Saturday, December 30, 2006

Cruelty in academia?

[Jigar] Patel claims in his application that he was asked by [V.K.] Jain to do odd jobs like repairing his scooter’s flat tyre and depositing cheques. Patel has submitted a copy of the log book. An entry in Patel's log sheet on October 16, 2005, which carries Jain's signature, states, "Went to BSNL office, creation for printer work, post-office, watch shop for repairing, complex preparation of dyes and computer work."

Another entry dated September 19, 2005 reads, "Printer repair, mouse change and searched for 'Jhaadu' (broom)." Similar entries appear practically every day till September this year on Patel's log sheet.

Intrigued? According to this ToI report, V.K. Jain is faculty member in the chemistry department of Gujarat University, and Jigar Patel is his Ph.D. student.

Some years ago, Kumudam, a Tamil weekly magazine, did an exposé on the way professors treated their students in Tamil Nadu universities: students were made to do all kinds of non-academic (domestic?) odd jobs such as grocery shopping, baby-sitting or driving around professors' children, etc. In one case, women students were made to do an elaborate rangoli at the wedding of a professor's daughter!

When you read the ToI story, you'll see a bemused tone in describing all those grossly unprofessional actions by the research guide. In fact, the story starts with an ancient comedy show with eerily similar incidents. Since this report treats its subject largely as a joke, I would have to assume that this sort of unprofessional conduct by professors is rare.

Am I right in this assumption?

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One more observation before I close. The students have an extensive information network (hostels and messes, coffee shops, cultural activities centre, etc. in the physical world, and e-mail, orkut, bulletin-boards, chat rooms in the virtual world) through which they get to know about the good, the bad and the ugly among their professors. With so much of information floating around, and since choosing one's advisor is the most important decision in a graduate student's life, why do some students seek out and choose such 'bad' professors? Shouldn't they be exercising better judgement?

* * *

Thanks to Pradeepkumar for the e-mail alert.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Its not that rare incident in India. I heard about a couple (husband was a Prof in an IIT and wife a Reseach Fellow in the samne lab!) who were using graduate students to do all these things- Buying biscuket, gardening, picking them from airport.. Only good thing was that they were doing decent science. But students took 6-7 years to finish their Ph.D (some didnt) and quite often were not given good Reccomendation letters. One guy had to do a post-doc in India becuse of this. Another student quit research and took a school teacher job. Both of them is so called very accomplished scientists in India! Another leading scientist working in an Institution asks students spend from their pockets to purchase chemicals for their research!

  2. Anonymous said...

    "...Why do some students seek out and choose such 'bad' professors? Shouldn't they be exercising better judgement?"

    C'mon, are you serious? Look at the way things function in most of IISc! Would you know what your boss is like until after you've picked him/her and joined? Int. PhDs are the only ones who are in a position to exercise choice.

    I suppose you could leave once you've figured this out. Inties do leave. The others, I think, often feel that he investments too big to throw away.

    I don't, however, think there's much of this kind of unprofessional conduct here, but there are other kinds of problems.

  3. Anonymous said...

    This article was published 7 years ago in Nature, and I guess many of us
    might had read this before. However, the points raised by Djerassi are still not addressed not only in US, also in India.

    Who will mentor the mentors?

    The social structure of the professor-graduate student relationship in the sciences is distinct. Although an undergraduate mentoring fiasco rarely causes permanent damage — mainly because other mentors are readily available — the same can hardly be said of graduate school, where the effects of this one-on-one mentor-disciple relationship may last a lifetime. Must people die before research universities will place serious emphasis on monitoring, evaluating and, crucially, on mentoring the mentors in their graduate school science faculties?

    by Prof. CARL DJERASSI (

    Carl Djerassi is in the Department of Chemistry, Stanford University, California 94305-5080, USA.

    Would Harvard's PhD supervisors be open to assessment by their students?
    The suicide last August of Jason Altom, a Harvard graduate student, was widely reported in the media (see, for example, Nature 395, 823; 1998 Nature 395, 826; 1998; New York Times Sunday Magazine, 29 November 1998). All the articles cited Altom's suicide letter, in which he stated that if his working conditions had been overseen by a three-member faculty committee, instead of the conventional, exclusive relationship with one professor, "I know things would be different". The Harvard Crimson even equated the suicide note to a policy document. But could things really have been different?

    If an oversight committee had existed in this case, it would have consisted of Altom's chosen mentor and PhD supervisor — Elias Corey, a Nobel laureate and arguably Harvard's most distinguished organic chemist — together with two other tenured professors, or perhaps one tenured and one untenured (who, thanks to Harvard's draconian tenure policy, would feel even less secure compared with their equivalents in other US universities). Altom's letter stated that an oversight committee would "provide protection for graduate students from abusive research advisors". How?

    The committee members would have learned of such "abuse" (Altom's own undefined term) only if Altom — supposedly unable or unwilling to complain directly to his PhD advisor about allegedly "abusive" behaviour — had confided in one of them. What could the committee members have done? Confront the professor with his own student's unwillingness to communicate with him? What would this do to their continuing collegial relationship? In the assistant professor's case, such intervention might well seriously damage his or her own career.

    My alternative
    I would like to propose an alternative that seems to have been overlooked in all accounts of this laboratory tragedy. Based on my experience as a chemistry professor in another elite US research university, with several hundred graduate students and postdoctoral fellows under my supervision over four decades, I decided about ten years ago to illuminate our idiosyncratic professional behaviour in the guise of a fictional tetralogy, described by some colleagues as "washing dirty lab coats in public". In addition, I made the following proposal, which was uniformly shot down by several élite institutions as "opening a Pandora's box". But, as the father of a suicide victim, I have become so obsessed by such tragedies that the first sentence in one of my 'science-in-fiction' novels (The Bourbaki Gambit) reads "What would you use to commit suicide?" The response was a chemist's answer (as was Altom's) — cyanide.

    My proposed solution is simple. Complaints about "abusive research advisors" (Altom's terms) and other ill-defined behaviour must be handled anonymously, and hence must be lodged outside the intensely collegial and competitive departmental setting. The main US universities now require detailed evaluations of faculty by undergraduates, often with written assessment, as well as numerical ratings of various qualities. All this goes anonymously to a central office. Eventually, every professor, as well as the department chair and dean, receives a copy that forms part of their dossier in tenure or salary decisions.

    Why not have annual evaluations by graduate students and postdocs of the many components of an appropriate mentor-disciple relationship? Occasional anonymous complaints by one student out of a dozen or more would then lead to very different conclusions — and action — about the mentor's performance than repeated critical commentary by half the research group. Is this not done because most universities give no training in supervision, automatically assuming that a novice assistant professor is a qualified mentor? With no standards for even assessing mentor performance, are they afraid even to have such issues raised? Or is it because the mentor would immediately guess the source of critical commentary? In chemistry such worries can often be dismissed because the sheer size of individual research groups, often exceeding 30 members, imposes a veil of anonymity. Even in small research groups, a dean's or ombudsperson's discretion could handle such problems.

    As an experiment, some time ago I gave a simple questionnaire to a large group of graduate students in an élite US university, asking whether their PhD supervisor had discussed with them topics such as ethical behaviour in research, the publication practices of the research group (who writes the paper or decides the presence and order of authors?), freedom to discuss unpublished results, ability to pursue one's own ideas, details of the professor's attitude towards patents, and so on. The results were devastating. Depending on the question, 60-90 per cent of the students replied "no" or "never".

    The social structure of the professor-graduate student relationship in the sciences is distinct. Although an undergraduate mentoring fiasco rarely causes permanent damage — mainly because other mentors are readily available — the same can hardly be said of graduate school, where the effects of this one-on-one mentor-disciple relationship may last a lifetime. Must people die before research universities will place serious emphasis on monitoring, evaluating and, crucially, on mentoring the mentors in their graduate school science faculties?

  4. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    I'm at the stage of life where I see a bit of both sides :) I must say I've never heard of IISc professors asking their students to deposit cheques or repair flat tyres (and I'm amazed that a log of all this was maintained at Gujarat University), but certainly some of the IISc crowd had dreadful reputations as people to work with. Which is true everywhere, in varying degrees. And generally those people did fairly negligible science too. But sometimes I have come across people whom I regard highly as scientists, but whose students regard them as interfering busybodies intent on controlling every aspect of their lives, professional or personal.

    Besides, a lot may depend on the student and how he/she handles things.

    As Natasha says, the "regular" (non-int) PhD students get about a week to decide their advisor, so mistakes aren't surprising. The system at IMSc, TIFR and most universities in the US, where you choose an advisor only after a year, seems better. Even so, I knew some fairly bright people stuck with impossible bosses (washouts as scientists, and unspeakably nasty as human beings), and always wondered why they didn't count their losses and leave. I certainly would have, in such a situation. In a few other cases, the equations were poor professionally but good personally, and the advisor actually helped the student find another (good) lab to work in.

    There is a huge vested interest, in a big place like IISc, in keeping things as they are. IISc attracts students because of the reputation of the many terrific people there, but it's also home to a lot of mediocre people who feel they have to impose themselves... and their only opportunity is to grab the good students before they learn better. And most universities, of course, are unspeakably worse -- so I'm not all that surprised at the TOI article.

  5. Abi said...

    Anon, Natasha, Pradeepkumar, Rahul: Thanks for your comments.

    I'm sure there are some lousy professors in any system, anywhere. But, given the importance of choosing professors, it's absolutely essential that one talk to seniors. I agree that this process of consultation could do with a longer interval between the time of joining and the time to choose one's advisor. But, even if it's short (a week, for example), one must make full use of whatever collective wisdom is available.

    These days, with electronic means (along with the anonymity that it provides), this process must be easier, no?

  6. Anonymous said...

    as a student, I see the following:

    1. The choices are few to begin with (constraints include areas of interest, research funding, contacts etc.)

    2. People and relationships do change. You advisor when you joined is not the same as your advisor later in your program.

    3. The costs of change advisor gets higher as time passes. Advisor do use this as an implicit threat to the students.

    4. Abuse may not be as extreme as documented in this case.

    My experience is that good researchers are rarely good advisors, smart faculty also have strong egos, and the ability to exercise power is very tempting (power corrupts!).

    I have found that advisors cant take the changing perceptions of the student as the student goes through the program and matures. They get less or more reverential (the former being more common) and much like in a relationship, the change is not easy to deal with.

  7. Anonymous said...

    Just a follow-up, Jigar Patel, the victim in the original post, is still struggling to get his life settled (searching a job is not that easy for a well-known Ph.D. drop out). One more student, a former colleague of Jigar Patel, has been fighting for Jigar's rights since then, who has made tens of applications to the university regarding the issues with alleged guide Dr. V. K. Jain. In past, Dr.V.K.Jain was alleged of abusing his M.Sc. students with foul language.

    Obviously, the university officials are not interested a bit in taking any actions against Dr.V.K.Jain for non-proassional reasones (that is personal affections, if I may say). And I know all of this because I am yet another Ph.D. student of the same lot.

    Long Live Abusing Guides.