When Grad Students Snap

There’s a story in the New York Times today about a new movie on the infamous Iowa grad school shootings:

On Nov. 1, 1991, outraged that his doctoral thesis had been passed over for an academic prize, a young physicist at the University of Iowa named Gang Lu opened fire at a physics department meeting. He killed five people and paralyzed another before taking his own life.

The shootings devastated Iowa City and shocked a nation not normally used to thinking of physics as a life-and-death pursuit. Now they have been transformed into a celluloid nightmare for the rest of us.

This case is the stuff of dark legend in the physics grad school community, though the details are often mangled. It’s almost always cited in discussions of how to make the process of getting a Ph.D. more humane. I’m not sure I’d pay to see a movie about it, though…

Special bonus ScienceBlogs connection: Janet is quoted:

Janet D. Stemwedel, a philosopher at San Jose State University, recently wrote on her blog, doctorfreeride.blogspot.com, “It’s hard to understand just how powerless you can feel as a graduate student unless you have been a graduate student.”

OK, they get the blog wrong, but hey, that’s pretty cool.

Comments

  1. #1 mollishka
    March 27, 2007

    From what I’ve heard, the movie is supposed to be not that bad …

  2. #2 adam
    March 27, 2007

    I don’t know what the procedure was like back then (as I was an undergrad in another country, in 1991) but the procedure seems pretty humane now. People put forward for their physics PhD seem to get their PhD, at least, which is a pretty big thing. The biggest problem the average grad student might have is a supervisor who is, for one reason or another, an utter prick. There is a certain degree of powerlessness; you can’t easily give up and pick things up again somewhere else (as you could with a more normal job), so the time to exert power is when picking a supervisor. Once you’ve got one, you have to toe whatever line they’ve drawn because, as one of our professors here sensibly pointed out to beginning grad students, not getting on with your supervisor will really hurt you (and that’s fair enough, I think; find out what they’re like before taking up with them).

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    March 27, 2007

    I remember this case well since (1) several of the people who were killed worked in my field; (2) I was a grad student at the time; and (3) the plasma theory course I had taken the previous year used the textbook by Dwight Nicholson, one of the professors killed in the incident. (I never actually met any of the people involved; I was only in my third year and had not yet been to a conference. I had read one or two papers by Christoph Goertz, another of the professors killed, by then.)

    I have heard from at least two people, one who worked there as a soft money scientist at the time and one who was interviewed for (and subsequently declined) a faculty position there within a year of the incident, that there was something particularly rotten about the culture in the University of Iowa physics department back then. There was a particularly nasty feud between two of the most prominent professors there (one of whom was Lou Frank, of the infamous small comets theory), such that people from one group couldn’t count on even being able to borrow equipment that another group was not using at the moment.

    Note also that this was not merely about completing a Ph.D. thesis. As the article mentions, the shooter was passed over for a departmental academic prize, possibly for best thesis of the year.

  4. #4 adam
    March 27, 2007

    Getting upset about not winning a prize for best thesis is, of course, pretty daft (but then, I guess that shooting the place up illustrates at least a temporary loss of rational capacity). I am most interested in the general issue of the pressures of being a PhD student (from the second quote that Chad made), but I don’t think that they are terrible. By the age of 22, people should have developed enough interpersonal facility and personal discipline to deal with it and if they haven’t, well, life’s tough when you haven’t developed the skills you need. Fire up the world’s smallest violin.

    On the general subject of poisonous atmospheres in academia, I’m in partial agreement with Kissinger’s observation: “Well, of course, academic fights are more brutal than our fights in the real world because the stakes are so low, so the passions are very high.” I don’t think that’s the reason why it can get so bitter, but I do think that in a relatively closed social system, the absolute value of the stakes as judged externally isn’t very relevant in determining the extent of the passion that can be aroused. When two people that don’t much like each other have power, but not enough power to destroy the other, and neither is going anywhere, the years can lead to some utterly bizarre situations.

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    March 27, 2007

    I am most interested in the general issue of the pressures of being a PhD student (from the second quote that Chad made), but I don’t think that they are terrible. By the age of 22, people should have developed enough interpersonal facility and personal discipline to deal with it and if they haven’t, well, life’s tough when you haven’t developed the skills you need. Fire up the world’s smallest violin.

    I realize that the online would places a premium on snark, but you’re tap-dancing along the line between cleverly stating a reasonable opinion and gratuitously being a dick. There are real problems with the way many graduate students are treated that have nothing to do with the social skills (or lack tehreof) of the students involved, and dismissing them with a flip “world’s smallest violin” comment is offensive.

    On the general subject of poisonous atmospheres in academia, I’m in partial agreement with Kissinger’s observation: “Well, of course, academic fights are more brutal than our fights in the real world because the stakes are so low, so the passions are very high.”

    Interestingly, there’s a Chronicle article today noting that Kissinger is not the original source of this remark.

  6. #6 Davis
    March 27, 2007

    …find out what they’re like before taking up with them.

    I can’t emphasize how important this is. When I was a grad student, one of my compatriots had an advisor with a reputation for being a prick. This ended up being a big mistake — his advisor dropped him as a student during his fifth year (they didn’t get on so well, for obvious reasons), effectively ending the student’s graduate career.

  7. #7 Adam
    March 27, 2007

    The place I got the Kissinger quote from was dated 2003, and it’s certainly older than that (even as used by Kissinger). I am not disappointed to find that a quote associated with Kissinger that I find amusing is not, in fact, originally his. The blogosphere, delivering satisfaction at the speed of light.

    I realize that the online would places a premium on snark, but you’re tap-dancing along the line between cleverly stating a reasonable opinion and gratuitously being a dick. There are real problems with the way many graduate students are treated that have nothing to do with the social skills (or lack tehreof) of the students involved, and dismissing them with a flip “world’s smallest violin” comment is offensive.

    As for you not liking my way of expressing myself: you are, of course, free to delete or edit my comments on your blog if you genuinely find me offensive. Indeed, please do.

    If you are interested in a somewhat more in-depth explanation of why I said what I said, it is briefly that I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for whining grad students, nor did I when I was a grad student myself. There is plenty of advance information available and, yes, making what later turn out to be bad decisions (such as area to work in, or supervisor) have lasting effects. But really, life is like that.

    As for whether anyone is acting like a dick (much less doing it gratuitously), I prefer to reserve that sort of comment for people not currently involved in the discussion; it is, of course, your sandpit, not mine.

  8. #8 Eric Lund
    March 27, 2007

    There are real problems with the way many graduate students are treated that have nothing to do with the social skills (or lack tehreof) of the students involved

    Exactly. This is why it is a good idea, as others have said, to check out your prospective advisor before you commit to him. I was fortunate that in my grad school department there was a chance to work with a professor for a summer (at the end of the first year) before committing to doing a thesis with that professor. There was one junior faculty member (who ultimately did not get tenure) who was distinguished chiefly by the number of grad students who worked with him for a summer and decided not to do a thesis with him. It’s not foolproof–the professor who replaced this guy (and got tenure) suddenly quit, leaving his grad students in the lurch, about two years after I graduated.

    I don’t know how well this student got along with his advisor, but if he had a toxic advisor, or for that matter a toxic thesis committee member, that would certainly push him closer to the edge.

  9. #9 natural cynic
    March 27, 2007

    Another interesting personal case. When I was in High School, the father of one of the students in the class ahead of me was a Biochem professor who was murdered by a grad student. This student was well-liked and a leader in the school, so everyone in the school was saddened and shocked. I went to the same university in the Biochemn program and ended up in his lab with a senior project He confided to me and the other undergrad that he took great care to try to understand his grad students, but always tried to watch his back.

    In my own grad school career those feelings of frustration about petty things my grad advisor came out and I was sorely tempted. Grad school can certainly be a time for the start of simple depression or worse, as it was for me. The feelings at accomplishinmg my PhD were more relief than joy.

  10. #10 Adam
    March 27, 2007

    I was one of the people that mentioned checking out the supervisor beforehand and I was including that in ‘interpersonal facility’. Where grad students don’t have to pick their supervisor before they turn up, it’s not an impossible task.

    Some small number of grad students will end up in a horrible situation that was unavoidable and might be nothing directly attributable with the supervisor, but I don’t think that that fraction is large enough to be saying that life as a grad student is particularly fraught*. The hardest thing, I think, in most grad students lives is the business of doing research; of course, if it wasn’t hard, a PhD wouldn’t mean very much. My point, offensively and/or dickishly expressed or not, was that, in my opinion, the volume of grad student complaints far exceeds that justified by the actual extent of the problem.

    *I’m not even convinced that it’s a high fraction compared to other areas of life; the problem for the grad student is that the solution might well be to walk away from academia altogether, given that opportunities to shift supervisors, or fields, are often limited (particularly if a good supervisor reference is required). That is why decisions have to be carefully weighed beforehand, based on accumulated information.

  11. #11 PonderingFool
    March 27, 2007

    The experience some grad students go through is horrifying. There are certain PIs at where I went to grad school who just eat students up. They tend to be great charmers, luring graduate students in their lab usually selling them on the promise of high impact papers. After they join these PIs tend to undermine the confidence of the students, getting those students to think that they are lucky to be in that lab at all, driving them harder and harder to work longer and longer hours; the students end up feeling trapped in the labs of those professors, generating more and more data in order to get a good job from the PI that will never come. In many respects these professors are abusers. It is scary to watch and how many turn a blind eye.

    Rotations do help. Seen a few saved from bad experiences because of them. It is best to dig for as much info as you can before joining a lab. Factors beyond prestige/science I think tend to be overlooked by those entering graduate school. It is something I believe directors of graduate students need to stress to incoming classes.

  12. #12 DavidD
    March 28, 2007

    I understand the tendency to blame the institution for a student snapping, but it is a premature conclusion. Two members of my medical school class committed suicide, with the school being blamed by some for each, but it wasn’t the school that much for either. Yes, the first one cracked under the stress of the first year being so much harder than college, and the second one cracked during third year when “pimping” by those higher in the pecking order was so bad it made me go off and cry once. Both those guys had more important issues in their personal lives, one of them being that our society is still lousy at saying that people with depression need to be helped without a stigma, that it’s not something people are good at working through by themselves, that first depressions are especially dangerous because people have no experience of ever getting better to draw on for hope and yes, any kind of school or work should be more therapeutic than abusive. Or we’ll take those responsible outside and shoot them – no wait, that’s the part of me that’s too much like this homicidal/suicidal student. We are all our own worst enemy.

    The NY Times article seems to say that this student was troubled. He got his Ph.D. after all, just not the $2500 prize for being the best. That was enough of a slur for him. It’s not just the quality of being a grad student where it takes one to know one. There’s also the quality of being a prodigy. That movie Good Will Hunting was so clearly not written by a math prodigy. To be a prodigy in any field is to be dominated by one’s talent. I don’t know any prodigy to just walk away from his or her talent. Instead it can become the only life one knows, and that’s not healthy. I don’t suppose that by itself can make someone snap simply for failing to come in first, but I bet it was part of this story.

    We need to value being healthy. I don’t know how that’s going to happen. There is money and increased productivity sometimes in being unhealthy. I don’t suppose laws covering the treatment of students would be the best way. The best way would be if everyone could agree with Bertrand Russell that the ultimate good things are love and truth. It doesn’t pay to cheat one for the other, I don’t think. I would try to keep that forest in mind no matter how many trees need to be looked at.

  13. #13 adam
    March 28, 2007

    Yeah, so, in summary: we all agree that grad students are whining maggots at the bottom of the academic barrel.

    Coming next: ‘Fluffy bunnies, and why we hate them’.

  14. #14 Angela
    March 28, 2007

    I remember this case because I’m FROM Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa. If I remember correctly, they were astrophysicists, and I remember when this happened, while being sad over the senseless tragedy, I thought, “What has the science world lost?” So much intelligence and knowledge, gone in one day, leaving a gaping hole in their fields. Very sad.

  15. #15 Jonathan Vos Post
    June 15, 2009

    “There are real problems with the way many graduate students are treated that have nothing to do with the social skills … of the students involved.”

    From my grad school experience, I’d warn against these:

    (1) The Department Chairman is a well-known plagiarist;
    (2) The faculty are in open rebellion, with 1/3 about to leave for other universities;
    (3) The Dean is gone, replaced by an Acting Dean;
    (4) The Provost is gone, replaced by an Acting Provost;
    (5) The university President is in a perqs war with the Governor;
    (6) You have a high profile by founding the regional arm of the professional Society (in this case, ACM for 5 colleges and universities);
    (7) A new Chair comes in, who’s nobody’s 1st choice;
    (8) As de facto grad student leader, you’re assigned to be TA for the new Chair;
    (9) The new Chair can’t teach, and his textbook sucks, so 2/3 of his class drops out and he blames you;
    (10) New chair fires you the day before Xmas holiday;
    (11) You get blue-ribbon panel to find Chair violated policy, awards you rest of TA contract payment;
    (12) New Chair (later ousted by faculty no-confidence vote) swears that you will never ever get a Ph.D.;
    (13) The Ad Hoc Thesis Committee refused to declare themselves Official, and thus refuse to read your dissertation, many chapters of which have been peer reviewed published already;
    (14) Your dissertation is thus neither accepted nor rejected, but in some mixed state whose wave function has still not collapsed since 1977;
    (15) 2 Chairs ago, the Chair supplied all the cocaine to his favored grad students;
    (16) The wife-swapping faculty like the looks of your sexy girlfriend.

    I could go on. I’ll save it for one of my science fiction novels.