Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Guest Blogger Tuesday!

DC trip circa 2001
This week's guest blogger is one on my oldest and dearest friends, Miss Cathy Jan!  Cathy is a graduate student at Stanford, and is going to be sharing with us some of the trials and tribulations that I've heard reiterated by the majority of my friends who are muddling through the first years as graduate/Ph.D students.

I study electrical engineering, which isn’t very descriptive these days because the field is so diverse.  To be more specific, I work in an optics lab, and that means that I need to set up experiments with pricey components.  However, this is not a blog post about grad school or engineering.  This is a rant about bureaucracy.

About two weeks ago, I realized that I needed another beamsplitter for my experiment, which is like a glass prism.  It cost about $200.  While this may seem like a lot, keep in mind that the grants professors receive are for hundreds of thousands of dollars.  They last for years and pay the salaries of lots of grad students.  Although you often hear about poor grad students, I’ll be honest; my stipend allows me to live pretty comfortably.  In comparison, $200 is chump change.

Nominally, to purchase parts, I just have to fill out the form, get my advisor’s signature, and have the finance person in my building fax it to the vendor.  There was a minor kink though – the grant I was charging it to is actually owned by my advisor’s colleague, whom I shall call Dr. X, in the Immunology department. 

I figured the best way to get Dr. X’s signature was to go through his secretary – L – so I set off to go find her.  She told me she would see him at noon the next day.  She called me afterward, I picked up the form, and thought to myself “piece of cake!”  I then proceeded to give the paper to my finance person, who told me she couldn’t process it because the grant is outside my department.  And thus my troubles began.

I went back to L to find out who their finance person is.  Let’s call her M.  L told me that I could fax her the form but if I wanted real results, it would be easier if I just went and talked to her in person.  Being excited about setting up my experiment, I opted for the latter plan and asked for M’s address.  Turns out she works in the med school, which is halfway across campus.  Although I have a bike, Wikipedia claims that Stanford has the second largest campus in the world.  When I arrived, I discovered that it’s a three-story office building with no directory in sight.  After wandering through the cubical maze for awhile, I bumped into someone who knows M and led me to her desk.

I walked up, introduced myself, and told her what I needed.  She stared at me in silence for a few seconds.  Then: “Who are you?  I’ve never seen you before.  You need to talk to Dr. X.”  I tried to answer her questions, but she pretty much asked them over and over for five minutes.  She kept telling me that I need to ask Dr. X’s secretary to make me an appointment with him so I could ask him about it, even though I have meetings with him twice a week and his signature was on that form.  Eventually she signed the piece of paper, but only after writing down my phone number and making a copy of my student ID card. 

Though tired, I thought I was victorious and headed back to my own finance lady to give her the signed form.  Guess what?  She actually submits it into a university-wide program online, and then it has to get approved before I can order my part.  The next day, I got a call from L saying she had approved it and sent it along to M.  Yup, these are the exact same people I had to get physical signatures from.  I heard nothing for a few days, and then I got exasperated and asked my own advisor’s secretary to track down the progress of my request.  We found that M had given her approval but since I was charging it to a federal grant, I had to get another random administrator’s approval as well!  We emailed her and two days later, she approved it and sent the form back to me.

It’s been 17 days, two physical signatures, and three online approvals, and I still haven’t received my part.  My part that costs a drop in the large federal grant bucket.  My part that I could’ve charged to my credit card, selected one-day shipping, and had delivered to my apartment 16 days ago.

No wonder it takes six years to get a Ph.D.

Have you had any similar situations when dealing with bureaucracy at institutions of any kind?  It is undoubtedly one of the most frustrating aspects of working within a "system."  Be sure to share your stories, or offer support in the comments!

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