Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Things I wish you never need to be prepared for.

It turns out that there are a number of unexpected (well, I did not expect them, anyway) things that an advisor may experience or be called upon to do in the event of the death of a graduate student. I hope you never have cause to learn what they all are for yourself, but I will tell you some.

* You may end up planning a memorial service because many people (yourself included) wanted there to be one but not being family, none of you felt like you had the authority, and under the circumstances, you are the closest thing to authority that there is. You may feel completely inappropriate for the task but you will do your best anyway because you would want somebody to do that if it had been you.

* You may wonder what kind of bizarro memorial service there would have been for you if you had died unexpectedly as a graduate student and your advisor were to plan a service. This may provide a moment of amusement in an otherwise emotionally taxing day.

* You may recieve an automated email from somebody in university records administration requesting that you mark all of the graduate student's files with
DECEASED.

* You may have to ask the professors of the students current courses if they would prefer to assign a grade for the semester or to mark the student as having withdrawn. You might hope and then be glad that they agree to assign a grade because even though it makes next to no difference, it seems unnecessary to blemish the student's otherwise completely spotless academic record. You may also wonder why it is even an issue, and why that portion of the transcript is not simply marked DECEASED.

* Your other graduate students may stop by your office together, and you might close your office door and the little group of you may simply have a quiet moment together shedding tears.

* You may be contacted by the student health insurance office requesting a mailing address for the forms involved in the Accidental Death Benefits. You may find it weird that this task landed on your desk but you don't want to complain about it even though you probably rightfully could. You may have to call the graduate student's father to ask about whether or not her body had already flown home and if not, did they also need the forms for the Transport of Remains Benefits because those forms are time-sensitive.

* You may have to run interference for one of your other graduate students when a micromanaging project leader requests that he present his research for scrutiny the next day (since the deceased graduate student would surely want all the good work to continue), but you know the would-be presenter absolutely does not feel like dealing with being picked at right now.

* You may get a phone call from the graduate student's former supervisor from when she worked at a major lab before coming back to grad school, whom you contacted with information of the tragedy because he'd written a glowing letter of recommendation which you had in your file, and you and the other nerdy researcher may trade sniffles and acknowledgements, and you may feel a little bond even though you have never met the other guy in your life.

* You might circulate an announcement about planning the student's memorial service and then be so relieved when within minutes one of the other grad students emails back to volunteer to do an trumpet solo, because you'd had this fear that no one would step forward to have a role in the service and the whole thing would become the Average Professor Emotional Breakdown Hour, which you are certain the former student would neither want nor appreciate. You may feel even better about that when her family emails you her obituary to run in the local paper and you learn that she was also a trumpet player.

3 comments:

Astroprof said...

I can imagine that is tough. One of the graduate students in my office (there were 8 of us) was killed in a traffic accident, along with a professor, when I was in grad school. So, I've got sort of an idea how this thing hits.

Ms.PhD said...

This makes me wish I had been able to do a memorial service for my institute whenever one of our friends committed suicide (happened twice in a two-year span). In both cases the family did the service, the institute made no official announcement, and we ended up feeling like outsiders who had no right to grieve. That doesn't really give closure, you know?

So you're doing something really good for these people, although it probably feels awkward now, later you will feel better for having the memory of the service and for having been able to do something meaningful not just for you, but for others in your department.

GirlPostdoc said...

I knew two grad students that died while I was a grad student. One committed suicide, the other died from liver cancer. I shared an office with the PhD student, who died from liver cancer and his supervisor held a memorial service. It was really beautiful. She also made sure that his thesis got published and that he received his degree posthumously. Because of this, she has always garnered my respect. What you're doing is really important for yourself but the others affected by this tragedy. You have my admiration