Jul 12, 2016 | Going dark
I sometimes wonder what happens during the maturation process, when people slowly turn from fragile, troubled and empathic PhD students which they were in the past, into a bit psychopathic, emotionless and calculated bosses who push others to do things not necessarily optimal for their development. Just as everyone believes they will make better parents than their parents were, everyone also seems to believe that they will never copy their PIs’ mistakes. My observation is that it the students in a certain group or environment are never happy to the same extent – in most cases, just a portion of them is satisfied with life, and most of them is not. The reasons for lack of happiness usually include suboptimal logistics at the project, not enough collaboration, difficult yet not highly sellable topic, boring and too focused or too spread topic, not enough travels and interactions with other people, long working hours, not enough supervision or poor quality of supervision, stiff atmosphere, risky research hypothesis, lack of clear goals at the first year of studies and lack of proper time management which causes lots of students to not graduate in time, even if they have results and work way over the official working hours. And, sometimes, also an overall lack of respect.
So, the question is: what happens to all these PhD students – who all believe that they will avoid all these mistakes in the future – that they desensitize in the process of becoming a faculty member? I am observing myself at the moment, while having my first batch of tenants and students, and I am starting to understand how this all comes about.
Recently, I had to solve a certain logistic issue. Namely, my neighbors, who live in my street for thirty years and more, are not used to any partying, whereas some of the tenants are typical students who would like to drop a barbecue from time to time. This is an obvious conflict of interest, and me – who never makes any noise at all – had to somehow solve this issue without being sued by the neighbors or abandoned by the tenants. The situation got to a critical point at a time when the neighbors got so frustrated that they started calling the police every time they saw any people in the garden after 10pm.
So, one evening, we organized a summit in order to negotiate the peace: the neighbors, the tenants, and me. I had a hard job as a person sandwiched between the two groups of interest. Of course, as I am a modest PhD student who needs to pay mortgage on her own, it is in my business to keep on having tenants. On the other hand, I do not want a graveyard atmosphere in the house. And I really like my tenants, therefore I do not want them to feel like home arrested. So, I needed to negotiate. Actually, it was only one tenant who was making events without any notice, so I blamed him a little bit for this situation. And, I let all the tenants go home after they introduced themselves and got a bit of a lecture from my neighbors. The key was to give the neighbors a feeling that I care, and give them a sense of control over the situation – even if they have no control.
So, I took off my laptop and opened the rental contract, and then we spent the whole two hours on going through the contract and making it more strict for the tenants, according to the neighbors’ wishes. For instance, we introduced a small financial penalty for not cleaning during the first 24 hours after the party, and specified which households must be informed in case of a bigger event coming. The neighbors seemed content with this final version of the contract, so I had a feeling of success. But after I came back home, I got a bit of a conscience. So, this is how it happens: in case of any conflict of interest, a boss is inclined to team up with his or her own superiors in order to push the worker together rather than convince the superiors that the worker needs more autonomy. I somehow managed to be kind to everyone this time, but in the end, I was wondering if I am not going towards the same wrong direction as everybody else: while slowly turning from the student role towards the management-related roles, forget that they were a student themselves once upon a time, and they were struggling with similar issues. So, apparently, I have just started to corrode, and to go dark just like everybody else.