Ph.D. Pranks and Comeuppance

Seeing as April 1st has come and gone, I would like to dedicate this blog to one of my favorite Ph.D. pranks (I’ve reported on a few in this forum in the past)–AND to tell you about a little email note that I received a few days ago. Let’s start with the e-mail, and here it is, verbatim:

Dear Dr. Caplan-

My name is Jim Hager, and I am the manager of Publishing Corps. We have read both of your novels, Matter Over Mind and Welcome Home, Sir. Our publishing editors believe your novels to be fantastic and very well written.We would like to present you with an Outstanding Author’s Award for 2012. Congratulations! In a few days time, you will receive a check of $525 for your efforts.

It was a pleasure to read your books, and we hope to read more of your novels soon.

-Jim & Publishing Cops. 

Well, how flattering! And a nice sum of money. But something didn’t ring kosher. Why would anyone award me money “out of the blue?” And would an editor from a publishing company sign off as “Publishing Cops” rather than “Publishing Corps?”

Suspicions aroused, I scoured the internet and did not turn up any “Publishing Corps” although there was a Jim Hager who wrote a book called “Alligators under my bed and other Nebraska stories.” Nonetheless, I became quickly convinced that someone “was having taking (thank you Richard) the piss” as you people on the other side of the pond would say. But who could that be.

I thought of enemies and people who would love to see me embarrassed or trodden on. Who could it possibly be?

And then a hunkering suspicion floods my brain. After showing the e-mail to my spouse, I sidled up to our home office on the 2nd floor. Only to find my 13 year old daughter and 10 year old son huddled over a laptop in stitches from laughing. What did I do to deserve such treatment from my own kids? Probably telling them about my own pranking exploits. Such as this one:

As a graduate student in Jerusalem, my mentor was desperately trying to attract an experienced and talented postdoctoral fellow. At the time this was particularly difficult, because the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, unlike the Weizmann Institute in Rehovoth, had an attitude that the Hebrew language must be preserved at all costs–including in science. I will save stories about this unusual and outdated position (which is now defunct) for another time, but suffice to say that learning Hebrew was a daunting way of limiting the international applicant pool. And practically every Israeli-trained graduate student with an eye to continue in science goes abroad.

So one day I invented Bruce Miller. Yes, invented. I wrote up a sparkling CV for him, which included a Cell paper (but only one so as not to arouse too much suspicion). Bruce completed his Ph.D. in Australia, and though outside the field of T cell receptor signaling (because then my mentor would have known of his work), he was extremely interested in T cells. Better yet, his wife had just received a position with the ballet in nearby Tel Aviv, making it necessary for Bruce to find a position in Israel. Ahhh yes, the art of a credible prank (that’s where my kids went a little awry).

When the e-mail came through and was read, I was sitting and ‘reading’ patiently at my desk. After all, as a senior graduate student in the lab, who else would my mentor turn to in her excitement at having–perhaps–identified a strong postdoc candidate?

I feigned a complete lack of interest, saying “Oh nice” with no conviction, and I could sense the frustration mounting in my mentor. After all, we’d worked closely for 4 years or so, and she-knew I-knew how hard she wanted to find a suitable postdoc. By this time, I was on the verge of completely disassembling my intestines, trying so hard not to break out in guffaws. I had to leave the room. And quickly, excusing myself with a mere grunt.

As it turned out, my mentor was deeply insulted about my lack of “loyalty/interest” in this wonderful possibility! So when I did finally ask her about Dr. Bruce Miller, without her ever telling me his name, it took a few minutes until she caught on. Fortunately I could run pretty quickly in those days, and a 40 m dash around the department allowed to to outrun a tough PI with a 25 ml glass pipette raised over her head. But she managed to equal the score some time later–perhaps a story for next April Fools Day…

So regarding the prank my offspring played on me–I have no one to blame but myself!

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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12 Responses to Ph.D. Pranks and Comeuppance

  1. rpg says:

    “was taking the piss”.

    Unless you’re talking about a different Pond, of course.

  2. rpg says:


    (Don’t mess with a professional writer/editor. It’s not easy being inside my head.)

  3. mgg says:

    The Publishing “Cops” wasn’t intentional? Nice.
    Looks like you have successfully transmitted some traits to your offspring!

  4. Steve Caplan says:

    By nature or by nurture?

  5. Bob O'H says:

    But she managed to equal the score some time later–perhaps a story for next April Fools Day…

    Note to Steve’s children: this sentence is important. If you can’t see why now, I’m sure you will do soon.

Comments are closed.