As you know, it was just over a thousand years ago this past March that I defended my dissertation. As I recall, I picked up a dozen bagels and some cream cheese on the way to the defense, and the department
secretaries administrative assistants brought in an urn of coffee. It was me and my committee. My advisor made some exceedingly brief introductory remarks and then the semi-bored, semi-hostile committee allowed me to launch into the show-and-tell of What Did You Do These Last Five Years. A few hours later it was all over but the revisions and shouting. Literally. Revisions completed, signatures of committee members collected…and then, suddenly, Advisor wants to make changes. Big changes.
As I recall, when the shouting started, some postdocs led me out of the lab, and some kindly next-door profs chatted with my advisor, and when everyone felt it was safe to allow me back in, there was the diss, all properly signed and ready for delivery. I was free to go.
A thousand years ago is a long time, and dissertation defense practices may evolve over time. Recent conversations with friends have led me to understand that, in many cases, grad students are now expected to feed their committee members something more elaborate than a bag of bagels and a plastic tub of cream cheese, and there is competition to see whose dissertation feasts are the most sumptuous. Friends and family members are in attendance at these events as well. I suppose that’s nice, but do they have to be fed, too? Does the grad student really need this extra stress at a time when every last nerve has already been worn to a nub, every last muscle fiber has been stretched to breaking, every last synapse…ah, you know what I’m talking about. You’ve lived through it, or seen someone go through it, or are anticipating it yourself. It’s ugly. You can barely wipe your ass when you’re getting off the toilet. The last thing you want to be doing is thinking about how to create an informal, elegant, tasty feast for several dozen in a university conference room.
Alas, if that and the defense were all you had to contend with on that day. Apparently not. Your advisor or PI, the person who should be your mentor, have your back, sing your praises, and be bursting with pride as they launch you into the larger world of Science, is sniggering in the back row like a frat boy in charge of Pledge Week. Yes, your PI has prepared a clever “roast” of you, the grad student, the person who has just spent the last many years working your ass off in PI’s lab to bring PI glory and honor and data and publications and grant renewals.
The PI will be sure that the roast is hilarious. It may mock your work ethic, your relationship with your significant other, the amount of time it took you to finish (hmm, and who does that reflect poorly on, PI?), your lab skills, your possession and/or use of a female reproductive system. Whatever, we can be sure it will be in poor taste, not terribly funny, and borderline in violation of several university rules about discrimination and harassment.
Why, you might wonder, if such goings-on are indeed in violation of university harassment/discrimination laws, don’t university lawyers say something to PIs about this behavior? Well, first, the university lawyers would need to know that such behavior was taking place. And who’s going to tell them?
The problem with research science is that it operates like little fiefdoms. Everybody in their own little kingdom, no oversight over the whole enterprise. Everybody making up their own rules about acceptable behavior and what kinds of douchebaggery will be tolerated in this lab versus that one, this defense versus that one. No one goes around observing what is taking place in each little steaming hellhole. The patriarchy of university labs is structurally much more like families, or church congregations, than like corporations. Abusive practices can be hidden in plain sight, despite clear stated norms against beating the children and having sex with them.
I thought it was awful that my advisor, after my defense and after revisions were signed off on by other committee members, suddenly wanted to shift gears and rewrite whole sections of my diss and propose new experiments. And it was. But two kindly professors – neither of whom, mind you, were on my committee – stepped in on my behalf and spoke reason to him. Their efforts were important not just for me but for the whole community of science. They were enacting and enforcing norms: this is how we behave, this is what we do and do not tolerate in treatment of students. We are not passive onlookers.
If professors are behaving like douchey frat boys running Pledge Week and humiliating their own students at the very moment that should be the most prideful for both the student and the PI, whose fault is it? Who is letting them get away with this behavior unsanctioned? Do we have to wait for university lawyers to discover that this shit is going on, and send them a letter saying “we’d rather not be sued, please refrain”? If your colleagues are behaving this way, why are you not telling them that to act like this is complete assholery? That making fun of your student at the moment of their defense isn’t a bit of good sport, it’s vicious and mean and shabby? That you ought to be celebrating your student’s accomplishment and building them up?
Can’t you douchebags remember how shitty you felt at the end of your own dissertation work? Wouldn’t it have been really wonderful just to be treated nicely by the people whose job it was to welcome you into the community of science as equals?
The same two professors who came to my rescue when I needed it, were waiting for us to return to the lab after my defense. They walked in rather solemnly and one after the other, extended their hand, shook my hand, and said, “Congratulations, Dr. Zuska”. Then we shared a glass of champagne.
So much nicer than being roasted on a spit – which, come to think of it, is what a dissertation defense already resembles. Can’t we agree to just skip the extra grilling beforehand?