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The “me first” generation meets science September 17, 2008

Posted by fetzthechemist in Uncategorized.

Back in the Neolithis Age when I went through grad school, things were different. Then, you chose schools, took tests, applied, got accepted (my paradigm, others tell me you actually get rejected), choose one after looking more carefully at the professors CVs and bios in the ACS directory of graduate schools, went there, took placement exams, and started the drudgery of grad school. You looked at the professors labs and talked a little with them and talked even more with their students. You asked one if you could join his research group (there were few women then). If he accepted, you started research in the spring, usually as an understudy to a grad student who was finishing up or with a postdoc.

Your research advisor was your boss. The emperor of his domain. You were a lowly beginning grad student who understood serfdom and knew at best you’d advance to be a senior serf. You did not expect a friend, a mentor, or even a teacher from your research professor. Advisor was a title that really meant director/ dictator depending on his style. If you were lucky you got doses of teaching and mentoring, but often you did not.

You had to do what project you were told to, and starting out as a pair-of-hands until you showed skills and understanding. The work was only yours in reference to that of the other serfs in the lab. You collaborated when you were told to work together, but you seldom relied on the others, except for companions when it was time to take a late-night beer break.

You jumped through the hoops of cumes and prelims, you chose a committee through negotiation and agreement from your advisor that the candidates were OK – not enemies who might enjoy torturing you. You grew in knowledge, worked on more projects with more independence, you helped other lower grad students as told to by your professor. You wrote; you gave a research seminar; you defended; you now were done.

How does that differ today. First and foremost, students are different. They have grown up in an instant-gratification world. Expectations are based on what is right, not on how it is. The purpose of any system must be aimed at, or at a minimum consider, the student’s needs and goals. Anything otherwise is bad and cause for dissatisfaction and even revolt. All work by the sudent is the student’s.

Where do I get these opinions? It is by talking to students or reading posts on discussion forums and blogs. Students think professors have to cater to their learning, not accepting that a research professor and a university have the goal of doing high-level research and getting funding, patents, and notoriety.

A professor in this view must mentor students and teach them how to succeed without teaching down to the student. The student has rights and has a mind. The student must be treated as a junior partner in any work. The students already know so much and the professors are antiquated relics of the dinosaur age.

Students now struggle in grad school much more than before. It might be tougher or it might be that they are not tougher. There seems to be a lot more whiny, self-centered students today than in past generations. Is this too harsh? I hope so. I wish students understood the system and where they really are situated. It is a beginning step that has to be taken as directed, not as they wish.



1. Milo - September 17, 2008

I wish students understood the system and where they really are situated.

I agree. However, the “system” must be flexible enough to change if there is truely a better and more appropriate way to teach young scientists.

2. fetzthechemist - September 17, 2008

As each generation goes through the system, they do return to improve it when they become the professors. But the current generation has not had to buckle under and work within as much as earlier ones. Yes, they are bright, but the attitudes and values are not the same. Too many have never been told “No” or denied anything but their own wants.

3. Milo - September 18, 2008

I blame their parents… hippies.

4. John Fetzer - September 18, 2008

The generation of parents can bear a lot of blame. Unlike earlier parents, these started of adopting an attitude that “my kid is more important than you”. You used to rarely see families with unruly kids out in public, and even when it happened the parents were embarassed and apologetic. Then it became common to have unruly kids in restaurants, movies, on planes, and no compunction about it. Kids learned that there was no difference between any behavior and that they came first.

It might have been Benjamin Spock’s permissive parenting BS, but kids justed on that bandwagon without knowing its origin. Then schools started teaching them that any corporal punishment was abuse and even scolding was verbal abuse. Parents caved and had to use logic and reasoning to get a child to do anything.

Now a whole generation thinks they are owed everything. A college education is a right and the parents owe it to every child. Living at home until you’re past 25 is commonplace – when it used to be that no matter the circumstances you wanted to be out on your own as soon as you got out of high school.

This generation does not understand that a system not designed first and foremost for their benefit is the morn. Their value system is egocentric, with fame being a huge goal in life. It was well down anyone’s list in past eras. The goal then might have been personal happiness and success. Now those are almost givens.

5. milo - September 19, 2008

A college education is a right and the parents owe it to every child.

You bring up a great point. For me, I need to decide between saving for college for my daughters (who admittedly has 17.5 yrs to go till college) education and saving for my retirement (no pension here!). Personally, I see no reason to assume that I have to send her to college with all her expenses paid. I would rather have her pay a lot of her own way, like I did, and appreciate the experience than provide her with $100k and hope she attends at least some of her classes.

6. excimer - September 19, 2008

The kids are alright, John. Don’t you worry, we’ll fix all the problems your generation created, create new, crazier ones, and blame the next generation for them.

7. fetzthechemist - September 19, 2008

It is not that all grad students are that way. Some still expect to succeed through perservering and knowing the world is not their oyster served on a silver plattern. But there are many more, a higher proportion who expect more of others and less of themselves. They either will get a rude awakening at some point or just be deadwood for the rest to deal with.

Yes, there is some generational pattern of repetition, but there also have been a few fundamental changes. Success is not a life-long goal, it is expected more quickly. The winnowing by abilities and talent still goes on, but I think these younger people are oblivious to it.

8. Milo - September 19, 2008

The boomers are just not down with the struggle, yo. If it is too loud you are too old!

Seriously though, there is a disturbing number of graduate students who do not like to really work. I recall working horrible hours and putting in terrible amounts of effort for my degree. I am seeing less and less of it as I talk to grad students and interview them. And I have not been out of grad school all that long.

9. fetzthechemist - September 19, 2008

Yes, the fortitude is not the same across the board. It is too hard or pointless (like since when were cumes ever really directly useful to your research?) or the other grad students are too competitive (duh? you’re still in similar situations trying to impress the same professors) or my professor has few people skills and does not mentor me (like every professor i the past, did?).

A lot about grad school is the same as it has been for the past century – afterall the model for US grad school education was crafted a variant of the English and German systems of the mid-1800s.

I just do not see the attitudes that you are the key to your own success, that you cannot rely on others or outside things to help you enough to make anywhere as much difference as you can. I mean, for Christ’s sakes, I have heard of grad students who go to the graduate dean to complain about these things ….from the horse’s mouth of a few graduate deams I know. We could have cared less about the graduate dean. If we chose an asshole as a professor, so be it for the years we had to suffer.

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