Only We Can Do That to Our Pledges

It’s fraternity pledging season on campus, which means there are dozens of slightly addled sophomores wandering around being forced to do silly things by upperclassmen. This, combined with the passing mention of cable-making in the college advice post, got me thinking about scientific hazing– the sort of crap jobs that get given to first-year grad students in research groups.

I suspect this is mostly an experimental phenomenon, as experimental work provides many more opportunities for really unpleasant tasks. There are oil traps on vacuum systems that collect thick, nasty sludge that somebody has to clean out from time to time, and there are cables to make, and wires to be threaded through inconvenient spaces, and that sort of fun stuff. These are tasks that fall to the lowest seniority person around, and that every person stuck doing them is happy to pass on to the next victim.

I’m not sure what the theoretical equivalent would be. Copying stuff down off blackboards before erasing them? Carrying bags of scrap paper out to be recycled? Dealing with Microsoft software?

My favorite example of scientific hazing comes from a couple of groups at MIT. New students in one group are sent to the other to ask for a BNC-to-Swagelock adapter, which is always embarrassing for the hapless student. (If you don’t get it, I’ll put the explanation below the fold…)

If you’re in grad school, or attended grad school, what was the worst task you got stuck with as a junior graduate student?

The explanation of the MIT gag: BNC is a type of electrical connection, while Swagelock is a type of plumbing fitting. A BNC-to-Swagelock adapter would be used to connect electrical cables to water lines, which is just silly. They did actually make one, I’m told, by gluing a couple of unrelated connectors together, just to further confuse the students.

Weirdly, I actually have something in my lab that’s very close to a BNC-to-Swagelock adapter– it’s a Swagelock fitting plugged up with a glob of vacuum epoxy with a piece of 14-gauge wire running through it. It was used on an apparatus which had water-cooled magnetic field coils inside a vacuum chamber. I’m not crazy enough to do that, but I kept the fitting around because you never know when you’ll need something strange like that…

28 thoughts on “Only We Can Do That to Our Pledges

  1. When I was in grad school, the first year or so the local ethernet loop we had was an old 10-base-T connection that relied on BNC connectors (instead of the newer 10-base-2 that uses Cat 5 cable and RJ45 connectors). (I may have my 10-base names wrong.)

    Given that the Internet is a set of tubes, and that you can get Internet through a cable with a BNC connector, I don’t see what’s so surprising about connecting plumbing to electrical cable….

    Also given the amount of crap that’s found on the Internet, I suspect it’s a very specific sort of plumbing system that is connected in.


  2. My first grad student “job”, as part of the fire ant reseach group, was to clean and feed about 200 fire ant colonies. It had to be done once a week, but given the number of colonies you did the first 100 on Tuesdays and the other on Thursdays. Took about 3 hours each afternoon. Colonies were kept in an enviro-controlled room, with very high humidity and temp (smelled like a suana that had never been cleaned).

  3. As an undergrad I had to a) rebuild a bunch of sludge-filled roughing pumps and b) clean out an antique vacuum system with a bunch of busted mercury gauges. In my spare time in that lab I sorted connectors.

  4. Add Goldstein to that list, Rob.
    As for me, I became a system administrator for a linux cluster by default, even though I had no SA/linux experience. Whee, fixing mail servers!

  5. I remember the first few quantum field theory books I opened up (ie. Mandl, Schweber, etc …), were very intimidating and almost literally unreadable. Even today I still have not seen any quantum field theory books which are actually “readable” and non-intimidating.

  6. I’ve read Zee’s field theory book, but I wouldn’t consider it the most “readable”. Though it is definitely a lot easier to read than most other quantum field theory books.

    What I had in mind was a quantum field theory book that’s as readable and non-intimidating as David Griffith’s particle physics book (or Griffiths’ other books for the matter).

  7. Once while rummaging through a stash of vacuum parts, I did a double-take upon finding what looked like a BNC-to-KF adapter. Of course it was actually a KF blank with a BNC feedthrough installed on it.

    I got assigned a lot of mechanical pump maintenance during my first year in the group, and some of the pumps had not had the oil changed in a very long time. Another obnoxious task was winding coils for copper powder filters–this involved winding fine wire around Stycast cores a few mm in diameter. The winding was very tedious and the cores had a tendency to snap when you were halfway done.

  8. Shit jobs for junior grad students – that’s easy. Teaching. Though it is useful experience; ever since then I’ve known that I’m not the least bit interested in faculty jobs.

    One could also look at the prelim/qualifying exam (name varies by institution) as a form of hazing. I gather this is brutally extreme in some physics programs, where the goal is to attrit each class of grad students by some significant fraction.

  9. I spent my first summer “floating” carbon foils. They were only about a nanometer thick so to make and transport them the carbon was deposited on top of a salt layer on top of a glass plate. To get the carbon foil onto the frame that would hold them inside the vacuum system you had to lower the plate into warm water slowly. This would cause the salt to desolve. The carbon would then be held on top of the water by surface tension and could be pealed off the glass plate. The trick was to then lower the frame slowly into the water, and blow (literally, as in with breath) the carbon foil into position over the frame (it needed to be about 1mm past the frame edge and perpendicular to it). The frame was then raised even more slowly out of the water and the carbon foil would drape itself over the frame and hold itself in place. These took at least half an hour each and the record was 2 in 5 not breaking.

    The real trick was getting them from the room where the supplies were to the lab without breaking them. There was a story about one student who got 4 of them done, and put them into the tupperware used for transport. He had missed the instructions about leaving to lid loose and blew out all 4 of them when he snapped the lid on tight.

  10. THeorist, and my sixth week of grad school, I was tasked to go give a talk to the math department on chaos. Ten minutes in, talking about the logistic map, I referred to a “quadratic minima”. The room quieted briefly, then they asked me what I meant. All attempts to say “something bowl shaped roughly, whose leading term goes as the square” were met with howls of “not rigorous”. After 20 minutes I pled “look I just got here, and I is a fizicist…..not some danged crossword puzzle solver” in more polite language, and we moved on.

    All the while my advisor ( who of course didn’t come to the talk) was weekly mulling job offers and saying we were gonna move to Los Alamos, two other places.

    I chose quantum optics over nonlinear dynamics, got a new advisor, and was very very happy…..

  11. My first week in the lab as a young grad-student, a senior student handed me a 30 amp power supply (for driving an ion source) and told me that it was presently only producing about 25 amps with the leads shorted together. He had noticed that the contacts had corroded a fair bit. I spent several days scrubbing the contacts with scotch brite (that green material on the tough side of a sponge). I cleaned the outputs and the contacts on a big selector switch. After getting them shiny clean (with a little help from some blood – ouch) I got it to about 28 amps. I never saw the 30 amps he claimed he gotten out of it before it had moved across country.

    To this day, I’m convinced the senior student was telling me the truth and it’s just that equipment works better in Seattle than Cambridge. From my most recent visit there, I’d probably burn brighter (though shorter) in Seattle, too.

  12. I’ve in fact written already about the fun task that was occasionally given to first-year Mathematics graduate students at my institution of higher learning: to respond to those who had sent the department their proofs of the incorrectness of certain famous results. Euclid’s proof that there are infinitely many primes, and Cantor’s proofs about rational and irrational numbers (I’m being intentionally vague here) were particular favorites, as of course were various proofs of Fermat’s Last Theorem which would indeed have fit into that margin (if they were only proofs). Mathematical cranks (for whom I’ve adopted the wonderful accidental typographical creation “nutterflies”) in other words. The bright-eyed gradute student would eagerly put pen to paper thinking, “I’ll just EXPLAIN IT TO HIM and clear up all his misunderstandings.” ::snicker::

    This wasn’t actually a part of our job description, assuming we had such a thing as a “job description”, but I suppose we never thought we could or should turn down a request from a potential thesis advisor. (That’s kind of the point of your post, isn’t it?) Plus, we really thought we could set the world straight. We jumped right in. Little did we know.

  13. Frumious B: fortunately there were plenty of folks like you around, so after my first year I usually managed to make deals to get through TA jobs as painlessly as possible. I did a double share of grading and never even saw a student, and someone with your preferences did double teaching and no grading. To borrow Novak’s phrase, I’d rather pluck my eyeball out with a spork than try to teach. Grading is merely tedious, and on rare occasions amusing. Keeping an eye out to catch the cheaters helped keep the interest level up…

  14. “Here, go write this up for publication”

    Absentee research advisor, regarding a previous student’s PhD dissertation, when she finally (after 6 months or so!) finished a proposal/company development/god only knows what else and stopped utterly ignoring me.

  15. I had to feed a medicinal leech colony every month. This involved buying lots of lambskin condoms, washing the lubricants off, filling them with defibrinated cow blood, tying off the ends, warming them in hot water, dangling them in the leech jars, and then prying the leeches off the empty condoms. Lots of fun…

  16. I don’t recall my senior grad student hazing me at all my first years of grad school. That, or my mind is seriously suppressing any traumatic experiences 😉

    As an undergrad, I had to build two 8ftx20ft cinder block walls for our neutron beam experiment at the nuclear reactor on campus. I also got the brunt of all the machining jobs for that grad student. Same with all the soldering work and BNC crimping. Come to think of it, that was one lazy grad student.

  17. Apart from running Westerns at 2 in the morning, and cleaning the residue out of the water baths, I haven’t had too much to talk about in grad school, but when I was an undergrad I spent a semester helping a professor excavate a mastadon from a kettle bog in upstate New York. Before the water pumps had been set up to drain out the muddy water there was something out in the middle of the bog that looked interesting and someone had to go out and get it. Ironically, the photograph of the project that made it into the university website and the alumni magazine wasn’t a shot of actual excavation–it was a shot of the backhoe trying to pull me out of the waist deep mud.

  18. Jeff F: That’s because he didn’t. What would it have been? “Go fill the water for the coffee machine”? Hmm, maybe he screwed up though and should have done more…

  19. Robb Knop said:

    When I was in grad school, the first year or so the local ethernet loop we had was an old 10-base-T connection that relied on BNC connectors (instead of the newer 10-base-2 that uses Cat 5 cable and RJ45 connectors). (I may have my 10-base names wrong.)

    You do. 10b2 is thinnet (coaxial, 50ohm termination), 10bt runs over Cat3 and better UTP cabling.

  20. Course assistent.

    Especially fun when forced by circumstances to be 2nd assistant. Ie haven’t done that specific course and must study and do the labs a few weeks ahead.

    Run down and repair equipment for the course lab, borrowed and inevitably broken since last year by some research team in a little back room on the grounds.

    Grading exams where the examiner erroneously solved his/hers own questions and had no time to let assistants check – really fun for everyone when something like Karnaugh maps gets needlessly cluttered.

    But at least it is a learning experience!

  21. >>>
    PhysioProf | October 18, 2006 09:40 PM

    I had to feed a medicinal leech colony every month. This involved buying lots of lambskin condoms, washing the lubricants off, filling them with defibrinated cow blood, tying off the ends, warming them in hot water, dangling them in the leech jars, and then prying the leeches off the empty condoms. Lots of fun…

    Dare I say, WE HAVE A WINNER! Best anyone else can do now is a tie……

  22. I don’t actually recall anything that could be considered as hazing from when I was graduate student, either time (first engineering, then computer science.)

    My hypothesis here is two-fold:

    First, both fields are very practical and employable. If the grad student experience gets too unpleasant, most of us will shrug our shoulders and say, “Enh. Time to go add a zero to my paycheck.” We’re not competing for academic jobs.

    Second, a noticeable minority of engineering/CS grad students are reutrning from industry. I knew several as an EE grad student, and I was one as a CS grad student. And after a few years in industry of actually doing stuff and building confidence and learning to discriminate between directives you need to follow and directives you need to punish… well, faculty members hold much less terror for you. I nearly single-handedly ended the practice of “impromptu lectures by grad students” in my research group just by saying, “No, you need to give me three days warning. I’ll do this next week, thanks.”

    I don’t think it had occurred to the other students that they could say no.

    However, I am just one datum.

  23. My senior grad student is being quite nice to me, especially when I’m… showing her how to install Unix-ish software on a Windows machine…. oh, fine.

    It was my idea, though. We have a weekly singalong of “This program will do that for you *and it’s free!*” Soon I introduce the lab to Subversion.

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