It’s not unusual for grad students to complain; in fact, identifying the ignominies of postbaccalaureate education is kind of the national grad student pastime. But when Kate Bredbenner—a biology Ph.D. student at Rockefeller University in New York City—identified a problem and wrote about it for Science this past summer, she never thought her opinion would generate so much buzz.
Bredbenner’s piece railed against her graduate program’s tradition of having students provide food and drinks for professors during thesis committee meetings. “In my mind, one drop of burnt coffee would cause my judges to kick me aside like a stray dog,” she wrote. Bredbenner argued that students going into these meetings should be focusing on preparing high-quality scientific presentations, not getting sidelined in the kitchen—lest they face the wrath of a hungry, undercaffeinated committee.
I had never heard of this practice. Like most Ph.D. students, I met with my thesis committee annually, but our interactions were limited to issues such as “Here’s what I accomplished in the lab this year,” and “You didn’t accomplish nearly enough,” and “Oh please, please you miserable denizens of the academic aristocracy, let me graduate and begin my adult life.”
I probably wouldn’t have minded bringing food. I like food, and I often find myself eating it. In fact, I might just eat food later today. Besides, there were times when it would have been nice to say, “OK, I have no valid data … but I do have these red velvet cupcakes!”
The problem at Bredbenner’s school was a little more complicated. In her program, though not formally codified in writing, bringing noshes for one’s committee meetings had become such an entrenched tradition that it was essentially expected. No student would have been censured for failure to feed the committee, but tenured eyebrows would certainly raise.
“It’s been kind of incredible,” Bredbenner told me of the response she received following the publication of her essay. Before it went to press, she’d viewed it as “a very silly piece about not knowing how to make coffee.” But afterward, she received an avalanche of personal emails—from students and even faculty members—thanking her for raising an issue that was apparently causing trouble at their schools as well.
“Now that I am on the other side of these committee meetings, I have also been perplexed by the food spreads students feel compelled to bring and have specifically said that they were not necessary,” one professor wrote to her. “The tradition seems to live as a sort of ritual, though.”
In the months since, a number of graduate programs—including the psychology department at the University of California (UC), Los Angeles; the biology and biomedical program at Vanderbilt University; and the molecular and cell biology department at UC Berkeley—have actually changed their policies on committee meetings, making it officially clear that grad students, already used to catering to their committees, would no longer be expected to cater for their committees in the form of coffee and snacks. It’s a policy reversal of a speed rarely seen in academia, where typically nothing changes without the formation of an exploratory committee, the dissolution of said committee due to infighting, a dean’s fiat, an amendment that fails to pass, a poorly written editorial in the university newspaper, and finally a grudging acceptance of the new policy following threats from a donor.
On its surface, bringing snacks may seem like an innocuous part of an annual progress review—like booking a room, setting up chairs, or wearing underpants. At least, that was my initial reaction. I cook for my kids pretty much every day, so what’s the big deal about cooking for a few adults? At least the adults won’t reject the food and demand peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
But this small act’s implications are significant. First, there’s the financial burden, especially as the snack arms race escalated at some schools from home-baked banana bread to extra-fancy croissants on a platter from a locally renowned patisserie. With grad student stipends ranging from low to insultingly low, a platter of goodies can be an unwelcome extravagance. One student, replying to Bredbenner on Twitter, recounted buying a box of cookies at a food bank, then accidentally forgetting to remove the 25-cent sticker before serving them.
Second, as Bredbenner pointed out, if you’re already stressed about your actual science, who needs the added burden of picking up pastries or setting up a coffeemaker? Imagine it’s the morning of your committee meeting, and a last-minute change forces you to reorder your PowerPoint slides—but no time for that! You need to arrange muffins in an aesthetically pleasing manner!
Perhaps most importantly, the practice just felt icky. It reinforced the concept of grad students as peons in an academic fiefdom who must literally serve the professors who can afford their own breakfast. I’ve known heads of companies who have asked employees to walk their dogs; get their car washed; or, in one case, print place settings for their son’s wedding. Should professors expect that kind of personal service, too?
The requirements for advancement and ultimately graduation are already shrouded in mystery, and your committee decides—often with an enigmatic and seemingly arbitrary justification—when you’re allowed to leave and begin your career. These people own your future, so you want them to feel as generous toward you as possible. That’s why, as Bredbenner told me, catering her meetings always felt “offering-like.”
“Students feel that professors can pretty much do whatever they want without repercussions,” one student wrote in an email to Bredbenner. “So we must do everything possible to make sure they are on our side.”
I asked one of my grad school friends, now an assistant professor of chemistry, whether the food his students bring him influences his decisions in any way. Unsurprisingly, he said of course it doesn’t. After all, what kind of irresponsible professor would let a few bagels change their assessment of a student?
But the question may not be as ridiculous as it sounds. In 2007, a study at California State University in Northridge showed that professors who provide chocolate to students filling out course evaluations can expect higher ratings than those who don’t. This makes sense: If graduate school taught me anything (and sometimes it’s questionable whether graduate school taught me anything), it’s that one should never underestimate the power of free food.
The tacit requirement to feed one’s thesis committee is a time-honored practice whose time should probably no longer be honored. Grad students should feel welcome to bring snacks if they want to—some might actually find that it relieves stress—but more programs should officially declare that the practice isn’t expected. Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy way to remove the lopsidedness and ambiguity of the graduate school hierarchy itself.
But I do have these red velvet cupcakes!