Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Grad students and the "forbidden allure" of the weekend

Here's how a CalTech chemist read the riot act to a member of his group in 1996 -- in a letter printed out on his official freaking letterhead:


I would like to provide for you in written form what is expected from you as a member of the research group. In addition to the usual work-day schedule, I expect all of the members of the group to work evenings and weekends. You will find that this is the norm here at Caltech....I have noticed that you have failed to come into lab on several weekends, and more recently failed to show up in the evenings. [...]

I expeect you to correct your work-ethic immediately.

I receive at least one post-doctoral application each day from the U.S. and around the world. If you are unable to meet the expected work-schedule, I am sure that I can find someone else as an appropriate replacement for this important project.

You can read the appalling letter in full at the Chemistry Blog, which has been updated with links to other such overbearing instructions to serfs (no, make that slaves) grad students and post-docs.

Boston Globe has a response from Erick Carreira, the CalTech chemist behind that letter (he works in Switzerland now). Carreira hints at the possibility (it sounds more like implausibility to me) of this being a part of some joke -- but he also says this:

After all no one is perfect. Is it really fair to be haunted by these endlessly? I do not know how old you are, but can you really say you have done nothing you would rather forget about and not be reminded of 14 years later? I like to think people grow and change.

Carreira's and other professors' explicit instructions show us why PHD Comics resonates with grad students all over the world -- there are such horror stories everywhere.

The best comment is from Maggie Koerth-Baker of Boing Boing:

It's worth noting that Guido Koch [the guy who received Carreira's letter] is employed today, despite his youthful experimentation with the forbidden allure of the weekend.


  1. Wavefunction said...

    I actually met Erick Carreira a few years ago and had lunch with him. I found him quite gracious and nice, but I only met him for a few hours. One thing is indisputable; he is a first-rate organic chemist.