JOIN MICELLA PHOENIX DeWHYSE--GRAD STUDENT EXTRAORDINAIRE--AS SHE MAKES HER WAY THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL IN MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING

As a prelude to this installment, let me just say that there are many sides to a story, and I'm trying to tell as many as I know. Chapters 26 and 27 will, hopefully, flesh out the other sides of the soap opera that I'm about to describe. But I'll start out, in this chapter, by dropping the bombshell as it was dropped on me a few weeks ago:

Daphne Quits (the Group).

Daphne, the hard-working, always-here superwoman (see chapters 4 and 24 for more about Daphne), has quit the group. This was shocking because I, like the rest of the group, had come to believe that she was Jeff's favorite. Daphne always seemed to be working herself into oblivion, always perfectly organized and relatively helpful, volunteering to do this or that, championing lab cleanups and such. And although her project wasn't going spectacularly, she had a publication and a few posters and presentations under her belt.

Sure, Daphne can be a little snippy from time to time. True, she and Laura couldn't stand each other. Yes, Daphne has lately started to let things go a bit, and she occasionally has had small hissy fits in group meetings, mainly about group jobs not getting done properly. Yet, there didn't seem to be anything afoot big enough to cause her to up and quit the group, to the shock and awe of everyone around her--everyone, that is, except George. (See Chapter 24 to learn about George's recent departure from the group.)

Daphne never struck me as the type of person who would stop doing something just because she wasn't happy. With Daphne, happiness never seemed to be the point; she just worked. She's been in the program as long as I have, and although I have been more verbal about my misery, I'm sure she's had her share. But she never seemed like the type who would quit, right when Jeff is up for his midterm review for tenure.

Before we get Daphne's or Jeff's take on things, here is what appears to have happened:

At group meeting, Daphne is presenting a paper. Sabir raises a question, and Jeff picks it up. Jeff makes a point, a valid point, about Daphne's lack of information on a particular topic. Daphne doesn't have that information, she says, because she has focused on other parts of the paper. Jeff harps a little too loudly, a little too long, and a little too harshly. If it had been me up there, Ms. Micella, he would have done exactly the same thing. Jeff won't let it go; he holds on like a pit bull. Daphne pouts and snaps, Jeff pushes and sulks. The presentation goes on.

There is tension in the room but nothing out of the ordinary. Daphne is usually very thorough and very cool, so her lack of preparation, and her thinness of skin, seems out of character. Then again, Daphne has had a cold for a few days; maybe she is just feeling sick and tired.

Come Monday, something isn't right. Daphne seems her chipper self, but there is an undercurrent of brewing hostility. I keep looking for Jeff; I need to see him to reschedule a meeting. His door is closed and the light is on; this usually means he's in a meeting. I don't knock. Once, when I walk into his outer office, I see Daphne sitting there, looking angry. They don't see me.

I go on with my day and my week. Each day, I see less and less of Daphne. I ask my undergrad, Ben (in Jeff's lab each of the more senior graduate students has their own personal undergrad), "What's going on?" He says that there's something that she--Daphne--needs to tell me herself. I pump him for more information, but to no avail.

Late in the week I get a phone call at home. It's Daphne. Daphne never calls me at home. Something is up. She tells me that she has decided to leave the group. I'm shocked.

I see her later; she explains that after group meeting, she sat down to think about her status in the group and realized that she hasn't been particularly happy for the last 6 to 8 months. She believes there are fundamental differences in the way that she and Jeff do science. After giving it some thought over the weekend, she has decided that she no longer wants to work in his group. She doesn't know whom she is going to work for next, but it will no longer be Jeff. End of story.

* * *

Pause...rewind. I had never before heard Daphne say anything about "scientific differences." I did hear her say, at one point, that Jeff had been unresponsive to her requests for help on group tasks, among other things. She had also complained about Laura, who, she thought, should provide more leadership, as the oldest student in the group. It was not unusual to hear Daphne comment on how horrible other people's presentations were. It was not rare to hear her gripe about how much work she had to do, how much she had to read, and how long she had been there over some weekend. But I'd never heard anything about "scientific differences."

Within a week or two of her announcement to Jeff, Daphne packed up her office, moved out, cleaned out her space in the lab, and was merely a memory in Jeff's lab. Simple as that. She is now working on a new proposal, although she claims to have no adviser. She is taking a breather from lab. I guess that's one way to arrange a vacation.

1, 2, Switch-a-Roo: Changing advisers to improve your life.

Well, folks, like I've always said, graduate school is like a game of survivor: You choose your team, you know the rules, you learn the ropes, you play to win. Changing advisers might be a necessary move if you want to stay in the game. I've thought about doing it often, and part of me is a little green that Daphne made the leap. But I don't envy her as she floats among the sharks, waiting for another ship to come along. And even when that other ship does come, it'll be headed in a new direction. The time she has already invested will be lost.

I have invested way too much time and effort into my project--which is actually going well at the moment--to leave now. Yet we graduate students need to figure out what we need and what is acceptable. We have to be willing to put up with a lot, but we also have to have limits.

An adviser is not always a mentor. Jeff is not my mentor, and I'm OK with that. He's not the greatest manager; I can work with that. He is emotionally oblivious; I don't take it personally. That--not taking it personally--is crucial.

Despite his faults, I think Jeff sincerely wants to turn us all into excellent scientists and first-rate thinkers. That's what I'm in graduate school for.

But if you are feeling like you have little importance, that your needs are not being met, that your time is not valued, that your ideas are not listened to, or that your lab environment is hostile, it might be time to make a change, like Daphne did, or is doing. A few other friends have recently switched advisers as well. One switched because he was being used to advance someone else's academic career. (Then again, aren't we all, to some extent?) Another left because she wasn't getting along with either her adviser or her labmates; she's the shy, quiet type. It might be for the best, but it's not a decision to be taken lightly.

Thus far, Jeff and Daphne have remained civil, although there is a strange electricity in the air. Let's hope it's a change soon, for the better.

Former science graduate student and postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse wrote a column for Science Careers from 2002 through 2008. Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is still a pseudonym. Discussions on the forum, Facebook, Twitter, or e-mails to the editor at snweditor@aaas.org or to micella.phoenix.dewhyse@gmail.com are welcome, as she is considering turning her columns into a book.