Thursday, December 15, 2005

She Who Must Not Be Named

The time has come for me to tackle a difficult subject: my PhD advisor. She Who Must Not Be Named. Or as I liked to call her, "The Big Hurt." The joke of this appellation was (and is) that she is barely five feet tall (and I'm 5'10"). She is still there at my alma mater, only now with tenure.

It’s so hard to go back to remember grad school and what she put me through. But I just came back from the dept holiday party and have a couple of glasses of red wine in me, and I feel it is time to try…

I was her first student. Those of you who know about these things know that the first student always gets hit with a load of sh*t. So that was bad enough. When I arrived at my grad school (Extremely Prestigious Private University – EPPU), we had a room full of crap from a recently deceased professor emeritus that I had to clear out before we could buy new instruments and generally get the place up and running. I started research immediately. The first semester, she seemed okay. The problem was me—I had worked for two years after college and I wasn’t used to academic life. Those two years gave me a great deal of lab experience, which was invaluable, but still, doing research and taking three grad courses was a lot. In addition, my husband had stayed behind in our old state because he couldn’t find a job near EPPU, so we were apart for about 6 months and we had only been married for a year. It was ugly. Plus, the grad courses were so much tougher than what I was used to. I had a 4.0 in college, but grad school kicked my ass.

The hardest thing about being your advisor’s first student is not having older students to mentor you. I went to two female students in another PI’s lab for moral support. They were great. Their advisor, Beneficent Prof with Tenure (BPT), figures prominently in this story. He was/is a big famous guy, highly respected in his field. Extremely weird, though, and incapable of speaking plainly on any subject. He is the king of circumlocution.

So anyway, by my second semester, The Big Hurt started to ride me too hard. I just could not accomplish everything she wanted. She met with me one-on-one every week, and frequently I began to cry before I had even left her office. She acquired a couple of MS students and some undergrads, so at least I had some people to commiserate with. But she began almost from day one to get a reputation in the department as difficult, and incapable of admitting when she was wrong. To be fair, she also was having personal problems. I won’t describe those in detail out of respect for her privacy, but they were pretty serious. Anyway, she worked seven days a week. She traded evenings with her husband: one night she would get home by 5 to relieve the babysitter for their toddler son, the next night she would work late (like midnight), while he went home early. Even when she was home, she would be working on her laptop. I just was not and am not willing to do that. Once when I was not able to produce data that she wanted for a talk on Tuesday, she came right out and demanded to know why I didn’t come in on the weekend to get the data. As it turns out, I was having a huge, knock-down, drag-it-out fight with my husband that weekend. I looked her right in the eye and said, “I was having personal issues, and I’m not going to discuss them with you.”

Things grew intolerable. I was avoiding her, and I knew that wasn’t healthy. So I arranged to meet with her on neutral ground (not in her office, which we used to call “the box”). We met in the cafeteria over a cup of coffee. I wrote down a list of the things I wanted to say, and I went through it pretty thoroughly. She didn’t like it much, but she listened, and she even said, “thank you,” in a stiff way, and shook my hand when we were done. I guess because I was her first student I felt that in some way it was my job to help her to develop into a good professor in the same way that it was her job to help me develop into a better student. This was my mistake. I also generally operate in life with the basic assumption that every human is worthwhile and valuable and has something to teach you, from the university president to the janitor. She apparently did not share this view.

This little intervention did no good. It changed nothing. Toward the end of my second year, she forced me to give a presentation at an ACS meeting. I didn’t feel ready, but I did my best. (I gave a practice seminar in front of our department at which she publicly humiliated me.) Things were getting worse and worse, so I devised a strategy. I would go to ACS and give a kick-ass presentation, then I would come back to EPPU and demand some concessions. Part of my plan was to have a evacuation route: I was going to ask BPT if he would be my advisor in the event that the Big Hurt wouldn’t listen to me (I had my own funding from an NSF graduate student fellowship—Thank You, NSF!). So I went to talk to BPT before the conference and described, in detail, my grievances. He understood; after all, he had to work with her pretty closely and could see what a nightmare she could be. He never came right out and offered to be my advisor, but at the very start of the conversation, he said, “you are a good student and you are making good progress toward your degree.” That meant a lot to me. The Big Hurt had never said anything like that to me. At the end of our conversation, he asked me to try one more time to talk to her, and if it didn’t work, he would talk to her.

So I made an appointment with her on a Friday after my hugely successful talk at ACS. Again, I had a written list of points to talk over. I told her things weren’t working and I couldn’t go on like this. She replied that everything was my fault—I wasn’t a good enough student, I wasn’t trying hard enough, I expected everything to be handed to me and wasn’t willing to work hard. I was pretty upset, but it was okay, because I had a plan. After we finished talking, I went to my desk and debriefed myself. I wrote down everything that I could remember her saying. Then I went straight to BPT and told him that I had tried to talk to her, but it didn’t work. I described our conversation in detail. By then it was about 5 pm on a Friday afternoon. He said he would talk to her.

Monday I went to our regular lab group meeting and the Big Hurt said she wanted to meet with me that afternoon. I thought, “great! She’s going to apologize!” I went to BPT and told him of the meeting and he thought she wanted to apologize, too. HAH!!!!!

Whereas I had spent the weekend calming down, she apparently had spent the weekend getting MORE upset. She had written a multi-page single-spaced rant about what a horrible student I was, and when I entered her office, she proceeded to read it to me, word for word. I was blindsided. I had expected some contrition, or at least some attempt to smooth things over. Instead I got my head handed to me. When she first started in on me, I said, “before you go any farther, I just want to say that it is clear that you have a lot to say, so I’m just going to sit here and listen, I’m not going to try to respond to any of this.” She went on for about half an hour. At the end of it, she said that I should (and this is a direct quote) “go find a second-tier school with lower standards” because I wasn’t living up the standards set by her and EPPU. I had a 4.0 GPA in college, I had taken about 12 grad courses and had gotten 10 A’s and 2 B’s, and I had an NSF graduate student fellowship. And she was ready to kick me out of the school. I always knew that she was mentally unbalanced, because she did things that were obviously not in her own self-interest. Now that I am trying to get tenure, I realize how utterly insane this was. I would be overjoyed right now to find a student with his or her own funding, especially an NSF fellowship! But here she was, kicking me out! At the end of the conversation she gave me an ultimatum. “Are you going to get with the program and improve your attitude, or are you going to leave?” (Obviously it hadn’t occurred to her that I might be able to get another professor in our department to take me on as a student.) I stammered something about needing some time to think about it, and fled. Of course I went straight to BPT and reported the whole traumatic incident to him.

To this day I do not know what BPT said to her. Basically I think he told her that she was being an idiot, but in his own circuitous way, so that somehow he got the message across without offending her. One of the many things about her that drove me crazy was her assumption that no one on earth had a harder life than her, and therefore no one could give her advice. She wouldn’t listen to the older professors in our dept because she felt that since they were men, they didn’t understand how hard her life was, raising kids and trying to get tenure. She frequently pointed out that she was the only female professor in the engineering school with young children. She was taking on three new students that fall, so I think BPT also told her that she was going to need me to help train them, and that even if I produced nothing publishable, I was still worth keeping around for that reason alone.

Two days later, BPT came to me and said that the Big Hurt would like to see me. I was so terrified that I refused to see her alone and insisted that BPT come with me. I expected her to apologize, but that day I learned a life lesson. There are some people who simply cannot say the words, “I’m Sorry”. They just cannot do it. She was one. She told me that she valued me and my contribution to the lab and said that she wanted me to stay, but she did not say she was sorry. She never did and never will.

I stayed as her student and three years later, I graduated. Not without pain. But I made it. I think the only reason I graduated was because I got a job. My post-doc institution required that I defend before starting my post-doc position, so I scheduled my defense for Nov 16 so that I could start Dec 1. Two weeks before I was supposed to defend, she cancelled my defense, saying I wasn’t ready. My parents and my husband’s parents had to cancel their flights and travel plans and everything. She postponed my defense by all of two weeks. I defended Nov 30, 1998. When I started to work with my post-doc advisor, it was like I had died and gone to heaven. He was so…rational!

But the Big Hurt wasn’t done with me. When I submitted my dissertation to the library in January, she objected to my acknowledgements. She made me re-write them, because she felt that they cast her in a negative light. She made me re-write my acknowledgements.

Seven years later, only two of my five dissertation chapters are published, because she is such a perfectionist. I have given up on them. Luckily I don’t need them, since I came here to do my post-doc with Big Famous Guy.

Not long ago I went to a conference in the same city as EPPU. I dreaded seeing her there. But she didn’t come. Apparently the two miles to the convention center was too far for her to travel. I was relieved. My friend and fellow Mom Seeking Tenure, Donna, was there. She had heard me tell stories about the Big Hurt, but she thought they must be exaggerations. At the conference she heard me talking to a string of other students and post-docs who have worked with the Big Hurt over the last few years, and we all say the same thing. She is mentally ill. She did things that were detrimental to her own efforts to get tenure, because she could not help herself. She is such a perfectionist, and so deeply, deeply insecure that she shoots herself in the foot.

But the good news is that I am FREE. I am free of her. Now that I have given up on ever publishing the rest of my dissertation, I never have to deal with her again.

Now I am a professor and advisor. I am trying hard not to be like her. But on some level I don’t think I have to worry about it. Because I will never be like her. She obviously has some serious issues that go way beyond science. I learned many things about life and about people from her. One is: usually you get to know someone intimately by being their friend or lover. But you can also get to know someone intimately by being their enemy. And when you learn about someone from that perspective, you see them in some ways more intimately that any of their friends. I know her and I understand her on a level that few people ever will. And once you know someone that intimately, it is hard to hate them. So mostly what I feel for her is pity. She got tenure all right. But her kids are totally screwed up, and I sense that her life is pretty miserable. For all her insight into the issues of her research, she is unable to see her own self in an objective way.

Once, toward the end of my 5 years at EPPU, one of the other professor in our department came to me and said, “I just cannot get along with the Big Hurt, and I see that you have a pretty good relationship with her. Can you help me understand how I can get along with her better?” My answer was, “I don’t have a good relationship with her. I just take my beating and go.”


Blogger Joolya said...

Wow. That is an intense story. Perhaps mandatory bi-weekly counseling would be helpful for all of us seeking tenure?
As a science grad student, I am very glad there are people like you to balance out people like your old advisor!

9:26 AM  
Blogger PhD Mom said...

Wow. I thought I had it bad, but you definetly beat me. All I can say is I'm really sorry. I hope that this story inspires other to be better PIs and also to appreciate science and engineering. Where is the wonder of Feynman (my idol) in all of this?

9:50 AM  
Blogger Abel PharmBoy said...

Sheesh! What a grind! You are so tough to have stuck it out and I encourage you to keep this story with you whenever you have a student who doesn't quite fit your mold (which I doubt, since you seem so respectful of other folks).

What strikes me, as a formerly tenured boy professor, is how mean some female profs can be to female students. You didn't really talk much about this aspect other than to say that her family life was whacked and her kids were screwed up.

Still, I have seen several prominent female profs be unreasonably irrational with their female PhD students and MD fellows. About 80% of my trainees have been women and I take great pride in their accomplishments and continued success.

What do you feel were the barriers for The Big Hurt to feel the same way about you or other female grad students?

8:15 PM  

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