The Horrible Lives of Grad Students

Since I’m old, and the hair on the top of my head hasn’t turned gray yet (my goatee did long ago), I started to read an article claiming to have found the reason hair turns gray by researching the biology of the hair follicle as it ages. It was all pretty dull, and I was about to stop reading when the following line stopped me cold:

In this experiment, researchers physically aged the hair of mice through plucking and forced regrowth.

Most of us would pass that up and go on reading, but I know too much about the lives of grad students in Biology and Chemistry (probably Physics too, but I don’t know anybody from that major).

Immediately my thoughts were flooded with images of long-suffering grad students working late at night pulling hairs from even more long-suffering rats, over and over and over. Many reading this might feel horror at the treatment of the poor rats, and God bless ’em, but my sympathy immediately went to the grad students who were burdened with the degrading and dehumanizing task of torturing the rats. “It’s Friday. It’s your turn to pull out the rats’ hair,” was probably a typically dreaded weekly ritual among the grad students.

Trust me, that’s not the way they make nude mice. My wife the chemist kept coming across the term nude mice as she was researching biology papers for her experiments using nano-second spectroscopy, or, if you prefer, her official job title was Fast Photo Physicist—try saying that 3 times fast. She finally came across a review article that explained that nude mice are mice specially bred to have no fur, so the medical researchers who constantly feed them mass quantities of stuff to see what gives them cancer can easily see the resulting tumors.

Usually grad students only live lives of mild torture as they provide (nearly) slave labor to their grant-wielding dissertation advisors, like the chemist whose advisor kept putting off his dissertation defense, so he could continue to make use of his student’s computer expertise. Sometimes it leads to suicide. (The Chemistry Department at UCSD once tried to hide how many grad students had committed suicide from the rest of the university administration.) Other times, as in the case of a math grad student in the 70’s, it can’t be both tragic and ironic. That grad student, frustrated at his mentor stringing him along, beat the guy to death with a hammer. When they locked him up, his response was, “Finally I can get to do the work I want to.”

In normal cases, however, it’s just disgusting and seemingly pointless manual labor. In the case of 2 scientists trying to isolate and study specific brain hormones—research that led to the Nobel Prize for them—their grad students ground up 5,000 sheep brains in a blender for one and 10,000 pig brains with mortar and pestle for the other. I’m sure their grad students felt that experience really taught them how to be good scientists.

On the other end of the spectrum are the scientists who are more creative grant writers. One biologist decided to study a hormone found in abundance in lobster brains. Since their research only required the brains, their weekly barbecues were epic. It would be a waste to just throw away the rest of the lobsters after all. Of course, you perhaps couldn’t blame the Geography professor I knew who got a grant to study different cities’ solution to traffic to the beach on busy weekends. He sent his grad students to the Jersey Shore and South Carolina while he himself took trips to Miami Beach and Hawaii.

Inspired by such things, I once wrote a story of an astronomy grad student sent to tend to a telescope on the closest moon of Jupiter to live alone for 2 years, sending all the data back to his advisor on Earth for analysis because they didn’t have enough electricity on Io to run anything but minimal computers, and that electricity was only generated by him riding a stationary bicycle attached to a generator.

So, next time you read a news story about grad students wanting to unionize in the hopes of making their miserable lives half-way livable, don’t criticize them for their delusion that a union shop would make things better for them. Just envision yourself patting them on the hand and saying, “Bless your heart.”

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