Birds of a Feather in Academia

Oct 29 2008 Published by under Academia

A few months ago, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who was then just starting grad school. She was looking for an advisor, someone to take her under his/her wing for her nascent science-training. And, as with many of our conversations, the phrase "under her wing" became a huge metaphor for the grad school experience. And the more I thought about it, the more it was clear. So here I present:
Graduate School as a Goose


Hey, we all have our very silly moments.
So here it goes. You get to grad school. You are an innocent, silly gosling, tripping continually over her (or his) own two feet. Then, you enter a lab! In my department we do rotations, but some people enter labs right away. And your advisor takes you under his (or her) wing. You're part of the vee, part of the flock. You are so proud, waddling happily along after your advisor, and looking on adoringly as they talk. Such genius! You read all the lab's papers with an attention heretofore given only to the coolest sci/fi.
After a few weeks in the lab, you've got your feet, not so clumsy. The other members of the flock teach you how to pipette (yeah, not everyone knows entering grad school), how to fly in formation during a project, and how to waddle in a line. And then, your advisor takes you and your copious reading, and begins teaching you how to honk.
After first, you waddle around after him, honking when he honks, grumping when he grumps, and trashing the papers he trashes. Sometimes you honk out of turn. As a gosling, this honking is often misguided, interprets the data the wrong way, or forgets to differentiate "reward" and "reinforcement". Then you are given a nasty look, or possibly a painful nip from your advisor's beak. But then there will come a time when you have to honk on your own. We call these seminars. The advisor will coach you carefully at first, on what to honk, how to honk, and exactly how to answer the questions. If you do well, he looks on fondly as you honk away, nervous and excited at your new powers.
But time marches on, goslings grow up. At first you begin to notice your advisor isn't so much bigger than you anymore. Maybe you get your own grant, maybe you start a new technique he knows nothing about. You start to realize that you can fly, too. Your honkings don't embarass your advisor anymore, and he even lets you lead the vee in meetings. After a while of nerves and all nighters preparing lab meeting slides, you start to get used to it, and your idolizing relationship gives way to a more equal partnership. But be careful! He's still the boss, and that big goose can still whip your butt and kick you out of the vee if you aren't careful. Professionality is key. Pretty soon you don't even show him your slides anymore, you know and he knows that you'll do just fine. Your honking, nervous at first, becomes confident and cool. You even make your own, new honks, and your advisor sits up and say "hey, I never thought of that!"
And finally, that glorious and sad day. That day when you honk your finest (at least, I hope you do), and you're a full grown goose with a PhD. The day your advisor says goodbye to you and you fly off into the sunset, to start a flock of your own. You're leaving your flock behind, but by then (sometimes after seven years in their company), you could use some new sights. Your adovisor might point you in the direction of a related flock to become a postdoc, or you might set out on your own.
So what am I getting at? I don't know. I just think it's cute when I think of myself as a goose. I make a VERY cute goose. But there is some stuff to be seen.
As a grad student, keep it in perspective. This gets really hard when you've got your dissertation blinders on, or when you're so into your research, or at any time, really. Keep building your confidence. When you have a good advisor, those nips and glares are for your education. And they won't throw you out of the vee just for some bad honks. They brought you in for a reason, and they have confidence in your potential. But also, as you grow up, don't get too cocky. They are the big bad advisor for a reason. That's not to say that everything they say is gospel (duh), but they deserve your respect, even when you REALLY don't agree with their experiment directions.
As an advisor, please remember, we look like adults, but really we're still goslings. We don't have the contacts, the grants, and the confidence that you exude seemingly while breathing. Give us a hand, have us meet your colleagues, and try not to snap at us in public even when we're being REALLY obnoxious. Some of us will need more guidance than others, and since a lot of us are geeks, we might need people skills guidance, too. We'll trip over our own two feet sometimes, and though it's our own job to pick ourselves back up, it's nice to know that someone out there still has faith in us and what we can do.
And now this gosling is waddling home. It's been a long day in the lab.

One response so far

  • cobalt says:

    *grins* I remember that email. (I think I really have imprinted on my advisor, btw - she stopped me in the hall and asked if I was feeling better today. Apparently spontaneous hallway conversations from her are a sign that you've been accepted into the flock. I felt suitably fluffed all day.)
    Sadly, I don't think geese get to go to Borabora for the winter, despite her saying we should all really go there for a field trip about atolls.