Advice needed

Bob Phair rphair at
Wed Mar 26 09:08:27 EST 1997

My remarks rely on 4 years as a grad student at Michigan and 17 years as
a basic science faculty member at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. I
have been on both sides of the fence.

My bottom line is that all the signs are bad, and grad school is tough
enough even when the relationships are good. I would recommend that you
change labs, and take the money with you if possible. If the fellowship
was granted to work on a specific project in your current lab, this may
be more difficult than other responders have implied, but I think you
should move in any case. But certainly speak to the project officer at
the granting institution and ask if the funds can be moved.

That said, I think something must be said of the plight of professors
and grad students in general. This bears on your question about how
likely it is you will find the same scenario elsewhere. Students
nationwide are complaining of inadequate attention and mentoring. As
research grants and published papers get harder to get, attention to
teaching and mentoring must always decline. It is an iron law, one I
despise, but an iron law nonetheless. The law derives from University
reward and promotion systems that pay scarce attention to teaching and
mentoring. We may say they are ignoring the mission of the university,
but they will answer that since the turn of the 20th century, our
universities have been built on the German model ( the professor as

My own view is that the reason no one is doing the teaching and
mentoring is that few can *afford* to do it. Look into what is expected
of a professor, and you will find that she or he must bring in a huge
fraction of her or his salary from sources outside the university. And
internal university rewards are almost always based on research quality
and productivity. In other words, the reason no one is doing the
teaching and mentoring is that no one is being paid to do it. Buried in
your post is the key phrase, one that I have heard over and over for 20
years, "tuition is waived". Think about this waiver. What does it mean
to you as a student?

I think that what it means is that no one is paying for your education,
so you can only expect to get educated by your peers or by chance
interactions. This is true for nearly all graduate programs. Of course,
many professors have high ideals concerning teaching, but the current
funding climate makes these ideals *very* hard to live by. Another way
to look at this is ask how the university can *afford* to waive your
tuition. The only answer I've been able to identify, is that the
university is in the research business, not the education business. They
have found that they can attract highly skilled research labor at
below-market wages by offering to trade education and a degree for the
difference in salary. But the pressures of the times have led to a
decline in time professors have to give to education, approaching the
point where the only remaining incentive for accepting sub-standard
wages and long hours is the vaunted M.S. or Ph.D degree.

More and more students are sensing that the implicit bargain is not
being kept. More and more are aware of being treated like cheap labor,
like "a skilled pair of hands." Some are unionizing, some are dropping
out. From my perspective, all these symptoms follow from the economics.
No one is paying for an education, so no one is providing an education.

A little further down the road, you may encounter the next great failing
of the current system. It's called the post-doc. Complaints from this
group are as loud or louder than the cries of grad students. They feel
exploited too. They knew faculty jobs would be hard to come by, but they
didn't know that all jobs would be hard to come by. Occasionally they
feel the system owes them a job in return for all they have invested,
especially since their college classmates and their siblings are out in
industry making lots of money and driving new cars to their homes in the

If you permit yourself to be used as a pair of hands, and if you
graduate with a PhD but without an education, you will be seen, by
prospective employers, as a glorified technician, with no breadth and no
vision. No one will pay doctoral-level wages to a technician with a PhD

Fortunately, you can take the situation into your own hands. You can
take responsibility for your life, and your education. Talk to people.
Find out what's really happening in your field (worldwide). Read an hour
a day in your field. Use the web. Then make a plan for your life. If you
have no goals of your own, you are doomed to work for those who do. Your
plan will not always work out as you had hoped, but if you plan and take
good risks for yourself, you will succeed in living *your* life. In the
end, that is what each of us is here for.

{Bob smiles, climbs down off his soapbox, and waves as he wanders off}

Good luck!

Robert D. Phair, Ph.D.  rphair at
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