“It’s Dr. Evil, I didn’t spend six years in Evil Medical School to be called “mister,” thank you very much.” -Dr. Evil, from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
Graduate school is hard work, and Ph.D. programs in Physics and Astronomy are some of the most demanding and competitive ones out there. It’s well-known that it’s incredibly difficult to strike a good work/life balance while you’re in graduate school, and that between classes, homework, reading, research, and any teaching or service duties you may have, you cannot expect to spend only 40 hours a week on all of your responsibilities, combined.
There is simply too much.
But if you are in graduate school — for physics, astronomy, or anything else — there’s presumably one reason that everyone who does it has in common: there’s something you want to learn so bad, that you’re so passionate about, that you must learn it for yourself. And that means jumping through all the necessary hoops, learning how to use the tools you need to, meeting the necessary requirements, and keeping the right people happy. It means doing the things you have to do in order to be able to do the things you want to do.
For me, that “thing I wanted to do” was this.
Cosmology, the Big Bang, the Large-Scale Structure of the Universe, Inflation, Dark Matter and Energy, and everything that goes into and comes from that. That was — and is — my scientific passion. You may or may not have one; yours may or may not overlap with mine.
It’s one of the greatest joys in my life. But it doesn’t define my life, and I always resented the idea — which exists at many top Universities around the world — that it ought to define my life. I’m not a scientist who lives science, breathes science, eats science, craps science, dreams science, and spends 100% of their time immersed in science. And I don’t want to be. I want to be myself, which includes science, but which also includes lots of other parts of being a human being, and having what we colloquially refer to as “a life.”
This looks different for everyone, of course, and I never pretended to be anyone other than myself, for all of my weird quirks, interests and proclivities. But I recognized long ago that it’s important to have a full life that includes a lot more than just my scientific interests for my physical and mental health and well-being. Which is why I’m absolutely livid over this letter, circulated in a top astronomy department (which — I cannot prove — but I believe I once worked at), reproduced in its entirety, with my commentary, below. (If it’s too long to read, just read the parts I’ve highlighted in bold for you.)
Dear Grads,The Academic Program Committee (Professor A, Professor B, Professor C, Professor D, Professor E , Professor F, Professor G, Professor H, Professor I, Professor J, Professor K) just completed its review of the grads. Below is a long letter (which is usually better than several shorter ones) summarizing that review, some information for graduate students, and the concerns that you expressed in your department evaluations.
In general, we are pleased with how our students are progressing through our program.
There are, however, several areas of concern that we want to bring to your attention.
First, while some students are clearly putting their hearts and souls into their research, and spending the hours at the office or lab that are required, others are not. We have received some questions about how many hours a graduate student is expected to work. There is no easy answer, as what matters is your productivity, particularly in the form of good scientific papers. However, if you informally canvass the faculty (those people for whose jobs you came here to train), most will tell you that they worked 80-100 hours/week in graduate school. No one told us to work those hours, but we enjoyed what we were doing enough to want to do so. We were almost always at the office, including at night and on weekends. Nowadays, with the internet, it is fine to work from home sometimes, but you still miss out on learning from and forming collaborations with other graduate students when everyone does not work in the same place at the same time.
It’s far more important to maintain your interest, passion, and love for your topic, otherwise why the hell are you doing it in the first place?! There are many healthy ways to spend your time developing as a human being and as a scientist that involve doing things outside of spending 80-100 hours a week on your studies. This first piece of “advice” is absurd.
We realize that students with families will not have 80-100 hours/week to spend at work. Again, what matters most is productivity. Any faculty member or mentoring/thesis committee will be more than happy to work with any student to develop strategies to maximize productivity, even in those cases where the student is unable to devote more than 60 hours to their work per week.
You were all admitted to our program because you expressed the ambition of becoming a research astronomer. We know that you are concerned about the market for post-docs and faculty positions. Yet the market is no worse or better than it is has been for at least a decade or two. The people who will get the best jobs are the type of people who always get the best jobs, those with a truly exceptional level of dedication to science, who seize ownership of their research and careers, and who fix problems instead of blaming others for them. If you find yourself thinking about astronomy and wanting to work on your research most of your waking hours, then academic research may in fact be the best career choice for you.
What kind of awful person justifies their shortcomings in life by imposing them on a generation of up-and-coming scientists?
Second, a related problem is that some students are not reading enough of the literature. All students should read at least several papers/week. You do not have to read the entire paper, as sometimes just the abstract, intro, figures, and conclusions will provide you with sufficient information. Nevertheless, please read. Knowing what is going on, right now, in your field and other fields is crucial to your development as a scientist. We would like to see more students engaged in defining their research projects and theses. We would like to receive more telescope proposals from students and post-docs that do not include faculty members. To do so, a detailed knowledge of the literature is a must.
Third, we are pleased with how Science Coffee and Journal Club are going and thank the many students who help make both of those opportunities available to everyone. We also recognize that we as a faculty need to do a better job at participating. Yet we have received some student comments about the way in which faculty do participate. Namely, that some faculty-student interactions have become too intense. In these cases, it is not the faculty member’s intention to make the student uncomfortable. The faculty member means to interact with the student as he or she would a peer. That should be flattering to the student! Faculty questions (at least in this department) do not arise from a desire to embarrass a student speaker, but from a real scientific interest in the answer. In such cases, the student should do his or her best to respond and, frankly, to consider the experience good (and relatively gentle) training for any discussion at Caltech or at Tuesday Lunch at the Princetitute.
Of course, Newton’s quote takes on a different meaning when you realize that it didn’t just come in a letter to his rival, Hooke, but that Hooke was a very short (and hunchbacked), and Newton’s famous statement was not so much a humble testament to his predecessors as a scathing personal attack on his enemy. Newton might see farther, but it’s no thanks to the diminutive Hooke! Just accept it, students, because you should be flattered to receive such treatment!
Fourth, in their evaluations for the APC, some students alluded to research or advisor problems that other students were having and that “no one else knew about.” If you have a problem of any kind, or know someone who does, please come and talk with me or another faculty member. Encourage the other student to do so. Use your mentoring/thesis committees with or without your advisor present. It makes no sense for someone to be struggling and not seek help. These problems can be solved, but only after they are uncovered.
Fifth, while we welcome the thoughtful, honest, and insightful comments that we generally receive from students in their department evaluations, a few students are somewhat rude. In those cases, it is hard to draw sympathy for your problem. In your career, providing constructive criticism to your department and colleagues is important and should be valued. Being negative and disrespectful will generally not fix the problems and will make colleagues less likely to work with you.
There are mental health services and professionals — usually available to students free-of-charge — available to talk to. If you’re having a problem dealing with anything ranging from your advisor to a faculty member to the pressure of grad school to your work-life balance, talk to one of them; that’s what they’re there for. I’ve done it myself at multiple times over my life, and for those of you wondering, my experiences have varied. Find a counselor/psychologist who you feel that you can talk to, and that you feel is listening to you. If you don’t like the one you see, get a different one. You’d go to a medical doctor if you were physically sick, wouldn’t you? Well, go to a mental health professional if you need someone to talk to. That’s why they’re there; that’s their job.
If you still need convincing to see a therapist, read this.
Sixth, grant budgets are now tighter than ever before. If we are to maintain the typically high levels of funding that our graduate program receives, it would be helpful to have more grads on fellowships. Obtaining a fellowship is also helpful to your career, as having one adds to the sparkle of your CV. For new funding opportunities, please check out: [link to other department at Unnamed Academy]
Some of these funds are available only though [other dept] (so you are not eligible), but others are general. We realize that we need one of these pages on our website. Any volunteers to work to compile it and to make sure that Staff Member P lists it on our webpages?
Seventh, please set up your mentoring/thesis committee meetings for this term if you have not already done so.
Check out the graduate program webpage: [link to webpage at Unnamed Academy]to learn about these committees. Here are some important words about mentoring committees written by a graduate student:
“One thing we do require, and only require b/c it can be so very helpful, is a mentoring committee. A MC is a group of people the student chooses. Students are supposed to have them once/semester (so schedule yours now). We want you to benefit from the guidance/expertise/support of more than just your one advisor.
Most 1st-semester students have no idea who to put on a MC. You choose people by asking your advisor for suggestions (although, it is ultimately your call), asking other grad students, looking at the faculty webpages to see who works on subjects you like, or, failing all that, just guess. If nothing else, try a few people initially, and you can always change it later… .
A MC meeting can be very informal, and everyone understands it’s early in the work, so you may not have much to talk about. Basically, pick some people, pick a time, get a conference room reserved (email Staff Member Q), show up, and talk about your work for 30min or so. Let people ask you questions (or maybe they’ll ask your advisor), don’t be afraid if you don’ t know the answers, and try to get to know the faculty and have them get to know you & your project so they can help you.”
If someone stops becoming the positive contributor you need for your graduate degree, do not be afraid to replace them on your committee. This will reflect poorly on them, not on you.
Eighth, by the end of the 5th semester, each student is *required* to submit a thesis plan and timeline to the department office, Graduate Advisor, and their thesis committee. The thesis plan can be modified and made more detailed as the student’s thesis research continues. The initial plan should include rough outlines of the thesis chapters. For each chapter that is a science research paper, the student should summarize the science question being addressed, why that question is important, why it hasn’t already been addressed by others, and how his/her work will lead potentially to a resolution. Later iterations of the thesis plan, prepared before and revised after thesis committee meetings, should include detailed outlines and figures for each chapter.
The timeline can also be modified over time based on how the direction and/or scope of the research changes. Graduate students are guaranteed funding for five years. Given that the average time to graduation is 5.5 years, any extension of the thesis defense date beyond the sixth year of graduate study requires the approval of the Academic Program Committee. Current fifth and sixth year students will shortly be receiving a letter from the APC noting these requirements.
Ninth, please send Staff Member P an update of your Areas of Interest and brief summary of current research for the department webpages. This is important for potential employers who are checking our our graduate student population and also for showing prospective graduate students all the interesting stuff we’re doing.
Tenth, your evaluations of our program identified some concerns, including a lack of computer support, inadequate representation of women and minorities among the faculty and colloquium speakers, and poor attendance by faculty at various department talks and functions. We are working on all three. Professor E has developed a plan for better student support of student computing. The faculty hiring committee is developing a detailed plan to make sure that the best women and minority candidates are encouraged to apply and carefully considered for the job. The colloquium organizers have been made aware of your concerns. All faculty are being strongly encouraged to participate more in the intellectual atmosphere of the department. Do not ease up on reminding us of these points.
Lastly, please discuss any or all of these issues in the Graduate Student Council. I would like a representative from the council to get back to me about that discussion.
We would also appreciate it if the Graduate Student Council could provide us with a list of all students who have served or would like to serve in a service role and what that role is/was.
All the best,Professor Z
This is well-intentioned advice from someone who makes a few very flawed assumptions. If you believe that:
- Mental health and happiness are unimportant,
- Your scientific research defines everything important about you as a person, including your self-worth, and
- All graduate students want to be (and should want to be) just like the letter-writer,