Post Academic


Interview With Adam Ruben, Author of Surviving Your Stupid Stupid Decision to Go to Graduate School: Part 1

Adam Ruben earned a PhD in molecular biology from Johns Hopkins University while enjoying a side career as a stand-up comic. The outcome of his career is not just his dissertation, but also the book “Surviving Your Stupid Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School.” Adam took the time to answer our many questions. Read on for advice on the proper care and feeding of advisors, including how to handle professors when they are in a party mood:

1. You mention the dysfunctional relationship between advisor and grad student, especially when it is time to get dissertation approval. What is your advice on interacting with advisors or dealing with a bad advisor?

Some advisors will keep you from graduating because they relish the cheap labor, but for others, you’re simply not as high on their priority list as you think you are. Remember that advisors have a lot to worry about in addition to your potential dissertation approval, so the best thing you can do is to keep turning in work. It’s hard to argue with results when they’re written up and proactively dropped on your advisor’s desk.

2. Along those lines, when you’re looking for an advisor or trying to get a reference, how do you successfully suck up to a professor while retaining your dignity?

Remember that you cannot bribe your advisor, because your advisor is rich, and you’re poor. That crisp five-dollar bill doesn’t mean as much to your advisor as you think it will.

In general, sucking up to anyone means feigning awe at their very specific interests. With professors, you have the advantage of knowing exactly what those interests are. (“What a coincidence! I love the lymphatic system of the Florida Salt Marsh Vole, too!”)

“Retaining your dignity” implies that you began with dignity.

More after the jump! And don’t forget part 2 tomorrow, in which we discover what a nice comedian is doing in a place like grad school. Image of Ruben’s book cover courtesy of Broadway Books/Crown Publishing.

3. And what if your professor seems cool? Is it ever cool to party with a professor? How friendly is too friendly? (Your reference to butt slaps from 90-year-old cultural anthropologists springs to mind.)

Partying in your department lounge with professors is cool. Drinking beer before a Friday afternoon seminar with professors is cool. Agreeing to meet at the gym on the weekend morning because your professor also enjoys racquetball is cool.

Drinking at your professor’s house, just the two of you, in a closet under the stairs, while your professor’s spouse is out of town, and you have to be quiet because your professor’s kids are upstairs, and oops your clothes fell off, is not cool.

4. Your very first sentence seems spot on to me, particularly the point that grad students are “simply not as high on their priority list as you think you are.” I think this applies not only to relationships with advisors, but the grad school experience as well. How do you think grad students should adjust their expectations of themselves and of academia?

I spent my four years of college living in a dorm on campus. My door was usually open, music played on my computer speakers, and friends came in and out at all hours. It was the typical college experience of suddenly having lots of freedom and living in a little box next to thousands of other people with sudden freedom.

Grad school began differently. I moved into a row house in Baltimore, and I found that there was no one eager to join me for a midnight trip to the supermarket, I didn’t get to eat at the cafeteria (I was on the phone with my mother for an hour the first time I tried to cook chicken), leaving my front door open would have gotten me shot, and the silence on weekend afternoons was deafening.

Students fresh out of college have high expectations for life, and for some of us, grad school is the first place those expectations disappoint us. We think we’re spending our first 21 years climbing a mountain, and we think that, as soon as we reach the summit, we’ll soar. In reality, we’re just on top of a mountain, and the laws of physics haven’t changed, and it’s kind of cold up here. We think we’ll be the lucky, brilliant one to cure cancer or to influence the prevalent economic policy or to make the masses fall in love with Flannery O’Connor, but then we end up researching a genetic pathway in worms or writing essays that no one will ever read. We think we’re preparing to be important, and then we find we’re just preparing to be people.

5. You make it clear that grad students get no respect. What can they do to improve their image so they don’t get kicked around as much by advisors and undergrads?

Whenever I’ve seen an advisor lose respect for a grad student in his or her charge, it’s typically been because the student has been slacking off–or, at least, that it’s appeared that way to the advisor. The key is remembering that your advisor’s job is to gauge when you’re mature enough to graduate. If you roll your eyes when you see your undergrads posting their party photos on Facebook, remember that your advisor is doing the same when he or she sees you playing video games in the lab.

More important than earning the respect of undergrads is coming to terms with the fact that it might never happen. Many undergrads are, of course, respectful and nice people to begin with. But some will never respect any authority figure, and with the power structure of today’s university, they know that they don’t need to. They know that their coach can write a letter to raise their grade, or their parents can call a dean to excuse their absences, or they can threaten to write a scathing end-of-semester course evaluation saying that their teaching assistant was horrible.

6. A starry-eyed undergrad comes up to you after a book reading and says, “I’ve just been accepted to Illustrious Program at Hotshot University. How can you talk me out of it?”

I can’t talk you out of it. As much as you’ll find to complain about in grad school, you’d be even more miserable in a 9-to-5 job, dreaming about grad school. Grad students begin their programs knowing full well that they may be working twelve-hour days while on food stamps for the next decade–but there’s something secretly appealing about that. If you really didn’t want to go to grad school, you wouldn’t need me to talk you out of it. You’d just not go. Clearly you have an underlying passion for academia–and, thus, you’re screwed.

For Part 2 of the interview, click here!

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