A lot of scientists are kind, careful and caring


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.)


15 thoughts on “A lot of scientists are kind, careful and caring

  1. Terry, I couldn’t agree more. Like anyone who’s been around science (or anything else) for a long time, I’ve dealt with a couple of horrible people who made life hell for their students, their employees, and everyone around them. But they are far, far, far outnumbered by those who would give the shirt off their back – metaphorical or literal – to make things better for someone more junior. When I was an undergrad at Waterloo, for example, Wayne Hawthorn taught an upper-year community ecology course for me and just two other students. He didn’t have to – I’m sure it didn’t count toward his teaching load – but he put in hour after hour because I and a couple of my friends wanted the class. He was only one in a long line. We shouldn’t ignore the problems; but we should celebrate all the good people around us. Kudos to you for posting this.

  2. I have to disagree. In my experience, the middle 95% of PIs care for their students, but won’t often go very far out of their way for them. I can count on one hand the profs who really had a positive impact on me (fortunately, my PhD mentor is one of them) and I don’t think it’s fair to those people to say “oh, all PIs are great and caring.” I don’t know where the number comes from, but I was once told that life science PhD programs overall experience 40% attrition. Where I have been, it’s not that bad but I’d say that 25% is not unrealistic. And, anecdotally, a bad PI is one of the major reasons that I’be heard when people drop out. Many other people I knew as a student made it through, but chose to forego the traditional academic route due to a bad relationship with a PI who came to represent academia for them. I don’t think that many PIs are bad, but I don’t think that many are great either. It’s appropriate to acknowledge the great ones as something special. Also, I think it could be damaging for a student stuck with a poor mentor to read this – it may be hard to know how much of the bad is your fault or your PI’s fault and this kind of thing may lead someone to feel that it’s mostly them as a student or postdoc. Overall, I just think the real praise should be reserved for the true greats.

  3. By the way, in defense of Jorge Cham, I had a great PhD mentor, but I still found many of his strips to be very relatable. The one in which the PI sent his student an email and then rushed into the lab to ask him about it rang especially true for me. There’s some good stuff in there.

  4. I want so badly to agree, but in reality my observation is that mentoring quality is pretty heterogeneous. I’ve especially seen it vary by field and “tier” of school/department. Certainly Cham accentuates the bad, but I agree with him that there are many places and fields where this is the reality. Especially where money and prestige flow freely. I also note that none of Cham’s characters are EEB types. He may be more on point for the R1 school NIH/engineering academic cultures that he seems to most closely emulate.

  5. Thanks, Terry. As one who had a wonderful PhD mentor, I agree that more PI’s truly invest in their students and am thankful for that. When I talk with undergrads who are considering grad experiences, most of my advice goes in that direction: work with someone who cares about you as a person, as a student, and as a productive individual, and in that order.

  6. I always assumed, perhaps because my advisor was far worse than the one depicted in the comics, that they exist for people like me who don’t have good advisors. I needed someone to say that what I was experiencing wasn’t right, because to this day my department faculty say they did right by me, “because I needed to know you ALWAYS circle the wagons around the faculty member- and they did and do. He did no wrong by telling me I’m worthless as a person . He did no wrong when he told me he’d keep going in my comps until he found a way to fail me because “I’m as arrogant as . He told my committee that they should be careful because I’m so mental I’d probably kill them eventually- this because he found out I see a shrink. He refused to meet with me and when I finally would corner him, I soent the entire time recapping the project because he had no idea what I was doing. And for the first 3 years everyone believed him, so I volunteered for everything in the department so that people knew me outside of his slander, which help but left me exhausted. And the dude never read, nor did he even attend my thesis defense, but before they passed me, the committee called him and he said I shouldn’t get honors for something so poorly written (in our department only the advisor can decide on honors), so he took that from me and he never read my dissertation and never read any of my manuscripts, but he’s famous so people insist I keep him on those papers when they’re submitted. Even my postdoctoral supervisor didn’t believe me at first. It’s only been watching me try to get manuscript revisions from anyone in my that department that convinced her, meanwhile my postdoctoral work will produce 8 papers in 2 years.
    So you don’t have to like PhD comics, but I saw them as an it gets better campaign for academia. I need to know not everyone is as rotten as that department where the faculty protect each other at the expense of students.

  7. to someone who is struggling considerably in grad school, mostly because of the actions of my supporting PIs I find this piece troubling.

    Maybe the vast majority of academics are good people, I’m just unlucky. But how does stating (without anything but anecdote to back it up) that most profs are good help those of us who have not experienced this?

    The incredibly poor attitudes and actions of many PIs to their PhD students/Post-Docs is a disgrace and academia would be a lot better place for all if more was done to solve this problem.

    That said, I agree PhD Comics masquerade as supportive when actually they just help grind you down more.

  8. You deserve help, and this point isn’t designed to be directly useful for that. I suppose it could help you realize there are a lot of good people and you can seek out mentors outside your lab. My purpose in writing this is to combat the normalization of misery in grad school. A lot of people are saying that a bad experience is normal. It should not be, and in my observations, is usually not. I wanted to share that point of view.

    You’ve inspired me to write a helpful post, too. Stay tuned in coming weeks. I would imagine the comments will be the most helpful.

  9. As with many other fields, the good PIs are worth their weight in platinum, and the bad ones need to be kept away from students (or the other field’s equivalent.) In grad school (below doctoral level) my thesis director was wonderful. Of the PIs in that building half were supportive mentors and half (audible as they screamed at their graduate students) were not. The bad ones made excuses to the good ones, when the good ones asked them to tone it down, or not scream at someone else’s grad students. Which they continued to do. The PI across the hall from “our” lab had screaming fits on a regular basis, including throwing a hissy fit at our PI because she had instituted a program for talented high school students from the barrio. The one next to us on our side of the hall did the same thing, insulting the HS students who were within hearing as “Those stupid animals who will never amount to anything.”

    I absolutely agree that there are good scientist mentors. But the reality is that for any individual undergraduate or grad student in any field it’s a tossup whether theirs will be a good one or a bad one. Not only in general, but in particular. And it takes only one, if you’re “theirs,” to ruin a career and the entire span of graduate school. Equally, there are bad graduate students, though most aren’t. Since faculty have more power in changing the graduate school environment toward healthy interactions than students do, the gold-standard mentors need to be aware of problem faculty, willing to admit that there are bad apples (as in any group) rather than defensively circle the wagons to protect the hurtful PIs. As with most bad behavior, the reason the bad PI is a bad PI is that he or she can get away with it…so the good ones should be exerting peer pressure to change that.

    (Although I did not complete graduate school, the reasons for my departure have nothing to do with the mentoring I received. No blame adheres to my thesis director or committee. Sometimes Life drops a huge load of the brown stuff right in front of a very large rotating blade. On the far side of the maelstrom, life still exists & has been pretty darn good. But I do the science I do as an educated amateur.)

  10. For those who have commented to dissent, please be sure to check out the results of the twitter poll at the bottom of the main post. I know no shortage of people on twitter who are vocal about bad mentorship from their PIs, but nonetheless, the poll comes in with 3 out of 4 people saying that their advisors were both helpful and caring. Yes, that means one quarter of advisors don’t fit that criterion. But it’s not a tossup – the norm is a good advisor. That’s not great comfort for those who don’t have a good one, I realize. I just wrote this post, and issued the poll, so that the discussion of problems doesn’t overlook the fact that the clear majority of people have positive experiences with their mentors.

  11. I would be really interested in knowing the frequency of pushy, arrogant, selfish, manipulative, exploitative PIs / supervisors / advisors etc (the terminoogy differs from place to place) as judged by their grad students, compared to the frequency of lazy, whining, inadequately educated grad students with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, as judged by their supervisors.

    Then I would be really, really interested in whether the two categories somehow end up working together.

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