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Credt: Hal Mayforth

Thesis adviser horror stories

Scientists advance in their careers largely because of proficiency at research—not because they’re good teachers, not because they’re good communicators, and certainly not because they’re universally kind and pleasant. Sure, you can think of examples of brilliant scientists held back because they can’t present their results coherently or because they annoy their colleagues, but for the most part, scientists are evaluated on the quality of their research and its translation into journal articles, grants, and sometimes patents.

We know this. Yet, for some reason, we’re surprised when the head of a lab behaves like a horrific jerk-faced snot monster toward his or her students.

Some advisers consider their students’ brains extensions of their own, meaning that they think your ideas are their ideas—though because they’re thinking that, it’s also your thought.

Practically every time I speak at a graduate school, I hear stories about negligent, careless, or abusive advisers. Yes, grad students like to complain about their advisers because grad students like to complain, but I think these stories serve a positive purpose: They allow other graduate students to think, “My adviser isn’t the greatest, but at least he or she doesn’t do what that person’s adviser does. Also, I should really get around to figuring out his or her gender so that I can use more specific pronouns.”

I asked reddit users for bad adviser stories, and there seemed to be no shortage: advisers who yelled at their students, advisers who obstructed their students’ progress for no reason, advisers who demanded that their students draw scientific conclusions of questionable validity. Then there were the rarer but more severe cases of advisers having inappropriate relationships with students, including one who directed both money and awards to an undergraduate who shared his bed.

If you think you have it bad—well, you may be right. After all, I don’t know you. Not that I don’t want to know you—I’m sure you’re a generous humanitarian and a brilliant lover. But in case you want to feel a little better about your dysfunctional relationship with your adviser, here’s a catalog of miseries that advisers have been known to inflict upon their underlings:

Stealing Credit for Your Work. Some advisers consider their students’ brains extensions of their own, meaning that they think your ideas are their ideas—though because they’re thinking that, it’s also your thought. Luckily, you can thwart a credit-stealing adviser by ensuring that your data are vague, your conclusions are questionable, and your ideas are all about wristwatches for animals.

Belittling You. As a trainee, you’re going to do some dumb stuff; it’s your adviser’s job to let you know when you do and how to fix it. But there’s gentle frankness, and then there’s, “YOU FORGOT THE POSITIVE CONTROL? WHAT ARE YOU, SOME KIND OF MORON? STOP WASTING MY TIME AND GO FIND YOURSELF A SPOT IN THE POLITICAL SCIENCE DEPARTMENT!”

Paying Too Little Attention to You. There’s an old adage that your adviser does not think about you as often as you imagine. That’s meant to be reassuring in a “no one will notice if I come in 15 minutes late” kind of way. But that kind of neglect can go too far, especially when it crosses the line into “do I know you” territory. To make sure your adviser notices you, take action. Some productive methods for earning and keeping your adviser’s attention include frequent communication of results, proactive participation in lab meetings, and licking everything in the lab.

Paying Too Much Attention to You. As any grad student, philanderer, or North Korean nuclear program officer will attest, close monitoring is not always welcome. “So what are ya workin’ on?” your adviser asks, sitting on the desk next to your computer, swishing his or her legs and cocking his or her head at a jaunty angle. You bristle, not because you were almost caught playing online Scrabble in the lab (thank goodness you’ve developed muscle memory for Alt+Tab) but because the answer to the question, “What are ya workin’ on?” is, by definition, nothing, because your adviser keeps distracting you by demanding updates every few seconds, hovering over your head like the helicopter of Damocles.

Moving the Lab. You choose your lab for a variety of reasons, some of which are geographic. You’ve already settled into your new community, befriended the postal carrier, and learned where the best local pinball arcades are when your adviser says, “Oops! I’d rather do the exact same thing I’m doing now in a different state. My bad! Wanna come with?”

Making You a Pawn in Some Weird Academic Political Scheme. Academia encourages backstabbing and, as a student or employee, you’re not exactly the knife, but maybe the crud that gets scoured off the knife before the stabbing to prevent the spread of tetanus.

Putting Black Sable Ferrets in Your Lunch Pail. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, oh man, you’ve got to get out of that lab!

Sabotaging Your Career. It feels wrong attributing absolute power to your adviser—but your adviser has absolute power. There’s an assumption that if you can’t even get a good recommendation from the head of your lab, you must not deserve a good recommendation. This is why, when you finally move to a new lab and leave your terrible adviser behind, you can’t throw a stack of journals into the air and triumphantly proclaim, “I’m outta here, loser! And by the way, I made sure your tenure review committee knows all about the black sable ferrets!”

* * *

I like to tell a story about a harrowing week I had during my sixth year of grad school, a story which, for me, typifies all that is wrong with postbaccalaureate education. I also like this story because it has poop in it.

My thesis adviser asked me to send him a certain amount of data by the end of the week so that he could present it in a seminar. Rather than admit I didn’t have nearly the amount of data he was asking for, I dedicated myself to working 21 hours a day for the next 3 days, hoping that my compliance with my adviser’s request would result in something ridiculous, like me graduating.

During those 3 days, a sewage pipe broke in my house, and my basement bedroom flooded with human waste, which—hooray grad school—I slept in. Finally, after 63 hours of data gathering, exhausted and more than a little behind the times on hygiene, I sent him the data.

At this point during the telling of the story, a few grad students in the room inevitably start to gasp and put on “oh no” faces because they know what’s coming next—which is, of course, that my adviser decided not to present my data after all.

I told this story at a AAAS (the publisher of Science Careers) storytelling workshop recently, and afterward a man responded in an unexpected way. “I think it would be interesting,” he said, “to hear the same story from your adviser’s point of view.”

He had a point. For me, it’s a story about an adviser‘s insensitivity to his student’s efforts. But for my adviser, it was probably a story about a lazy grad student who didn’t have data ready when he was supposed to, then sent it at the last minute.

The man in the audience told me he had shared the miseries of most grad students, but when he became a principal investigator, suddenly the tables were turned. He started to notice grad students trying to pull the same crap he had pulled, and he was horrified, not only by memories of his own behavior but by the knowledge of the rocky road ahead. While he fretted about applying for grants to fund his new lab, his grad students behaved like a bunch of goofballs.

Bad-adviser horror stories are easy to come by, if for no other reason than because they perpetuate the archetype of the undeserving blusterer hogging and abusing power. But one could just as easily fill a column with bad-student horror stories: tales of junior researchers playing online Scrabble, forgetting positive controls, and licking everything in the lab.

Hmm. Perhaps next month’s column? Send me your stories. I promise not to steal the credit for them.

Read more Experimental Error stories

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