What (not) to do when the system is broken.

When I was a kid, my mother went back to school with the intention of getting the physics training she needed to pursue her dream of a career in astronomy. Part of this journey, of course, required that she be plunged into the life of a graduate student. It wasn't any prettier then than it is now.

While my mom was in the thick of the horrors visited upon graduate students, she was a little bit freaked out by coverage of a parole hearing for one Theodore Streleski, an erstwhile math graduate student at Stanford who killed his advisor with a ball peen hammer. Streleski actually refused parole, essentially standing by his decision to off his advisor. What freaked my mom out was that she could kind of see his point.

In case you're not familiar with the Streleski case, (and Printculture has an interesting discussion of it)here's the run-down: He had been in the math doctoral program at Stanford for 19 years -- that's right nineteen. And, apparently, his advisor Karel deLeeuw had recently made it clear to Mr. Streleski that he would not be getting a Ph.D. in math from Stanford (or, in some accounts, from any other U.S. university). While Mr. Streleski descibed his response -- bludgeoning his advisor to death -- as "logically and morally correct," it seems to me that something must have snapped.

There is something badly amiss, both in the advisor-advisee relationship, and in the oversight that the graduate program ought to have in such relationships, if a grad student can go through 19 years of a program before finding out that there is no way he's going to get the Ph.D. he's been working towards. Heck, it's a problem if a student is allowed to go through 9 years of the program without a clear indication that he will be successful in earning the degree. At minimum there was some failure to communicate. Possibly, there was worse -- a gleeful display of professorial power over the grad student who is, essentially, without power until he earns the Ph.D that grants him admission to the club of People Who Matter.

Obviously, murdering one's advisor in such a situation is an overreaction. But what other options did Mr. Streleski have, beyond writing off 19 years as lost and making his peace with never being a Ph.D. mathematician? Were there others in the department, or at the university, who would have intervened on his behalf? If so, where were they all those years that Streleski labored under the (false) impression that he'd be earning a Ph.D.?

It's hard to understand just how powerless you can feel as a graduate student unless you've been a graduate student. Standards for admission to the club can seem pretty arbitrary, so much depends on the good will of your advisor and others in the club already. While many of those "grown up" scientists are serious about helping graduate students learn the skills they need -- to do science and to navigate the waters of institutional politics -- others take obvious pleasure in playing the "gatekeeper" role, and in being jerks about it. Power over others is a reality for academic scientists; not only to they control the fate of their grad students, but those working for tenure know that their own fate is in the hands of the tenured faculty. (In one of the most disturbing moments of my long career as a graduate student, a professor pitched a pass at me after treating me to an insider's view of just how political hiring decisions are, and how dependent a grad student is on the opinions of others in her field. Ewww!)

Forget sinners in the hands of an angry God. The folks who are really dangling are graduate students in the hands of a vengeful advisor. But, as Streleski's case indicates, there are real dangers to allowing such an extreme power imbalance. Upon reflection, an academic community might want to build in some safety-valves to protect both the weak and the strong within the community. After all, if the community is silent about the abuse of graduate students, graduate students will tend to connect the dots and read this as a community-level endorsement of such behavior -- at which point, the graduate students may feel their own loyalty to the community significantly weakened.

The problem goes beyond the horrors of graduate school. Individual members of large communities (like university departments, or scientific fields) sometimes feel powerless against the ill will, or the apathy, of other members of their community. It bugs the heck out of you that people are being listed as authors on papers describing research with which those people had no involvement beyond being physically present in the same laboratory; but, everyone is doing it. (This came up at a baby shower I attended this past weekend.) Even if you know a practice is wrong, and even if you personally refrain from that practice, your community may be rife with it. If you raise your voice against it, there's a good chance you'll be ignored, or worse, branded as a trouble-maker. And that may be what happened in the case of Valery Fabrikant:

Valery Fabrikant (born 1940 in Minsk, USSR), is a former associate professor of mechanical engineering at Concordia University. He is best known for his murder of four colleagues.

Born in the Soviet Union, he immigrated to Canada in 1979 and began teaching at Concordia in 1980. Fabrikant blamed his colleagues for his being denied tenure on four successive occasions and for attempting to have his employment terminated. He also accused the university of tolerating the practice of academics being listed as co-authors on papers to which they have not contributed; in 1992, he had gone to court to try to have the names of several colleagues removed from works he had written in the 1980s.

A campaign of harassment aimed at members of faculty culminated in a shooting rampage on August 24, 1992 on the ninth floor of the Henry F. Hall building at Concordia. Killed in the shooting spree were Departmental Chair Phoivos Ziogas and Professors Matthew Douglas, Michael Hogben, Aaron Jaan Saber. A departmental staff secretary, Elizabeth Horwood, was injured. ...

Fabrikant is serving a life sentence at Archambault Prison in Sainte-Anne-Des-Plaines. ...

The Fabrikant incident resulted in a series of investigations and a formalization of research ethics guidelines by Canada's research funding agencies. An investigation on the conduct of the faculty in Fabrikant's department revealed that many of Fabrikant's claims were indeed true. The three researchers who were the primary target of Fabrikant's allegations have since had their research accounts frozen by NSERC for misappropriating research funds and have been forced to take early retirement.

Again, let's be clear: murder is an overreaction. But how broken is a community if it's the only way to get people to pay attention to real ethical problems within the community?

I'd suggest it might be better for communities to figure out how to care for all of their members, even the ones who seem inclined to complain. Ignoring the interests of some members of the community to further general harmony (people get to keep doing things the way they want to, advisors can decide how to treat their grad students and other pieces of lab equipment, etc.) is a risky move. Not only might the trouble-makers you're ignoring have valid concerns -- concerns which would do more to ensure long-term harmony should the community heed them -- but, their reaction at being shut out by the community might be ... bad.

Even if no other grad students of scientists go postal on unresponsive members of their communities, it's worth considering how individual concerns and qualms figure into the proper functioning of the community. Assuredly, like other human beings, scientists are not always on their best behavior. (See, for example, these comments, or check out the physics catfight about which Chad has blogged.) But expecting others to be all calm and dispassionate, upholding the rational standards of the community and playing by the rules, when you break the rules or behave like a jerk -- well, that's expecting a lot. To the extent that a community needs its members (and productive interactions between them), it may behoove the community to be response to concerns and to put the smackdown on bad actors.

More like this

Dark Matter is a movie. It is about a brilliant young physics grad student, life at university, and the interaction between a student, his advisor and the academic hierarchy. Should we be "concerned"? The movie stars Meryl Streep, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng. It is based on an article written by…
Casey Luskin is upset. Iowa Citizens for Science responded to Luskin's press conference on behalf of Guillermo Gonzalez a few weeks ago with their own press release, a release which mentioned that "None of his [Gonzalez's] graduate students had completed their programs." Luskin complains that the…
In my last post, I examined the efforts of Elizabeth Goodwin's genetics graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to deal responsibly with their worries that their advisor was falsifying data. I also reported that, even though they did everything you'd want responsible…
Bitch Ph.D. links an interesting op-ed piece in the Washington Post about the challenges of being a single parent and paying for grad school. Given the academia/parenting discussion we've been having here, I figured this was another relevant issue to consider. I've mentioned before that the…

Let us also not forget the story of Gang Lu and the murders in the space plasma physics department at Iowa State. Here's one link:


Grad school is a presure cooker environment, and is almost not certainly done in the best way to prepare people to contrinbute to science. And, yes, it continues on through being pre-tenure faculty, and beyond that.

I don't know the answer either, but there are clear problems.


It seems like one of the problems in science (both grad school and pre-tenure) is that so often your professional life hangs in the balance based on the opinions of others. There is no quantitative contract that you sign that says once you have done X, Y, and Z you graduate. Sure, there may be a three paper requirement, but fulfillment of that requirement is subjectively evaluated by your comittee. For a discipline that prides itself on objectivity, repeatability, and quantifiability, we seem to lack that in our careers.

When I was in grad school, it often seemed that the only way I could make any progress was to make a concerted effort to not think about my career. Which in the end contributed to my not having a scientific career after grad school, but, damn it, I finished the degree.

[Advance apologies for the length of this comment but you struck a personal chord with me, as usual]

Two months before I defended at the University of Florida, a 41-year-old molecular biology graduate student named Jens Peter Hansen killed his 41-year-old professor, Art Kimura, after a heated committee meeting. The student attempted to stage a robbery of the prof's home to look like a burglary gone wrong. They got into a shouting match when the prof interrupted the "burglary" as the student was loading some goods into a rented truck, shooting Prof Kimura on the front lawn in full view of several neighbors.

Similar to the Streleski case, but not quite as egregious, Hansen was in his 7th year when the committee voted to give him a terminal master's degree. The incident caused the UF graduate school to aggressively revise their procedures for qualifiers and admission to Ph.D. candidacy timelines in order to prevent the then-common practice of stringing students along in graduate programs at a stipend roughly half that of a technician.

Art Kimura was a kind and gentle man who was also a tremendous scientist. His even gentler wife worked in the physiology department down the hall from us. The other profs who were much harder on Jensen during that committee meeting never forgave themselves for Art being killed instead of one of them. However, Art was the mentor and the committee chair; today, we more commonly have someone other than the P.I. chair the examining committee.

In this case, collusion with flaws in the system brought tragedy to a person least likely to be the sole cause of the student's anger and helplessness. The student also had a well-documented history of mental illness and UF began to work harder on providing mental health services to students, most of whom are at a stage where age and stress first bring depressive and psychotic disorders to a head.

Agreed that murder is an overreaction but it did indeed raise awareness that some self-serving practices were going on at the expense of graduate students. What else is happening today that we could correct without similar incidents? Perhaps we need to revisit the number of students accepted into Ph.D. programs vs. the actual need, lest we start to see 10-year postdocs committing similar acts. I sense that the disservice done to graduate students of my generation has now moved to the even more alienating and desperate environment of today's postdocs.

It's interesting how right now we are being told of the problems of competing with China and Asia in general with regards to science. Yet simultaneously the silliness of what is required for a PhD and then typically several years of postdoc are not dealt with. Physics and most other hard sciences have their own problems very much akin to the situation in medicine where the equivalent of grad students are worked without sleep for days on end doing the work of doctors with predictable results.

There really needs to be some serious rethinking of graduate education in the United States. The amount of sacrifice required to reach the position where you can make a living is unreasonable. Why should any sensible person take 10 years or more of their life making ridiculously low wages when they could immediately quite and make 3 - 4x as much in private enterprise or even by going to the relatively easier fields of law where people with a science background can immediately make bank.

Lots of scientists are pointing to government and society for why we don't have more scientists. Yes funding and a lack of respect for education are serious problems. But so is the very system the Academy has provided to produce professional scientists.

Grad student suicides don't count? A Google search on the phrase "grad student suicide" returned 1,990,000 hits.

Hey, it's not just grad school. Consider all those inner cities where the police are simply not there to protect people, only to haul off the nearest "darkies" after the shooting's safely over. Or how about those factories and "big box" stores, where anyone who tries to bring in a union is lucky if they only get fired, rather than *killed*? (And if the union does manage to get in, Corporate Central just fires *everyone* and moves out of town!)

All this is the sort of thing that "equal protection under law" was supposed to stop in the first place. But all that depends on having "rule of law", rather than "rule of The Man"....

By David Harmon (not verified) on 14 Mar 2006 #permalink

What galls me the most is that we grad students are trying to take this power and control into our own hands. We don't want a handout, we want collective bargaining. Yet our union activism is met with derision and condescension. Why? Because we've got it so easy and are getting paid to go to school.


Regarding suicides, it looks like Grad Students make up about 30% of student suicides, but that student suicide rates are overall half of the population at large. The critical piece of information I'm missing is how much of the student population grad students represent...


By Josh Morrow (not verified) on 14 Mar 2006 #permalink

Josh: At my campus, grad students are about a fifth (20%) of the total student population. Your mileage may vary. So if grad students are responsible for 30% of the suicides of students, that seems a bit higher than the average for undergrads. If I'm doing the math correctly.

I have never even remotely thought of hurting one of my profs. I had never heard of any of these cases either. Scary stuff. I have thought of offing myself. Pressure cooker indeed. Thankfully those thoughts are in the past. (Don't send me worried comments. I'm fine. Thanks).

One of the (former) grad students in my department was unceremoniously dropped by his advisor last year, in his 5th year, in such a manner as to force his removal from the program. Everybody familiar with the situation is certain the advisor was being capricious, at best; when the graduate student representative (who speaks on our behalf to the powers that be in the department) tried to complain about this situation, the department didn't want to touch it. I honestly like my department, but I feel that a lot of academics (at least in my field) don't want to pursue any course of action that involves some kind of conflict. The reaction, or rather lack of reaction, by the department reflects this fact.

Sadly, being unionized doesn't help these matters -- we are, but the terms of our contract prevent the union getting involved in academic matters.

By temporarily an… (not verified) on 14 Mar 2006 #permalink

It seems to that there is a great deal of this hazing in many of the professions. Medical students endure brutal academic courses and, as interns, must endure rediculously long working hours in hospitals. This is also quite dangerous as fatigued intern could get some unsuspecting patient killed.

What's the point of this abuse? Does it really further interests of the professions or is just human nature?


By Guitar Eddie (not verified) on 15 Mar 2006 #permalink

The horror stories I could tell just from my current stab at a PhD. (7 years and running now).

Failing to find an advisor at the first graduate program I joined at Ohio State, and being promptly terminated. (Turned out there was a severe shortage of available advisors that year, and the couple that had room I did not get on well with).

Being accepted into a sister program, then failing to find rotation professors because the first program had made sure I was blacklisted.

Finally finding an advisor after over a year of searching, then having her turn on me after 2 years and try to drum me out of the program, after essentially robbing me of a supplimentary grant that I had earned due to having a disabilty. Turned out she had accepted me into her lab to get the grant money, but the moment my disability made me a political liability, out I went.

...but I had warning of what was coming, and contacted the chairman of the program. God bless Dr. David Bisaro: he saw what was done to me and got me out of there, got me temporary emergency support, accepted me as his student, and stayed by me through three hospitalizations and a very serious chronic disease. He's guided me after three years to one paper, is writing two more with me as co-author, and just passed my Candidacy Exam. After all these years, I will get a PhD.

But the postdoc years literally make me quake. If getting a PhD was this bad, how on Earth will I ever survive the postdoc? And how on Earth will I get any company to hire me, with so few jobs in science these days?

By ArchTeryx (not verified) on 18 Mar 2006 #permalink