Humanizing the graduate student lifecycle

Graduate students gather at the start of the school year.

Graduate students gather at the start of the school year.

This week, thousands of new students will begin their graduate careers at UC Berkeley. Though many graduate students in the STEM fields have been entombed in their labs and offices all summer, we can’t help but take note of the newest generation of our peers. Since I was a first-year student back in 2008, I’ve seen the same beats repeated with each new class. In coming to understand this “graduate student lifecycle” both at Berkeley and a variety of other schools, I’ve realized two important points: (1) Berkeley does a very large number of things correctly, and (2) there is one particular shift that would result in an enormous quality of life improvement. More than rewriting any institutional protocol, I see a strong need for a change in the way graduate students interact with each other. Perhaps so many of the negative experiences and connotations of graduate school are passed from student to student, rather than being endemic to the institution itself. We need to replace the sense of pity (for both ourselves and others) with something more useful: compassion.

To appreciate the need for this change, it’s first necessary to understand the current “lifecycle.” (My knowledge of the College of Chemistry’s program is firsthand, while my knowledge of other programs is hearsay; I’ll focus on the former for this discussion.) For their first year, students are immediately (but somewhat unavoidably) overwhelmed. Challenging classes and time-consuming teaching duties only distract from their biggest task: choosing a research group.

Having chosen a group, students spend their time researching and learning the background information necessary to really understand their experiments. In their second year, they present their results to their peers as a talk and take their qualifying exam. During this exam, their knowledge and accomplishments are tested by a board of four professors. The stress and pressure in the months leading up to the exam are enormous.

Though graduate school will never be an easy place, the administrative and bureaucratic hurdles are strongly front-loaded. Some students decide that the sacrifices are not worth the reward, and leave around the end of their second year. For those who remain, the likelihood of leaving without a Ph.D. is dramatically smaller. This implies to me that we need to change the way the first two years of school function in some fundamental way if we want to improve the quality of life for students.

Unfortunately, many of the frustrating facets of graduate student life have developed as necessary evils. Courses need GSIs, background science needs to be learned, and groups need to be joined. The attitudes of the majority of professors are typically in the range between understanding and, at worst, perhaps oblivious. Though a shift in institutional policies could change the overall atmosphere of the department, it would necessitate more action that I optimistically expect.

So what is the other source of graduate school’s (apparently) endemic misery? Senior graduate students need to bear at least some of the blame. From addressing younger students as “Hey, first-yearer!” to making practice qualifying exams so horrendous that they reduce students to tears, senior graduate students treat their departments like fraternities. Though this behavior is not universal, it only takes a small percentage of cruel or apathetic senior students to make the atmosphere of a department hostile. As the new school year begins, I would hope that each graduate student would work to ensure that they are not making someone’s early years at school miserable.

Fundamentally, though, these senior students are also the victims. Every sarcastic and discouraging older student was also once belittled. To change this experience for future generations, we need to break the cycle. That sense of condescending pity needs to be replaced with a sense of compassion. Though it’s a noble goal, I don’t expect everyone to be perfectly altruistic all the time. Let’s instead focus on not actively undermining the students who could benefit from a helping hand the most.

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  1. LKSB

    You make a good point, Adam, some people in graduate school could be nicer, but I think you’re attributing the misery to the wrong place and/or the motivations the wrong way.

    For example, I know that in my research group we purposefully make the practice quals hard–not to make the second year cry, but rather so that the actual exam will never be worse than the practices, so that the student will start the real exam, and soon realize how comfortable they are because the practice was worse. This was a very important experience for me as a graduate student, and made my qual seem almost easy (almost). Now, maybe other groups are just mean to be mean, but that has never been the impression that I got from any of the graduate students I know.

    In fact, the only person who claims to have been purposefully not helpful is my PI, who sees the floundering and seeming hopelessness of the second to third year struggle as a formative experience without which no graduate student can become a complete scientist. In the ‘real world’ you have to be able to get yourself out of this hole on your own, and his idea is that this is what your early-middle years in graduate school are for. I’m still unsure whether or not I agree with him.

    I would also like to note that I have never had anyone address me as ‘Hey, First Year!,’ nor have I addressed someone that way. I don’t think this is much of a problem either, but maybe I’m just not in the ‘fraternity’ of the department.

    I think the real problems lie with our professors. First (and to a lesser extent second and third) year students spend so much of their time and energy both teaching and taking classes. I have heard so many horror stories (and been in some myself) of professors who don’t care about teaching whatsoever. This was quite a shock coming from a small liberal arts college. This lack of caring and/or ability leaves GSIs to pick up far more slack than they should have to, in some cases basically teaching the classes when the professor does an incredibly poor job (or just doesn’t show up to class at all). I’ve never (at Berkeley) seen a professor alter their course based on the needs, abilities, and level of understanding of their students. This leaves students taking the classes struggling needlessly over material that they most likely won’t use in their research for grades that don’t matter.

    So yes, we all need to take classes, but my graduate student life would have been greatly improved if those classes were useful, or at least taught well. On the other hand, my fellow graduate students, often my senior graduate students, were what made graduate school bearable. I have almost always experience compassion, and almost never seen the pity you describe.

    Probably the most useful people. though, were the staff scientists that I worked with at LBNL (I had the privilege of working there), who were very knowledgeable and always helpful. UC Berkeley professors could learn a lot about mentoring and teaching from these staff scientists, and this learning would go a long way toward improving graduate school.

    It is possible that my experience was atypical for Berkeley, but my impression from my fellow students is that this is not the case.

  2. I have to agree with LKSB here; I have not seen people being belittled or discouraged by older grad students anywhere close to the amount that I have seen it happen from professors. Just as you say it only takes a small percentage of cruel senior students to perpetuate a hostile atmosphere, I’d say it only takes one professor to cause even worse damage to the collective psyche of the department. We should of course be kind to first-year students, but there’s only so much we can do for them while they are subject to the whims of the PIs.