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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What's the best way to describe a graduate student?

The controversy over the 1952 Nobel Prize reminds me that we haven't had a poll in a long time. Check out the poll in the left-hand sidebar. How would you describe a graduate student?

You must answer by April Fool's Day.


  1. I'm glad you allowed multiple responses in the poll, Larry, because a graduate student's position doesn't stay that same during her studies. In my experience, early graduate students are very much apprentices, who spend most of their time learning techniques and doing only as they are directed by their superiors. The successful student, however, becomes a capable scientist in her own right by the time of her doctorate, able to suggest new experiments, develop new techniques, and lay out entire projects. So, the description of a graduate student really depends on where she is on that arc.

  2. The successful student, however, becomes a capable scientist in her own right by the time of her doctorate, able to suggest new experiments, develop new techniques, and lay out entire projects.

    So, if that's true, then what is the benefit of post-doctoral "training"?

  3. This is an interesting question; in fact, when I was a graduate student I recall having a similar discussion in the lab one day. We eventually settled on this definition: "a graduate student is a pair of hands that can think." Much later on I reminded my doctoral supervisor that he had made this statement, to which he replied, "Did I say they could think?" Unfortunately this was not one of the choices in this poll, so I selected: apprentice.

  4. Personally I find the definitions of scientist and student tend to be narrowing, and they shouldn't. It is all part of the institutionalization of science (and everything else). There is a reason why we have terms like "citizen scientist" "amateur scientist" "professional scientist" "student of nature" etc. Science is a way of knowing (or at least approaching knowledge) and doesn't belong to universities or government labs. It does not exist as a guild where some certification is required to practice (unlike lawyers or medical doctors). As far as I'm concerned if you're doing science than you're a scientist. The only benefit to formally placing limits on the term scientist would be for the benefit of the media so that they could be provided with a short hand in order to avoid explicitly elaborating on credentials. I'm not sure that I would be so eager to narrow the definition of a wideranging philosophical system just to safe reporters a few words.

  5. I voted 'apprentice'... but like, in 'The Emperor Palpatine' sense.

    Not like, the blacksmith sense.

  6. It's very much, who?

    The status of graduate students varies widely, group-to-group and discipline-to-discipline. What is constant is that the professor defines the relationship, and it is very much “the deal or the door.” The student’s initial contribution is selection of a thesis advisor. If he accepts the student, the professor provides the knowledge, resources and focus to get the new grad student started, because the new student is nearly devoid of skills and worthwhile ideas. At the outset, the only serious negotiation is over the thesis problem. The successful grad student, with time and effort, moves from being a “pair of hands” to being an individual contributor.

  7. Indentured servant? That's how I feel...and I've been a graduate student for five years already!

  8. This is from an article by Sarah Ghabrial on (

    "Over the years, the number of graduate students has exploded -- a trend that has been identified, sometimes disparagingly, as a sign that opportunities for (much) higher learning have been expanded to erstwhile disadvantaged individuals and groups. This is true to some extent, but, as Regnier explains, graduate students are "cheap research labour," owed less by the academy or administration than professors and often have only tenuous rights over their own research.

    "With research replacing teaching as the motor of universities, and with so much cheap labour around, universities have far less incentive to offer their faculty secure employment. Slowly but steadily, Canadian schools have been casualizing their academic workforce: more and more faculty and staff are hired on contract and 'part-time' basis -- a state of employment limbo with few rights or benefits."