What Comes Next in Astronomy — Part II

“Degrading the Master/Apprentice Model”
(Or, Why “Strega Nona” should not be our foundational training text)

The Master/Apprentice relationship is one that has been held up as a standard to be aspired towards in academia. When I think about the implications of this, I can not help but think of the folktale of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. Many versions abound, including those presented in “Fantasia” and Goethe’s “Der Zauberlehrling”. What varies is the response of the Master, sometimes entertained or scolding, but sometimes filled with anger. Inevitably the consequences are somewhat dire (Perhaps you read “Strega Nona” as a child, with pasta filling the streets of town in a frankly terrifying way, and her requiring her assistant to eat his way out of his hubris). The common thread is that the apprentice becomes ambitious, and the Master comes in to save the (day/town/apprentice), often belittling and punishing them so they learn their lesson to not overstep.

Sounds like an excellent working model for training scientists, doesn’t it?

Here I suggest that this working relationship that is at the core of our tradition in academia is one that we must degrade to move forward towards a healthier way of working.

I suggest that this Master/Apprentice relationship is a poor starting place for an academic career. Science is rarely a solo endeavor. It has moments of intellectual isolation, certainly. But it also has more moments of collaboration, conversation, and community based creativity. This singular relationship is a disingenuous starting place. The power dynamics that thrive in this environment are a perfect environment for rampant racism, sexism, and abuse that we see throughout many academic disciplines. We have created this, and it is time to undo it. Science is not magical knowledge to be handed down, or doled out, or withheld until arbitrarily “earned”. Science is a practice, with skills and knowledge and tools interwoven to empower us to create understanding. Yet we have embraced a model that works best at cloning its current practitioners and at worst abusing those who don’t fit the mold.

The Master/Apprentice model relies heavily on the good will of the person in the Master role to behave ethically. But most people new to the role will model the role of their own advisor, like most parents model their own parent’s behaviors. Even when we try to change, our behavioral defaults are what play out when we are overworked and tired. Which is to say, most of the time. The amount of training around the ethics of wielding such power over an individual’s life and career is rarely discussed and often denied. Those of us with even the best intentions are scrambling to find appropriate resources that might provide a stronger base of mentorship.

Many now suggest that even with best intentions, the best practice for mentorship at any stage of one’s career is *not* a singular mentor relationship, but a broad web of mentors to fill the many aspects of collaboration, career support, and advice one needs. The costs and risks on both sides is too high when focused into this Master/apprentice mode. Yet in the current model many feel threatened when current students look to outside support to bolster their work environment and experience.

What does all of this look like in practice? The current model:

When I apply for a job, I ask people for recommendation letters. Individuals write them, usually at least one from your advisor and/or project lead, as well as past collaborators, supervisors, or instructors (depending on the stage of your career). Not having a letter for your advisor can be catastrophic, although having a mediocre letter from your advisor might be worse. Letters these days have gotten… quite effusive, let us say. Word on the street is that most letters are less than useless, but there are reasons people are reticent to retire them. Letters are fraught — it has been shown, for example, that the language used to support women is extremely weak compared to that to support men (something I have seen first hand). And even those of us trying to increase the presence of minoritized people are sometimes reluctant to let them go — because if you manage to land a prestigious job with a well known person having them support you can be a huge boost. Clearly this is a double edged sword. But these letters that we have little faith in play a part in our job evaluation up to and including receiving tenure.

This system is also rough on those mentors and advisors who are doing the letter writing. Letters are written for eternity. The job market is tight, and your graduate students might do two or three 2–3 year postdocs. Many apply for tens of jobs, and many letter writers at least try to tailor the letter to the job in some way. That is even before the faculty job market might be breached. And then we come back to the word on the street from hiring committees — Letters aren’t worth the paper they are printed on.

What are some of the specific dangers of our current approach?

Students feel a very real fear that conflict at any time could negatively impact their career permanently. I have seen advisors withhold letters because of malicious intent, because of carelessness, as a twisted attempt to support their student (“I don’t think this job is a good match for you, so I’m not going to write you a letter. You should be applying for X jobs.”). I have seen advisors withhold graduation based on arbitrary waypoints that have changed over time (You need to publish this paper, or you need to publish Y number of papers, or you need to get in line behind student Z to graduate.) I have seen advisors change student projects with no input. I have seen advisors verbally and emotionally abuse students, quite frequently through what one might call “good intentions”. I have seen advisors try to develop an “Us versus Them” mentality, effectively isolating students from the resources available on their committee. This is not even digging into the obviously horrific instances of students enduring sexual harassment or even sexual assault from their advisors out of fear of “ruining their career”, losing access to collaborators, losing letters. Most universities do not have a strong system in place to deal with abuse and harassment. There is also often a real stigma associated with students who change advisors or change institutions during graduate school. Our methods for evaluation enforce this dysfunctional system.

Students begin this relationship often in their first year of graduate school, not quite grasping that it will be perhaps one of those longest relationships of their life. Most universities have a thesis committee structure in place for graduate students, but the role that committee plays varies wildly from department to department, from year to year, and even just as a function of constituent members. Students are often given limited clarity on expectations. The committee might be required to meet regularly, or might convene once at the PhD defense.

I would be remiss at this point if I did not discuss implicit bias. By this point you should have taken an abundance of implicit biases tests. And what they should remind you is that EVEN when you work towards being a good actor, even when you know that racism and sexism are problems and even if you WANT to eliminate them, you still struggle to do that. Your core societal programming (that is based on bias) is what you deploy when you are making decisions.

This system is not something we should be using as the basis of our scientific training and endeavors. The inherent potential for abuse and the drastic power dynamic differentials make the Master/Apprentice model one which does not serve our purposes in academia.

I want to quickly highlight two programs that are encouraging shifts in this direction. Both the Fisk-Vanderbilt bridge program, as well as the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity work to help students and faculty build strong mentor networks. Here is a resource from NCFDD for you to assess your current mentor situation.

In part III I will discuss one way we can, as departments and employers, move away from this destructive Master/Apprentice model.