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Bad behavior
Credit: Hal Mayforth

Grad students behaving badly

Last month, I wrote about the horrors that thesis advisers can inflict upon grad students. That was easy. I’ve been a grad student before, for a stretch of *muffled cough* years, and complaints about thesis advisers were practically a standard greeting: “Hi! My thesis adviser sucks! How was the cell bio midterm?” But when science devolves into interpersonal conflict, the thesis adviser—unassailable authoritarian though she or he may be—is not always at fault. Sometimes the problem comes from below.

Transitioning from the relative structure of college to the uncertainty of grad school can be challenging, especially when today’s colleges push the increasingly popular model of students-as-consumers, consumers-as-infants, infants-as-co-valedictorians. Many students find the structure of grad school startlingly freeform, suddenly demanding a maturity that they may not yet have cultivated. Perhaps that’s why, in some cases, grad students turn bad.

Though it’s fun to think of students as irresponsible oafs who gleefully mess up your experiments, most are simply scientists-in-training.

I asked for stories of horrible grad students, and you, loyal readers, did not disappoint. Your students did. And you told me about them.

One student spent weeks unknowingly working on the wrong cloning project because he was afraid to ask what “wild type” meant. Another looked for any excuse to skip lab work, once steering clear of the building for 2 weeks, blaming his absenteeism on residual psychological trauma from nearly choking on a chicken bone.

But my favorite stories came from a principal investigator (PI) in a toxicology department at an east coast university. She described a grad student in her lab who reveled in inattention to hygiene, wearing pants with incomplete flies that only partially shrouded “dingy grey underwear” and leaving his bitten-off fingernail shreds—and worse—around the lab. When you become a PI, you know that personnel management comes with the job, but you don’t anticipate having to pull a student aside for a serious chat about frequent nose picking and loud farting. “Graduate school and a postdoc certainly did not prepare me for such a conversation with an advisee,” she writes. During their tête-à-tête, the student defended his flatulence as “natural and therefore OK” (by which logic there are a lot of bodily functions one ought to be permitted at work), but he eventually compromised by going stealth. The PI’s lab technician, whose first language is not English, soon approached her with a worried look on her face, reporting that the offensive grad student now released “farts with no voice.”

Farts With No Voice, as her lab calls him, left his mark as both a student—and probably an ideal research subject—in toxicology.

In more generalized form, here are some of the common offenses that grad students have been known to commit. If you’re a grad student reading these and thinking, “Hey! I do that! I’m famous!” you’re perceptive but narcissistic. Stop doing these things.

Absenteeism. For many students, working in a lab is an exercise in time management unlike any other they’ve experienced. Imagine spending your entire academic life completing projects with fixed due dates and grades to assess your accomplishments—only to arrive in grad school and receive the following guidelines:

Question: How long do I need to spend in the lab?

Answer: It doesn’t matter.

Question: Who will check what time I arrive and leave?

Answer: No one. The most important thing is that you get your lab work done.

Question: Can my lab work actually reach the point of being done?

Answer: No.

So it’s understandable that newbies’ heads can explode from the sheer freedom. After all, they’re starting a job that’s not 9-to-5; it’s 2015-to-2021-or-2022ish. They begin mildly enough, sneaking into the lab at 9:45 a.m., maybe grabbing an hour-long coffee with friends midday. Next thing you know, you haven’t seen your grad students in months, and they are off skipping through fields of daylilies singing “as long as I get my lab work done, as long as I get my lab work done!”

Carelessness about Lab Safety. Somehow, you’d never trust a 20-year-old undergrad to just go into the lab and squirt around whatever chemicals are on hand—but a 21-year-old grad student, sure. Ah, the seven words no PI wants to hear from a shrugging grad student: “I ate that because it was funny.”

Interpersonal Drama. As you advance in your career, you learn how to deescalate arguments. How to interact as a colleague. How to host a social event that’s not 80 people doing Jell-O shots and hooking up in a house with no furniture. In other words, you learn to mellow out and be an adult.

Grad students aren’t always there yet. One day, Jimmy and Jessica are autoclaving pipette tips for each other—and the next day Jimmy demands that you move Jessica to a different lab bench because he heard from Mike and Velma that April said Jessica’s friend in the Drosophila lab saw her flirting with the Slovenian master’s student, and Jimmy knows you have a grant due tomorrow, but can we just talk and yell about Jessica in your office for, like, 3 hours?

Stealing Food from Department Seminars. This is not actually a problem. Look the other way. Nothing to see here.

Impatience Regarding Results or Credit, or Credit for Results. Experiments don’t necessarily yield useful discoveries the first time you try them, and not everything leads to a first authorship. Some students, however, expect instant gratification and celebration of their snowflakey uniqueness. “So,” they’ll say, lingering in your office, “I labeled the tubes with a Sharpie like you asked. Can I have the rest of the day off to wait for the Nobel Prize committee?”

Pretending to Understand When They Don’t. This is probably a grad student’s most insidious vice—you give instructions, ask whether the instructions make sense, and the response is a Golden Retriever-like series of nods and smiles. “Yes, of course, I get it! I’m happy to comply with your request! Yes, yes, yes! Are we going for a walk?” Then, the moment you leave, the student thinks, “Whew, that was close! I didn’t understand a word of that, and my PI nearly noticed! Okay, time to get to work … on … uh … hmm. Well, at this point, I’m sure it would be wiser not to ask for clarification because I don’t really appreciate what ‘wiser’ means.”

* * *

Here’s my own bad student story. When I was an undergrad, I visited a friend at another university who had just begun a summer internship in a molecular biology lab; let’s call him Ivan. His PI had given him a budget of $750 with which to purchase necessary lab supplies from a catalog. Ivan, overcome with his first taste of spending someone else’s money, immediately spent a quarter of his summer budget on a lab-grade blender, intending to use it for margaritas. He bragged about beating the system—until his PI, who of course noticed the purchase, sent him an email stating that the blender had better be in the lab on Monday morning, processing some kind of samples related to Ivan’s research.

But the most surprising result from my unscientific survey of bad-student stories is how rare they are. Though it’s fun to think of students as irresponsible oafs who gleefully mess up your experiments, most are simply scientists-in-training—wet behind the ears, but basically well-intentioned and competent. Everyone remembers “that one,” but it’s always one in a sea of a couple dozen quite good grad students.

Reading my Facebook inquiry for stories, a former colleague of mine cautioned against “punching down,” which also happens to be a cycle on my bread maker. Yes, blaming those with the least experience is low-hanging fruit. But I hope that somewhere, at some university, a grad student is reading this and thinking, “Wait, professors don’t like it when we fart? Even with no voice? I must change my ways!”

Yes, theoretical grad student. Change your ways. Don’t be the trainee who comes most easily to mind when your PI shares bad-student stories.

Now, who wants to go for a walk?

Read more Experimental Error stories

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