Friday, August 18, 2006

Mutual Respect

I have the privilege of working with a professor in another department at my university. I respect him very much, for he has done excellent work, and still he regards his colleagues both with consideration and respect. Moreover, he treats his students as colleagues, rather than as students. During a recent teleconference with an important funding partner, he said to the caller, "Let me introduce you to everyone in the room." He proceeded to introduce each graduate student one at a time, making sure to emphasize his or her strength and contribution to the project.

I compare this to the treatment that I get in many of my own meetings with the seven or so professors that I work with in my own department. In multiple meetings, I see a number of examples of poor courtesy. A few weeks back, I was in another teleconference, this time with just computer science faculty. The lead professor introduced only the principle investigators, pronounced all their names incorrectly, and ended with, "Oh and there are some graduate students." I've seen graduate students give presentations and when a question is asked from the audience, without hesitation, their advisor will answer it FOR them. I've seen faculty members say, "My graduate student did this work, but I will present it," all while that graduate student is in the room. I've seen faculty members complain to each other about their personal lives during professional meetings. I've seen thousands of occasions in which people simply interrupt each other. It becomes a game of who can talk the loudest, or who can talk the longest without stopping for breath. I am trying to remember the last time I saw someone actually finish a sentence. It reminds me of the Black Burst wireless protocol in which higher priority nodes are allowed to jam the channel until the lower priority nodes give up. Certainly not all the faculty behave in this manner, but it's certainly the typical behaviour, rather than the exception.

The faculty in our department wonder at the mystery of the "Graduate Students Who Don't Speak Up." There are often large department seminars, and during the presentations, perhaps one or two faculty will ask a question, but the audience is silent otherwise. Graduate students have been chided again and again by various faculty for not speaking up. For the majority of graduate students who are offered no respect, who are nameless technicians just implementing their advisor's visions, why would it occur to them to say anything at all?

As for me, I have the "disability" of being opinionated and snarky. This lack of mutual respect does not silence me, but it does have a detrimental affect on my own morale. Moreover, this lack causes me to wonder if other "top schools" have a similar environment, and if that's really where I want to be once I move on from this place.


DC said...

I was thinking more about the things I learned when I was in some kind of grad student leadership position. I spent some time asking other grad students what would be valuable to have. It was always something like "teach me to write a CS-specific conference/journal paper" or "teach me to give a technical presentation".

I wonder how much of this need for education also stems from crappy advisors. I know I was pretty shocked when I asked my advisor for help and basically all he told me was "try to model your paper after other good ones you read" (which, of course, did not help me to figure out what things were important to talk about in a paper - which is the biggest hurdle). Of course, I did eventually improve at writing, but I still have no idea if I'm doing a "good job".

Ms.PhD said...

Sorry to say, what I think of as the 'asshole factor' seems to correlate well with the quality of the work going on (thought not always). So if you want to work with smart people, you probably won't be able to get away from *all* the assholes.

I have the privilege of working with a bunch of disrespectful, snarky, competitive assholes who are, in general, very smart and extremely hardworking.

In general I'd rather have the loudmouth assholes than the nice people who are too nice to tell you what's wrong with your work, or maybe aren't even thoughtful enough to notice (because they're not that bright). Though sometimes I would like a break from the incessant interruptions we've all experienced from the loudmouth types.

And no, in general, most PIs do not acknowledge their grad students as colleagues or treat them with much respect. But the good ones do at least treat grad students as adults- which is more than I can say for the bad ones, who will always treat you (especially as a female) like a petulant teenager.... And often well into your postdoc years, if you're unfortunate enough to be at all petite (like me).

The thing about the PI who mispronounced everybody's names made me laugh.

I have to say, you're very lucky to have found even one PI who treats you well. It wasn't until I was a postdoc that I found a collaborator who has that kind of mutually respectful professional relationships with everyone he knows, at all levels. It was amazing to find out such people exist.

Psycgirl said...

I'm so glad I found my way here from the Carnival of GRADuate progress, because this sounds like millions of my posts. I'm reassured to know other departments can be as boneheaded as mine, to be honest with you. I am also the snarky, stubborn and "oppositional" one...

john0283 said...

Google constantly interrups my work.

What am I to do about this annoying interruption.

Were they born assholes?
Or do they work at their whole lives?
Either way it works out fine for them.

They are irritating assholes.

No doubt, they are engineer types (computer science types) that have no sense of respect, privacy, dignity or responsibility.


john0283 said...

Why does Google persist in interrupting my work?

Were these people born assholes?
Or do they work at each day?
Either way, they are successful.

Why does Google interrupt my work?