Independence Day

Nov 17 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school

Instead of including a specific e-mail question from a reader, the topic of today's post is a synopsis/synthesis of some related issues that I have seen in e-mails from students and advisors, not to mention my own semi-real life.

The question has to do with the independence of an advisee in research. I have seen issues related to independence raised by:

students who think they have too much independence; that is, too little advising or structure and little to no input on how they are doing in terms of progress and their advisor's opinion;

students who think they have too little independence; that is, they are told what to do and when to do it, and then they have to do what they are told. If they do what they are told for long enough, they may get their degree.

advisors who wish their students were more independent; that is, they wish their students wouldn't keep asking for instructions for every single stage of every project, even if the student could figure out some of these steps without asking, or have done this type of work before. I think we all understand that some students just want to make sure they are doing things right so they don't waste time or do something wrong, but some of these situations seem to involve extreme lack of independence to the point of not having any ideas and not developing any critical thinking skills.

advisors who wish their students were less independent; that is, they wish their students would keep them better informed of their work and progress instead of preferring to work alone, checking in only when necessary and not wanting any input or advice.

.. and everything in between those most extreme cases.

Of course some of this variation is related to personality type and perhaps also the sort of research involved, not to mention research group size and dynamics. But what, if anything, can be done about a mismatch in advisor-student preferences about independence in research?

As a long-time advisor, I can speak most directly about the second two scenarios listed above. If the advisor variable is relatively constant (not necessarily a good assumption), and the student variable changes (i.e., some students are too dependent, some too independent), the question is whether and how the advisor can explain what needs to change, why it needs to change, and perhaps how to change.

For example, a student who asks too many (unnecessary) questions about every single small thing could be told to try to do X alone next time, and then discuss how it went; and then the next time, they could do X and Y alone.. etc. You can figure out what is an appropriate level of help for the problem, technique, and people involved. Some students just need to be given the go-ahead to work independently and they will; others need the step-by-step approach to gain skills and confidence. And of course there is always the classic sink-or-swim approach: don't talk to me until you get to Z and we'll see how you did.

Similarly, a student who doesn't check in enough may simply need more specific communication about expectations. I have written before about students who submitted conference abstracts with me as a co-author but without showing me the abstracts prior to submission. In at least 2 cases that I can remember, the abstracts were bad in writing and content. Clearly these students should have checked these with me first and not been so independent as to skip that step. I would be very happy to give a quick read to a final or near-final version of something a student has written (especially if it has my name on it) -- the student is still being quite independent by writing something that only needs final, minor (or no) editing. Being independent does not mean that you have to go off and do everything yourself without any input from your advisors (although in some cases, with some, advisors, I suppose it does mean exactly that).

Readers, here are my questions for you on this topic:

- If you are a student, are you happy with the amount of independence you have? If not, is there anything you can do about it? If you are, is this just a happy coincidence, or did you (and your advisor) have to work this out?

- If you are an advisor, do you have any particularly effective methods that you use to develop what you consider to be the appropriate level of independence (or the type of research you do, for your research philosophy, etc.)? How common is it for you and your advisees to work out a mutually acceptable level of independence vs. having this be a continual source of frustration for one or both of you?

18 responses so far

  • I expect a high level of independence of action by my students, but I also expect them to keep me informed about what is going on and to listen to my advice. I don't necessarily expect them to follow my advice—indeed, I want them to push back when I suggest something stupid or too much work for the expected benefit.

    I have weekly 1-on-1 meetings with every student I advise, and I require quarterly written reports of everything they have done that quarter. (I started the written reports as a way to make sure that they had text that they could work into a thesis, and not have to start with a blank screen when it came time to finish, but it now serves multiple purposes.)

  • Anon says:

    I am a student who has moved through a number of advisors in the past few years.

    I like a medium amount of independence: having my advisor know what I am working on so we are on the same page but largely doing things on my own. I think that I will be able to have this level here in my current lab, as it is a very independent lab with people working on only very vaguely related and an advisor who isn't necessarily an expert in what each of us does but learns along with us. There is a certain about of forced independence when your advisor doesn't necessarily know the minutiae any better than you do. We have a lab meeting once a week, I am currently TAing for my advisor but (s)he also pops into the lab to just see how thing are going.

    I had too much independence as a MS student - I would occasionally get an email saying 'Anon, Is everything going well? I'm not sure what you are doing, please send me an update.' We would smile and say hi at department events weekly but not talk about research regularly. My advisor wasn't totally unavailable - if I had been staying longer, I probably would have asked to set up regular meetings to get more advising, but I didn't feel like I needed to make an issue in the last semester while I was mainly finishing up. At the same time, I feel like I could have learned a lot more about that advisor's area of expertise if there had been lab meetings or regular advising meetings.

    My RA advisor who was also on my MS committee didn't necessarily restrict independence, but instead was too controlling after the fact. Maybe the problem is allowing more independence than (s)he should? But there are many cases where his students have had to do things over and over when he changes his mind about how it is best done after it has been done a different way. Graduations and publications get delayed because there is a need for perfection that is in my opinion a bit on the unreasonable side.

  • postdoc says:

    As a grad student, I had a lot of independence when it came to my research. I was allowed to do pretty much what I wanted to do. Towards the end of my PhD, my advisor and I were on the same page, so this situation was great. However, the reason for all of this freedom was that my advisor didn't have time for all of his responsibilities, so we didn't see him much and he regularly cancelled group and individual meetings. This was difficult for me, particularly in the beginning, because I was working on a new project for our group and didn't really know what I was doing and could never find him to talk with him. I floundered for a bit, but the end result was that I became a more independent thinker and researcher. I suppose it worked out for me, but my former advisor has lost a lot of PhD students along the way from lack of structure, timely feedback, and clear project goals.

    At my current position, I've met with my PI twice (<20 min total) and I send my group leader monthly updates and we meet to discuss the updates, but rarely talk in between. I prefer the setup now because, although I meet with my advisors for less time than I did with my PhD advisor, the feedback I get is timely and independence stems from my abilities as opposed to my group leader's availability. Overall, I think independence during my PhD was quite beneficial; however, I think more advice from my advisor or a senior graduate student to learn from early on would have made the beginning of graduate school less scary.

  • cw says:

    I'm a 3rd year graduate student. My adviser keeps a fairly heavy travel schedule so many of the students in my group are expected to be pretty independent. This is fine now, but starting out I would have really appreciated some more structure, guidance and some clearer expectations. My first year and a half or so, I worked from the assumption that "no news is good news," which is probably not the best way to learn.

  • Cherish says:

    I'm pretty comfortable with my current advisor. She's busy, but she meets with me when she can...although it took a while to figure out what kind of schedule worked for both of us. It sometimes changes from week to week, as well.

    My MS advisor had about 9 grad students when I was working with him, and so he didn't have time to check in on us very much. I would pop my head in when I needed to talk about something. I have to admit that, in retrospect, I should've been working more closely with him near the end of my project. On the other hand, he encouraged me to work alone and be independent, which I probably needed at that point.

    It's a matter of finding a balance, I suppose, and that will depend on the person and what stage they're at.

  • a says:

    I am a grad student. I tend to not ask questions and try to figure stuff out on my own. My adviser generally lets me have this independence. When I started research, we held regular weekly meetings to discuss my progress, which was really helpful. As I got more confident, I was able to ask for meetings when needed (still tends to be about once per week, but depends on other factors). I think advisers should have a conversation with their students about this if there seems to be some mismatch. As a student, it's hard to bring up any advising pitfalls without feeling like you're putting yourself in a sort of danger zone.

  • Anonymous says:

    I'm a rather independent grad student, due to both personality and to being a late starter and having had a previous short career. I had worked with both my co-advisors in the year I applied, before beginning grad school, so I knew our personalities were good matches. I treat my advisors as more-experienced colleagues -- that is, I work mostly on my own, but I keep them informed of what I'm up to, and I seek advice when I need it. This makes everyone happy.

  • Colleen says:

    I'm on something of the extreme end of the independence spectrum. In the 3 semesters I've been in the lab, my advisor has never instructed me specifically on what to do or set any kind of deadline. I work in one direction, get feedback on whether than direction needs tweaking, and then tweak and move forward.

    I worked in research for three years before grad school and at times managed a multimillion dollar grant completely on my own (when both PIs would simultaneously go on vacation for weeks at a time). I was authorized to sign off on pretty much everything myself. I'm used to a "benign neglect" style of supervision :).

    The good thing about my current arrangement is that I have near complete intellectual freedom and 100% control over my project. That is also the bad thing about it :). It can be quite overwhelming at times and when other, more structured demands arise (class projects, teaching responsibilities) it's sometimes too easy to push aside research tasks because of the lack of deadlines. Also, my progress is very oddly paced at times, with some weeks of frantic data crunching and some weeks where I read a paper here or there and try to synthesize ideas but don't get near data.

  • anonymous 2 says:

    Two dimensions to add to the mix:

    1) The trainee's progression through the training. Students should get more independent through their time in the lab, and good advisors should gradually loosen the reins. If this doesn't happen evenly, what started out as a good match can become a mismatch. Or vice versa, I suppose.

    2) The level, as well as the frequency, of the guidance. Personally, right now (advanced grad student) I feel like my advisor manages at the wrong level a lot of the time- I get too much hour-by-hour direction and not enough help with big-picture organizing.

  • Anon says:

    I had a wonderful advisor as a graduate student. I was able to work independently, to the point of coming up with my own hypotheses, research designs, etc., carrying these projects out independently, etc. That said, my advisor was available when I had questions or needed to bounce ideas around about confusing results or other laboratory oddities. It was the (nearly) perfect situation for me as a grad student.

    I had the opposite experience as a postdoc. I had NO independence, which felt like a real step back. My advisor had me "assist" undergrads and grad students with their data collection. On the rare occasion that I did have my "own" project, I was told exactly what to do and how to do. I hated it. I asked my advisor on a couple of occasions if I could also pursue some of my own research questions (and of course, still accomplish goals that he had set for me). He replied that I could not---and that it was not because I didn't deserve to be independent, but that he didn't have adequate research funds to support all of those diverse activities. Because of this, I left his lab. It broke my spirit, because I felt that it reflected some sort of inadequacy on my part as a scientist. Unfortunately, because of this and many other events that I won't go into here, I have had to leave science altogether. I really miss it.

  • JB says:

    I am a 2nd year MS graduate student preparing to graduate in a few months.

    In terms of independence, I consider myself lucky to have found the precise level of independence I wanted in a graduate program. Part of this also had to do with the way I went about choosing my thesis topic.

    Going into grad school I really wanted to be a TA instead of an RA, despite what people had told me about the benefits of basically working while writing your thesis for an RA. The thought scared me a little bit because I didn't just want to be told what to do for research. I wanted to be more involved with choosing my subject I felt having a TA would give me the chance to be more flexible. Even if it meant a little more work, I really realllyyyy didnt mind putting in extra effort for the chance to call my thesis "mine".

    Aside from that, I had found two professors to be the main core of my committee, deciding on a good research topic. I had gone to them because of their research interests, but also what I had heard from current and previous students about their advising styles. One of them is very laid back, hands-off, but not exactly uninvolved. He just really let me try what I wanted to try and encouraged it. For some of his students this would be a problem as they would fall behind without being hassled, I didn't mind it at all and it worked well for my. He had high expectations of his students work, regardless. The other professor was much more controlling, but in a good balance with the other professor. He made sure I met all my deadlines, required me to give weekly research updates, voiced his opinion a lot about whether he thought something would work or not, and had much more of "try this instead of this" approach.

    One professor really let me explore my independent side of research, which paid off in a lot of ways, as some of our discoveries were just little side hypotheses that might have been disregarded at first. The other professor made sure I didn't go overboard and that I wouldn't try and answer the unanswerable, while reminding me that I don't have much time here and I can't solve everything. He would keep me from straying too far, which I am thankful for.

    In the end I'm glad to be writing up a thesis which is both on-time and reasonable yet I feel like it really is "mine", thanks to the duality of both independent and structured committee members.

  • MRSA says:

    I'm pretty independent on the bench and in terms of moving my project forward. I am reasonably collaborative in that I like to discuss some things with my PI to make sure we're on the same page with regards to going about my work (I usually meet with him before attempting a huge experiment I designed just to make sure there aren't any major flaws and get the go-ahead). I am definitely less independent with respect to preparing for the usual rites of passage in grad school (prelims, really). I need to be asked questions and tested. That might be weird. I think it's a processing thing. I know the concepts but I need a lot more practice processing the questions and communicating my work. A little more feedback with regards to my grad school progress would also be much, much more helpful too.

  • Sally says:

    I hold a weekly research group meeting where each member gives an update on hir project. I provide feedback, and often the group members will have helpful suggestions for each other. If my postdocs/students need more help they stop by my office at other times.

    One of my students is a successful independent worker who can get by with only occasional email contact, but that's rare. Another student probably needs more structure than I provide--he doesn't make much progress between our check-ins at meetings and he is either not comfortable coming to me for help or he doesn't realize he's not making progress. The rest of the students/postdocs each voluntarily come to my office for ~30 minutes of individual help per week on average and are doing fine.

  • TypeA says:

    I have a fantastic advisor who is really responsive and flexible in his advising style.

    Its funny, because we're at a weird inbetween in the range of independence scales. I think that I should be acting more independently, and he wants me to be able to work more independently. Unfortunately, we're staring down the barrel of a tight deadline (grant renewal) and my project is way behind due to a couple of pitfalls that came up along the way. So while he wants me to work more on my own and only check in with him occasionally, and while I would like to give up our weekly 1 hour meeting and occasionally email him with data or set up a meeting with him, because of how important it is that I accomplish a couple tasks we've both reluctantly agreed that its best if we keep meeting regularly.

  • hkukbilingualidiot says:

    I'm on the extreme end of the grad student spectrum where my supervisors thinks that I'm too independent. Though in my defense I just don't really like sharing things that I haven't grasped the idea of but after a year long battle we've finally met a compromise...or earned my independence depending on which side of the fence you sit.

    In my particular situation I am crossed between two departments with three supervisors. My project was already new for both groups to begin with so in certain respects it was only a matter of months into the project before I'm on even grounds with all of them. As things moved on and my skills and knowledge caught up I'm now in full control of my project as I have already grasped the ideals of the project and planned according with relatively realistic timeline given my experience with the experiments that had been conducted. Apart from the weekly group meetings that I may or may not attend due to data presence we occasionally meet together as a group. When I first started planning these supervisor meetings mainly to get rid of administrative demands and to remove bias between the supervisors they didn't much like the idea and so it became almost non-existent. Now as we are approaching new experiments, which to be honest are as basic as can be, it was actually them that requested those meetings. So as confused as I am now all I can say is the level of independence that a student has is determined by their ability and project impact and there is no set rule for it. But now, it seems that the 'supervision' that I am receiving is more on the lines of refinement of communication skills rather than technical as project-wise we are pretty much on the same page.

  • UnlikelyGrad says:

    My advisor generally gives me a goal and then lets me do whatever it takes to reach it. I usually only ask for help when I've tried everything I can think of and nothing is working--she usually comes up with at least one other possibility, though there have been times where she tells me that we should just scrap that line of inquiry completely.

    We do try to meet weekly, but most of the time I'm reporting what I've done on a current project rather than listening to her tell me how to proceed with said project. Of course, our weekly meetings are also when she gives me additional tasks (even if I haven't finished the previously assigned ones).

    I think the amount of independence she gives me is just about right.

  • CSgrad says:

    I'm naturally inclined toward the extreme end of the "independent" spectrum, so my MS thesis advisor and I came up with a schedule of meetings to mitigate that a bit. Once a week I meet with him for up to half an hour and he reviews my progress. I think it works pretty well. He doesn't guide me much about the actual content, at least in part because I'm working a bit out of his area (he was the closest of the faculty to my interests, but still not super-close).

  • David Eisenberg says:

    Perhaps you could collect this data in the form of a poll, with grades of 1-10 for actual/desired degree of student independence.