html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Thanks, Daniel, for the excellent recommendation.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Thanks, Daniel, for the excellent recommendation.

Last August, on one of my recurring posts about how awful grad school was, Daniel left me this:
Daniel said...
An excellent book on the same theme: “Disciplined Minds” by Jeff Schmidt. Dr. Schmidt earned a PhD in physics from Cal-Irvine and worked as an editor at Physics Today for nearly twenty years. After writing the book, he was promptly fired.

In the book, he focuses on the experience of graduate students in physics, and how that professional degree program — like all other professional degree programs — is more focused on selecting those candidates who conform to a behvioral pattern than those candidates who would make the best scientists.

My favorite chapter was “How to Survive Grad School With Your Soul Intact", which includes long quotations from the Army manual on resisting interrogation as a POW.

I finally read it last week. It was an incredible relief to have my vague feelings about grad school confirmed. I knew I was failing something besides the material. I knew it was my attitude that set off the professor who told me I didn't belong. I didn't understand why at the time, because I thought that the purpose of grad school was to process the material and develop independent thought. Trusting that was such a mistake for me. "Soul-battering" sounds like a melodramatic overstatement, but that was truly what the isolation and harangues and endless requirements felt like.

The thing that kills me about my situation in second grad school, which I fled with a masters, is that I wasn't even trying to rebel. I am not naturally defiant; I tend to respect and trust authority. I would have been happy to absorb and parrot the party line. My problem, I realized as I read Disciplined Minds, is that I was in too many programs and they had contradictory party lines. I would have been indoctrinated if I could have been, but I simply couldn't do them all at once.

Coming from an engineering degree, I simply could not believe that policy studies were a science. Since I was in law school, I couldn't catch on fast enough that for ecology students, habitat preservation was the sole and overriding goal of everything and not a subject with trade-offs that we should discuss. While I took econ, I didn't understand why you would have any faith in a law you couldn't derive and prove with data. I wasn't sure about econ's laws either, because after taking all that physics I thought that real laws enforce themselves every single time. In law school, the justice issues behind a decision were worth pointing out. But not in econ or ecology.

I didn't want to stand out and be forever blurting out irrelevent stuff that trivialized people's disciplines and offended them. But I wasn't fully immersed in any one program, so I didn't have time to absorb and adopt any one doctrine. The walk across campus wasn't long enough for me to fully shift gears, so I'd point out something interesting! and then realize that I was defying the norms of the discipline. Again. Enough of that and there was no one who would help me stay and work, much less back me against the prof disparaged me in and out of class.

This makes me so sad. Schmidt talks about preserving your radical soul and challenging power structures and doing socially worthwhile work. I wasn't trying for any of that. I wasn't even being noble. I just wasn't nimble or discreet enough. For the costs being a critical outsider caused me, I should at least have been deliberately disobedient. What a waste. What a relief to understand more of why second grad school was so awful.

(The thing that I find interesting is that first grad school wasn't nearly as oppressive. At first glance, you'd think first grad school might be worse. Smaller school, entirely older male engineers, some overtly religious, in the generally conservative culture of agriculture. But at first grad school, my perception was that the deal was "if you show you thoroughly understand this material, you can think anything you like." I was obviously a very strange bird in that program, but I never once felt like my thoughts infuriated people or that they were evaluating me on anything but my classwork. They'd answer anything I asked and as long as I could tell them how pumps worked, I was never scared they wanted me out of the program. I think it was due to the head guy, who still gets all my respect.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It makes me sad that people didn't have a grad school experience that was as good as mine. I was surrounded by interesting, helpful people who are still friends today, and I really liked most of it.

It seems like such a waste of energy for so many who are miserable.

Maybe I was just readily indoctrinated, so it was easier for me.


7:11 PM  
Anonymous Meagan said...

Wow, this summarizes my sentiments exactly. I mean, exactly exactly. My grad school was a tiny, interdisciplinary program where most people fit in but the program was horrible (despite consistently being lauded as the "top" program in the country in that field.) Some people really liked it. Some hated it. (Oddly, those who liked were the ones with a full ride, which goes into another theory of mine about expecting value from what you pay dearly for.) I loved the people I went to school with, but not the program itself.

I was trying to explain to a former law school classmate today about the irrationality that surrounds MA and PhD programs, and how my roommate is getting screwed by her department as she tries to just get someone (anyone!) to read her dissertation so she can finish. She's seven years in, and her advisor pretty much told her today that he'd like to her to start from scratch.

It's all a racket to perpetuate the system.

7:18 PM  
Anonymous doctorpat said...

Smaller school, entirely older male engineers, some overtly religious, in the generally conservative culture of agriculture.

I could speculate that you are talking about a group who are not insecure about their place in society. A group who has a defined role, defined structure, and who therefore does NOT regard the odd person who is different as a threat.

It's the groups that are still fighting for recognition or a place that will turn on anyone who doesn't fit in.

7:40 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

You know what this does for the morale of us undergrads, right?

Hoping we might someday earn a place at the grown-ups table.

I guess better to know than not.

8:42 PM  
Anonymous YK said...

Ah, now I think I see why you were so mad about second grad school. Just out of curiosity, if you had been more nimble or discreet or political, would you have stuck with it? Would you have decided, well, this isn't how one ought to do policy studies, but I like this area enough that I'm willing to compromise and work within the system? Or would you have decided it was completely unworkable?

(I wonder this about my own area of work. It falls far short of my ideal expectations, and so far I've stuck with it, but at some point I might change my mind.)

9:00 PM  
Blogger Noel said...

What were your grad schools? (Just the program names would suffice.)

When Doctorpat says:

I could speculate that you are talking about a group who are not insecure about their place in society. A group who has a defined role, defined structure, and who therefore does NOT regard the odd person who is different as a threat.

I believe he speaks the truth. Paradoxically, many fields would be better regarded if they didn't hold so tightly to their group norms/ideals. For example, when you say for ecology students, habitat preservation was the sole and overriding goal of everything and not a subject with trade-offs that we should discuss you state exactly why ecologists haven't had the impact they would desire.

Oh, and grad school in the sciences, in my experience, is quite a different thing. Whenever you have an objective measure of quality a lot of the bullshit goes out the window.

1:26 AM  
Blogger Wesley said...

I can see where an interdisciplinary program would be terrifying: trying to please the unwritten rules of each discipline, many of them contradictory.

But I shared many of your same experiences earning my doctorate in political science, graduating from a large department with over 100 graduate students. In grad classes, you were allowed, even encouraged, to ask questions. Students quickly learned, however, only to ask questions within a very narrow range. Indoctrination was more important than intellectual curiosity.

My friends and I in the program called it "drinking the Kool Aid". The earlier in the program you drank from the paper cups, the better you did it. Me, I couldn't stand the stuff. Maybe that's why I hated my nine years.

2:37 AM  
Anonymous Nicole said...

Noel - do I take your closing comment to mean that you think the hard sciences are somehow exempt from the bullshit b/c of objective measures of quality? Schmidt's book is all about the bullshit in physics. First grad school for me was in physics, and I gotta say, the bullshit was flying fast and furious. The methodology, the kinds of questions one can expect physics to answer - that's about as rigidly fixed as it gets. Ask a physicist about why the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics "won" over Bohm's interpretation - odds are you'll get hand waving and harrumphing about Occam's razor, but nothing resembling and objective criteria of quality. In the field where I did second grad school, a fluffy, non-objective social science, people were constantly questioning assumptions and the very idea of objectivity was continually under scrutiny.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Sweet Coalminer said...

Now maybe the healing can begin? I know it was really painful for you, and you had such very good intentions.

Add to it that they pulled the rug out from you, too.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I hate healing, S.C. I like to dwell on grudges FOREVER.

1:23 PM  
Anonymous polly said...

Gotcha. I’m a lawyer, born and bred and in the groove, now trying out graduate studies in philosophy. I went into it knowing perfectly clearly not to diss the professors, and not to blurt out anything containing the phrase “…but in real life…”. Even so, I found it was actually hard to start learning the new stuff without a few protests forcing their way almost involuntarily out of my mouth.

However, once past that, when I tried out a few ideas, obediently framed in the language of the new discipline, I got a better response than you in that it was polite, not defensive, but also astonishingly little real interdisciplinary curiosity.

So, if you’d enjoy kicking back in the company of some fellows who had similar experiences, and who got to express their dissatisfaction to a respectful world audience, might I recommend the Nobel lectures of Sen, Allais and Coase. They all take serious swipes at either their universities, or the elders of their disciplines, for determinedly refusing to hear information from outside the walls.

2:07 PM  
Blogger Strange Bird said...

You wrote a lot of really interesting things here that I'm currently relating to as not really loving my grad program, but what stuck with me most?

I've never heard it called Cal-Irvine before. And I went there for five years.

7:56 PM  
Blogger Wesley said...

I went to UC Irvine too and we didn't call it Cal-Irvine either, but I've heard that before. Particularly regarding collegiate sports. Go Anteaters!

Many of the UCs were informally called Cal-XXX until the UC XXX moniker became more widespread. UCLA was always UCLA.

2:29 AM  
Anonymous pete said...

Thanks for the book recommendation. This may make getting through my PhD a little easier.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Pete, ABSOLUTELY read it. It will be a HUGE help to understand the underlying dynamics. I didn't, and couldn't sort the anxious feeling of failing something but not knowing why.

2:28 PM  
OpenID quirkybook said...

Maybe I should have read this book back when it was originally recommended, because I just quit/was forced to resign from (second) grad school two weeks ago! I'm only a little bitter, though -- mostly, I'm just relieved. A little excited, too, because the opportunity costs of grad school, while easily ignored while actually IN school, are much more glaringly apparent now that I'm not.

12:40 AM  
Blogger mwilson said...

...And here I've been kicking myself for years for not going to grad school. On a part-time basis I've done some grad coursework in physics and philosophy... can't say I felt the conformity pressures described here, but without entering a program I don't imagine one would.

[Well, in a philosophy seminar I once expressed distaste for the idea that philosophy should consist entirely in language analysis and/or word games. I was upbraided with a naked argument from authority: "So I suppose the entire analytic tradition of the past century has been wrong?" Well, you know, why not? The scholastic tradition of philosophy sure was wrong, and that lasted a couple hundred years.]

So maybe I can stop kicking myself so hard: I don't think I know a single gradschool veteran who doesn't respond to my regrets with, "Well, it's not all it's cracked up to be, bub."

1:26 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Oh Runa, sweetheart. I'm sorry it didn't work for you. I understand. I knew it was rough going for you.

You're in SF now, right? When are we going to hang out? And Marc? When are we gonna do something?

1:55 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

You're very welcome! I'm so glad you liked it!

The book was a real paradigm-shift for me, too; I've been recommending it high and low to anyone who might benefit from a look into the hierarchical structures in professional programs. Though I haven't read them, I suspect Barbara Ehrenreich's books would make good companions to Disciplined Minds.

Like Schmidt, I went to UC (or Cal) Irvine for a PhD in physics, though I only lasted a year before I withdrew. I can attest that the program is just as draconian as Schmidt describes. I suspect a friend of mine was forced to re-take the qualifying exam three times because he didn't fit with the image and personality of the typical physics grad student (he was, otherwise, a superb physicist). The selection process was clearly political: borderline students with influential (and approving) thesis advisors were passed while others who had yet to find an advisor were failed and took the test again.

All that is a very great shame, because the department has some fantastic professors, a lovely campus, and a history of impressive science. It should be one of the good ones.

Regarding your own experience, I wonder how interdisciplinary programs stack up compared to more traditional programs? It would seem that they might be more forgiving: they attract students from a wide variety of backgrounds, and so would be more accepting of different personalities and ideas. And since they're not training students for a specific, established career, they shouldn't feel obligated to make students conform to a standard. But I suppose every interdisciplinary program will have to rely on the traditional departments, and that's where the friction comes in.

p.s. I'm dealing with a Known Asshole myself at the moment. I totally agree with you: we shouldn't up tup with it, not one bit. This is a paradoxical thing to say, maybe, given the arguments in Disciplined Minds, but society has an obligation to force individuals to soften their rough behavior. We don't acknowledge this very much in our freaky-individualist culture, but it's how people have managed to live together since we came down from the trees.

p.p.s. For a short time this week, the sales rank of Disciplined Minds on Amazon rose into the low 100,000's! (It's usually in the 400,000's.) Have we discovered a From The Archives Bump?

8:19 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Actually, yeah. I did buy the book on Amazon after reading this post.

It's been said before; her Google juice is strong. Maybe it translates to Amazon as well.

11:07 PM  
Anonymous Schmidt critic said...

You know, the point of the physics PhD is to find an advisor and get to work, not dither about worrying about the qualifiers. If students who haven't found an advisor are treated with more scrutiny on qualifying exams, that seems perfectly acceptable to me. At least it provides a quantitative way of evaluating folks who are advertising (by not finding an advisor) that they might not be right for the program. Shit, I was even told in my program that yeah, the quals were insanely hard and needed to be 'gamed' a bit, but if you got into research (the purpose of your presence there) everything would go smoothly.

Schmidt's conception of physics graduate program as groupthink indoctrination is pretty ridiculous in the view of all people I've talked to working in physics. I mean, really

2:00 PM  
Anonymous Anon said...

Megan, what field was it where you hated the grad school?

10:35 PM  
Blogger Spungen said...

I wasn't even being noble. I just wasn't nimble or discreet enough. For the costs being a critical outsider caused me, I should at least have been deliberately disobedient.

Wow, this pretty much sums up my life. Good work.

12:52 PM  
Anonymous pete said...

Just finished reading the book.

Thanks again Megan/Daniel, for the recommendation.

I don't expect to go through anything this bad during my PhD --- grad school is way more relaxed in this part of the world.

On the other hand, the book has been tremendously helpful in allowing me to articulate my unease with the way society is organised.

4:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also had two radically different grad school experiences.

My PhD is from a medium-sized, aggressively interdisciplinary (but relatively non-elite) program.

Grad school there was sometimes unfair, sometimes infuriating, but on the whole, delightful.

However, while I was finishing the last dissertation chapters, I was simultaneously enrolled at a very large, very prestigious professional program at another university. I was miserable there.

The contrasts were marked.

Non-elite program was:
a) generous with funding
b) less concerned with professional norms
c) more supportive and intimate
d) relatively accepting of challenge

In contrast, elite professional school was:
a) stingy with funding
b) very focused on relations with business and with corporate-sponsored research
c) impersonal and unsupportive
d) snobbish and insecure

Getting through the (non-elite) program was challenging -- the classes were hard, and expectations were high.

Getting through the elite professional was about conforming to expectations. Classes were notably easier at the elite school -- perhaps since the faculty prioritized research.

Or, after Schmidt, perhaps classes were easier because course content was a relatively unimportant part of the disciplining process in that profession.

In my case, I think the differences between the programs arise mostly from the contrasting connections to corporate norms (and money).

11:42 AM  
Anonymous Single man said...

The comment about quals by 'Schmidt critic' is ok in theory, but really it can be quite an ugly affair. Every grad student whom I knew in my department who had passed the quals had already found an advisor, and the grading was more lenient in some cases. In some cases I even witnessed how the advisor relationships started--with a mixure of fascination and near-sexual energy for the advisor and his work. I found this to be intolerable and instead attempted to pursue the quals by independent study, knowing that they would be required to assign an advisor if I would pass. In my case I did not pass one of two exams and chose to leave according to policy rather than try to appeal.

1:52 PM  

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