This Is Not Graduate Student Education

I’ve been reviewing some grant applications over the last year, and there’s something that has been bothering me, so I’ve decided to inflict it on the hive mind. For obvious reasons, I’m not reproducing the exact texts, but under the personnel section, I’ve been reading things sort of like this:

We have graduate students who rotate through the lab. One of them will be selected to perform Aim X as their* thesis project.

Not something like, “Student X has been working on bargle bargle, and Aim X will be part of her dissertation on bargle bargle.” Writing in existing student dissertation topics is perfectly fine by me. Nor is this a case of “we’ll pay a student to do this, and some of this might (or might not) find its way into his dissertation.”

What I’m seeing the outright assignment of grant aims as thesis projects without any input from students–these students aren’t even named in the proposal. This doesn’t strike me as education, but as a way to hire lab techs or post-docs at lower salaries. I can’t really see what educational purpose this serves, as a student should be able to design her own dissertation work (within the obvious constraints of her advisor’s lab). That’s a major part of training someone to be a scientist. At least, that’s how I was trained.

Am I an out-of-date geezer, or is this a new trend?


*Can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a mismatch between singular and plural recently on proposals. Sigh.

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15 Responses to This Is Not Graduate Student Education

  1. drugmonkey says:


  2. Dr Becca says:

    With how long it takes to actually get funding these days, I don’t think it’s so crazy that a PI would be proposing work whose “do-er” doesn’t yet exist.

    I obviously don’t have all the info on this particular application, but a single Aim doesn’t seem like a full dissertation, does it? I would imagine that the plan is for whatever student decides to stay, he or she will do the Aim, and then build the rest of the thesis off the data acquired. I don’t know of many people who got to design their dissertation projects completely from scratch–usually you’re given a little piece of a funded project, and then get to develop it from there.

  3. Potnia Theron says:

    To quote Bill the Cat: Ack!, Thbbft! One of the things that still differentiates Biology dept phd’s from biomedical ones is that PhD students tend to/are often/can be their own PI’s, doing projects only peripherally related to the mentor. Its partly why they can get a TT job right out of the program (not that its always or ever a good idea). This kind of thing sucks.

  4. Dennis says:

    I would do it exactly this way. First make sure funding comes in, then find a fitting student. The other way around is just more insecurity for the students and may even lead into wasted time for them.

    Grant money comes in when? 10 months after application? Do you want them to stall students already in the lab until it’s clear if he will be able to pay for the experiments?

    Maybe it’s because I am German and I didn’t go to grad school, but in my case for example, I was interviewed and hired as doctoral student after the DFG granted funding for the project. I didn’t have to worry at all about funding and the project direction was clear the moment I started. In (at least) German grant proposals you often just state that you apply for a grad student salary and you will hire a fitting applicant when the money is granted.

  5. jw says:

    I agree with PT and Mike here. i do see lots of PIs just going through grad students in this way, including in the soil science department from which i just graduated. by contrast, i wanted to do a very specific experiment of my own design for my phd, so i found my own (non-traditional) funding and found an advisor who would be laissez faire enough to let me do my own thing. of course i like to feel very superior about it, but HECK YEAH i do feel superior to those doing it as in the example above. i think that is a lame way to operate on many levels. those people shouldn’t be grad students, they should be paid techs with some kind of job security. and yeah also most of them are not PI material.

  6. It looks to me like the convenient fiction, or unwritten rules, are being written down. “We’ll get a student to do this, and it will be his or her thesis – because students should work on theses, otherwise they’d be techs – and it will be a wonderfully complete, compact story that will be carried through from conception to completion in exactly 24 months.” When the reality, as understood by everyone who reads those applications and everyone who writes those applications, is that the applicant PI needs to write *something* in there, and of course when a student actually starts in the lab that student will start on his or her own thesis work that will be related to, but not exactly the same, as what was proposed in the application.

    Canadian PIs applying for NSERC funds have to talk about “highly qualified personnel”, a category that includes graduate students, undergraduate assistants and honours-project students, post-docs, and technicians. Is there a similar section in NSF applications?

  7. I was originally given such a project for my PhD, and I count my blessings that it failed miserably (collaborators couldn’t get their act together, and I don’t think they liked me either) as I was able to forge my own project. I now look at PhD students doing ‘cookie-cutter’ projects and wonder if they are just doomed to failure later in their careers. I think learning to fail is an essential part of science, and if you are given a chance to fail early on it’s easier to manage (in a protected environment) than later.

    So yes, I think it’s a trend, but I still don’t like it!

  8. I do the opposite: When I put graduate students on my R01 budgets, in the justification I explain exactly how the project will provide an outstanding context for PhD training.

  9. drjuliebug says:

    I can see encouraging a grad student to take on a topic. That’s what my advisor did. By the end of the process, I’d made the topic very much my own, extending it via some unexpected discoveries and a lot of refinements to the lab methods. So, I don’t see anything wrong with stating a similar plan up front. But I hope the PI won’t merely “select” a student and assign that person a narrow topic to love or leave. People come into graduate programs with varying levels of independence and self-confidence, but they should certainly finish with much higher levels of both.

  10. Don says:

    *Can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a mismatch between singular and plural recently on proposals. Sigh.

    The intent is to avoid sexism but English has no gender neutral word. It should be “…his or her thesis project” but that’s just clunky.

    And as the funding dries up you see more and more grad students and post docs doing all the lab management work. Placing supplies orders, waste pick ups, equipment maintenance, all of it. The PI can’t afford the techs so it all falls to the warm body who is still there.

  11. hipparchia says:

    *Can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a mismatch between singular and plural recently on proposals. Sigh.

    i for one am glad to hear that this usage is propagating. we don’t really have any good, non-gendered, one-word replacements for the clunky “his or her” or “he or she” or “him/her” or “(s)he” or… in the english language.

    you could always go all silence of the lambs and use “it” and “its” but how creepy is that?! and everybody hates and nobody uses the made-up pronouns, never mind that there are too many of them to choose from.

    if the generic “they” was good enough for shakespeare and jane austen surely it’s good enough for grant applications.

  12. noddin0ff says:

    There are a lot of labs with students who want and need degrees, not to be PIs but to be techs and managers. And, there are a lot of research labs these days that can’t afford the luxury of untargeted ‘education’ but can afford aim-directed training. ‘Free-range’ students might well be mythical; pleasant falsehoods we adopt so that we can keep funding them and get the work done so we can fund the next one.

  13. Eric riley says:

    As Don pointed out above – ‘their’ is not being used as a plural, but a gender-nonspecific singular (which is a proper use of ‘their’).

  14. EpiGrad says:

    I guess my concern is a lot like some others, having just gone through waiting well over 12 months from “Great, we’re funding this!” to actually seeing any money from it. If the education section must be for A Particular Student Already Working on Their Thesis, what the hell are they supposed to do in the meantime?

    That being said, I think even if you are writing for Hypothetical Student, it should be put in a far more specific context with a clearer linked to grad student education than “A warm body will do Aim 1”.

  15. I think a very important question here is also “what is expected out of a PhD?” I always thought that it goes like, you come up with a project idea or question of your own and basically your PI mentors at various levels and guides/helps you, while you try and answer the question. But given scenarios like the one you mentioned in your post or how PhD positions are advertised, it looks like not just the question but everything following it is already decided/planed and the doctoral candidate is just supposed to follow it!

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