest of of amazing work done by the Texas A&M quantum optics and laser physics groups. It’s difficult work requiring initiative and dedication, but I think I’m up to it.

A little over a century ago there was a famous essay written by the title of A Message to Garcia. I happened to discover it just a few months ago, and I think it describes the mindset that’s pretty much ideal in a graduate student as well. It’s an interesting and classic piece; you might enjoy reading it if you have a few minutes.


  1. #1 A
    August 6, 2009

    In the Garcia piece, unquestining obedience seems to be an important quality: “Will the clerk quietly say, “Yes, sir,” and go do the task?”
    I’d want my graduate students, though, to ask questions (clearly of the intelligent kind, but lesser ones should also be encouraged, especially, if they regard safety; some questioning of existing procedure may also sometimes be enlightening).
    Of course, “to act promptly, concentrate their energies: do the thing” is good.
    But otherwise the Garcia piece seems to be written from the perspective of a 19th century employer. The Dilbert comics are a better picture of life in an industrial organization in modern times. (University research groups, by being smaller, are just different, and as a graduate student, you are shielded from much of administrative work.)

  2. #2 Uncle Al
    August 6, 2009

    The young recruit is silly — ‘e thinks o’ suicide.
    ‘E’s lost ‘is gutter-devil; ‘e ‘asn’t got ‘is pride;
    But day by day they kicks ‘im, which ‘elps ‘im on a bit,
    Till ‘e finds ‘isself one mornin’ with a full an’ proper kit.


    C&EN 87(31) 29 (2009) “Learning from UCLA” is all boo-hoo-hoo about a privileged minority diversity hire from whom was demanded objective competence in 180-degree opposition to diversity in education. Guess what happened when tert-BuLi was added. God save us from the congenitally inconsequential.

  3. #3 Carl Brannen
    August 6, 2009

    I could go on at length about the intelligence of some of our hires. Are today’s employees unable to follow orders? I won’t say. Instead, I’ll just suggest that you google KFC+phone+prank.

  4. #4 TheDude
    August 6, 2009

    The author of the letter either fails to account for all professions or has some terribly misguided notions.

    > Summon any one and make this request: “Please look in the encyclopedia and make a brief memorandum for me concerning the life of Correggio”.
    > …
    > He will … ask one or more of the following questions:
    > …
    > What do you want to know for?

    The foolishness of implying this is the wrong question to ask is jaw dropping. At my job I have averted many misunderstandings and wasted labors by inquiring about underlying motivations and precipitating problems. This is characteristic of a work ethic of independence. Yet the author is oblivious to the bullet in his foot as he tries to advocate for such a work ethic.

  5. #5 Matt Springer
    August 7, 2009

    Yep, the essay is a bit of a bridge to far with regard to the point it’s making. I do like the overall emphasis on autonomy and figuring things out for yourself. In and of itself though, there’s no problem with asking questions and informing yourself via the knowledge of your boss. That bit has got to be taken as hyperbole.

  6. #6 Jbk
    August 7, 2009

    What I see is an old fart from 1899 complaining about the upcoming generation. Nothing has changed in 110 years.

  7. #7 Gerry Rising
    August 7, 2009

    The only part of your posting that concerns me is the suggestion that you are somehow “moving on up” from teaching. It seems to me that you represent a quality that is much needed in teaching and I hope you will continue to share your ideas with younger students in classrooms as you take on research duties.

  8. #8 Matt Springer
    August 7, 2009

    Completely, Gerry. Moving up is with respect to progress toward the degree. 😉

    Teaching has been a pleasure, and I wouldn’t ever want to just quit. There’s plenty of other ways to teach than being a TA though, from our helpdesk to tutoring to physics outreach and beyond. I’m going to keep doing all those things.

  9. #9 MPL
    August 9, 2009

    There’s an interesting essay ( http://www.foundationsmag.com/rowan.html ) by Rowan himself about his mission to Garcia.

    What I think the hyperbole of Hubbard’s story distorts is that the Rowan’s response is very particular to the situation. Rowan was an experienced military intelligence officer, the lack of detail in his orders was an opsec concern, and his command took great pains to arrange as much support for him as possible—he is met by transportation and guides along the way.

    Most importantly, Rowan could trust that his commanders had good reason for their orders, and would support him, and had planned for his success. In Hubbard’s essay, the boss is just being a tool—setting his assistant up for failure as some sort of perverse test. If Hubbard liked to prank his employees like that, I wouldn’t surprised if none of them worked out very well for him.

    Which is not to say that the sentiment of doing your job autonomously, with above-and-beyond effort isn’t noble, even moving, just that Hubbard’s story delivers a positive feeling on top of a dangerous load of rubbish.

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