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Robert Neubecker

Committee members shouldn’t expect Ph.D. students to serve coffee and pastries

I never thought I would spend so much of my time and money setting up still-life–worthy displays of flaky croissants and shiny fruit for people who are judging my science, and that of my colleagues. Yet that’s the expectation: At my university, and many others, students bring food to our thesis committee meetings and defenses, adding to the already sky-high pressure. My first taste of it came 5 years ago, for my first committee meeting. I prepared furiously. I meticulously proofread my written proposal and aligned all the figures. My slides all used the same font. I had even prepared some extra slides to address possible questions my judges might ask. Even so, I was sure the meeting was doomed—because I didn’t know how to make coffee.

In my mind, one drop of burnt coffee would cause my judges to kick me aside like a stray dog. One bite of stale pastry would put them in a mood so foul I would be carted back to the humble Pennsylvania town where I grew up, then forced into my high school job as a Wendy’s drive-thru operator. Of course, I knew logically that these things were unlikely to happen, but the pressure of a committee meeting often sends logic out the window.

So in the hours before the meeting, when I should have been looking over my slides, skimming key papers, or even relaxing a bit, I was standing numbly in front of the lab coffee maker—a Rubik’s Cube I couldn’t solve. Discouraged, I tackled a problem more within my reach: plating the fresh almond croissants I had trekked 20 blocks uptown to fetch earlier that morning. (I had made the mistake of wearing my meeting outfit—a button-down that made me feel like a capable adult—and the humidity had left me with pit stains like a character in a deodorant commercial; good thing I had a backup outfit.)

But once the croissants were settled on the wooden cutting board and the perfectly ripe grapes were in their cute owl-decorated bowl, I turned back to the dreaded coffee maker and felt my perfectly prepared world crumbling around me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Joan. One year ahead of me in grad school, Joan had already been through the gauntlet I was about to face. Even more important, she was a fervent coffee drinker.

“Hey Joan!” I yelped, trying to keep my cool. “How would you like to help me make coffee for my meeting?” She gave me a knowing look, the kind of look that says she’s been there and come out the other side. Of course, she agreed to help.

In the end, the meeting went fine. But my lack of coffee-making knowledge shook my confidence in my abilities as a scientist more than it should have.

Committees shouldn’t expect students to provide lavish spreads.

Since then, the grad students in my lab have made a pact to help each other with snacks for these meetings. This year, we banded together to create a delectable offering for Joan’s thesis defense. She had been through all our committee meetings with us, and if we could help her with some sandwiches and a fruit salad, we were going to do it. She didn’t need the stress of remembering when to hit the button on the coffee maker while also remembering the molecular weights of all the proteins in the nuclear pore complex.

Our camaraderie doesn’t make the expectation less of a burden, though. Graduate students want to do everything in our power to please our committee members as we describe our research plans and show we are capable scientists. But that should mean spending time preparing and thinking, not stressing ourselves out to buy and serve croissants. I’m lucky to have some of the best fellow grad students-slash-event planners anyone could ask for, but many students don’t have this sort of network or tradition.

The solution is easy: Committees shouldn’t expect students to provide lavish spreads, or anything at all. We shouldn’t have to spend our money buying overpriced fruit salad or know how to make coffee to be considered successful graduate students. Our research should be enough.

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