Graduate training, missed opportunities and the good ol’ days


A couple of recent conversations have got me thinking about the culture of academia and grad school training.

The first conversation relates more to the general culture of academia. The complaint was that these days people are very selfish; they don’t want to participate in departmental events or even come into their office unless there is a very personal benefit they can see. The research groups are little islands and everything is about me, me, me. Young professors and graduate students aren’t thinking about how that can and should contribute to the academic community but rather always focused on what they need to do for themselves and/or their group. Now we can debate about whether or not this is really the state of academia or even if it is true for the particular department that was being complained about but it is an interesting thing to think about. In these days of extreme competition, for grants, positions, paper publications, and on and on, are we becoming too focused on ourselves? Is it really all about me?

This leads me to the second conversation, this time with a graduate student about attending an upcoming conference. I thought it would be a really good venue for the student to get feedback on one aspect of their project and expose them to that sort of research. The conference is local, cheap and even subsidized for students. I was completely surprised when the student said that they had considered it but decided not to go. The reason being that they needed to focus on writing and analyses and the things they were already doing. Now I don’t want to point fingers at this particular student because there might have been other reasons than those told to me. Because I’m not their main advisor I didn’t feel it was my place to force the issue. But I thought it was a poor decision. From what I was hearing the decision seemed to be between focusing on others and learning from them (although there would have been an opportunity to present as well) vs. focusing on your own things. And in the moment I was reminded of the conversation talking about the good ol’ days when people showed up to the department, came to events, etc. So maybe they weren’t so wrong about the current culture after all…

These days I need to say no to some opportunities and can’t go to all the conferences I would like to (I am missing a few great ones this year). My family means that I can’t just think about myself when considering travel and I have a lot more to juggle with work than when I was in grad school as well. But I feel a little sad for this grad student without family obligations that they felt they had to focus so much on their work that sparing a few days to learn was too much. If not now, then when? Time is only going to get more precious.

Are we stressing graduate students so much to focus on their research and publish at the expense of a broader education? I’ve noticed a general unwillingness to be too involved in my own department for certain things, although not all. I might be noticing a difference in grad culture between Sweden and North America, especially where grad school funding is often limited to 4 yrs. When compared to the looser pace of many US schools maybe grad students feel the pressure to focus more here. I’m not sure.

The fact is none of us would get that much writing/analyzing done in the three days of this conference. But by going we’ll broaden our perspective and learn some new things. The connections made at conferences can be invaluable and unexpected. My new collaborations outside of my department are all born of talking to people at meetings/conferences. And even if there are no tangibles like a new collaboration, as a scientist it is never a bad thing to learn something new. I have considered meetings from a selfish point of view: its good to network, promote your work, etc but something about these conversations coming so close together made me also think of the less selfish aspects of doing these things. By going to a conference you are giving a lot of people your time and your attention. Your participation is part of what makes the meeting tick and it also be seen as a gift to others, even though we all get a lot in return as well. And given the willingness of the communities I’m involved in to donate their time to their colleagues, I have some hope that academia isn’t all about me, me, me.

In the course of graduate training, perhaps we need to teach our grad students to say yes as well as no.


10 thoughts on “Graduate training, missed opportunities and the good ol’ days

  1. Thank you for your observations. At the very least one would want to go to a meeting for “selfish professional reasons”: to see how the work you are doing fits in with other people’s efforts….get to know people who might review your papers or compete with you for funds….to check out the competition. Of course, meetings can be a lot of fun too since science is social in many ways. Who knows if you will meet a future mentor, collaborator, colleague or a friend at a meeting?

  2. In response to your question “Are we stressing graduate students so much to focus on their research and publish at the expense of a broader education?”, I would reluctantly answer yes. The impression in my department is that without an incredible number of high-impact publications, one will never get a job. I don’t know if that’s the thinking elsewhere, but looking at the job candidates we’ve recently interviewed, it certainly seems to be the case.

  3. I wonder if it wasn’t that this particular grad student was simply uncomfortable with going to a conference and when given the opportunity to refuse, they did refuse. One of my grad student friends has this problem. I still haven’t been able to get them to go to a conference.

  4. I think you identify a real problem. Competition is a good thing, a good model for honing ideas, but I think we’re rapidly entering an era of hyper-competition that really stifles interactions, ideas, and makes us all think in a very short term manner.

    There seems to be a reluctance to take the time to learn new things, get outside your own bubble because that would take too much time away from your work that you think (or your advisor assures you?) will get you to the next step. It’s a concrete thing. The serenditpitous chaos of conferences (or Twitter) might make you connections/networking opportunities, but won’t really pay off immediately, the effect is likely longer term (and also more solid). But the reward isn’t immediate, like a publication.

    and I think risk aversion comes into this. Research may be producing creative great innovations (in some ways, it’s a golden age for science/technology), but it’s a horrible time to be a scientist..we go for the safe things first because otherwise we’d risk our funding. The perfectionist mindset is prevalent in academia, rather than what is a better model for learning/growth, the growth mindset idea (perfectionism/striving for excellence is fine, but at some point, it becomes paralyzing and inhibits action/doing things).

  5. From the perspective of the scholarly societies that hold meetings and conferences, what you have described here is their worst nightmare. Many scientific societies are already under financial strain because of the upheavals in scholarly publishing – the pressure to make everything “open access” has restricted the income they can count on from journal publishing (and many have gotten out of the publishing business entirely). If academic culture shifts away from participation in face-to-face conferences, could we be looking at a future in which such events don’t take place, or take place virtually, or only at long intervals? And what does that mean for the future of scholarly societies?

  6. This is a great post. I think that being a good “citizen,” of our labs, departments, and universities, is important, and has professional benefits, too. I have an “Expectations” document for my grad students that includes my expectation that they be available to their fellow lab-mates, present in their offices and the lab, help out other labs, pitch in with department events, attend seminar, etc. I try to foster this culture in my own lab, just like it was fostered for me, in the hope that we can push back on this self-focused culture shift you describe.

    And the funny thing is, I have found nothing but benefits to doing this in my own career!

  7. I’m not sure I like the implication that because the grad student doesn’t have a family, s/he has more time at his/her disposal for travel. Although people with families are probably, on average, more pressed for time than those without, there were definitely periods in my life–including many periods in grad school–when I needed to prioritize friends, significant others, or my own well-being (regular sleep, hobbies) over my career. I suppose I fitted the stereotype of someone young and carefree who “should have” all the time in the world to devote to science and exploration, but that’s… just a stereotype, and certainly not my situation. Before getting married (I still don’t have kids), after moving to a new place for my PhD or postdoc, I often struggled with loneliness, depression, and a lot of financial anxiety. It takes time and effort to manage those things.

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