Tropes versus Truth

A few weeks ago I sat down to have a chat with Professor C from the University of Michigan. He was visiting our department to give a colloquium talk, and, per the customs of academic visits, scheduled some time to meet with graduate students to talk about their work.

I didn’t think that I would have a lot to discuss with Professor C, since I am not familiar with his research. But at the urging of one of my own professors, I decided to meet with him anyway, and I’m glad that I did.

We actually only talked theory for a few minutes. One of his recent projects is about tonogenesis, which is a phenomenon I want to explore, too. After that, though, Professor C just wanted to hear about my other research ideas and gave me very encouraging feedback on them. I admitted to him that I never knew if any of my ideas were really worth pursuing, or if the notebook I use to jot down potential experiments would ever be used.

The first nice piece of advice he gave was that those notebooks would probably come in handy one day. After he had filed his dissertation (over ten years ago…!), he spent the subsequent year focused on publishing papers based on his doctoral work. And it was only when that was finally finished that he went back to his own idea sketchpad (which was actually a filing cabinet) to figure out which path to pursue next. It’s true, he said, that once you’re a full professor, collaboration opportunities and new projects tend to fall in your lap. But for the time being, it’s good to learn how to find your own ideas and to write them all down, even if most of them end up going nowhere.

The second thing he told me that I want to keep in mind is that “academia is set up to make us doubt ourselves.” Now, I hadn’t dared admit to him, a stranger and a superior, that I get weighed down with impostor syndrome all the time, but he was able to catch on to that pretty quickly. (Something about the way I talk about myself, I guess.) And he proceeded to give me some spot-on encouragement.

Academics have to strive for excellence: constantly undergoing peer review, defending ideas at conference talks, writing application after application for grant money, not to mention too many candidates for too few jobs. The way the institution is designed, I have to be told no a hundred times before I hear a single yes. What I’ve got to remember, Professor C reminded me, is that even when my ideas are challenged and taken down, it doesn’t mean that I as a person am being deemed unsatisfactory or incompetent. This is just how academia shapes its scholars to do their best work.

Not only was I buoyed by that short half-hour meeting — which was more like a counseling session, I guess — I was also surprised. As I told my friend Lilith, I never really expect that kind of positive professor-student exchange from graduate school. The trope, I think, is of the bright-eyed upstart with a head full of buzzwords whose ego gets punctured by the skeptical, hyper-critical academic adviser. Shouldn’t Professor C have shot down my research ideas one by one instead of telling me they were great right off the bat?

“That’s the PhD Comics grad school trope you’re thinking about,” said Lilith, “not what should actually happen in reality.”

PhD Comics is a funny webcomic, and I salute its writer for giving grad students something to laugh at and relate to. (It must be hard to write a webcomic whose intended audience comprises about one percent of the population!)

But for a lot of my fellow graduate students, the humor is too cynical and the stereotypes too negative. The comic’s poor characters never graduate, and everyone is stuck in academic purgatory for the readers’ sadistic entertainment. What Lilith said made me realize that while I can peruse PhD Comics and laugh at the parts I find true to my own experience, I absolutely should not use it as a standard of comparison for my actual graduate school career.

And according to this rather meta chart, in a few years I will cease to enjoy reading it at all! So might as well get what I can from it now.


I’m very grateful that almost every professor I’ve met in my department and in my field has been so encouraging. I want that to be the model of how I treat my future students. It would be neat if they were surprised, as I was, by the emotional support they receive. But it would be even better if this kind of positive relationship simply became the status quo.


Word of the Day: kurtosis (from the Greek κυρτός, meaning ‘arched’) is the measurement of how much a probability distribution resembles a bell curve (i.e. normal distribution) in terms of the width of its peak and the weight of its tails. Taller and thinner curves are called leptokurtic, while shorter and fatter curves are called platykurtic. Would you consider the curve in the comic above to be leptokurtic or platykurtic?

… Trick question! The graph has nothing to do with kurtosis, because it is a timeline, not a probability distribution.


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
This entry was posted in comics, school and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Tropes versus Truth

  1. I just stalked the University of Michigan’s ling website to figure out who this professor was. He sounds like a great person! I read Ph.D. Comics occasionally (have you heard about the movies?!) and do find it funny (according to the graph, I’m at the point in my grad school career when I should find it the funniest). But I’m grateful it doesn’t actually reflect my experiences in my department.


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