I keep thinking about the feudal system and that Drew Barrymore movie Ever After (spoilers ahead). The prince spends the whole movie being challenged by Drew Barrymore about his outlook on ruling and peasants and stuff. Awesome! Meanwhile the servants and peasants have no idea that the prince is having a come to Jesus moment. The whole movie the servants still have to work for mean old Anjelica Huston’s character and that creepy guy with the villain stache. Their lives still suck and that’s all they see. Now presumably at the end he implements some kind of princely policy to make their lives better, but there has to be a trickle down effect before they feel it. Who knows how that would work or how long it would take or if the Anjelica Hustons of the kingdom would even listen! All the while the serfs and the peasants of the kingdom would go on believing that there was nothing more to their lives.
Now I’m not saying that academia is like the feudal system or that grad students are like serfs. I’m just posing a question about hierarchical structures… Does it matter if the king thinks it’s cool for the serfs to learn to read if the nobles and knights aren’t on board?
The academic training structure for PhD students is built on the apprenticeship model and subsequently struggles to train modern scientists for the current job market. While some universities cling to this tradition and refuse to consider “alternative” careers, many (I won’t say majority, because let’s be real) are at least trying to modernize and get with the times. Emory (thank god) is one of them!
Emory has one of the few NIH funded Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) programs which exists solely to expose young scientists to careers outside of academia and help foster skill sets necessary for those careers. We also have a very active graduate Alumni Office. Not only do they organize a set of programs called Pathways Beyond the Professoriate which I am SO about, but they also support anyone who wants to plan a career related events with alumni. I have relied on their support to plan 2 such events for my program. So, yea, Emory as an institution is already doing a pretty good job and I definitely take advantage of that!
Unfortunately, as with any centuries old organizational framework, there is only so much a single piece of the system can change without radically overthrowing the whole thing. Before I postulate as to why, it’s important to understand the organization of PhD training. Like feudalism, academia has a hierarchy. That’s not too surprising, most organizations are hierarchical after all, but academia is rife with them. There is the professorial hierarchy, the administrative hierarchy, the graduate school hierarchy, the student organization hierarchy. Seriously every person falls into at least 2 different sets of tiered structures. Universities LOVE a good org chart. It’s a whole thing. Anyways, as with all hierarchical institution, certain layers interact more than others based on their placement in the hierarchy. Again, duh! Grad students are at the very bottom of the graduate training pyramid and at Emory (though there are, of course, parallel structures at other institutions) this is the order of the layers in the training pyramid. Get ready for alphabet soup because academia also loves acronyms!
Layer 1: The Faculty
Obviously my advisor is a part of this layer and I will talk specifically about her in a later post. (FYI, my advisor is INCREDIBLE and the main reason I feel confident doing this internship, but I digress.) “The faculty” as an overarching term that includes other students’ advisors, the people who taught all my classes, PIs that I do lab meetings with, my advisor’s collaborators, my thesis committee, etc. etc.
Layer 2: The Program
I am getting my degree from the Immunology and Molecular Pathogenesis (IMP) Program, but I could be getting it in anything really and it would be the same. Every program has a Program Director, a Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), an Executive Council and a Program Administrator (PA), all of whom oversee students in some way or another. They keep track of my coursework and make sure I’m fulfilling all my degree requirements.
Layer 3: The Division
The IMP program is under the Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (GDBBS) which also has a Director and a bunch of administrators. This “umbrella” program basically lumps together PhD students in related programs (cancer, neuroscience, microbiology, genetics, immunology) and divides them from those in disparate programs like art history or business. Since a lot of the requirements, coursework, and experiences of PhD students in the GDBBS are similar, this standardizes things to some degree. The GDBBS squad does a million things and just generally advocates for division students in the greater academic and scientific communities.
Layer 4: The Graduate School
The GDBBS is a subdivision within the Laney Graduate School (LGS) which includes every student getting a PhD, no matter what program. The LGS has a Dean and full staff divided into a number of offices that do everything from finance to programming to alumni relations and fellowships. They also handle anything that applies to all graduate students from ethics and teaching training to our base salary and health insurance options. They keep the graduate school running.
Layer 5: Provost? Stuff like that?
Honestly I know there are all kinds of people above in this layer, but they are so unknown to me that I’m not even going to try.
To my knowledge, Layers 3 (aka the GDBBS) and 4 (the LGS) are SUPER supportive of students like myself.
The Director of the GDBBS is a firm supporter of training for alternative careers. In fact he runs the BEST program mentioned earlier. He also happens to run my fellowship program. Not only do I see him every week but my fellowship is structured to foster dialogue so he always knows how we are all doing and what we want to do with our lives. Basically, we are all homies. This means that we have had numerous conversations about internships, my goals, the state of graduate training, etc. I know he supports this decision because he knows I’ve put a lot of thought into it.
I mentioned some of the LGS wide programming at the beginning of this post, but it’s more than just programming. I’ve worked with the women in the Alumni Office- Robin and Katie- on a couple of events and they have been so helpful and supportive over the years. Robin also comes to all of the Graduate Student Council (which I’m on the board of) general body meetings to make students aware of opportunities and programming. They really make an effort and I think students see that. I also(now) know that the Dean herself helped arrange this opportunity. She’s been in dialogue with my internship boss for years trying to figure out some of the logistical details, which is just crazy because she has way more important things to do with her time.
Layers 1 and 2, on the other hand, are a mixed bag.
It’s important to know that this is not an Emory specific thing. This is just how Academia (capital A) thinks. Even in institutions like Emory, which has amazing programming, there are, and perhaps always will be, hold outs. The key here is that these hold outs are in the layers closest to the students.
I’m lucky because I knew the big shots in the upper layers would support my decision. I felt sheltered from dissenting opinions. But I only knew that because I was crazy involved in extracurriculars and attended every Emory event related to biotech starting in my first year. And I only was able to do that because my advisor is super awesome. She has shielded me from a lot of blowback which has given me leeway to make the connections I needed at Emory to do this. I’m thankful for her, for upper management and for sticking my nose into a lot of people’s offices over the years.
Most students aren’t as lucky. They get sequestered away in lab day 0 and end up down the path to academia by default. For many students there is so much pressure from Layers 1 and 2, that they don’t feel comfortable even exploring other options. And this is happening everywhere. I met a girl from another university at a conference recently. She was adamant about going into biotech down the road, but then insisted that the only way to get into industry was to do an academic postdoc which just isn’t true. She got into a (sort of) heated discussion about it with one of my friends who just looked at her and was like “you’re brainwashed.” She was and she isn’t the only one.
The same students feeling pressure from Layers 1 and 2 often don’t get the opportunity to interact with Layers 3 and 4. They don’t get to hear from on high that it’s okay to be “alternative.” And when you don’t get to hear from the big wigs that what you are thinking is okay, you start to second guess yourself. You get brainwashed. You get stuck.
I hope that when I return, I can change some people’s minds in Layers 1 and 2. But more importantly, I hope that I can show other students that there are people that will support your decisions. You just have to find them.