A Modest Invitation

Dear Science Faculty of Research Universities,

I believe we can all agree on the importance of learning by experience. The proverb widely attributed to Confucius says it concisely: "What I hear I forget, what I see I remember, what I do I understand." In this excellent spirit of learning, I would like to invite your children to my home for a few days of important life lessons. If you do not have children of your own, please send your nieces or nephews, or perhaps your neighbor's children. Any child you care about deserves this opportunity.

Your children will learn by doing that hot stoves are not to be touched, that electrical sockets are not to be prodded with forks, that aggressive dogs should not be petted, and that if you get punched it's because you didn't move out of the way fast enough. I call it the "Spartan Method," in honor of an ancient culture that embraced "learning the hard way," and I think you'll agree that these are valuable lessons for a successful and prosperous life.

I want to assure you that I have your children's best interests at heart because the Spartan Method is a great preparation for academic careers like yours. As I am sure you recall from your own graduate years, there is so much to learn in graduate school beyond coursework and research projects. Things like how to read your advisor's handwriting, how to read your advisor's mind, how to navigate the ever-changing beaurocracy, how to take constructive criticism, how to take destructive criticism, how to meet unrealistic expectations, and how to take blame for your advisor's poor management and communication skills. Yes, it's a rich learning experience because "sometimes you have to learn the hard way."

With the Spartan Method, your children will be fully prepared for such wonderful future opportunities as getting a public dressing-down from their mentor for misunderstanding complex and contradictory instructions, accepting that their rewards are in no way related to their efforts, and recognizing that they are always and unquestionably at fault. They will be well on their way to understanding how little they are valued by their superiors, who deal with them solely out of the kindness of their hearts. And of course, they will know how grateful they must be for such attentions.

I know what you're thinking: "that's not how we've always done it." You are right, of course, and, generally, the way things have always been done is the best way to do them, but I hope you see that with the Spartan Method, is merely an accelerated program for the existing system. You had to put up with a lot when you were in graduate school; that's just the way it is. But it may be that that is just the way it is for those who haven't already learned the lessons.

The Spartan Method will put your children at a great advantage to their peers. When they reach graduate school they will already know so many of the things the rest must learn! Consider the possibilities! Future faculty will have a docile, downtrodden workforce from the start. It will be like having third- and fourth-year students in the first and second years, which must certainly be a great boost to research productivity. Just think of the grant money saved!

I hope you will take me up on my offer. We shouldn't waste a moment preparing the next generation of scientists.

Sincerely, A Like-Minded Educator

Some disclaimers and clarifications:

  • This is meant to be satire. I absolutely do not condone abuse.
  • I am not referring to my own advisor. I chose the group I am in because I get to do cool research for someone I admire. The rest of my group is pretty great, too. I am lucky to be surrounded by wonderful people, and I wish very much that groups like mine were the norm, not the exception.
  • I heard some rotten grad school stories yesterday (recent and ongoing), and they made me pretty darn mad. Instead of storming into somebody's office shouting, I wrote this.