I just returned from a tremendous meeting of the Entomological Society of America. I experienced a lot of moving moments.
I attended my first EntSoc meeting twenty years ago, as an early grad student. I’ve skipped the last few years (because family). This return brought a flush of friends and close colleagues that I don’t see on a regular basis. I got to meet PhD students who are being advised by my own former undergrad students. When I was in grad school, my advisor had two small kids. At this meeting, I got to see his older daughter, now in a MD/PhD program.
There are so many scientists who made a difference in my life — professionally and personally — and having so many of them gathered under one large roof was overwhelming. To me, this conference was more of a reunion than anything else. Part of the attraction of academic “genealogies” is that these relationships can be very personal. Being trained in someone’s lab and having an “academic heritage” sounds sterile, but these relationships are often more than academic.
Weeks ago, science lost a giant with the death of Charles Michener. When the social insect people (the IUSSI) gathered, some of his former students shared recollections of his work and life. Mich was a member of the National Academy, published oodles of important papers on the biology of bees, and his ideas have truly been the foundation of much work that continues in social insect biology.
Mich was a Great One. The memorials mentioned his great science, but his greatness emerged from his character. He was fully invested into his students. He was inspirational and caring, demanding without having to demand, and was a master of bringing out the best in people. I can’t even begin to capture the eloquence and heartfelt thanks and admiration emerging from our community*.
One look throughout the room, among people who I’ve seen raising cohort after cohort of students, told me this: Mich’s mentorship was heritable. So many of the beautiful things said about Mich are just as true about the students that had the fortune to work with him. My own advisor, who graduated from Mich’s lab, was – and is – an equally great mentor. Some of what happens in my lab is a direct consequence of what Mich was doing in Kansas several decades ago. At least, I can dare to flatter myself by thinking as much.
Also, Mich apparently had a thing for nachos.
I wouldn’t be surprised if a goodly proportion of the papers I submit end up being reviewed by an academic descendent of Mich. Most of the reviews I get are careful, fair and thorough, just as I’d expect from Mich himself. He didn’t just improve his students’ lives, he made academic science a better place, by example.
This year’s EntSoc meeting also had another moving celebration. Three former students of Bob Jeanne organized a symposium highlighting his pioneering work on the biology of social wasps, and the new directions inspired by his work. I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with him over the past twenty years, and while I haven’t worked directly with him, I’m fortunate that some of my close buddies and collaborators have come from his lab, as undergrads, Master’s students, or PhD students. They’ve all picked up from him all of the best characteristics of quality mentors, and they all look up to Bob as the best example of what a leader in science can be.
Mich and Bob have provided perfect examples of kind, careful, and caring mentors.
I’d like to say that these Great Ones are special in this mentorship. But that’s not quite true. So many of the people who worked with them have these same qualities. And actually, so do many others!
I don’t know about you, but my extended academic community is replete with dedicated and concerned mentors who put their students first. They’re not Mich-level or Bob-level, but they’re great mentors.
We’ve got no shortage of systemic problems in academia, but a shortage of excellent mentors ain’t one.
Which brings me back to the EntSoc meeting. The conference featured a plenary presentation by Jorge Cham, the creator of PhD Comics. (I skipped his talk, and headed to dinner with my lab and some friends.)
You might be familiar with PhD Comics — those are the ones with miserable grad students with crappy PhD advisors. (and, surprise, the current comic features this crappy advisor in stereotypical form.)
I’ve not been a fan of Cham’s work. I think he occasionally hits a nail on its proverbial head when discussing some frustrations of academia. Some of the comics are hilarious observations on the idiosyncrasies and absurdities of academia. I understand that grad school is often emotionally difficult and overwhelming, and setbacks are far more common than successes. Nevertheless, as I read the work I pick up an unpalatable gestalt that inflames insecurities rather than providing a normalizing salve.
I used to think the thesis, or the theme, or the central foil of PhD Comics is: Grad student life is misery. At least, that’s what I thought, when I wrote about it many moons ago. I’ve modified my interpretation. Now, I think the central theme of PhD Comics is: Grad student life is misery because professors are assholes.
In Cham’s vision of science, grad students suffer under the unreasonable and selfish expectations of their professors, who treat them like shit. If grad students happen to temporarily emerge from the torture of their advisors, then people outside their lab screw them over with nonsensical manuscript reviews, arbitrary funding decisions, and academic obstruction.
Mich and Bob — and actually most PhD advisors I know — are the diametric opposite of the PIs portrayed by Cham.
I haven’t scoured the archives of PhD comics, but I don’t happen to recall any slight hint that a professor might ever be a capable or caring mentor. (If you know of one, please share it with me! It would be precious in its rarity.)
This is why I don’t like PhD comics: the conflation of power and exploitation. The trope about grad student suffering can be a fountain of humor, but is is unfunny to me because the universal suffering is caused by uncaring, unreasonable, and selfish academics with power.
I’m okay with the tropes of grad school being hard. But I’ll take a pass on the trope of rampant assholeism in academia. Perhaps PhD comics is deep social critique and gallows humor, revealing what Cham believes to be systemic horribleness by PIs. Or, it could just be off base.
Students and postdocs are disempowered compared to their PIs, who have the authority that can crush or build up their own students. For every PI that crushes their students, we have many more who build up their students. Yes, let’s make sure power isn’t abused, and we must work to make academia better. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we are surrounded by great mentors.
Update: here’s a poll I put up on Twitter:
*(I wrote this up on the way home from the meeting, and let me tell you, I was tearing up on the plane. And that’s okay.)