Serial Killers and Grad School Horror Stories

It’s time for my yearly Halloween post. My regular readers know what to expect: a horror trope and a physics topic, linked by a tortured analogy. And this year, the pun is definitely intended.

Horror movies have a fascination with serial killers. Over the years, they’ve explored every possible concept: from gritty realism to the supernatural, crude weapons to sophisticated traps, motivations straightforward to mysterious, and even killers who are puppets.

Yes I know Billy is not actually the killer in the Saw films

One common theme of all fictional serial killers is power. Serial killers are scary because they have almost all the power in a situation, turned to alien and unpredictable goals. The protagonists of a horror film are the underdogs, never knowing whether the killer will pull out some new ability or plan that makes everything they try irrelevant. Even if they get the opportunity to negotiate, the power imbalance means that they can’t count on getting what they need: anything the killer agrees will be twisted to serve their own ends.

Academics tell their own kind of horror stories. Earlier this month, the historian Brett Deveraux had a blog post about graduate school, describing what students go through to get a PhD. As he admits, parts of his story only apply to the humanities. STEM departments have more money, and pay their students a bit better. It’s not a lot better (I was making around $20,000 a year at Stony Brook), but it’s enough that I’ve never heard of a student taking out a loan to make ends meet. (At most, people took on tutoring jobs for a bit of extra cash.) We don’t need to learn new languages, and our degrees take a bit less time: six or seven years for an experimental physicist, and often five for a theoretical physicist. Finally, the work can be a lot less lonely, especially for those who work in a lab.

Still, there is a core in common, and that core once again is power. Universities have power, of course: and when you’re not a paying customer but an employee with your career on the line, that power can be quite scary. But the person with the most power over a PhD student is their advisor. Deveraux talks compellingly about the difference that power can make: how an advisor who is cruel, or indifferent, or just clueless, can make or break not just your career but your psychological well-being. The lucky students, like Deveraux and me, find supportive mentors who help us survive and move forward. The unlucky students leave with scars, even if those scars aren’t jigsaw-shaped.

Neither Deveraux or I have experience with PhD programs in Europe, which are quite different in structure from those in the US. But the power imbalance is still there, and still deadly, and so despite the different structure, I’ve seen students here break down, scarred in the same way.

Deveraux frames his post as advice for those who want to go to grad school, and his first piece of advice is “Have you tried wanting something else?” I try to echo that when I advise students. I don’t always succeed: there’s something exciting about a young person interested in the same topics we’re interested in, willing to try to make a life of it. But it is important to know what you’re getting into, and to know there’s a big world out there of other options. If, after all that, you decide to stick through it, just remember: power matters. If you give someone power over you, try to be as sure as you can that it won’t turn into a horror story.

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