Over the past week I have assumed position as “chair” of my departmental graduate and admissions committee a task that I am excited to carry out, but simultaneouly dreading.

Given that our department has the largest number of graduate students of all those in the medical center, numbering about 35 at any given time, this will be a major commitment in time and effort. Although I have been serving on the committee for several years (in fact, for the past 5 or even 6 years), the lion’s share of the work–even for those like me who are not afraid to delegate–will fall under my jurisdiction.

The new task does not come with a lot of “personal benefits;” it’s truly a service to the department, requiring considerable good will, discretion and the willingness to be a mentor to students outside of one’s own lab. What does it entail? Aside from the yearly recruitment and admissions of new students, which is a big undertaking, the primary job is to monitor new students in their first year as they rotate through the department searching for a lab to join, deal with personal, professional and academic issues that crop up. If that isn’t enough, I will also be following the more senior students as they move through their qualifying/comprehensive examinations to become candidates and advance towards their dissertations. The chair frequently serves as ombudsman, peacemaker, motivator, and a host of other roles.

Is there anything in my academic career that has prepared me to function as part-time psychologist, part-time conflict-resolver, part-time-judge, part-time party whip?

The resounding answer is NO. It’s “on-the-job-training.” But I do feel up to the task. Why? I’m not sure, but perhaps it has to do with chess.

Now don’t stop here! I’m not going to resort chess notation–I promise! No Chigorin or Nimzo-Indian defenses (my apologies to Austin). Then why chess? Has it helped me prepare for this undertaking? Again, no! But former world champion Gary Kasparov wrote a book entitled “How Life Imitates Chess.” I want to suggest a personal twist of this idea, and stray to “How Life Imitates Fiction.”

By now I know that my credibility must be weak; what on earth am I rambling about? Well, my very first novel (Matter Over Mind), written as a graduate student, featured a hero who was a PI struggling for tenure in an academic institute. Years later, I went through that very process in my own life.

Then came novel number two, “Welcome Home, Sir.” The hero of this novel is a mid-career professor who happens to be chair of his departmental graduate committee! Moreover, his experiences in the military, delegating responsibility, dealing with all kinds of people in less than optimal conditions–has prepared him to deal with parallel issues in his academic career. How eerie is that?!

So all this got me to thinking–since we scientists understand cause and effect so well–perhaps my next novel needs to be about a protagonist who makes wonderful scientific discoveries, cures cancer in 99% of all humans (as well as mice) and wins the Nobel Prize. How far will fiction go in imitating life?

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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2 Responses to Chair

  1. Congrats, Steve – I think.

    I spent a bunch of years in my early 30s as a ‘Graduate Programme Coordinator’, which is sort of the same job in our system – but since we had our Grad Committee at Faculty level I managed to avoid ever having to chair a meeting. Probably just as well, as anyone who’s ever seen me chair a meeting would tell you.

    Anyway, I recognise all of the roles you list in your fourth para.

    I’ve only got one or two semi-useful pieces of advice, the main one of which I’m sure you’ll already have worked out for yourself. That is that what the grad students want about all else from someone in your role is for you to take an interest in them as individual people with individual personalities, problems and aspirations, rather than as ‘Departmental Graduate Trainee Production Worker Unit No. 26B’. This remains true even if you have to read someone the Riot Act on occasion. The one thing students dislike above all else in academics is if they sense the academic is just going through the motions.

    The other piece of advice is that, while enthusiasm is your friend, the word ‘passionate’ is to be avoided like the plague. Even when used to describe your belief in graduate education.

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