Fallout from a gutless adviser

Ask Alice
Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Alice and her friends answer questions that you don’t want to ask your preceptor, peer, or colleagues regarding your career in science. Send your question to Alice via SciCareerEditor@aaas.org.

Dear Alice,

“If you don’t succeed, forget this sorry lot and find a new, better department that’s less inbred and more focused on merit and achievement.” —Alice

Q: I completed a Master of Science degree in a program where the culture was insufferable and the attrition rate was very high. After that experience, I selected a Ph.D. program in part for it's low attrition rate.

Two years into the program, with my adviser's support and as I worked on two first-author publications, I presented my research proposal to my committee. They refused to approve it, and I was forced to leave the program. (I was given the option to complete a second master’s degree.) The reasons I was given were that my writing wasn't quite as strong as they had hoped and that my personality wasn't a good fit to be a Ph.D. They also felt I explained things too clearly—great for a laymen's audience but not for someone pursuing a Ph.D. Nothing was said about the science itself.

My frustration grew when other professors approached me to say that had I been working with another committee, things would have worked out differently. Every adviser runs Ph.D. committees differently, and mine felt that the committee had to be unanimous in order for me to pass. Afterward, he felt too conflicted to write a letter of recommendation to a different Ph.D. program, which only added to my shock and frustration.

Is it fair to evaluate Ph.D. students based on their personalities? I have since seen many of my friends with weaker writing and social skills graduate with Ph.D.s. How is it that there is no uniform set of standards for evaluation of students in Ph.D. programs? How can one begin to know how to prepare or what to accept?

I've wanted to pursue a Ph.D. and become a scientist since I was a child. What do I do with my career now that my cloudy Ph.D. program is in the past? How do I recover?

Yours truly,


Dear Shocked,

A: I am shocked, too—at your gutless faculty adviser. It is difficult to read between the lines, to know what’s really going on. Maybe your adviser is inexperienced and naïve, afraid to stand up to more senior faculty on your committee.

The reasons given by your committee for not approving your thesis project, despite two papers in preparation, just do not make sense. A Ph.D. is about the science; your writing, presentation skills, and personality should not prevent you from finishing it. Have you left out some crucial piece of information? Have you made mortal enemies among the faculty? Does your adviser dislike you?

It’s dangerous for a graduate student to fight faculty members, who have much more power, but apparently you’re not a graduate student anymore. At this point, what do you have to lose? Fight this decision. Go up the ladder for help. Go to the departmental faculty adviser for graduate students or the department chair. If they won’t help you, go to the ombudsman at your university. At the very least, talk to someone—maybe an attorney—who can advise you on whether it’s possible to win the fight.

If you don’t succeed, forget this sorry lot and find a new, better department that’s less inbred and more focused on merit and achievement. The key to moving forward is personal referrals; if, as seems likely, you were the victim of pettiness and ineptitude, someone—maybe one of those other faculty members you mentioned who told you things would have been different with another committee—will be willing to vouch for you; that may be all you need to start over.

Good luck. You may need it.



Alice Huang

Dr. Huang is one of the pioneering researchers in molecular animal virology. She trained at Wellesley College and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She has worked at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School, New York University (NYU), and California Institute of Technology. She has served on the boards of the University of Massachusetts, Johns Hopkins University, and the Keck Graduate Institute at the Claremont Colleges, in addition to many other nonprofit organizations. She introduced vesicular stomatitis virus as an experimental model in virology. She carried out many of the initial investigations on the molecular biology of virion structure, replication, macromolecular synthesis, viral spread, and virulence. Her work on the virion-associated RNA-dependent RNA polymerase led to the grouping of many viruses as negative-strand viruses. Her studies on pseudotypes, especially between RNA and DNA viruses, demonstrate the spread of viruses to new host cells and provide important tools for genetic engineering.

As a teacher, Dr. Huang has taught and mentored undergraduates, graduate students, medical students, postdoctoral research fellows, and clinical fellows. She has guided junior faculty members and department chairs. As an administrator, Dr. Huang provided the vision and obtained support for beginning what is now known as “Silicon Alley” around the NYU neighborhood. She is a past president of both the American Society for Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the publisher of Science Careers), two of the largest scientific societies in the world. She also dedicated 18 years to shepherding the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, together with Sydney Brenner and Chris Tan, into a successful center of research in what is now known as the Biopolis in Singapore. She continues to consult with research institutions and governments, sharing her expertise and practicing science diplomacy and policy.

Throughout her career, Dr. Huang has advocated for women in science. She encourages thoughtful approaches to reforms in teaching, to attract students with diverse backgrounds and interests to become interested in and committed to careers in science. She has been honored for her advocacy as well for her research accomplishments. Her wealth of experience as a leader and team player in research, administration, and advocacy prepares her well to provide advice to those pursuing careers in science.

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