Monday, March 17, 2014

A PhD Candidate Horror Story

This sad tale comes from the mid 1970's, when Old Fart Prof was a mediocre gradflake about midpoint in the hazing process that for some, leads to the PhD, and for others, does not.

The Star Grad Student was in the writing phase of her PhD dissertation. Next step: the lunchtime pre-defense "brown bag" presentation for hamster social sciences faculty and grad students. Star Grad Student's topic involved federal funding programs for hamster habitats, and while not exciting to many attending, was squarely in the ballpark of everyone's interests.

Star Grad Student was already teaching undergrads as a full-time instructor, had several solid publications either in press or under consideration, and was well-liked and respected by faculty and fellow students. Not yet on the market, she was clearly on the fast track to a TT post somewhere in the Big Time, at least at an R1.

The presentation was just about two-thirds done, with data sets explained and the board filled with graphs, when Star Grad Student started to transition into her conclusions. Newly hired Hamster Theory Assistant Professor (with brand new Ivy League PhD) raised his hand and asked: "Since you haven't developed a theoretical basis for any substantive hypothesis, aren't any of your conclusions therefore trivial?"

Dead silence for what seemed minutes from Star Grad Student. A feeble attempt to recover and pivot to her conclusions was followed by an equally feeble response from Star Grad Student's advisor, a very senior prof in Hamster Theory who had championed hiring Hamster Theory Assistant Professor.

Over the next weekend, Star Grad Student cleaned out her office, left all her dissertation materials in boxes outside the office door of her advisor, and never came back, not even to finish her semester's teaching.

Postscript:   Hamster Theory Assistant Professor got tenure and later left to become a Department Chair in the Big Ten.  Hamster Theory Senior Professor later left to a Named Professorship at Yale.  Star Grad Student moved back to her hometown, and after coming out of a deep depression, started a highly successful career in the gaming industry.  She died a few years ago in her early 60's.

Sociological footnote: Hamster Theory Assistant Professor is white and male. Hamster Theory Senior Professor is white and female. Star Grad Student was black and female.  Old Fart Prof draws no conclusions from these facts; just thought they may provide readers with additional detail.

- Old Fart Prof


  1. That's really awful. Obviously, somebody should have done a much better job of sitting on HTAP (metaphorically) and supporting SGS, in the moment, immediately afterward, and through a successful defense (with HTAP strongly encouraged to behave himself better at said defense, while still voicing his perspective in a productive way). It's hard to understand how an advisor, or a department, that has invested in a grad student to the point of being nearly ready to defend, lets her just walk away, especially in response to what sounds like an entirely fixable problem (assuming HTAP's objections had any basis -- "trivial" isn't exactly a substantive critique -- they could have been addressed, briefly, somewhere in the diss.; since SGS had several accepted publications, her work must have been seen as solid by some subset of her disciplinary/professional community, even if her advisors were more out-of-date than they realized -- though the move to Yale suggests not. Maybe SGS wasn't, in fact, headed toward an R1, but that's no reason to give up entirely. It's a dissertation for goodness' sake, not her magnum opus)

    That said, I have to think that SGS already had doubts about an academic career (and/or unrecognized existing depression). Perhaps better support of various kinds (medical/social as well as academic) would have helped; perhaps she was simply too fragile (and/or too reliant on her own self-image as a "star") to make it in academia; perhaps something else was going on; but I have to think that this incident served as a "last straw," not the main cause of her withdrawal from the university, and the profession. I also find myself wondering why in the world somebody in her hometown didn't serve as a shoulder to cry on, pat her back, then turn her around and march her straight back to university-town to finish what she'd started, whatever she decided to make of it. If we're pinpointing failed support systems, that sounds like one, too (and yes, I'm saying that taking into account the possibility that some of her "home folks" might be uncomfortable with her pursuing a Ph.D. I'm still thinking that, since she managed to get on that path in the first place, there still was probably someone -- teacher, pastor, neighbor, etc. if not parent; maybe even undergrad professor -- who supported her before, and could have aided her in picking herself up, brushing herself off, and finishing the job. Maybe that person died in the interim. Or maybe that person reminded her just how awful the job market was in the '70s, and suggested she try another path. From what I know of the market in the '70s, that supposed fast track to the R1 tenure track may have been as illusory then as it is now, and her department in denial).

    P.S. I'm not surprised this incident stuck in your memory, Old Fart Prof. At one of the first defenses I attended, the advisor attacked her advisee (with whom she admittedly had some pretty basic disagreements, but this was in a department where the advisors aren't supposed to advance a diss. to the defense stage unless they're ready to sign off on it. Apparently the advisor was, but she apparently also felt compelled to re-voice all her objections again, during the defense. It was scary, and I rapidly crossed the advisor off my list of people I might want to work with -- which proved a problem when the advisor stayed and many other faculty members left later that year.)

    1. CC is right on target re the need for someone either in the faculty or back at home to have told SGS to put a couple of paragraphs paying lip service to theory into the 1st chapter and move on. She was anything but fragile, but she refused to discuss the whole thing with anyone as far as I could find out. The whole thing was a shame, and I never trusted her advisor again.

      However, SGS made 3X more money as a casino exec than she ever could have as a proffie, I read some blurb in an alumni newsletter that she gave money for some scholarship fund, so maybe she moved beyond this somehow. I'd like to believe so.

      - Old Fart Prof

  2. Ass Prof reminds me of a lot of my "mentors" in grad school, who, like him, also started their TT jobs in the 70, were (and still are) full of smug self-privilege, and adored hearing the sound of their own voice as they used their knowledge to club baby-seals to death around the department.

    Funny.... same generation of "young turks" that aided and abetted the death of the academy too, IMHO.

    At least Star got out alive.

  3. "Since you haven't developed a theoretical basis for any substantive hypothesis, aren't any of your conclusions therefore trivial?"

    1. "No."

    2. "Since you lead by denying the antecedent, is your implied argument not falacious?"

    3. "How about I establish a theoretical basis for why your car will be riding on its rims later today?"

    4. "Your mom's trivial."

    5. "If you'd read my paper in Journal of X, or indeed any of the recent literature, you'd have your answer. No further interruptions till the Q&A period at the end."

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