Archive for: February, 2011

Why We Are Awesome

Feb 22 2011 Published by under advising, career issues, graduate school

Yesterday in my FSP blog, I mentioned that graduates of my research group, which is comprised of 4 professors, have been very successful obtaining jobs that are relevant to their doctoral research. Most are in academia (in tenure-track or tenured positions); others are in industry/business or government positions. The database I discussed covers graduates from the past 20 years. We are equally proud of them all, PhD and MS graduates.

One factor in the success of our graduates has been that there have consistently been academic and other PhD-relevant jobs available; some years/decades are better than others, but there have always been some academic jobs. Even in drought years, however, our graduates have done well on the job market, so, although the availability of jobs is certainly important, a discussion of possible reasons why our graduates have done well needs to consider other factors.

The success of our graduates is primarily a testament to their talents and hard work. There is no doubt about that.

Even so, we (the professors) like to think that we had some role in launching these careers. I should say here that I am using the research group 'we', although I am the youngest professor in the group and #3 in terms of number of PhDs graduated, so the credit primarily goes to my colleagues.

In any case: What, if anything, do we do that maximizes the chances of post-graduate success for our advisees? Earlier today, I discussed this with one of my research group colleagues, the most successful mentor of us all. We came up with the following, only somewhat-self-serving hypotheses:

1. We encourage our advisees to consider their doctoral research in a broad context. We expect that their research talks (in the department, at conferences, in job interviews) and published papers will start with an explanation of why the work is interesting and important. This sounds basic, but it is surprising how many people (at all career stages) don't do this. Anecdotal evidence from a recent graduate who has been interviewing for faculty positions confirms that this characteristic of our group members is noticed and appreciated, particularly by those whose research expertise is not closely related to ours; this can be an important factor in job interviews.

2. We work with our advisees to find interesting research topics. Some grad students work on part of a much larger project, but there is nevertheless something special about each project. We therefore try to find a balance so that the student is at the same time closely identified with our research group and yet can get credit for their own work and ideas.

3. A combination of 1 & 2: we encourage breadth and depth in the research topic, so that most of our graduates who seek academic positions can apply for a jobs in more than one subfield. This increases the number of jobs for which they are qualified, and increases the number of funding programs to which they can apply, the journals to which they can submit papers, and the courses they can teach. It can also lead to more varied future research topics, collaborations, and other fun things like that.

4. Most of our graduates are supported by a combination of research and teaching assistantships (and some by fellowships), resulting in a range of experiences that are desirable for being competitive in academic jobs. Many also help mentor undergraduates in research. We encourage them to participate in workshops and courses designed to prepare grad students (and postdocs) for academic careers, if they so desire. Nowadays, it is important for academic job applicants to have teaching experience: for most jobs, they need to include a teaching statement in their applications, and I (as a letter-writer) am specifically asked to describe the applicant's teaching and mentoring abilities, even for applications to Major Big Huge Research University.

5. We push them to publish, attend conferences (and present their research), and write proposals. I had to think about what verb to use in that statement: encourage? (not strong enough), force? (too strong); 'push' is probably about right, implying some force but not excessive force (I think). The other options was pull/drag. In any case, we very strongly encourage, semi-force publications, conference participation etc. no matter what the career goal of the individual. This is important because (1) career goals may change; you want to have as many opportunities as you can and not close off any options; (2) the research group will cease to function at its current level/scale unless everyone participates as much as possible in communicating interesting research results.

I have stated many times in the FSP blog, and probably here in Scientopia as well, that I view a research group as a community: a community of people who work together and who, by the work of the individuals and the group, help each other. Today's topic is a great example of the community concept: If graduates of our research group are successful at getting good jobs, this becomes widely known and attracts new excellent students to our group, and the cycle continues for as long as we are fortunate to have ideas, students, grants..

17 responses so far

Militantly Ignorant

Feb 15 2011 Published by under reviews and reviewing

Consider these two examples of a certain type of reviewer:

A few years ago, I wrote a paper that added some new information and discussed new ideas about a phenomenon that was discovered by others decades ago and that has been much discussed in the literature. This phenomenon is related to the observation that purple kangaroos can leap extremely high. Before the initial discovery, it was thought that only green kangaroos could leap extremely high, but now it is well established that both types of kangaroos can do this. The early inferences, which were quite compelling, have been confirmed by observation.

In my paper, I wrote a few context-establishing sentences in the introduction, mentioning the high-leaping by purple kangaroos [citation] before moving on to set up the particular focus of the paper. One reviewer of the paper wrote in their review "What is the evidence for high-leaping purple kangaroos?" and went on to express great doubt that this ever occurred.

The reviewer was unable to get over his/her shock and disbelief about the purple kangaroo phenomenon and recommended rejection. The paper was initially rejected, but was ultimately published.

Another example: A proposal involving a recently developed but well-known (and trendy!) method -- the kind that you could only not know about if you had not read any journals and not gone to any conferences in the past 5 years -- got this review comment: "I have never heard of [that method] so I am not sure if this research is [doable/worthwhile]." The grant was awarded anyway; lucky for us the other reviewers were up on the topic and liked our ideas.

Such comments are not rare, although I thought these particular incidents were extreme. This post is not, however, a rant about how some editors and program directors must look under rocks to find certain reviewers (perhaps that is what it takes to find enough reviewers in some cases). Instead I want to muse about other aspects of the phenomenon of Hard-Core Ignorant Reviewers.

I know the answer to the obvious question:

Don't these reviewers know they are ignorant? No, they don't. Anything they don't know is not worth knowing, or doesn't exist.


Why don't these reviewers know they are ignorant? This is a rhetorical question. Nevertheless, I wonder if these people are never told that they are ignorant by anyone, or whether they have repeated evidence (director or indirect) of this but ignore this, as they do many other things. Both are likely. In the examples described above, the reviewers did not hesitate to admit their ignorance in their reviews, and they interpreted their lack of knowledge as a problem with my work. These people are very comfortable in their ignorance.

Which leads me to my real question: Can someone become like these reviewers, or is it an inherent trait that is evident early-on, or at least by mid-career?

Worrying about this would have been unimaginable to me in my academic youth, but as I get older and more established, I see more examples of situations in which I previously would have been held to a higher -- perhaps even an impossible or unfair -- standard of proof for statements I make or ideas that I propose. So perhaps encountering reviews from the hard-core ignorant serves a useful purpose of keeping me from becoming one of them. Maybe it keeps me on my toes and prevents complacency (?). This is a hypothesis. Feel free to reject it.

For me, the prospect of becoming like these militantly ignorant reviewers is one of those "Shoot me if I ever get like this" kinds of things. Or at least tell me. But would I listen?

19 responses so far


Feb 07 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school

Perhaps the most common theme of questions/laments that I get from readers concerns advisor-student interactions: grad students send me (long) sad tales of dysfunctional working relationships with remote and neglectful advisors, and advisors send me tales of woe about students who are not working hard (if at all). If only the neglectful advisors could be paired with the students who don't work hard (if at all), and the caring, responsive advisors could have hard-working, productive students..

So, what do you do if your advisor doesn't seem to have time for you; i.e., doesn't give you the feedback that you want, when you want it (or ever)?

And what do you do, as an advisor, if some of your advisees make little or no progress with their research, even when given lots of attention (and money)?

If I only I had answers to those questions.

Well, possible answers to the student question are: quit or switch advisors. So I should say, if only I knew effective, good, or useful answers.

But let's see if we can collectively do better than advising quitting. For now, I will only discuss the student lament about neglectful advisors.

Of course, the best approach is going to vary considerably depending on the details of the situation and the personalities of the individuals, but there are several obvious things to do (and clearly most of my frustrated grad readers have already tried some of these steps, proving how intractable the problem can be):

First, try to figure out if your discontent about the amount of time your advisor devotes to you is reasonable. I am sure in most cases it is reasonable -- clearly, some advisors give little to no time to their advisees, even at critical stages. In possibly-ambiguous situations, however, it can be useful to get some perspective on the issue by talking to more senior members of the research group. Maybe the advisor is well known for being inaccessible and unhelpful (something it would have been useful to know before signing on as an advisee), in which case, consider some of the other suggestions below. But, I can't help noting, from the point of view of an advisor, that some students have unreasonable expectations about the timing, magnitude, and nature of assistance from an advisor. For example, one of my readers wrote to me about his unhappiness that his advisor spent too much time writing grant proposals; didn't he have enough grants already? No, probably not; or, maybe enough for this year, but not for next year.

This is where I start to think I have been blogging for too long because I can hear student-commenter voices in my head saying: but the student doesn't yet know what goes into writing (successful) grant proposals and keeping a large research group funded because the advisor hasn't mentored the student about these things. And then I hear advisor voices in my head replying: yes, but students shouldn't be so passive; they should look and learn and ask questions and figure some of this out.

Anyway, advisors should provide clear feedback about these issues instead of refusing to respond to e-mails, keep appointments, or proactively check up on their advisees' progress and well-being, no matter how clueless or high maintenance the student is. The key here is communication, and it is unacceptable for an advisor to go silent or to sit on drafts of manuscripts or thesis chapters for excessive amounts of time, but, in less extreme situations, students shouldn't assume that they know how the advisor should and should not best allocate their time.

Make sure your advisor knows that you do not feel that you are getting sufficient help, feedback, attention, critical input, or whatever your main need is that is not being met. Be professional and clear (not whining and vague). Discuss the situation if at all possible. Make constructive suggestions. If you have deadlines, make sure your advisor knows them. Perhaps you can agree on a schedule or plan for the submission and return of drafts, if that is part of the problem you have been having. Perhaps you can also discuss other sources of assistance for times when you most need it and your advisor is unable to help you as much as you need.

If you are sure that your expectations are reasonable and your best efforts to communicate with your advisor result in no improvement (or even no response), consider discussing your untenable situation with the graduate program advisor or whichever faculty member is responsible for general issues related to graduate studies in your department or unit. To get the most effective help, you might want to present documentation of the problem -- e.g., evidence for how long an advisor has been sitting on document drafts without providing feedback, despite repeated (reasonable) requests and reminders. Although faculty are typically reluctant to micromanage each other's work, if a graduate student's progress towards graduation -- and/or their career prospects -- are being greatly slowed by the lack of response from an advisor, it should be the graduate program supervisor's responsibility to try to fix the problem, possibly by facilitating communication between advisor and student and making it clear that the department supports the student's need to make more timely progress towards completion of the degree.

For those students who are not yet committed to a graduate program or specific advisor, you may want to ask current advisees about issues such as these. Different students are comfortable with different amounts of structure vs. independence, and this balance can vary considerably from advisor to advisor. You may not know in advance what would work best for you, but at least you would have an idea of what you were getting into regarding this aspect of advisor-student interactions.

Does anyone have other specific strategies to suggest? Bleak tales of futile efforts are useful, to provide counter-examples of what doesn't work, but it would be great to hear some examples of strategies that have been tried with some success. These suggestions could be from students who found effective ways to deal with uncommunicative advisors, or from advisors who figured out how best to work with advisees who had varying levels of need for feedback.

22 responses so far

Target of Resentment?

Feb 03 2011 Published by under career issues

Today over in FSP I discuss a reader's question about whether accepting a faculty position that was specifically identified as a "target of opportunity" for hiring a person from an underrepresented group is a bad idea. Would a targeted hire be forever treated differently (and not in a good way)?

This reader is particularly concerned about finding herself in a toxic environment of resentment and disrespect if she is hired based on characteristics unrelated to her qualifications.

What to do?

3 responses so far