Battle hymn of the tiger advisor

Image from Flickr uploaded by svxx

Inspired by the Nature feature on the 24/7 lab lifestyle and Amy Chua’s now infamous WSJ excerpted article, here’s my first stab at satire.

A lot of people wonder how some scientists are so stellar. Okay, who am I kidding? The average American doesn’t care about science except for figuring out what is the minimal amount they need to know and still graduate from high school. But my scientific training has taught me that almost any statement can be made to sound right if you add enough qualifiers in there. So, here we go again…

A lot of people in my small academic community who are obsessed with the same obscure minutia wonder how some of their colleagues are so stellar. How come these awesome advisors are getting all the publications, awards and grants and they are not? Well, here’s the worst kept secret of academia that I can re-acquaint them with- GRAD STUDENTS. Here are some things my grad students are never allowed to do:

  •  Have a life outside the lab.
  • Complain about not having a life outside the lab.
  • Not be at the lab every evening and weekend. (See previous two points)
  • Pursue extra curricular activities besides lab journal club.
  • Care about grades except for the seminar I teach.

If you don’t have tenure, or are not on the tenure track, or wrestle with doubts that you might not get tenure — you’re a loser advisor. Loser advisors mistakenly believe that awesomeness has something to do with niceness. They think they are promoting research productivity by allowing for work-life balance. That they are being good advisors if they let their grad students follow a 9 to 7 schedule. Awesome advisors know that 9 to 7 is just warm-up. Time to plan your experiments and prep your stuff. Real research productivity happens at night! You know, when the loser advisor’s minions are not hogging the equipment. When they have gone home to find the work-life balance, center their chi or do whatever it is that they do outside the lab.

The difference between awesome advisors and loser advisors isn’t just a difference in attitude. It’s a profound philosophical difference of beliefs. Those loser advisors believe that all these kids come to grad school because of a thirst for knowledge and love for science. Or some deep seated conviction that they will advance the frontiers of human understanding. Even more naively, they believe that this gobbledygook will sustain them through their careers. By contrast, 0% of awesome advisors feel that way. Awesome advisors know that all this is just what we have those kids believe in college to get them to sign up for grad school, which is essentially 7 to 10 years of indentured servitude. I swear to God, sometimes we awesome advisors just want to walk over to those loser advisors, give them a nice shake and yell, “Snap out of it you morons! What you believe is essentially the academic equivalent of Santa Claus.”

What awesome advisors understand is that what sustains science isn’t all this touchy-feely hogwash. What sustains science is the same thing that sustains every other human venture—money, moolah, dollars! If you don’t have the cash to buy the equipment or pay the grad students meager wages, no science will be happening in your lab. And to get those RO1s funded, you need publications. Lots of them! And grad students only motivated through ‘love of science’ are not going to be producing those publications. That’s why it’s crucial to work those grad students like slaves. This often requires fortitude on part of the advisor because a grad student will resist to that treatment. And things are always hardest at the beginning. That’s when these poor suckers realize that whatever knowledge they are advancing is so esoteric to the rest of humanity, that most normal people don’t give a tiny rat’s ass about what they do. That’s where these grad students tend to give up and take down their advisors with them. But slave driving, if done properly, produces a virtuous circle. We all know that 95% of all experimental results are unpublishable. The only way to milk out the precious 5% of publishable data is long, ardous hours in the lab. Have lots and lots of minions, producing lots and lots of data, and something worth publishing is bound to emerge eventually! The grad student will get his/her name on the publication and resolve their existential crisis. The supervisor will get another publication to add to their research grant application and increase their chance at getting that grant funded. Once the grant gets funded, they’ll have the money to hire even more underlings to produce more publications for more grants. And thus the virtuous circle will continue.

Awesome advisors can get away with stuff that those loser advisors could only dream of. Once as a grad student I presented my data at a lab meeting, where I was sure the results were unpublishable. I said to my advisor, “This data is garbage, the p value is not significant to 0.05.” My advisor responded, “You know what is garbage? You!” I felt terrible and deeply ashamed of myself. But it didn’t damage my self-esteem or anything like that. I was a freakin’ grad student! If the data didn’t fit my hypothesis, my job was to either increase my sample size through laborious hours in the lab or find another statistical test that would make those results look worthwhile or both. Those sorry excuses for advisors will only ask their grad students to try their best. We awesome advisors know better than that. We threaten to fire their asses unless they produce publishable data by the end of that calendar month! Nothing is as amenable to grad student productivity as a healthy dose of fear.

All these people in the scientific community may think of us awesome advisors as callous, overdriven, slave drivers. But the people who hold those opinions are the loser advisors who don’t have any publications and can’t get their grants funded. It all comes down to first principles— Darwinian evolution— survival of the fittest. Evolution does not produce its best in conditions of abundant bounty. No! All that comes out of that is fat, nutrient sucking blobs. Evolution produces its finest in scarce resources and constant threat to survival. As the tiger advisors of the world, we are just providing the nurturing conditions for those grad students to become the next generation of awesome scientists.

Image credit: Flickr by user svxx


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  • Legalese

    The purpose of this blog is to share interesting bits from around the web and beyond. All opinions expressed on this site are my own, unless credited to someone else. The images and artwork have also been created by me, unless credited to the sources. Oh! And please don't hold me liable for your actions resulting from any information on this site. As with everything else on the internet, read with the requisite amount of skepticism.
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