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?