Thursday, February 16, 2012

Can a grad student ever win against a professor?

The fantastic discussion about the Michigan grad student and her advisor led me to a basic thought about graduate school, which is that it's a system that's naturally set up for poor outcomes for graduate students if a graduate student were ever to seriously collide publicly* with a professor. I've drawn the oversimplified chart to the right to illustrate my thought process.

Whenever a graduate student and a professor conflict and a compromise cannot be reached, there are 3 possible outcomes, represented by quadrants 2, 3 and 4. The Michigan case started at quadrant 2: by dismissing the student, there was not much reputational harm to Professor Goldman. The cost to Ms. Dibbern includes reputational damage and opportunity costs associated with being removed from a graduate school program.

By appealing to the university administration and going public, Ms. Dibbern has moved the outcomes to either quadrant 2 or quadrant 4. The provost's statement of support for Professor Goldman indicates that quadrant 2 is unlikely; it remains to be seen whether Professor Goldman suffers reputational or career damage associated with the case.

[I should note that I can't imagine what "professor loses/grad student wins" even begins to look like. Has there ever been a case where a public disagreement between professor and grad student results in a clear win for the graduate student?]

What does this chart tell me? Like @UnstableIsotope says, it might point to a need for a formalized process to deal with graduate student dismissal. It also says to me that it's best to attempt to compromise with your professor -- you're unlikely to win a public battle. If a public battle results, lose/lose just might be your best outcome.

Readers, where am I wrong?

*Publicly = the conflict is known outside the professor's laboratory. 

25 comments:

  1. What would a "win" look like for a graduate student? If you have a public fall-out with your advisor and the graduate student wins, what is the prize? You get to stay in the group?...With an advisor that hates you, may sabotage your efforts, and at the very least will not support you in finishing/defending your thesis? Doesn't sound like a win to me. It's not as if they are going to hand you a diploma for your "win." And even if they did, you would be black-balled in industry. Chemistry is a smmaaaallll world!

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    1. Best case scenario I can imagine is the student switches groups and does a two-themed thesis, then eventually manages to land a job in a company where HR happened to neglect to scour the web for dirt.

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    2. I think that's my point. I can't imagine a Prof-Lose/GS-Win scenario where the graduate student would actually have won. Perhaps a data falsification scenario in which the student is made whole with lots of money (for the lost time and reputational damage) is the only case.

      Of course, one should point out that employer/employee win/loss charts would pretty much look exactly the same.

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    3. Um yeah - sorry but a 2-themed thesis is pretty far fetched when your professor owns the data and isn't likely to let you take it to another lab.

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  2. It could look like this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Streleski

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    1. 19 years of grad school. I am surprised he's still sane.

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  3. Students are never right.

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  4. ChemJobber, I think I actually achieved a mild version of Q2 (if you define "public" as "known outside the professor's laboratory," not "public to the whole world, or even the whole field.") To make a long story short: My first year of graduate school was horrible. The department repeatedly set up no-win scenarios for the students, and when I inevitably failed, one of the professors told me privately that since I was one of their favorite students, they could fudge the test scores next time around so that I would pass. I knew I could not stand another four years of the horrible treatment, not to mention the possible future effects of the academic dishonesty I now knew was taking place. I quietly wrote the chair of another graduate program that had been very eager to recruit me, and they took me on as a student for the next year. At the same time, I told all of my trusted undergraduate mentors in detail exactly how the department had treated me. As a result, I went on to a better graduate program and have been spectacularly productive, while my former advisor lost one of the best students he would have ever had, and one of the top-rated undergrad programs in the field now discourages their students from applying to this graduate program. Does this fit the bill for Q2? For me the key was to get myself to a safe situation, then talk with influential people I knew would give me a fair hearing.

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  5. I have seen some ugly things done by graduate students as well as faculty. One faculty member defined the interaction as "competing needs" in regards to dismissing a poor student... "[Faculty member] feels the need for a reasonable amount of work accomplished, while [student] feels the need to surf the web and distract other researchers". The exactness of what constitutes reasonableness of the above argument is, of course, subject to debate. My reading of the documents associated with the UM situation is that the Prof wasn't unreasonable and the email was probably one of the last "chances" for the student (particularly if that letter from another student is correct regarding inability of Ms. Dibbern to advance to candicacy). That being said, we will never know the actual details with certitude.

    As an aside, the potential Q2 is... Student is unhappy and minimally productive, but fairly senior (say 6th year), and gets degree, while faculty member will not write a letter. You could argue that the faculty member loses due to waste of paying for a student that didn't produce adequate results, while the student is "rewarded" with a degree. This is unfortunately a not-so uncommon situation at mid- to lower-tier research institutions where mediocrity limps past where it should have been terminated.

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  6. Student win – Prof loses: Prof is sanctioned; does not get tenure or gets a reputation as an A-hole to work for and only gets foreign students and post docs in his group all of whom he cannot communicate with ever or only gets the least bright students in the class. Student gets kicked out of program is saved from years of slave labor, no job prospects upon graduation, massive student debts, divorce, grad school poverty, and a hyper short career in chemistry. Student goes out finds a career in finance, medicine or starts a business begins making money and living the good life then hits the big time, retires to the very easy life. When contacted by his former grad school hat in hand for a donation, she/he tells them that until they fire that SOB prof who is still doing the same lame science as 20 years earlier to never call her/him back again.

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    1. Somewhat related, I've dreamt of winning the lottery and issuing my old advisor a million-dollar grant, then harassing them day and night asking them where my results are :)

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  7. I'm actually wondering what a Q1 looks like, if a problem becomes truly public do you really think the professor is going to compromise or that the student can really win (get the degree and a good letter to support their future career)? I really think there's truly only two quadrants, the grad student is hosed no matter what.

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  8. One major problem with conflicts between graduate students and professors is that it can haunt your career for years to come. Even if you don't list that professor as a reference or include your graduate work on your resume, a lot of times employers will call up your graduate advisor "off the record". I have a friend who was in this situation, and even though she had stellar recommendations from her post-doc advisor and several people she worked with in industry, she found out her old graduate advisor was still getting calls from places she was interviewing and it was preventing her from getting jobs. With all the turnover in chemistry jobs, having a black mark from a graduate advisor can affect your career for many years.

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  9. From my own grad school experience in US, I would say it is absolutely essential to avoid open confrontations even when your professor screwed you over in a most blatant and nasty way and even if you can prove it. (The professor gets a mild rebuke - but you win an embarrassed silence, from the people who were initially very keen to have you come for a job interview...) The best option is to act through back channels and try to get into another group and preferably another school. No matter what, your public conflict with a PI will always reflects on you as a serious screwup and is likely to haunt you for years.

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  10. What about terminating the lives of a few professors and their offspring- a scorched earth scenario.

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    1. I do not condone violence or threats of violence against professors or their kids.

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    2. Such threats are always counterproductive because they ruin the surprise.

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  11. A grad student at my institution recently butted heads with his PI...the department-head sided with him, forced his PI to sign off on his masters, and helped him get a position in a lab at a different university. That seems like Q2 to me.

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    1. Nope - the bad student basically gets fired by a spinmaster who made it look like a win for the student. The department does not want the bad student to fail out of the PhD program so dumping the bad student on another department at another university is actually a win for the professor and the department head. Very well played by professor and department head.

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    2. "Butting heads" with a professor does not mean the student was a bad student. I have been sexually harassed by a professor and trapped in a horrible situation. He was a very prominent professor and when I reported him the university twisted everything against me to protect the school's reputation. I could do nothing and my life was destroyed simply for refusing to have sex with my professor. The worst part about it is that people who are naive and ignorant to the corruption in universities automatically question the student when there is a conflict at a university. I did nothing but reject my professor's sexual advances, have a 3.95 GPA, and have always had a very high moral and ethical standard. Do not call a person a bad student for a fall out with a university. You have no idea what happened, and that student likely was helpless in the situation.

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    3. Anon, I am so sorry to hear that. Please let me know if/how I can help. chemjobber@gmail.com

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  12. i wish i could "like" the last comment. that would be wonderful...if it ever really happens of course.

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  13. I recently had a falling out with my Thesis advisor for my MA degree. Long story short: I had failed to do enough background research into this advisor and had to find out the hard way that his advising methods were not congenial to my own. My thesis topic was too challenging, and instead of intervening and suggesting I condense it to something manageable he just let he struggle. I had gotten accepted into the PhD program in the same Dept. on the condition that I finish my MA thesis by a deadline (which I wasn't aware existed). My advisor, it turns out, had forgotten that I even applied to the PhD program! I tried my best bus couldn't finish on time. I lost the PhD offer. He still didn't intervene to advise me to change it, so I kept working on it and eventually successfully defended my thesis. But right after my defense (5 min after), he took me into his office and told me that he wouldn't write me a LOR for PhD programs. Shocked, I asked why, and he basically just said that "You don't know what you're talking about" and "This is the best you can do, you can't do better." I fell into his trap. I had thought that my advisor would be pleased to see me finish, but he was unimpressed. I still want to continue onto a PhD, but my life has been made that much harder because now I have to overcome the obstacle of not having a LOR from my advisor. I am applying for a 2nd MA degree, so I can get stronger letters and apply to PhD programs.

    It's really quite astounding what some of these Profs get away with and GS are left powerless.

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  14. Ok Is there a way to legally tackle PIs who think they can do whatever they want.

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    1. Get them to sign up for a local full-contact amateur football team?

      (In all seriousness, what do you mean?)

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