Tuesday, June 01, 2010

pondering over not finished grad studies

How you deal with stress, failure and other external factors that collide with your internal thinking is very different. I remember over the weekend when thinking about this "failing the graduate studies"* that it is indeed a difficult time hiring and choosing a graduate student. Some blog posts from newer PIs indicate that they think and ponder about this a lot. The outside world wonder a lot too, when hiring people in general, but I do think that it is worse in Academia since it is that link to "who you are, and what you think, and your worth" that makes the potential failure much worse than just finding a match for the work place. Seldom is the time when you succeed in Academia because you are great in the lab, with your hands (that would be the outstanding technical support or some specific skill set), most of the time it would be a combination of your lab work and your terrific ideas and the way you set up the experimental order.

For some people, failing to finish is enormously hard and it may lead to extreme outcomes. For some, it's hard but they brush it off and move on. No hard feelings, and they are happier afterwards. And for some, they are relatively OK with the whole outcome. (I need to emphasize that most of the latter example I have seen have been a quiting the graduate studies fairly early on, when the student feels that this is not a good match - professor, work or personal feelings.)

One of my first experiences with the drop out graduate was one of those very strange and sad outcomes and I think that might have shaped me into being a bit too much on the outlook for these things. It was a fairly odd case where the graduate student didn't want to acknowledge that they were not going to finish. That the professor wasn't going to support an extension. And the oddness when a work place does not know how to deal with a person not understanding (or maybe not playing by the normal rules) that if you don't get extension you can't go on coming in to the work place and sit down by what was before your desk and keep working. And how long you can keep this happening without someone actually telling "this is over now. It's no point of you coming in here anymore. You have to move on.". And still, the graduate student might come back a few years later with something written that they call a thesis and wanting to defend it...

It sounds so weird to people who work in a closed work space, where you have lock and key or key cards and guards and sign in sheets... In an open university environment without locked doors (not to mention when you can do much graduate work outside of the institution) there is just that much you can do to stop people from coming back into the work place and stroll around... (unless of course, you call the cops, but there is a hesitance to do that when it is a former colleague, who is non violent, a sort of non-understanding why they don't understand that they should not keep coming back. And it's probably partly embarrassment as well.)

I know that some people think I am too direct at times. It's just that if you have dealt with certain types of people you know that they hear a completely different thing from what you are really saying. You say "I don't think there is much more we can go. This project is stopping here". They hear "I don't think this approach is going to work. You need to go at it another way. There is still hope". Of course, most people hear something similar to what you are saying.

The whole delicateness of the situation makes it harder to be direct of course. The supervisor will most often in any case, feel a bit disappointed that it did not work out. The department might not want to broadcast it either. And the fellow graduate students might be too busy with their own pondering, fears and work to really know what to do. And all the time, people would be hoping that the graduate student understands and moves on... (like "normal" people would do.)

It's one of those situations that I think might become more common in times of budget cuts. I mean, it's easy to extend people if you have money... to hope that they might move on by themselves and everyone will be happy in the end. Whereas in times of shortage of money (and time) there will be more chopping and time limits.

Then again, maybe the situations I think about are just as common in the regular work space? Nothing that special about Academia apart from the hype and the superstition? And maybe I am over reacting due to personal experiences? I just think that once you have seen the bad outcomes of ruining the hopes and dreams of some people, it's hard not to take one step back the next time and ponder "is this going to end as badly as D or will this be OK?".

Most of the times though, I would think it ends in the middle. The graduate student is disappointed but will accept that in a few years (some time) they have found something new to do that keep them happy.

At least, on a day like today - I hope that it is what happens most of the time.

*I will call it failing in this post, since I talk about the specific situation when the graduate students wants to get their PhD, they want to go through with it, but they will not be able to do it. They will fall on the way, depending on various factors; maybe the professor, maybe the previous knowledge of the subject, maybe their work ethics... but they will see this as a failure and not a volunteer stop to seek out something else that would make them happy and fulfilled. There is also a discussion here somewhere about the difference in failing (to graduate for example) and being a failure. For some, this distinction is harder than for others. It's the identification with what you do and think and that giving you self worth, compared to who you are and having that value inheritable.


Maria Abrahamsson said...

It's a very interesting topic, indeed.

Actually, I had a conversation along the lines of "failing"(for whatever reason it might be) today, with a first-year graduate student. It was one of those, imho, very naive persons. Among other things he told me that he didn't believe it was possible to "fail" (meaning not finish) if you are not stupid (and thus not really worth your PhD anyway)... The poor kid wasn't really prepared for my response to that crap, and thus looked somewhat pale after I told him a few stories from my past. I especially stressed that although the circumstances were very different for the three(!) former coworkers of mine who didn't finish their PhD studies, and while it was probably for the best (at least in some cases) that they could leave an environment that was very destructive for them, none of them were stupid, and they all had intellectual capacity to finish. The little kid ended our conversation by stating that _he_ would not be happy with less than a N/S/C-paper in his thesis. I'm afraid he's up for a brutal awakening...

chall said...

Maria: I guess some graduate students will end up on a C/N/S paper but I would think it is much more coincidence than actual planning from their part...

And yes, I recognize the "if you have the brain you will finish and you will get that important paper". It's, imho, before the realization on how the politics work on how to get things published and what goes on in the lab/department/uni. It's so much more than "just" brain....

THen again, this might be more cynical than needed? The hope might be good to start out with at least?

Chrissy said...

Unfortunately, this whole scenario is playing out with an MS student in my lab right now. The student (my labmate) seems (after several months) to have realized that she cannot come back after the summer, and that she doesn't have the grades to finish with ANY degree, much less the one she wants.

It's sad, and as a labmate I want to sympathize, but I'm also frustrated that she didn't see this coming a year and a half ago. You're right that I just don't really know how to respond other than to try and be there for her if she decides that she does want to talk to someone.

chall said...

Chrissy: I'm sorry. It's hard to be in that position, especially if you are a grad student yourself. It's somehow easier to see some things from the side lines if you are not there too... Sounds good though, that oyu are there in case she needs to vent a little.

The frustration is something I have to battle with nowadays as well, since it is annoying (hard) to see things go downhill even when the people affected try to ignore all the signs. I tend to try and remember "you can't help someone who doesn't want help".