Toxic apprenticeship

Verbal and psychological aggression in the academia can be part of the apprenticeship – read toxic apprenticeship. I think that students and postdocs who learn toxic apprenticeship and become faculty keep feeding the loop of an unwelcoming academia for future generations.

Way before I started my PhD, I heard about horror stories that occur at research universities between bosses and their students. One needs to be careful to not step into a minefield by choosing the incorrect adviser for one’s personality.  

The apprenticeship I am talking about has to do with the relationship between adviser (Professor or Principal Investigator of a research group) and the graduate student. It can also apply to the relationship between a senior graduate student and a younger graduate student. I am referring specifically to the case in which, in the process of obtaining a doctorate degree the graduate student becomes an apprentice. The transfer of craft between the craftsmxn and the graduate student.

The toxic part I am talking about is the idiosyncrasy that goes against the integrity of the apprentice – read graduate student. Specifically, I am referring to the idiosyncrasies of overworking and passive aggressive communication. In regards of overwork it could be through micromanaging (e.g. asking him to come back after dinner to continue an organic reaction) or by implying that to succeed the graduate student needs to be sleep deprived. With passive aggressive communication I refer to the exchange of words that is intended to be used to motivate the student to work harder, but at the end harm the self of the apprentice.

Passive aggressive communication such as: “your work is terrible, you need to work harder”, and at the same time decoupled from guidance for improvement. Passive aggressive communication does not lead to more work, it leads to rumination and feelings of under self-value.

I wholeheartedly believe that sleep is an integral part of being a healthy person – very few people can function with very little sleep. Not sleeping well leads to a reduce cognition and performance – I can tell from my own personal experience. On top of that, not sleeping well wears out the body (I have had cold always after my body was pushed to the limits). 

Sleep is one of the major systems of recovery that we have as human species. Overwork stretches physical and mental cognition to the point that it requires larger amounts of rest to be back to normal operations. Hence, the cycle of overwork and little sleep, in the majority of cases, leads to burnout. Once burnout comes it becomes impossible to continue the journey.

Toxic apprenticeship creates an space in which graduate students do not have value in the knowledge work context; even though, everybody have gone through hardships to land the position they hold at research universities. Over the years  as a PhD student I came to think that is almost impossible to break the loop of toxic apprenticeship. The authorities should do something about it, it is the first thing that comes to my mind. 

The same people who incur in toxic apprenticeship are the ones at the top of the power chain. Professors are in charge of the educational part of the university, and there is a strong chain of power dynamics from graduate student, to post-docs, to assistant professors,to associate professors, to full professors and in between professors. I still hear similar horror stories after being 5 years into my PhD.

Toxic apprenticeship happens in different research universities in different percentages, but I think there is always some engagement in it. This narrative hopes to bring awareness.

(photo by Tony Thomas)

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