A Bit of Sport with the Students

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?

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This is a beautiful post. Thank you.

I must point out that another by-product of the student "roast" pre-defense is that some students then get an opportunity to take a few jabs at the advisor during their acknowledgments.

Here at least, is one opportunity to dish it back at 'em, and is generally accepted as such. Trouble is, if you thought your advisor was going to roast you, and you prepared this elaborate practical joke in the same vein for the end of your talk, but the advisor actually just sings your praises, it comes off as being in very poor taste. Seen it happen. Ugly. But how could the student have known? Advisor roasted every student that came before.

/sucks air through teeth

There's also issues of power to be had in roasting back at your prof. You need to be REALLY careful that nothing could come across as offensive or in any way unflattering. But of course the prof doesn't have that problem.

Wow, I thought I had been in dysfunctional labs / departments, but nothing like this has ever happened while I was there. I've heard rumors if shenanigans happening a long time ago. PI's stepped in and changed policies.

That said, I do know of PI's who have kept students from defending / moving on because they were too useful. I also know that these students committee members have stepped in.

In many places it is now forbidden for the student to buy food and drinks - the Department (if there are funds) is supposed to provide these.

Wow, this really makes me appreciate how awesome my advisor was. Both my wife and I had the same advisor and he was exceedingly supportive during both of our defenses. We both are still close with our advisor and we visit him once or twice a year.

But I've definitely known plenty of people with much worse experiences, so I consider myself lucky.

(plus, neither of us brought food and nobody seemed to mind)

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

This is the first time I've ever heard of food being routinely provided at a thesis defense by anybody, let alone the stressed-out candidate. Maybe this is because in both my Ph.D. department and my present department the thesis defense includes a ~1 hour public talk before the grilling by the committee begins. The post-defense celebration party is another matter, but there it's usually the advisor who is providing the food.

Minor revisions are a normal part of the game, but if your advisor is on the ball, major revisions or outright failure should not happen--a good advisor will make sure you are actually ready to defend before you do. Maybe I've been lucky in that regard, as I have only heard of one instance of major revisions being requested--that in the case of someone whose advisor had been on leave for the last two years of her Ph.D. work, so he certainly hadn't been mentoring her. I'm glad that your advisor's colleagues intervened in your case, but one of the downsides of tenure is that about all they can do is say, "Don't do that, or we'll tell you again not to do that."

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 14 May 2010 #permalink

The grad student in my lab area is getting ready to give his defense and the only food-related planning is where we're going to get food and drink after.

I have heard of labs (generally ecology/physiology) where the about-to-be-doc would be expected to eat the research subject. (Iguanas, crickets, that sort of thing. Cooked of course.) I got the impression that this particular ritual had gone out of style (I can't imagine the IACUC being amused), but that might be better than a "roast".

By JustaTech (not verified) on 14 May 2010 #permalink

When I was doing my MS, I simply couldn't ever imagine such a thing happening. I *always* knew my advisor had my back, and I'm pretty sure that if he hadn't, my committee would've.

But I think that was just the culture of the place and people, and I've discovered it's different elsewhere.

Wow, that sucks. Looks like I lucked out with my advisors.

By Rolf Andreassen (not verified) on 14 May 2010 #permalink

Wow, that's harsh. It must be a field- and department-specific ordeal. . .in my old department (anatomy/anthropology), the advisors bought champagne (or sparkling cider, if requested), and invited the whole department, students' families, significant others, etc., in for a celebratory toast. They even did this for the defenses that were a little rough around the edges! I have a very fond memory of my co-advisor who made a cake decorated with a big picture of my study animal. . .I guess I should count myself as pretty lucky all around.

Speaking as someone whose department has helped them move to a new lab halfway through their MSc... yeah. There's frustratingly little oversight for the different labs, and profs can and do act as minor dictators.

The power differential is a lot different than in industry, too. I know a lot of people, including me, who've felt unable to bring up concerns about their labs to their profs, and whose profs feel comfortable running roughshod over their grad students, because what are the grad students going to do?

In many situations workers can withhold labour, but in grad school that doesn't really hurt anyone except the student.

I /think/ it's getting a bit better over time, but there's such an entrenched culture in academia that attempts to increase accountability and to make sure that profs aren't stepping over lines still aren't quite there.

Similar things happen with ethics - sure, you can report your prof for ethics violations, but is it really going to be worth it? There's very little incentive to report bad behaviour, and rather a lot to shut up and deal with it.

My advisor did a good job of keeping everything professional. The defense was me and my committee, no one else. It was done in an hour. For them it was just another thing they had to do that day, so there was really no fanfare at all. It was actually kind of anti-climactic. I appreciate that style; I think it keeps everyone grounded. Although maybe it works better when most of what goes into the dissertation has already been peer-reviewed and published (as is normal in my field).

My MS defense turned into a firefight between my advisor and the rest of the faculty. A most unpleasant experience. On the other hand, my dissertation defense was quite civil. Before we left the room, each member of the committee shook my hand and addressed me as Dr. Thomerson, then we all went out to lunch.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 15 May 2010 #permalink

Wow. That was over-the-top abusive! I agree with Eric Lund: students should not be feeding their committees, and it's professional malpractice for an advisor to permit (let alone participate in) a pile-on. Advisors whose students get ambushed like this aren't doing their jobs.

My department does not grant Ph.D.s, just the M.A., but our Graduate School requires all grad committees to include one faculty member outside of the student's department. (Most M.A. programs require that students take at least one extradepartmental course, and that prof. is usually the outside member of a student's committee.) The function of the outside member is to examine the student, but also to provide some kind of quality control--that is, to ensure that departments aren't handing out grad degrees like paper towels, and that students have completed a sufficiently rigorous curriculum of courses and research seminars (if not a thesis, too.) I hadn't thought about our system this way until I read your post today, but I should think that the outside members of committees would serve as checks against abusive practices like the one you endured. (Maybe that's not incidental--but in any case, I have new appreciation for my uni's Graduate School rules now.)

Although my advisor was pretty decent at the end (he had champagne chilled for us after defending, held a luncheon at his house for us too), he also did many things that were good for him, and inconsiderate of his students.

When I started, he took me and another brand new grad student, gave us a paper, said "build me one of these, I'll be back in 3 months" and went to a remote location without Internet access. When I finished, I wanted to defend in the spring, then get married in the summer, but he took a sabbatical that spring, so I ended up getting married in the 3 weeks between turning in my written thesis and my defense. My honeymoon was therefore short and stressful.

It could have been way, way worse (as Zuska's story shows), but it is still scary to me as a prof how much power one person has over their students. My current U requires an out of department committee member on committees, and I think this is a great thing. Furthermore, both the defense and the examination are open to the public. I've found that most people are on better behavior when they know "outsiders" are around.

Mine was really painful for different reasons, but it is so good to know I am not alone. My enduring humiliation was that I cried under attack. I knew the attack was possible and tried to go in as strong as I could. When I heard the tears in my own voice, I got so mad that the tears came. When the tears came, I got even angrier and they just kept coming.

But I kept answering, for what it is worth.

I thought this is a great portrait of our defenses, on SNL steroids: http://www.hulu.com/watch/149649/saturday-night-live-swim-team-awards

I'm with Lauren; my grad school experience has not been great. It's a relief to read accounts like this and to know that it's not just me. Because I'm not yet finished, I don't feel comfortable giving detail beyond this: having an advisor who has your back is, in hindsight, the most important thing to have. Grad school screws with your confidence to begin with, and if the person you answer to lets you know they don't have faith in you, it's truly awful.

I was perhaps fortunate in that 1 of my 4 committee members was diabetic (and wouldn't really take anything except water) and another was on a perpetual diet. I provided food for my 2nd and 3rd year annual reviews, but then caught on to the fact that no one was eating anything, and didn't provide anything but bottled water for the defense...

Zuska, I love your blog. Again and again and again. May I congratulate you that you DID IT and no one can take that away from you ever again?
After my thesis I slept and cried for 3 weeks. At the date of the signing etc. my advisor, whose only function had been ripping off my literature research, had forgotten about it. My best (female) friend went to get him from another building and he arrived on the back of her bicycle. Nuff said. I love this blog.

By Madeleine (not verified) on 20 May 2010 #permalink

Maybe things are different where I am (or maybe different in Math-land, where I am), but I have never heard of the student providing food (or food being provided), or abusive dissertation defenses (there is a legend about a dissertation that was proven completely wrong during the defense, but that's more an urban legend).

The impression I get is that there may be a bit of ritualistic questioning on some points in the dissertation, but the real grilling is all done in the weeks/months beforehand. The defense is mostly just symbolic.

By Snarkyxanf (not verified) on 20 May 2010 #permalink