The thesis committee is there to stop the natural tyranny of the PI

Gerty-z of Balanced Instability blog posed an age-old problem in post-graduate education.

I was talking to a graduate student the other day. It was a hallway interaction, she had not searched me out for advice. I have known this grad student for several years, and she is one of the superstars in a highly-ranked graduate program. By every metric, she should be graduating. Now. Turns out, her advisor has been suggesting that she stick around for another year or two.

ruh roh! Conflict of Interest raises its ugly head.
I bring this up because this is not the first time I've heard a similar story. In fact I've heard of what appears to be at least one entire department that is riddled with this tendency to prolong the graduate school interval as long as possible, seemingly only to extract more value out of productive trainees.

The story continues:

As I pressed further, Pre-doc superstar told me that she is the only person in the lab that knows how to work the Magical Data Machine. She is also, bar far, the most productive person in Dr. Advisor's lab. If she sticks around for longer, she will probably publish one or two more papers. But she will have a LONG graduate career. I think that Dr. Advisor is thinking more about his own lab than the career of Pre-Doc Superstar.

Gee, you think? We can all see this...from the outside. Are we so able to see these situations, which are often slightly more subtle, in our own laboratories?
Comrade PhysioProf was all over it in the comments.

It is the responsibility of the the thesis committee to rein in this kind of PI behavior.

He's spot on. This situation is wrong. It is absolutely ridiculous that graduate education has stretched up to a median of 6 years. Now of course there are going to be individual cases. Sometimes folks run into a situation where extra time is really needed. An initial stint in a lab that went poorly and a smart student needs a re-start. Fine.
This is what the doctoral or thesis committee is for. To make those decisions about timeline, when to defend and how much work is required to deserve the PhD.
In this, however, they are supposed to be on the side (so to speak) of the student. Why?
Because the PI is inextricably conflicted by his or her own scientific and career goals. Those goals tend to prefer that trained and data-pumping individuals stick around as long as possible. That papers get finished, even when the reviews come back demanding another 6 mo or 12 mo of work from precisely that model in which the student is expert.
It is not even trivial to understand the motivations that the supervising PI / doctoral advisor has to keep graduate students in the lab as long as possible.
And they have all kinds of tricks, most of them no doubt totally subconscious. Sit on those paper drafts. Insist the paper *has* to go to a higher falutin journal (and of course the longer the trainee has been working at a project, the greater the perceived need to show it was worth it with an exceptionally high IF journal acceptance, right?) Insist the data, while statistically significant, aren't "pretty" enough.
Then there are the more overt ploys. Plead tenure or Full Prof promotion fears. Appeal to funding concerns (real or not). Play the-science-is-most-important cards. Act the ass about the productivity of someone else's doctoral student when on her committee so as to keep the departmental average training duration as high as possible.
All of this is natural and inevitable. People have intrinsic motivations and goals that are in conflict. The key is to set up administrative structures that minimize exploitation of others. The doctoral committee is one such structure and it should, in my view, function as the gatekeeper that negotiates the differing interests of student and doctoral supervisor.

6 responses so far

  • You are spot on that this is the principle purpose of the thesis committee. This is why it's critical to have at least one committee member who is willing to go toe to toe with the PI. It's also why a committee should not be composed of PI's collaborators-they share the same conflict of interest.

  • This is occurring in one of the labs at my institution. We have a badass grad student who has churned out four great first author papers, helped write grants, draft manuscripts and review them. Her boss just changed institutions and is hanging onto her for an extra year or longer so that he doesn't have a big gap in productivity. She is really polite but utterly fucking seething about this. Her boss keeps trying to dangle the high impact journal article over her head but she says she doesn't have enough data to get one in the time line that he proposes and just wants to get the fuck out and start her postdoc.

  • queenrandom says:

    Absolutely this is what committees should be doing.
    The trick is getting them to do what they should be doing rather than viewing committee time as just another damn meeting to get over with as soon and with as little effort as possible. I find this attitude to be rampant in certain departments, and it's really a shame, because just a little more effort on the part of committee members could have curbed a lot of abuses of students that I have seen during my grad career - and perhaps stopped a few students from quitting the program.

  • And that reminds me of something too. When can the grad student tell the PI to fuck him/herself? Probably never, because they have that degree waving over the grad student's head. The PI also has letters to write for future jobs and future grant applications no less!
    Too much power. Even with a committee.

  • mikka says:

    "tend to prefer that LOW WAGE trained and data-pumping individuals..."

    Fixed it for ya

  • Pat says:

    When I was in grad school, this almost happened to one of my classmates. According to him, his major prof was unable to convince him to postpone defending, so at the defense the major prof trashed his work to the committee, even accusing him of not having generated all the data. Fortunately, he had kept them all up to date on his work as he went along, so they knew the accusations were bogus.

    caveat: my classmate heard this from one of his committee members later, so it is third-hand. The moral of keeping your committee up to date is still good, though.

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