Paging Doctor Clueless!

A story from way back in the mists of time…


A good friend of mine had an absolutely terrible time during her PhD, worse than anyone I know: her two co-supervisors had a fight and stopped talking to each other about a year in, and that was actually the least of her worries. But she struggled through all obstacles, focused on her very cool project, and produced a draft thesis that she proudly presented to both supervisors.

Predictably, the two PIs spent most of their time and energy correcting each others’ corrections to the draft. However, the more clueless PI also left some rather unnecessarily mean and spiteful comments scattered throughout the document. This PI was in over their head in an unfamiliar field, wasn’t exactly making much of an effort to catch up on the historical or current literature, and made several edits that were just plain wrong. However, one in particular stood out.

The sentence in question read something like this (I forget the details):

“Some evidence had already been found to support a correlation between X and Y [Smith et al., 1977; Smith and Jones, 1978], but the advent of new technique Z provided definitive evidence for this relationship [Page, 1984].”

The latter paper was apparently absolutely pivotal to this sub-field, and essential to the interpretation of my friend’s work, which the clueless PI had been co-supervising for just over three years. However, the PI saw fit to mark this passage, in angry red pen, with “the attention to detail in this thesis is atrocious. SEE ME”.

When my friend took the thesis into the PI’s office, she was told “your cross-referencing is completely unacceptable. There is no page 1,984 in this document”.

The moral of this story is:

  1. there are PIs out there who not only don’t know the seminal literature in their own fields, but who are incapable of recognising a standard citation format.
  2. it’s possible to survive such a lab and get your PhD, and even to laugh about it (many years) later. We’ve actually discussed making the whole saga into a Hollywood blockbuster, with the climax featuring my friend standing on a windy hill top in a bloodied lab coat shouting “you can take my life, but you can never take my THESIS!”


Right, back to double checking the intra- and inter-document cross-referencing in the four progress reports that triggered this memory. They should be ready to send out for feedback by the end of the day… thankfully, my colleagues are sensible people who can be relied upon to provide constructive and sensible edits!

(I will, of course, blog any exceptions).

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
This entry was posted in career, communication, English language, idiocy, science. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Paging Doctor Clueless!

  1. cromercrox says:

    And I thought my graduate life had been hell…. Clearly, two supervisors is worse than none at all.

  2. Amelie says:

    Wow, that’s incredible. I’m so sorry your friend had such a tough experience (and I thought mine wasn’t easy!). Good that she can laugh about it now though. Is that PI still a PI, btw?

  3. Mermaid says:

    Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. That just tickled me this morning. Thank you.

    I love it when those who are striving to make themselves look important and intelligent just end up looking dumb. Karma, anyone?

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Henry, oh, the stories I could tell you… (except I can’t tell the juiciest ones because it’s too easy to identify the individuals involved).

    Amelie, according to the website, she’s still a PI in the same department. My friend, of course, got the hell outta there as fast as she could after being awarded her PhD, and didn’t look back. It depresses me though how close one of the brightest people I know – someone who was meant to be a scientist – came to not graduating and being forced out of research by other people’s egos and incompetence.

    Mermaid, yeah, even at the time, when my friend was completely caught up in the drama and stress of it all, she still found the page 1,984 thing funny – and she also considered it as validation of her suspicion that she was in the right and her PI was an eejit. I vividly remember her showing me the angry red scrawls on that page of the thesis, rolling her eyes as she did so…

  5. Steve says:

    I thought a poem was apt here. It is by Elizabeth Wordsworth

    If all the good people were clever,
    And all clever people were good,
    The world would be nicer than ever
    We thought that it possibly could.

    But somehow ’tis seldom or never
    The two hit it off as they should,
    The good are so harsh to the clever,
    The clever, so rude to the good!

    So friends, let it be our endeavour
    To make each by each understood;
    For few can be good, like the clever,
    Or clever, so well as the good.

  6. SB says:

    I feel for your friend. I would have been so angry.

    Also, I really like the poem.

  7. Amelie says:

    Cath: I’m afraid this happens a lot, or at least much more often than it should…

    I like the poem, too. Kind of reminds me of the song Winnie the Pooh makes about the relationship of Tigger and Rabbit…

  8. Agreed – excellent poem!

    SB, she was mostly past the anger phase and well into the dull resignation phase by that point. But yes.

    Amelie, yeah, I’ve heard horror stories from many people. It makes me very grateful for the excellent mentoring I received!

    I don’t remember the Tigger – Rabbit song… link please!

  9. Nina says:

    Argh … how awful.
    It somehow reminds me of a student of my dad’s who google-translated a term-paper from (random) bits of scientific literature (English to Dutch), and also translated some of the names of people that were cited in the literature. It took my dad a long time to figure out who those researchers were that she kept citing and that he’d never heard of …

  10. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Oh, that sounds hilarious!

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