People (including me) sometimes describe academic careers as one long “hazing ritual.” Being on the other side of the process, I think there may be a better description of the discomfort that people sometimes go through early in their academic career.
When I first took this job, I showed up to all the grad student seminars I could. At other universities I had been to, this was just what you do. I asked questions after their seminars. Routinely. I heard later from other faculty members that this was freaking out our master’s students, because they weren’t used to that.
The next year, I was joined by two more new faculty members who had similar mindset and approach to grad seminars as me. The three of us went to a lot of grad student seminars, and we asked questions. They were often critical. I remember pointing out to one student that experiment she wanted to run examining four or five variables simultaneously and in combination with each other would require thousands of plants to get at any meaningful result.
I am sure that some students thought I was hazing them. In fact, students later told me that they’d heard I “went after” grad students “really hard, for no reason.” That I made students cry. (For the record, it is possible that students cried after their seminar, but not in front of me.) Put like that, and it sounds like the very definition of hazing.
But it wasn’t the case. I take no delight in making students squirm. Every question we asked, we asked because we were interested, and more importantly, we wanted the science to be good.
What students saw as hazing, I saw as culture shock.
Academic science has a distinct culture. If you were to sum it up in a word, that culture is “critical.” The brownie points get awarded to the people who are best at exposing the flaws in other people’s research. The names on the trophy cases are for the people who anticipate criticisms so adeptly that they design their experiments to answer all possible criticisms before they can be raised.
Students were not used to a culture of continual criticism. Most people outside university settings are not used used to the culture of criticism. It feels destructive and rude to a lot of people.
Immersed yourself in a different culture can be hard and scary, so even though our world is increasingly cosmopolitan, not many people do it. For instance, I live in South Texas, but I am only vaguely aware of the Hispanic or Mexican culture of the region. I don’t watch the television shows or listen to the music of that culture. Knowing that culture would take some concerted effort on my part.
In theory, students should know something about academic culture from their undergraduate degree, but let’s face it, the undergraduate experience is the wading pool in terms of the academic cultural experience. People who enter grad school are often jumping into the deep end for the first time, and, unsurprisingly, struggle to swim.
Just like there are signs marking the depth of the pool, we have to let prospective students know that it is a different and distinct culture in academic research.
Photo by VasenkaPhotography on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license; axis of evil from here.