Changing fields in grad school

Lisa Vaillancourt vaillan at POP.UKY.EDU
Fri Apr 11 07:42:15 EST 1997

I would like to respond to two interesting points that Julia Frugoli made
in her post of April 2.

Julia Frugoli wrote:

> we tell grad students that a PhD is a union card to do science-why are we
>suprised if they treat it like that?

Julia, I don't think I am surprised because I have seen many students who
treat a PhD program like that.  And there is really nothing wrong with it,
as far as it goes, I don't mean to criticize because the experience will
certainly be different for everyone.  My point was that it is important as
a student (or in any position, for that matter) to think carefully about
your own goals, no matter what others have told you or what your original
intentions were.  We often begin with a very narrow point of view that is
based only on our own past experiences.  In my own experience, graduate
school was an ideal time to broaden my scope. As I look back on it, it was
a time when mistakes were forgiven relatively easily, compared to now, so I
was consequently freer to explore new things and new ideas.  Unfortunately,
I didn't realize that at the time..I took it all very seriously and was
really devastated when things didn't work out according to plan...I wish I
had felt freer to "play" and to explore.  I probably would have enjoyed it
more, and learned more.

On a related subject,there has been some discussion recently of why we are
so wasteful of talent in science...I think that is true, and I also am
saddened to hear about Cindy Hale's situation.  I know some other women
having similar difficulties staying in science, most of them because of a
lack of geographic mobility that I feel is more of a problem for women than
for men.  In my opinion, the problem begins in graduate school.  The way
things are set up, faculty are encouraged by the funding system to treat
students primarily as cheap labor.  One result of this is that pay for
students is lousy, if you consider it as pay for a researcher rather than
as a living stipend for a student.  If we expect graduate students to play
the major role in getting our research programs moved forward, we ought to
pay them accordingly.  But most grants don't provide enough money to hire
people at that level.  Another result of the system is that each faculty
member trains too many students.  Therefore, there are more trained
scientists out there than we (as a nation) choose to support in basic
research.  What do others think?

Julia also wrote:

>Excuse me while add a cynical aside here, but in my 5 years of grad
>school, I have to admit that there seems to be infinitely more "suck up"
>necessary in acedemia than government, at all levels, with infinitely
>less at stake reward wise-how did we get into this mess?

I was talking only about having respect for those with more experience and
training than we ourselves have, I do not equate that with "sucking up".
Validation of someone elses life and experience by having some interest in
their point of view or way of doing things is, I believe, a mark of
maturity.  I personally despise "sucker uppers" who I define as people who
give false flattery and "respect" where none is due to promote their own
advancement by something other than their professional accomplishements.  I
believe that graduate students should also be respected for their unique
experiences and abilities to contribute.  I realize this is not always the
case, however, and I think that's a shame.  All I can say about this to
those faculty that will not treat their students respectfully, is to
remember that those students will one day have as much or more influence as
you have now, and they will have long memories.  I'm sorry Julia, but I'm
not sure I understand the second part of your comment about "infinitely
less at stake reward wise... could you explain?


Lisa Vaillancourt, Assistant Professor
Department of Plant Pathology
S-305 Agricultural Science Building-North
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY 40546-0091

telephone:      (606) 257-2203
fax:               (606) 323-1961

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