Grad Rites

Recently I’ve been having a lot of conversations about graduate school “rites of passage.” I’ve heard many people echo the sentiment that the purpose of being intensely quizzed by professors during things like journal club presentations (when you present the findings of a recent journal article of interest) or oral exams, is to humble the grad student, to make him or her feel bad about how little they know, and that surviving this is one of the rites of passage that all grad students must go through. As if it were some type of hazing ritual to help thicken your skin. But if that is what you are taking away from this exercise, then you are missing the whole point. Being quizzed to the edge of your knowledge, in front of your peers, is not done to make a grad student feel bad about themselves, or to toughen them up. It is serves two purposes. One, is for faculty to evaluate the breadth and depth of your knowledge, and be able to identify weaknesses that you might have to work on. For example, become better acquainted with the inner workings of a specific experimental method, or to familiarize yourself better with a certain body of scientific literature. In other words, to help guide in which directions you need to grow in. The second purpose is to help you identify holes in your critical thinking abilities and teach you how to question even the most basic assumptions. Why are you using a specific experimental preparation and not another? Why do you use a certain concentration of calcium in your buffers? What is the big question you are addressing? Why does this control experiment matter?

These type of things are good for you, not because they help you develop thick skin, but because they are an opportunity to learn and think about your science in some depth. It is common to join a new lab and start doing experiments the way everyone else does them. And probably this is the optimal way since people before you have been troubleshooting these techniques for years. But that’s no excuse for not knowing why and how you do the things you do in lab. One should take all the lab protocols and go line-by-line in order to understand the logic and the reason behind each step.

So my advice to a fledgeling new grad student (any out there who read my blog?), is that, after you complete each of these milestones, before you go off to drink and celebrate surviving being buffeted by professors questions, take fifteen minutes to write down a list of things you were not able to answer, and figure out what your weaknesses were and what you need to work on. Then you can go to the bar and get shitfaced.


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10 Responses to Grad Rites

  1. becca says:

    The way most people learn best is by being free to make mistakes. Not everyone feels equally free to make mistakes during grad rites. Indeed, not everyone is judged equally for the same mistakes during them.
    Therefore, the learning that can take place during them is highly variable. There is, at least from what I’ve seen, zero systematic effort to evaluate this learning, or to determine if the process is optimal.
    Thus, I am left with the unfortunate conclusion that “it’s a valuable learning experience” in the sense of “it toughens you up” AND in the sense of “you learn where to improve on specific knowledge and critical approach” are simply post-hoc rationalizations of a process that might have no greater purpose than the main thing it does- weed out some of the extra students that cannot thrive on criticism media. It’s a selective pressure for a too-large population.

    • namnezia says:

      Becca I beg to differ. At least in our grad program we are continuously revising and refining its various aspects based on feedback from students and faculty, in order to optimize things as best as possible. But like in everything, you can’t please all people all the time, and there are going to be a few people for whom grad school is not the right environment. It is always easier to blame the grad program.

      I also never said that the purpose of these things is to “toughen you up”, but quite the contrary. And we do everything possible to have people not leave the grad program, so this selective pressure business is bunk. That being said, perhaps it might be better to raise the bar and kick more people out, who knows.

      • Yael says:

        I thought that those oral exams *did* help me to toughen up and take criticism better subsequently. I didn’t do well initially, and my examiners explained *why*, gave very astute criticism and assured me it wasn’t a hazing exercise, and then proceeded to pick apart everything I did wrong. I think that developing a thick skin and learning how to learn from criticism without taking it personally or having (overdramatic) emotional responses that clouded my thinking was one of the most important things I learned in grad school.

  2. becca says:

    AHAHAHAHAHA oh yes. I’m sure your grad curricula change continuously.
    This is NOT the same as systematic study of the situation and outcomes-based iterative change, such as you would apply in a laboratory.

    C’mon. That’s like saying that because tax policy changes every few years, we have the data to know what the “best” tax policy for growing the economy is. Sure, it’s better to pay some kind of attention to history, but it’s just not easy to optimize complex systems and ‘natural experiments’ without control groups make it difficult to draw sound conclusions. Very little in education is evidence-based, and from all I can see it grows less scientific the further up the chain you go.

    Also- I understand the point you were making. I thought “toughening you up” was a reasonable shorthand for the idea you were trying to contrast your idea with. Basically you said the purpose of grad school rites of passage was not X (toughening up), but Y (gaining skills). I say “for many folks grad school rites of passage do a pretty lousy job at X and Y, but they does as good a job at Z as they need to”.

    In fairness to your perspective, few grad programs seem to emphasize weeding out. And yours may be especially supportive. But the rates of attrition in grad school generally are quite high. And I don’t think there’s a serious debate to be had that grad school rites of passage can’t be used to weed people out, if that is considered necessary/advisable in a particular case. If your program collects attrition data and publicizes it, it’s doing far better than mine or most programs. If your program is graduating as high a percent of its entering grad class as they would for say their entering MD class, that would also be a notable accomplishment. But if you don’t actually have any idea what the attrition rate is, and are just assuming that there is no need to ‘weed people out’, I am …a smidgen skeptical, shall we say.

    • Namnezia says:

      Becca, It seems like you don’t have a good idea about how a grad program is run. We continuously collect data not only about attrition rates, but also student publications during grad school, what positions grad students end up in (as far as we can track them into the future), how many fellowships were awarded as well as the “quality” of the applicants to our graduate program and acceptance rates. And my guess is that any self-respecting program does this. You have to, if you want to have an institutional training grant to fund your students and if you want your students to get fellowships. Part of the requirements that the NIH asks as part of the training grant is to have a plan for periodic review of the graduate program both internally and by an external advisor. The university also requires periodic internal and external reviews of all graduate programs. During these reviews these data as well as feedback from the students are considered. Plus we want students to come to our grad program, so having unhappy grad students will make it less likely that good students will want to come here. So yes, the curriculum is revised frequently and tweaked as the need arises. As a result we’ve seen increased enrollments, increased fellowships, and better placement of students post grad school.

      But all that being said, if your grad program has a training grant, they are also collecting all this data and getting periodic reviews. You might not be aware of it. I mean, have you seen these applications for institutional training grants? It’s like a friggin’ phone book.

  3. icee says:

    I thought my PhD comps were almost FUN. It was such an amazing experience to shoot the scientific shit with a group full of such awesomely smart and creative people. I couldn’t believe how non-bloody it was.

    I attribute my positive comps experience to the fact that my committee members are great, but also because of the attitude I had. I attribute the attitude I had entirely to the advice of my committee member “Dr. X”. I had been freaking out about taking comps because some other (bright) students in my program had very negative experiences, and I’m NOT good at bullshitting. I explained this to Dr. X and she basically told me the same stuff you did in this post, and said that the other students had rotten comps because they didn’t understand the purpose and how it was supposed to work.

    Once she explained that to me, told me what to expect and how I should feel (DON’T CRY), and reassured me that they weren’t out to slaughter me, I felt like I knew what to expect. I changed my mindset about the comps, and in the oral exam I knew I was going to feel dumb and be backed up against many walls and say “I’m not sure, but if I had to guess….” a lot.

    Unless the committee members are assholes or the student really is deficient, I think most miserable “rites of passage” experiences are due to the student’s lack of understanding the purpose and value of the exercises.

    • It’s just practice. If you can’t defend your ideas in the relatively safe environment of a grad school journal club, how are you going to at a conference? You need to practice being able to back up everything you say, it doesn’t come naturally to most people.

      In my lab, it’s also a way for everybody to help out everybody else. If you can see the flaw in that reasoning, so can a reviewer – better to find it and fix it now.

  4. Dr. O says:

    I agree with you for the most part, Namnezia, especially in the value of these rites of passage, and the suggestion to write down what you didn’t know for future improvement.

    But let’s be honest – there are plenty of professors who view these milestones as a way of breaking down grad students, especially those that they view as unfit for science or others who are insubordinate know-it-alls. I’ve actually heard the phrase “break her down so we can build her back up” from several PIs in reference to oral exams.

    Personally, I don’t think this is *always* a bad thing. Pushing a student simply for the sake of making them feel bad about themselves is not cool, but finding out how much you still have to learn is not a bad lesson. That lesson made me (and many others I know) work that much harder to stay on top of my game. If that’s not what a student walks away with, then the exam really was just an exercise in humiliation – whether or not that was the intended outcome.

  5. Komelsky says:

    I’ve recently read a really good paper about exactly that. I even forwarded it to some complaining grad students around =) It’s called “The importance of stupidity in scientific research”:

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