Archive for: August, 2011

Like A Business

Aug 23 2011 Published by under advising, faculty, graduate school

In recent posts over at FSP, we have been discussing to what extent a professor should intervene if a student exhibits signs of possibly maybe (but probably not) needing to see a doctor. In the specific case described, an undergraduate student fell asleep during a meeting with a professor about the student's research project. Some commenters said that, despite the student's claim to be fine (not ill, not feeling faint etc.), the professor should have done more to insist that the student seek medical attention.

I don't want to talk about that specific case in more detail here, but one commenter's argument for more assertive intervention by the professor hinged on the opinion that we professors are supervisors and are therefore responsible for the physical and mental well-being of our "team members"; in this case, an undergraduate student.

Agree or disagree?

There is no doubt that we professors are managers in many ways. We supervise the work of our researchers, whether these are postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates, technicians, or others. Grants that we obtain pay the salary, benefits, and -- in some cases -- tuition of those we supervise. We fill out lots of forms.

And yet, there are differences. We are advisors, not employers. The employer is the university. If I have a problem with one of my graduate advisees (for example), I can't "fire" them in the way that employers can. I can remove myself as advisor, but if this occurs within the time-frame of their guaranteed support, my department has the responsibility of helping that student find another advisor, or facilitating the student's transfer to another department or institution. Similarly, if a student decides to change advisors, they can. In this way, they are treated more as students than as employees.

Perhaps the argument that professors aren't really employers or managers in a business or industry sense is analogous to the argument that students who are research and teaching assistants may (or may not, depending on your opinion) be "workers" in the same sense as employees who are not also students.

So, the question for discussion is whether (and/or in what ways) a professor has the same type and level of responsibility for the physical and emotional/mental well-being of their advisees as those in business or industry.

Certainly we professors are responsible for providing a safe, healthy, and fair working environment for our advisees, but what can/should we do beyond that? I know little of the non-academic world of work, and therefore have no idea how (or whether) an employer in industry would intervene in the personal life of an employee who showed signs of possibly/maybe having a health problem; for example, an employee who fell asleep during a meeting.

What, beyond asking the employee if they are OK, would/could a non-academic employer do? Is it really the same for a professor to ask probing questions about a student's health, as it is for an employer to ask an employee, or is it different?



33 responses so far

Pity PhD

Aug 16 2011 Published by under career issues, graduate school

A question from a reader:

I'm about to start my 3rd year of grad school in a physical science working at a top 10 university in my field for a world leader in my sub-field. I'm terrified that I'm going to wind up with a pity PhD, and its going to hurt my chances of getting a good job. Its not like I'm not working really hard, but my project just seems to have an unwork-around-able fatal flaw caused by years of neglect on a major piece of equipment in our lab. I'm trying to fix it, but maybe this means that in about a year I'll get transitioned to a different project, but pretty much no matter what happens at this point I'm going to wind up tainted as the grad student who didn't produce that many publications.

I used to have dreams of being an awesome grad student who produced a couple fantastic publications and maybe had a shot at doing the tenure track. At the rate I'm going, that seems like a pipe dream. So now I'm hoping that I get a fantastic letter of recommendation from my boss and get a good postdoc where I manage to produce enough to demonstrate that it really wasn't my fault as a grad student. If you (or maybe some of your readers) are looking for a postdoc, would you seriously consider a candidate that doesn't have any publications but has a letter from their advisor swearing that they worked really hard, are really smart, and that it just isn't their fault?


I would hire such a person as a postdoc if I knew and respected the advisor or someone else who could confirm that the lack of results and publications was not owing to an inability to finish projects or write papers. I'd be concerned, of course -- I have supervised more than a few postdocs with major writing problems and would prefer to work with those who can and will write their own papers -- and it would be best if there were some evidence to back up an explanation for lack of awesome research results and publications.

If at all possible, a PhD student who wants to pursue an academic career should find something to write up, and the advisor should help with this effort.

My situation may not be analogous, but as a postdoc, the main project I was supposed to be working on was clearly headed for failure because a key collaborator wasn't going to provide a necessary and promised part of the research. My supervisor wasn't about to be proactive and help me with another project, and I feared that my future was going to go up in flames. So I kept working on the original project in the hopes that something would come of it (nothing ever did), but I also started dividing my time between that project and another one -- something I came up with myself. My supervisor didn't mind that I was working on an additional project, which required very few resources, and in the end, the only publications from my postdoc work are from that 'side project'.

I learned a lot from that experience: how to survive a failed project and how to come up with my own research project and carry it through to completion (publications). These are very useful skills for an academic career. I know that some graduate students can have a lot less freedom to take on additional projects, even if they are related to the main thesis project, so it may not be possible to do this. In that case, the student will have to rely on the advisor's ability to make a compelling case that the lack of results/publications is not the fault of the student and should not be taken as an indication of their abilities (or lack thereof).

Readers who supervise/mentor postdocs: Would you consider hiring a candidate such as the one described in the e-mail above? Have you hired such a person before?

Readers who have supervised graduate students with projects that failed, through no fault of the student: What, if anything, have you done to rescue the student (and their future career opportunities)?

Readers who have had a failed project as a graduate student (or postdoc, or assistant professor, or at any vulnerable career stage): What did you do?

41 responses so far

It Hurts When I Do This

Aug 09 2011 Published by under grants and grant proposals

A reader writes:

It has now been three days since the proposal was submitted, and I have been reading and re-reading the submitted version, each time finding minor mistakes (a reference in the wrong place, a typo), or places where I could have clarified my thoughts a bit more. I think the science good but the proposal falls short of the shiny, glimmering, flawless piece of work I had been shooting for, and this is devastating.

In an attempt to pull myself out of the mental dungeon I am stuck in right now, I am writing to ask you and your readers if you have experienced similar post-submission agony? And for those of you who have served as proposal reviewers or program officers, how do minor editorial mishaps factor into the overall review?

First of all, don't do that: don't re-read your proposal so soon after submission. I never do that. It serves no good purpose. It can be very useful (and necessary) to re-read proposals later, when it is relevant to do so, but don't do it now. (Readers: agree/disagree with this advice?)

As a reviewer, minor writing/technical mistakes are inconsequential to me in my review. We all make mistakes: some typos, mis-numbered figures etc. If there are an astounding number of them, including in the project summary and the first few lines of the proposal, it makes me wonder what happened, but I give the PI the benefit of the doubt and assume that there was a lot of last-minute writing and not much last-minute editing. I am somewhat more annoyed if a senior PI makes these mistakes, but if I can still understand the proposal, I don't downgrade it for this type of flaw. That is, I don't assume that because the proposal is sloppy that the science will be sloppy, unless I have other information/evidence to support that conclusion. (Readers: agree/disagree with that conclusion?)

It's fine to try for a flawless proposal and it's important to care about producing quality work, but don't beat yourself up about some minor and inadvertent errors. Maybe you will get the grant anyway, but if not -- and if it is reasonable to revise and resubmit -- focus on the constructive work of writing a (more) compelling proposal.

17 responses so far

Sidekicks and bond strength

Aug 02 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school, students

A reader wrote wondering if the strong bond that forms between some male advisors and male students ever happens between male advisors and female students. For discussion, we could also consider the cases of female advisors/male students and female advisors/female students, but *important* for all possible cases, let's only consider platonic, professional relationships.

The reader who wrote to me used the term 'sidekicks'. I don't think this is a good word to describe this particular situation, but it makes a zippy (albeit possibly cryptic) title for a blog post.

Historically, strong bonds between male advisors/male students in the physical sciences and engineering have been most common because there have been so few women. In recent years, however, there are increasing numbers of women, particularly at the undergraduate and graduate levels, so there are more opportunities to evaluate advisor-student pairs in which one or both are female.

There are personality issues involved in advisor-student "bond strength", of course. Some advisors don't form strong bonds with any students.

But among those who do: what makes an advisor and student 'click' in such a way that they act like more like colleagues than professor and student? Similar personalities, drive, work ethic, cultural background.. other? And is gender a major or minor factor?

My own answers would be: similar drive and work ethic as factors, and gender is irrelevant in these cases.

A question for SP readers: Have you ever formed a particularly strong working relationship with particular students (as an advisor) or with a particular advisor (as a student)? What do you think the major factors were?

30 responses so far