Monday, July 8, 2019

Against food for your committee members in graduate school

Via Jen Heemstra on Twitter, this article from Science by Kate Bredbenner: 
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.
I believe I've heard of this tradition, but it wasn't a tradition where I went to graduate school and I'm really happy about that. Let's be clear - I'm not talking about providing food for a celebration after passing, we're talking about bringing food to a meeting where people will be judging your work product.

It is absolutely absurd that schools would allow this tradition. Yes, it would be smart not to have irritated committee members by scheduling a long meeting right before lunch (or maybe it is! -ed.) Perhaps it would be even better to provide a warm drink for your committee members! Students shouldn't be pressured into spending their time providing snacks for their committee.

In the discussion on Twitter, it sounds like a number of graduate schools actively or passively discourage this practice. I think that's the right approach. Readers, tell me why I'm wrong. 

14 comments:

  1. We did this a Penn State, although I never saw any grad students make an elaborate display. It was usually more like snacks (chips, salsa, Oreos, etc.), donuts/coffee, and the like. Yes, $30-50 and the stress of setup time is significant for grad students, who are typically poor in both time and money. (By the way - group members, partners, and friends can help with setup.) But I always saw it as a service we all chipped into. I very much looked forward to the snacks at my fellow students presentations and I'm sure I got more out of eating said snacks than what I put in for my own talks. (Then again, I was one to show up early to get the best seat and choices of food!)

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  2. It was a good friend in the department, who prior to my defense, told me not to worry about the food. They took care of it so I could focus on what was important. I'm ashamed to admit that during my time in graduate school that I didn't think to do this for anyone else, and think that if we all did this it would relieve a lot of that ridiculous stress.

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  3. The Iron ChemistJuly 8, 2019 at 9:12 AM

    I'm a tenured PI at an R1 institution so I'll offer my perspective (which I can't promise is universal): I don't expect food at these things and do not really care if it is there or not. As long as you don't schedule your defense from 11-2 or something like that, most people will have eaten before going and will barely touch the elaborate spread that you bring. Certainly, I have never seen any of my colleagues COMPLAIN about free food provided at a student's defense.

    Focus on your science and its presentation. A glorious fondue isn't going to make someone think that you deserve to pass if you don't know your stuff.

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  4. OP here. Thanks for chiming in. I rarely observed committee members partaking in the snacks (certainly mine never did). Interestingly, the bigger stress for me was to get something nice for my fellow grad students to enjoy for showing up. There would certainly be complaints afterward if I didn't bring something for them to eat during a 1h+ presentation! This was also expected at our group meetings, 2nd year seminars, etc.

    On a related note, I actually think refreshments serve a very good purpose, especially for talks that have a voluntary attendance. Granted, not everyone will partake in the snacks, but it's well known among starving trainees that we are more likely to attend seminars if food is provided (especially a free lunch). In fact, we'll do a lot for free food - help you move, proofread your paper, attend a talk outside of our expertise. On more than a few occasions, I've witnessed students leaving a talk early as soon as they realized no snacks were provided (probably not the best kind of student, but nevertheless...)

    My present institution has a "seminar snack budget", so students actually get reimbursed what they spend (if it's under $50). While I don't think refreshments should EVER be required, it would be nice if more places offered this.

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  5. At my grad school, you were expected to bring, at minimum, coffee and donuts as part of thesis and PhD qualifying proposals and it did not matter if it was morning, afternoon, or night. I only ever saw one student not bring these items and it went pretty negatively and even one committee member made a very passive-aggressive comment about there being no donuts and coffee. My friend and I scheduled these things at 11 to 11:30 and we bought these very stomach-heavy, calorie-dense sandwiches with hopes it put our committee members to a carb-crash by the time the question session came. It worked out pretty well to our advantage, in my opinion, but we were/are both not idiots compared to some of the weaker students we had at our school, so maybe it was coincidence or maybe it was a real factor.

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  6. I feel like bringing food for my qual/defense/group meetings made those events feel festive and helped everyone have a good time. I think the festive atmosphere helps to ease tensions and relieves the stress a bit. While it was a bit stressful acquiring the snacks, it was totally worth it, and I have many fond memories of my graduate experience. I now work at a place where no one brings snacks for anything, and it's incredibly depressing.

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  7. I don't know if it was tradition or just here say, but we brought coffee and bagels/doughnuts. Thankfully there was an Einstein Bros on campus.

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  8. "It worked out pretty well to our advantage, in my opinion, but we were/are both not idiots compared to some of the weaker students we had at our school, so maybe it was coincidence or maybe it was a real factor."

    Humble brag for the win!

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  9. Starbucks, Dunkin, and several other places provide "coffee travelers" is about 96 oz of coffee, a bunch of cups, stirrers, sweeteners and creamer. Commonly spotted in meeting rooms. Ask one of your lab buddies to go and get you one of those and to pick up a half dozen bagels, sandwiches, danishes, or whatever. Then you can revise your slides right up to the last minute, and buy them a beer after you pass.

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  10. I suspect this "tradition" is not all that old. We had closed defenses at MIT in the mid-90's and no one brought food to that or to the qualifying exams. My advisor usually took the group out to lunch after a thesis defense, although sometimes he combined it into one lunch if several group members were graduating at the same time. The open part of our defense was the 4th year seminar, and the department paid for the coffee and snacks at that. (The group was in charge of picking it up and would get reimbursed.) However, from what I've read on Twitter it sounds like MIT people now bring food to their defense.

    I was really shocked when I got to Cornell in 2010 and realized that students did this for both their qualifying and thesis defense exams.
    Fortunately, the tradition has been shifting and it's no longer standard in the quals. For the thesis defense, the group members now bring the food.

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    1. Biologist here, did my PhD in the late 1990s... at the time, nearly every department had a snacks budget for seminars (including defenses), and regular committee meetings did not include food. My department had bland cookies but lots of them, and paid for celebratory post-defense lunches (and an annual faculty-free happy hour at a local bar).

      I'm told that within ten years, the students-bring-food tradition had gotten to committee meetings. I don't know when. However, the chair recently put out a statement that students aren't required to/shouldn't bring food to committee meetings (but they can request that the department provide some, paid with department funds). I was very happy to hear this.

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  11. I think the best part of my defense was when I insulted a senior member of my committee, telling him I expected a more mature attitude from him. Felt good, quite frankly, considering how useless the faculty were for my PhD work.

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  12. This was a tradition in my department too, and no joke -- someone stole one of the deli-style sub sandwiches out of the department refrigerator while I was doing my computer/projector check in the conference room. Good thing not many people came beyond my committee, I guess.

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    1. There's a special place in hell for people who thieve lunches from break rooms. I'm still reeling from my experiences of having my food stolen at work.

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