Hazards of Graduate School Success

Today I want to pass on some personal insight and advice for students who will be entering graduate school in the future, or who are already there.

This isn’t advice on how to succeed in graduate school. You can ignore this advice and still develop a successful career. But if you take it to heart and keep it in mind in the future, it could have tremendously beneficial consequences for the kinds of relationships you have with peers and colleagues.

I was fortunate to receive the same advice when I was in graduate school, many years ago. It came as a rather cryptic comment from my masters supervisor. At first I did not fully understand what he was trying to convey, but it became clear as time went by. I’ve thought about his words many times over the past 30 years, as I’ve witnessed the relevance of his advice playing out time after time.

Before I tell you what he said, a bit of context is necessary…  It was a few days before I would be moving to a different city and university to pursue a PhD in a different laboratory, and of course that meant with a different supervisor. I had enjoyed my time as a masters student and got along very well with my supervisor. He knew my main reason for moving was because I was interested in a different area of research than what I had been doing for my masters thesis. Moreover, instead of being the only graduate student in a small lab, like I had been during my masters, I would now be part of a larger research group, with several other graduate students working and training together under the supervision of a well-funded and somewhat well-known principal investigator (of course, this person would be my supervisor for the PhD). Within the same facility there were also a few other high-powered labs headed by prominent researchers. Frankly, my new destination was a more exciting research environment than the setting for my masters degree. My long-term goal was a career in research, so my masters supervisor knew the move would probably be good for me.

Coincidentally, my masters supervisor had recently visited the place and met my soon-to-be PhD supervisor. I think this encounter may have compelled him to give me the following advice. I’ll explain why later, after I tell you what he said.

We were having lunch together. Following a lull in our conversation, during which he gazed into the distance, looking especially thoughtful – he turned to me and said:

“Dave, don’t become an asshole.”

That’s all he said. Then he gazed ahead again, silent…

Now, he didn’t say, “don’t be an asshole”, which would have implied that he thought I was already one. That would have been devastating. He was clearly trying to convey a deeper message.

I must have looked puzzled, so he went on to say something about there being a lot of successful researchers who are assholes. He tried to clarify with some examples of professors in our department who were widely renowned for their research and whom he did not think were assholes. (You see, he was a classy guy, so he didn’t name anyone he thought was an asshole; but there was no doubt he could name a few if he had to). The professors he identified as good regular folks had been among his colleagues for many years, so he had come to know them fairly well. Of course, he had also learned which of his colleagues were despicable in one way or another, but he was respectful enough to avoid identifying them while making his point. It wasn’t necessary. And he wasn’t an asshole.

I don’t recall exactly how the conversation ended, but I know I didn’t ask him at any point just why he was telling me this. I was in my mid-twenties, so it was not news to me that some people are wonderful, while others are more or less contemptible. The real puzzle was just why he felt the need to bring it up. I assumed it had something to do with my upcoming move. But I didn’t understand how, exactly.

With time comes clarity

I didn’t think about it for a long time, but I never totally forgot about the weird advice: Don’t become an asshole. What was my previous graduate supervisor really trying to tell me? At some point – it was probably a couple of years into my PhD – it all started to make sense.

I recalled that my previous supervisor had met my current supervisor not long before our lunchtime conversation. These two men had very different personalities. Luckily for me, both were very supportive and dedicated to their students, and both of them positively influenced my development as an academic researcher and scholar. But they were altogether different characters.

My masters supervisor did not have a big-name reputation for his research, but he was an excellent scientist and a productive researcher. He was highly respected and well liked by people who knew him. He was friendly, but a serious and somewhat quiet man, free from vanity and pretentiousness. My PhD supervisor, on the other hand, was a jovial man with a tendency to be braggadocious, and the latter trait definitely annoyed some people. I personally got used to it, as I saw past that shortcoming and noticed his many good qualities. I liked him anyway, but other people would sort of roll their eyes when his name came up. He wanted very much to be respected and admired by his peers and colleagues, and he had many accomplishments to be proud of, but his ceaseless boasting about them was what most people would notice and remember about him. It wasn’t a good impression.

So, was this where my masters supervisor’s strange advice had come from. Had he been warning me not to turn into the type of a-hole he believed my PhD supervisor typified? I can’t say for sure, but I decided a long time ago that this is probably what was going through his mind. Whatever the truth may be, this assumption has helped me to notice certain prevalent features of a typical graduate school environment can negatively influence a person’s character and demeanour.

Hazards of success?

The way we interact with other people largely determines whether they will have a positive impression of us, a negative one, or a neutral one. We tend to like people who treat us fairly and with mutual respect. A few other traits help, too, like friendliness and benevolence, for example.

But all of us know people who we do not consider likeable or admirable – such as, people who treat others unfairly or disrespectfully. We do not like those who demean us, who are arrogant or haughty. By most people’s standards, those who frequently and persistently display these traits are contemptible assholes. We perceive it as being part of their character.

Contemptible individuals can be found in all sectors of society, so should we expect the academic research world to be any different? I don’t think so. But the issue isn’t that people like this can be found in the halls of academia. The real point I want to make – and maybe this is what my masters supervisor was thinking – is that success in an academic research environment can change some people, and when this occurs, the change is often for the worse.

Success brings confidence, but in some people, confidence turns into arrogance.

One thing that frustrates us about people who think too highly of themselves is their relative disrespect for others who they consider inferior (which is most of us). We hate their obvious disdain for our averageness, especially because we know they are really no better than us, and their personal successes are usually at least as much due to circumstances as to intrinsic individual greatness. Even when we recognize that someone really does possess great ability within some domain, we all know this is just a part of who they really are. Discovering that this person is also pompous ass tends to eliminate any respect we might have had for them based on their accomplishments.

I suspect that most readers perceive, like I do, that there is a correlation between how much fame and success people achieve and how self-important and condescending they tend to behave. Of course, it’s not a perfect correlation, and many good men and women retain their best virtues despite an ascent to fame and recognition. Not everyone becomes an asshole, and no one changes that way on purpose. And yes, some are assholes long before they achieve success and notoriety. But there are also some who only become so after operating in an enabling environment or context for a while. I believe graduate school can be like this for many students, especially at the doctoral level. I’ve seen evidence of it many times.

Don’t let success go to your head

One typical pattern involves early-career notoriety, resulting from some important finding that comes out of their graduate or postdoctoral research and which generated a notable buzz within the community of researchers who study the same subject. For at least a short time, their work becomes widely known and followed by others. They might speak at important conferences, participate in symposia, or receive invitations to give lectures at universities or research institutes. They may become known, at least within their field of expertise, as a ‘rising star’. All the attention is very rewarding (for most people), and therefore readily accepted. Most people who experience this type of early-career notoriety will want to keep it going, but doing so can become the main motivational driving force for the remainder of many people’s academic or professional careers.

Inevitably, most of the so-called rising stars (albeit not all of them) begin to believe their own hype. I’ve seen this pattern of events play out numerous times with bright young men and women during my long career. It also describes how the early stages of my own research career unfolded. So you could say, I’ve been there and done that.

Having confidence because of your previous achievements is good, but letting the attention generated by those achievements go to your head is not.

I’ve tried to follow my masters supervisor’ sage advice throughout my career. I’m not the one to say how well I’ve done at it, but I can honestly say that I’ve tried. But today the advice isn’t for me. It’s for you, dear reader.

In the long run, most people will ignore your professional achievements and base opinions of you on your personal demeanour and character. I hope you have success in graduate school and accomplish your career objectives. Along the way, remember where you came from, and don’t let praise and achievements spoil your character.


The Sham Ph.D.

The experiences I share in this post will be an eye-opener for many readers. Anyone who has been a university professor for more than a few years, on the other hand, probably won’t be too surprised. In fact, I’ll bet some experienced academics will remember having witnessed similar shenanigans from time to time during their own careers.

My main goal here, as it has been in my last few posts, is to bring to light certain realities of higher education, which might in some way help the reader become a better-informed consumer. My secondary goal is admittedly personal, and a bit cathartic. Some of the events I recount here still trouble me. The events all took place within the same academic department, within a very highly regarded university, somewhere in North America. These events make certain individuals look bad, so I will be vague about details that could easily trace a route to identifying the university, department, or any of the involved persons. I have no doubt that similar events occur from time to time at most universities, so this is not really intended as a commentary about a particular institution or group of people. All I will say is that the university in the story is not Concordia University (my employer), but that is not to say that similar events could never happen at Concordia.

The good and the bad

Over the past 20 years, I have attended dozens of Ph.D. defenses, either as a member of the doctoral candidate’s examination committee, or as a member of the audience. I have seen a great range of quality, which is not surprising. Of course, some people are really great and truly impressive, whereas others are not quite as good, but still deserving of the doctoral degree. These two categories of deserving individuals make up a vast majority of doctoral candidates.

It may seem incredible, but the truth is, if you want a Ph.D. from an accredited university, you might not have to earn it the ‘old-fashioned’ way… you know, the way people used to earn doctorate degrees from any respectable university — by doing original research, making a contribution to knowledge, and demonstrating that one is somewhat expert, or at least highly knowledgeable, within some particular domain. Today, that hard work and established competence is no longer absolutely necessary in all circumstances. Of course, most Ph.D.s are still obtained in the traditional and honorable way. But, if you automatically assume that someone with a Ph.D. from a high-profile university must have earned it on the basis of merit, you are mistaken. A person can get a Ph.D. from even the most highly regarded universities despite being only mediocre, even if they are utterly incompetent and worse than mediocre. It does not happen often, but it does happen.

Fast-track to a Ph.D.

Believe it or not, some people have actually managed to obtain a Ph.D. simply by annoying or aggravating their graduate supervisors so much that the latter wants to get rid of the student as quickly as possible. Luckily, it’s difficult to kick someone out of graduate school just because that person has some disagreeable aspects to the their character or behavior. Understandably, some faculty members will take a prudent approach to such an uncomfortable situation and do what they can to facilitate the student’s completion of the Ph.D. program.

In most Ph.D. programs, the final critical step toward completion occurs when the student’s examination committee approves the quality and quantity of the candidate’s research, and the quality of the written dissertation. If it all passes muster, the candidate will get the doctoral degree.

Most of the time, when a faculty member wants to hasten the graduation of one of his or her Ph.D. students, this is at least partly accomplished by accepting some minor compromises in terms of the standard expectations. For example, maybe that one last experiment or chapter that was planned is not really needed for an acceptable dissertation. I don’t think it’s a problem, in most cases, when a doctoral student’s supervisor orchestrates these types of omissions, as long as there is input from the other faculty members on the student’s Ph.D. committee. It might not seem fair to all the other doctoral students who will be held up to the normal standard expectations, but what usually happens is that the unfairness or inequity, if we want to call it that, is somewhat corrected when the person becomes an ex-student and finally joins the workforce. By that, I mean that most employers who have to hire people with Ph.D.s look far beyond whether or not a job applicant has the academic credentials. They know that just because someone has the necessary degree for the job that does not mean the person can do the job. When applying for jobs in one’s field, recent recipients of a doctorate will still have to furnish references and letters of recommendations, a CV, and there may be interviews. As part of the vetting process, the mediocre and the posers are quickly discovered and eliminated from consideration.

And, now… the ugly

Now it’s time to tell the story about the events that compelled me to write on the present topic. They took place at a university that turns out a large number of excellent scholars, researchers, and professionals, each year. But, I know that they also recently awarded a Ph.D. to someone did not deserve one. I know this because I was an external member of that person’s examination committee, and I was, therefore, a first-hand witness to several demonstrations of ineptness. (‘external’ denotes from a different university)

In preparation for the oral defense, I read this person’s doctoral dissertation. It was very short, which was the only good thing about it. It was also terrible in many ways. The literature review was cursory and shallow. The chapters that described the candidates’ experiments were poorly organized, and the whole thing fit together like a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle that’s missing 80 pieces. The conclusions the candidate drew from the meager empirical results were not consistent with the existing literature, and they weren’t even very consistent with the student’s own data. I could go on and on about how bad this Ph.D. dissertation was, but let’s just say that when I arrived for the oral defense, the first thing I did was approach the student’s Ph.D. supervisor and asked, “What’s going on?” He knew immediately what I was talking about.

It took him only about a minute to explain, quietly but loud enough for the other committee members to hear, that he had no respect for the student, that the student was a liar, the student refused to follow any of the supervisor’s advice, and the student really didn’t know what he/she was talking about most of the time when it came to his/her research topic. Early on, the supervisor had tried to work closely with the student, but they had some sort of falling-out. He succinctly explained that he just want to get rid of this student.

I looked at the other faculty members from the student’s department who were on the committee, looking for any sign that they were concerned about the quality of the student’s work, like I was. Both of them are people I have known and respected for many years, and who have been at this business of training graduate students for longer than me. They both looked down, slightly slouching in a posture that resembled one of guilt or shame. Their subtle body language signaled to me that they knew what I was talking about, but they were not going to make it a big issue, and they seemed to be hoping that I would not do so, either. Maybe I was reading a lot into their subdued responses, but this was how I read them. There were also two other faculty members from the candidate’s university who were from different departments. They were a bit fidgety, but otherwise they just gazed around the room, generally avoiding eye contact with other people on the committee. After a few minutes, the Chair of the committee began the proceedings.

The candidate’s oral presentation of his/her work was awful, as confused and confusing as the dissertation. Could not answer any of the moderately challenging questions asked by the committee, and often responded as though he/she didn’t understand the question. When the candidate’s supervisor asked questions, he spoke tersely and used language that clearly displayed his overall dissatisfaction with the student, the student’s judgment, the research, and the dissertation. When all the painful public discourse was finally over, the candidate left the room so the committee could convene in private to discuss the dissertation and oral defense. The major task for the committee, at this point, is to come to some decision regarding whether it was all passable; that is to say, basically deciding whether the candidate should get the Ph.D., or not.

Remarkably, all the committee members from the candidate’s university basically said something like, “It was not good, but it was good enough.” But, I suspected that none of them really believed it; I sure didn’t. I expressed my misgivings, but I decided to leave it to the committee members from he candidate’s university to decide what judgment should be rendered. Remember, I was the external examiner. So, I was feeling somewhat like a guest, and it didn’t feel my place to be calling out these respected peers of mine for what I perceived was an unfolding lapse of integrity. I was not going to cause any fuss that would make it even harder for them to live with the decision.

I headed off homeward, feeling bad about the way things turned out. I kept thinking about the injustice of it all, considering that several other students in the same department will also get a Ph.D. this year, but they all will have earned it. I was upset with the faculty member who had been this student’s graduate supervisor. I felt he took an easy way out of an important commitment. I thought that he should have done what most faculty members would do and just put up with the annoying student until he or she completed the program in an acceptable manner. I believe he put the others members of the committee up to the idea of just passing this student through. I think the other committee members went along with a bit of reluctance, but they did go along, so I was disappointed that they were such an easy sell.  But, most of all, I felt guilty for going along with it, too. After a few hours of ruminating, I decided to put it behind me, and promised myself that I would never again agree to be a committee member for a doctoral student being supervised by this particular faculty member.

A few months later…

It didn’t take long before I was again asked if I would be an external committee for one of this faculty member’s doctoral students. The administrative staff member who contacted me is so nice and pleasant, that I didn’t think to reply, “No thanks,” to the request. When a copy of the student’s dissertation arrived in my mailbox a few days later, I remembered my previous vow never to do this again, but it was too late. Fortunately, this one turned out to be a very good Ph.D. dissertation! Well written and scholarly. The research behind it was ample, and it was solid work. I could tell right away that this person was not an imposter like the last one. In fact, he seemed like a really good researcher and a good analytical and critical thinker.

The day of the oral defense arrived and the whole process went the way things are expected to go — he gave an excellent presentation and handled all the questions very well. It felt good to know that this guy was getting a Ph.D., because he deserved it. And his impressive performance served up a little bit of redemption for the faculty member who supervised his graduate work. Not much, but still a bit, at least in my opinion.

Real Ph.D. versus Sham Ph.D.

Although it was a relief that the second Ph.D. in this story was all very good, it did not correct any of the inappropriateness about the first one. The only thing it changed for me was that I now had some reassurance that this faculty member/graduate supervisor could properly supervise and mentor a doctoral student. It could be argued, on the other hand, that this student made his supervisor look good.

One general message to be taken from this story is that many aspects of higher education are not as standardized as one might expect. I think most people who do not know the two new Ph.D.s in this story personally would view them both with the same high regard, just from knowing that each of them recently earned a Ph.D. from the same prestigious university, and in the same field of study. Without knowing anything more about them than the academic credentials they possess, it would be natural to assume that both of them have exceptional abilities and aptitudes, skills and knowledge, and that they are both now qualified for certain occupations that require a Ph.D. But, these things are really only true about one of them, and none of them seem to be true about the other.

You can’t tell who has a sham Ph.D. until you talk to that person a bit, and even then, anyone who is not an expert in the same field of study will be unlikely to detect the fakery. Someone who has a sham Ph.D. might impress friends, relatives, and neighbors by virtue of having been awarded something as distinguished as a doctoral degree. Importantly, however, it all gets evened out in the job market and over the years as a career develops, … or fails to develop. A sham Ph.D. might come easy, but it doesn’t take anyone far.

Do you have questions or comments about anything mentioned in this article? Please consider sharing them in the comment section. I will try to answer any appropriate questions. Alternatively, if you are interested in communicating directly with me to receive personalized guidance and advice on any aspect of your educational or career planning, you might consider using my consultation services. We can cover a lot of ground in 30 minutes!