Thursday, September 26, 2013

It's the same everywhere

I totally get what this Reddit poster is saying about graduate school:
I'm a graduate student in an R1 university. I wanted to share my experiences to determine if what I'm observing is a problem everywhere or if it is specific to my university. 
Don't get me wrong, my department has many intelligent people and is often underrated. However many people barely scrape by doing a minimal amount of research and hardly showing up. Some people shock me when they pass their oral exams or get a PhD when they can't explain LeChatelier's principle. I have a hard time thinking that such people would pass an oral at MIT or Caltech. However this isn't my concern; perhaps I underestimate them and should get off my high horse. What grinds my gears is how these people perform in the lab and affect my research
What I see is a general lack of regard for safety and a lack of respect for instrumentation/apparatus that many people use. Pulling solvent into vacuum pumps (and not changing pump oil), clutter everywhere, furtive use of instrumentation by people who know that they don't know what they're doing and who do not own the instrument, huge scale-ups (for example involving liters of bromine and no headspace in the flask), things of that nature. Oh, and a large proportion of Chinese students who don't understand English and will tell you they understand everything you say, then break stuff. I really don't mind explaining something twice-I don't understand what their deal is. The best part is that if you bring it up during group meeting or send out a mass email describing how not to screw up the glovebox, everyone nods and agrees, then nothing changes the next day. I'm not saying I'm perfect or have an immaculate hood, but I do try to be very respectful and careful if I am using someone else's instrument for example. 
My point here is that there is clearly a lack of leadership in my lab, but my lab has too many people and I have too much research to do for me to try to improve things. As much as I have tried, it really isn't my job or in my authority to manage them. I can't wait to get into industry where if people do this kind of crap, they're fired.
I remember making the exact same complaints in graduate school. What I find most remarkable about this post (which is not a unique complaint) is a similar post by someone in a very different field:
Over the last eight months, I have led a company in Afghanistan to conduct various engineer missions. An active-duty company deployed on its own to fall under a National Guard battalion under an active-duty engineer brigade. 
...The lesson that I learned relating to the aforementioned comments is this: We are a bureaucratic organization with rules, regulations, and doctrine that are sound and have been well researched, but we continue to flounder due to the lacking personalities and void of accountability. Understanding the art and science of warfare is enforced in schools, not in our formations.... 
...My personal battle has been with peers on battalion and brigade staffs. When I do not receive the information that I require, I demand it as it is required for success. The demanding is my unraveling. I have found myself in a pitched battle with officers junior to me calling me "bro," saying that I do not have tact, and then going to tell their respective commander that I do not play nice. I didn't know that I had to play nice. I thought I was selected as a commander to achieve a mission within my higher commander's intent.... 
...Perhaps this is why the top percentage is leaving the military. Not spouse careers, salary, benefits, upward mobility, or awards. Existing with other peers who do one-third the amount of significant output may be the real factor. At least that is my factor.
Perhaps it's my lot in life to bounce around non-elite institutions of various sizes, but it seems to me that most organizations in this country muddle through and most have their malcontents and incompetents. Some companies do their best to weed them out, but that takes time and effort and judging who "isn't meeting expectations" is a hard science at best.

Organizations that are truly excellent from top-to-bottom are probably few and far between (no matter the size.) I wonder if I'm being overly pessimistic. Readers? 

22 comments:

  1. I feel for you. I have been at 3 R1 U's between doc and postdoc. I've observed many groups beyond my own, and can say you are not alone. In fact everything you stated is just another day in an academic environment. Although you forgot to mention how labor laws completely fly out the window as well.

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  2. That post strikes me as the typical egotistical "Everyone is an idiot except me" type of complaint. Yes there is are bad eggs in every university with no regards of where you go. I learned long ago just because someone got into Harvard or MIT doesn't mean they're the best and just because someone could "only" get a PhD from a state university doesn't mean they can't be a very accomplished researcher. It's not where you go, it's what you put into it that counts.

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  3. I've seen this everywhere. It's quite amazing actually. Sometimes I wonder how anything gets done anywhere and how it is that some of are still achieving anything.

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  4. It's like complaining about other people's driving. Everyone's a Formula 1 driver on the internet.

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  5. When I worked at a biotech start up I was shocked too see the number of people with advanced degrees doing next to nothing all day long, other than socializing. Sometimes I wonder if a benefit to off-shoring is that the cheaper labor spends more of the actually working instead of asking how there weekends were for 2 hours.

    The company inevitably failed, which was not much of a surprise, considering the work ethic there.

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  6. Is it any coincidence that both of these situations are primarily funded by government? Though institutions outside of government tend to face these same circumstances, they have the risk of going out of business like NMH mentioned. This is not really an option for government funded disasters. If there are inefficiencies, these institutions usually just say they are "underfunded" and increase their outlays at the same time.

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    1. The biggest "disasters" at my gov't lab are due to folks coming from academia. They're here because our budget won't permit us to hire more staff--only temporary post-docs and "guest researchers," who tend to be grad students working for well-connected profs. They know nothing about lab safety. They are inconsiderate since they're just passing through. They work only if their names will be on a paper.

      Yes, this my my attempt at saying, "Shut up. You don't know what you're talking about."

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    2. Isn't academic science just government funded science for the most part? The point is, if the gov't does fund the training of these temporary researchers and they are of poor quality, there is nothing stopping them from churning them out for decades. On top of that, haven't you just admitted that your gov't lab is now less safe and less efficient for hiring these people? And there is no way to shut down your lab if you do hire these "disasters" because it's a gov't lab with a budget, small but it's there and will probably be there for a long time...

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    3. My friend who worked in a government lab says that to take a 10ml vial of toluene across the hall you need to undergo a safety training, fill out disclosure forms, submit MSDS, and still there's going to be someone throwing a hissy fit over it. According to him, the only way to get anything done is to collaborate with a university if you are lucky enough to have one nearby and do all synthesis there.

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    4. somedude: I think maybe, just maybe, your friend was exaggerating. There is a nugget of truth there, however: You have to plan your experiments much more than in academia...and fill out the forms to prove to your manager that you have done so. Most of the people in big-time industrial R&D I know go through similar safety training and hazard reviews. In fact, theirs seems a bit more stringent. Small firms are maybe a little more loosy-goosy (or "less bureaucratic"), but even they have to contend with OSHA and EPA regs. Academic labs, it seems, only get in trouble when someone dies. (Now I'm exaggerating.)

      Other anonymous: Chip on your shoulder? Did a federal scientist steal your lunch money when you were a kid?

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  7. Wasn't there a saying in the old USSR, "As long as the bosses pretend to pay us, we'll pretend to work,"? Many hard working people get laid off in favor of the better connected or cheaper workers. I might work hard out of personal pride, but I don't intend to work myself to death over a job that doesn't care about me (and who might lay me off at anytime to make a few extra bucks on the stock price).

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    1. Wow, you're lucky. Your company will lay you off for a few bucks! Most will do it for a few pennies.

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  8. If you think the situation is different at the MITs and CalTechs of the world you're wrong. In my old lab group, I was seemingly the only one who would sign off on a particular instrument. Consequently, I'd always get the blame when someone else injected 100-1000 times the maximum allowable sample into the thing. And no, I wasn't responsible for the training; the PI had assigned one of my labmates to do it. And yes, if I had been approached, I would have gladly assisted with the training. It got so bad, that I just stopped using the instrument altogether.

    Other folks would drop syringe needles on the floor and never pick them up. Another guy was using a SINK as secondary containment for a base bath and yelled at me when I called him on it.

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  9. Yep, that sounds about right. I've seen all that and worse.

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  10. The title of this post and the sentence: "Oh, and a large proportion of Chinese students who don't understand English and will tell you they understand everything you say, then break stuff. I really don't mind explaining something twice-I don't understand what their deal is."

    Are best read with the voice of Cletus Spuckler.

    CJ totally gets it, and that's what is so sad about occasional posts on this blog.

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    1. Anon, I am curious as to what you "get", because I am not sure I want to contribute to the sadness. Feel to extemporize her, or e-mail me at chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com. Confidentiality guaranteed.

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    2. I think he is trying to say that you are obviously liberal and tolerant and totally above stereotyping and that is why it so breaks his heart when when you let people who don't embrace tell it the way they see it, and in such an unPC fashion too.

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    3. Toxic political correctness aside, Chinese students do this all the time. Not just Chinese, but Chinese colleagues were the majority in my lab so that's where I can anecdotally speak to.

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  11. In my humble experience, the main differences between academia and industry (big companies now) is that a) Safety is generally better in industry, b) Big companies have fancies labs and equipment, but sadly also, c) bureaucracy is several log units worse in industry and d) the average IQs of industrial chemists seem at least 20 units lower than for those (still) in academia. The only saying was: The brains are in the universities, the money is in the companies. Given the recent developments in the field, I fear both statements might need to be amended soon; and not for the better.

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  12. I meant "The old saying...", of course.

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