‘Tis the season for dissertation defenses. Zuska shares the awful tale of hers, and ponders the bad behavior of some science professors:
Your advisor or PI, the person who should be your mentor, have your back, sing your praises, and be bursting with pride as they launch you into the larger world of Science, is sniggering in the back row like a frat boy in charge of Pledge Week. Yes, your PI has prepared a clever “roast” of you, the grad student, the person who has just spent the last many years working your ass off in PI’s lab to bring PI glory and honor and data and publications and grant renewals.
The PI will be sure that the roast is hilarious. It may mock your work ethic, your relationship with your significant other, the amount of time it took you to finish (hmm, and who does that reflect poorly on, PI?), your lab skills, your possession and/or use of a female reproductive system. Whatever, we can be sure it will be in poor taste, not terribly funny, and borderline in violation of several university rules about discrimination and harassment.
Why, you might wonder, if such goings-on are indeed in violation of university harassment/discrimination laws, don’t university lawyers say something to PIs about this behavior? Well, first, the university lawyers would need to know that such behavior was taking place. And who’s going to tell them?
Who, indeed? Aren’t the grownups supposed to be in charge?
The problem with research science is that it operates like little fiefdoms. Everybody in their own little kingdom, no oversight over the whole enterprise. Everybody making up their own rules about acceptable behavior and what kinds of douchebaggery will be tolerated in this lab versus that one, this defense versus that one. No one goes around observing what is taking place in each little steaming hellhole. The patriarchy of university labs is structurally much more like families, or church congregations, than like corporations. Abusive practices can be hidden in plain sight, despite clear stated norms against beating the children and having sex with them.
If professors are behaving like douchey frat boys running Pledge Week and humiliating their own students at the very moment that should be the most prideful for both the student and the PI, whose fault is it? Who is letting them get away with this behavior unsanctioned? Do we have to wait for university lawyers to discover that this $hit is going on, and send them a letter saying “we’d rather not be sued, please refrain”? If your colleagues are behaving this way, why are you not telling them that to act like this is complete a$$holery? That making fun of your student at the moment of their defense isn’t a bit of good sport, it’s vicious and mean and shabby? That you ought to be celebrating your student’s accomplishment and building them up?
I’ve heard of some bad dissertation defense stories in the humanities, but never anything like this. (And fortunately for me, my department at Ben Franklin U. did away with the defense ritual long before it was an issue for me. Since most students left Philadelphia to do their dissertation research, and many like Historiann never moved back, the faculty decided that it was an unnecessary hassle and expense so they nixed it.) But if you read the comments on any of the SciBlogs, especially the feminist or women’s blogs like Thus Spake Zuska or Dr. Isis, you’ll see that this kind of behavior is rampant on the non peer-reviewed internets as well as in labs.
In the comments over at Zuska’s, I said that my university’s Graduate School requires that each grad committee include someone from outside the degree-granting department. (Since most grad programs require that students take at least one course outside their own department, it’s usually the professor who taught that class. I myself have sat on two English M.A. committees, and my students have usually worked with folks from English, Political Science, or Anthropology, for example.) This is the Graduate School’s attempt at low-cost quality control–to make sure that departments aren’t credentialing people willy-nilly, because presumably the outside committee member would not vote to pass someone who didn’t appear to deserve a graduate degree. I wonder if this also serves to insure better behavior on everyone’s part, too–because I for one would be shocked by any of the abusive behavior in a master’s exam or dissertation defense that Zuska reports. I hadn’t ever thought about the outside committee member functioning not just as quality control, but as a guarantor of the students’ best interests, too. Having a committee member from another department might fight the insularity of departmental culture that Zuska points to at the root of the ritual abuse she and other science Ph.D. students have endured.
But then, I’ve never, ever served on a committee in the STEM fields, nor am I likely ever to do so in the future. I can only speak to how this rule plays out in the humanities. How does your uni’s graduate school or your department handle committee composition and dissertation defenses? What are the worst stories you’ve ever heard about abusive faculty at a dissertation defense?