A (de)motivational letter

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For today’s entry I decided to share a letter that kept me going through my PhD studies.  After reading this letter I’m sure you’ll all wonder how this inspired me to slog on.  The truth is that under all the profanities, and the slave-driver mentality of the professor I saw someone who truly wanted to develop their students. To make them the best. And while my supervisor was nothing like this one, this letter reminded me that in the end I’m responsible for my own success.  Schools, professors, employers can offer opportunities, but you need to grab them and through your own relentless hard work you  exploit those opportunities.  If you don’t exploit opportunities available to you, someone else most certainly will.

I’m sure that after reading the letter some of you will identify serious work-life balance problems.  I plan on writing about that in later posts. But until then, enjoy!

Found in the wastebasket of Prof. Hardass Slavedriver, sometime in 2004, and saved for posterity

Attention: ALL THE WHINERS IN MY LAB

I’m sick of your fucking complaining. Labor laws, my ass. Union? Give me a fucking break. You’re here in my lab for one reason: you wanted to play in the big leagues and you fucking *chose* to come here. I didn’t get down on bended knee for you. I didn’t ask you to come. YOU wrote me a letter about how passionate you were about organic chemistry, how much you loved my research, and how excited you’d be to join my group at Big Swinging Dick University. After that written equivalent of a sloppy hand job, you got your supervisor to write letter to me and then even call me up late one Friday evening in my office, a.k.a. Fort DeepInTheShit. I was there, of course. I’m always there. “I get 10 good postdoctoral applications a week”, I told him. What’s special about your guy? “Oh, he works 40 hours a week, plays violin in a string quartet and he has a fantastic collection of Eastern European stamps from the 1890-1930 period. But you should see how efficient he is in the lab!”
Do you think I said, “How exciting! As a philatelist myself, maybe he can help me fill in some of the gaps in my Bismarcks. I can’t wait to spend leisurely Saturday afternoons drinking sherry and comparing our collections!”
FUCK NO. He said, “This motherfucker is passionate about chemistry and he is 100% balls-in. He knows every named reaction forwards and backwards, he runs 3 reactions a day, and once recrystallized 3 mg of his key intermediate after his undergrad accidentally threw it into the waste solvent cannister. He is a superstar in the chemistry department here at Pudknocker U but his talent is wasted here. He deserves a chance to play with the big boys”. To which I said, “That is the kind of guy I want in my lab. I am sold.”

I’m not fucking with you: I will put you through hell. But it is a good kind of hell. [Of course if I actually wrote that in a letter, some snot-nosed whiny fuck would probably scan it and email it to his friends and they will complain about what a bastard I am.] Why? Because at Big Swinging Dick U, we don’t give a shit about doing the same crap that other people are doing. If you want to do pudknocker chemistry, there’s plenty of places for that. What we’re doing at BSDU has to be special. It has to be amazing. It has to the the kind of chemistry that people read and then jizz in their pants, they’re so excited about it. That’s right: we only do jizz-worthy chemistry. And over the past year, not to be immodest, our chemistry has caused a fair amount of jizz to fly around the organic chemistry world. People are jizzing enough that I’ve been invited to give talks at the Hyperphallus Institute, Massive Balls of Steel University, and numerous other smaller places, including Pudknocker. That’s why you wrote me, isn’t it? Deep down, you thought, “I want to do chemistry that makes people jizz”. Well, you’re come to the right place. But it comes at a price.

You think you can get as much done in 40 hours as a synthetic organic chemist versus someone who works 80? Bullshit. Don’t believe me? I’ll reassign my graduate student Suk Deep Lee to your molecule. He’s going to work on an alternative route. Don’t talk to me until you’ve made the molecule. Let’s see who makes the most progress, shall we?

Exactly. You’ll fall in line like everyone else.

I will put you through hell because jizzworthy chemistry does not come from sitting around drinking coffee and singing in the choral society. It takes FAILURE FAILURE FAILURE FAILURE, and then, maybe, if you keep failing, eventual success. Organic chemistry is all about trial and error, creating luck. That, and a lot of fucking columns. I will push you to the limits of your capabilities, and then some. You will hate it at first. But over time, you will adjust. You will be forged into a hardened lethal weapon of organic chemistry effectiveness. You will become a chemistry navy seal. There will be nothing you can’t do. You will surprise yourself with what you can accomplish. You will push through barriers you’ve been struggling with your entire life and finally achieve your full potential. That whiny voice you have in the back of your mind that says “I can’t do it!”? You are going to stomp on its face with steel-spiked boots. Plus, you’re going to be surrounded by other ninjas of chemistry. These will be your brothers in the trenches, and there will always be a bond between you, through the rest of your career. You will be doing jizzworthy chemistry: your old friends from Pudknocker will see your papers and say, “awesome work dude”. You will tell your buddies how the other day at BSDU you were in the washroom and saw [Nobel laureate] walk right out of the crapper and he didn’t even flush the toilet. Gross! Then you will get emails from random strangers asking “And by the way, does Prof. Hardass Slavedriver have any openings for a postdoc?”

Exactly. As much as people might be afraid of me, I’m in demand. People want to work for me. Oh, they complain. But I give them something that is scarce: the opportunity to achieve greatness. Greatness is all I care about. Commitment to Excellence. Deep down, you want to be great too, don’t you? To play in the majors. To be taken seriously. To be in the brotherhood. To be on a winning team. To be the best you can be at something you are passionate about.

Don’t want to make the sacrifices? Well, there’s always Pudknocker U.

Behind my back, my students bitch about how I am a slavedriver. All I have to say is: Suck it up you fucking princesses. Nobody works harder than me. You think your life is fucking stressful? I’m 3 years into my position and we’re just at the point where we’re getting out key results. EVERYTHING is riding on what happens in my lab over the next two years. That includes your fucking careers, bitches. In 2 years I have to apply for tenure and an NIH grant which will decide the future of my life. I do not sleep. I do not take days off. I do not have time for my family. I do not have time for kids. I have eight people in my lab right now whose future completely depends on me, and I will be adding more in the fall. You think you are under pressure? You have no fucking clue what pressure is. Do you have any idea what the success rate on NIH and NSF grants are? You don’t want to know. But you want to take weekends off, work 9 to 5, participate in extracurriculars, while I’m working my ass off, and you’re living off MY precious startup funds? What do you think [EJ/KC/Kishi] would have said to me if I told them I was going to do that during MY Ph.D? They would have torn me a new asshole! My head would have been ripped off and the senior postdocs would circle-jerk on my exposed brain stem. Metaphorically, of course.

Do you think I’m a slavedriver because I want to be? Are you really that cynical? I’m a slavedriver because I HAVE to be. All things being equal, I would prefer to be nice to my students. I would like to tell them to work at a time of their leisure and take weekends, and give them a big pink stuffed animal every time they run a column on 20 g of starting material that takes them six hours. All things being equal, I would love to take weekends myself. I would love to call up KC Nicolaou and say,

ME: “Gee KC, I know you’re also working on Jackoffamycin, but I was thinking… maybe we could agree to cut back the pace a bit. You know, take it easy, let our grad students and postdocs spend more time on extracurriculars. Plus, I would like to take July off and visit the vineyards of southern France.
KC: Oh my! You’re so right! There is too much competition in our field. Our students and postdocs do suffer so. Starting today, I’ll make 40 hour weeks mandatory, and I’ll make sure the lab is locked on weekends so they aren’t tempted to break the rule. Thank you, young man, for showing me the error of my ways!
ME: You’re a great guy KC.
KC: You took the words out of my mouth

Three months later KC’s synthesis of Jackoffamycin comes out in JACS and it has eight postdocs on it.

ME: KC! What about our deal?
KC: HAHAHAHAHAHAH BY ZEUS’ ASS

My friends, the fact is that people are out to eat our lunch. If we want to avoid this fate we will work our goddamn asses off to ensure that this does not happen. That means that you give me your best effort and your complete devotion. I will keep your balls in a jar in my office. At the end of your military service here, if you work your ass off and do well, we will have a synthesis. I will salute you, return your balls – which have hardened into solid brass – and give you a firm handshake. You will have become a forceful, deadly unstoppable chemistry ninja whom pharmaceutical companies salivate over, and you will have my Letter. You can take my Letter to any of the companies I consult for and get a six-figure job with them. THEN you can do your 9 to 5, no weekends thing. You’ll have a stimulating pharma job, a wife, a family, and great job security in an industry that is only going to grow once the insights from the Human Genome Project start making their mark. What a bright future the pharmaceutical industry has! You’ll go far, young man.

Meanwhile your old friends who did their Ph.D’s at Pudknocker are finishing up their 7-year Ph.Ds in fields that maybe 20 people in the world give a shit about. Good thing you’re not like them.

That’s the bargain. Take it or leave it.

Yours Truly

Prof. Hardass Slavedriver

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About dylanlevac

I'm a recovering academic, who is transitioning out of research and pursuing opportunities in policy roles regulating plant biotechnology products.
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4 Responses to A (de)motivational letter

  1. wanderluster says:

    Ha, ha.. I loved it! It’s all true, although I find the PhD all hard and stressful I don’t have any regrets and I remind myself studying what I chose where I chose all paid for is a privilege. I do suffer but just as this letter says: we could be right now teaching to MAs having a good position in a in a pseudo-university, writing lots of papers in journals nobody reads… instead we chose pain but also a chance to be side by side with academic rockstars!

  2. dylanlevac says:

    I’m happy to hear that! For a while I was worried I’d regret my choice to do a PhD. In full disclosure I was formerly a Med School hopeful, so my attention hasn’t always been 100% on research, and the job prospects in academia do concern me. Having said that I like what I do, and I love solving unique problems, and for now there’s nowhere better then a university lab.

  3. i had one of those says:

    If the owner of this letter was real, there is only one unavoidable response: “What an utter bullshit! You don’t own the lab bitch, it’s granted to you for making a team, emphasis on the T asshole! Otherwise stop hiring people and let’s see how hard-working you are alone wanker.”. I’ve just finished PhD and none of this hard work nonsense is meaningful. Hard-work is not suffering per se. If your advisor is an asshole, make sure s/he gets the proper message (within the legal framework) and get the fuck out of there. Remember that you are still dealing with nerds no matter how egomaniac they are who have no idea how to develop a personality without being concrete…

  4. Al Chemist says:

    Is it just me or does everyone get turned on by this? Not in any kind of perverse way, but in the way that it makes you WANT to get up at the butt crack of dawn to run a column? To want to design a crazy dangerous experiment that no one in your lab has done before? I have had this letter over my pos cubicle/desk (if you could call it that) for almost five years. Every time I’m tired, every time a rxn fails, every time the damn chicks in my lab make off with my high pressure NMR tubes, I go and read that letter. And, I gotta say it gives me that swift kick in the pants I need to get back in the lab and kick some ass.

    I might be alone in this, but does anyone know if Prof. Hardass Slavedriver has an opening for a postdoc? Plus, I hear the BSDU campus is just gorgeous this time of year!

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