And so I am back home after almost 3 weeks in glorious sunny welcoming pick-pocket-happy Spain…
July 3rd, 2009

And so I am back home after almost 3 weeks in glorious sunny welcoming pick-pocket-happy Spain. As always, traveling is informative, and, in the best experiences, it is transformative. One is never quite the same after immersion in someone else’s culture. Working at a university and talking to European graduate students reminded me of how much we have in common. Differences aside, the graduate student experience is universal in its challenges, frustrations, and rewards. I think they smoke more over there, though. Unlike France or England, Spain hasn’t entered the cigarette police state yet. Restaurants and bars don’t have smoking or non smoking areas. You can smoke where you like. It’s disconcerting to see so many (young) people smoking all over the beautifully landscaped university campus, interfering with all the vivid splashes of bougainvillea. But that’s just a stuffy North American talking. Never mind.

Graduate students everywhere need enough money to live on, encouragement in their projects, good supervisors, and a clear sense of direction. I can’t help but wonder if they all possess that strange combination of alienation and independence that comes with the grad student role. I can still conjure that feeling without any difficulty. My Spain-based students in Logroño gave off a strong whiff of that steady state feeling. I suppose that’s why so many grad students smoke. There’s that subject again. This blog can’t seem to get away from it.

Neither can Chinese students –living in China–who apparently smoke way more than they should.  A number of stop smoking groups have sprung up in Chinese graduate student communities where some members are inhaling well over three packs a day. That amount probably cuts down on your appetite and prevents obesity but unfortunately doesn’t give you a lot of time in the day for research. Indeed, if you calculate ten minutes per cigarette that means a three-pack a day habit will distract you for ten hours a day. After sleeping and watching a little television that really cuts into the potential for thesis writing. And if it is true, as some scientists claim, that every smoked cigarette cuts your life by eleven minutes, then that three-pack-a-day habit is doing more than stunting growth. Why start a graduate degree at all if it interferes with your smoking? Every time I see graduate student nervously smoking I see a longer time to completion.

Web sites offering graduate students some tips for how best to interview for a job on the phone warn against eating, chewing gum, chewing on your pen, or smoking during the interview. As one site warns: “even those slight noises can come across on the phone.” You wouldn’t want to signal to your prospective employer that you have an oral fixation, now would you?

The solution to all this might be to provide a safer, less odious way to deal with the fixation. Perhaps graduate students everywhere ought to be provided with a lollipop or Tootsie Roll ration, even a stash of beef jerky, along with their fellowship support. That way we would be at once acknowledging the addictive-producing nature of graduate student life and trying to ease it responsibly.

When I was in Spain and saw so many students smoking so openly I thought, that’s it, we –universities– are enablers. And if we relaxed the demands of graduate study then, well, we would have to call it something else, like a hobby or pastime. You can see the dilemma.


Thanks to Langdon* for sharing their photo via flickr and creative commons.

Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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