Archive for: April, 2012

Works Not Well With Others

Apr 24 2012 Published by under colleagues, graduate school

A reader wonders about

the boundary between immersion and self-centered approach in research.

Is it possible to be too focused on your research in a way that is seen as "self-centered" rather than collaborative and collegial? Yes, of course, but context matters.

In this particular case, I think the individual (a research scientist) needs to clarify things with the head of the research group, perhaps discussing specific examples of possible problems and clearing up any misunderstandings. It can be a good thing for a research scientist to be totally immersed in their work (if that is their inclination), but perhaps there are some expectations (at present unspecified) about ways in which cooperation and collaboration is expected.

The question (from a research scientist) started me thinking about this boundary for other cases, such as those involving students and professors.

Professors who advise students and/or postdocs are supposed to be unselfish, sort of by definition (although I know it is not always so, and I am going to ignore the extreme/evil cases for this discussion). We give our best ideas to our students and postdocs and help them in many ways with their research, particularly in the first couple of years.

Some professors who do research work in large(ish) collaborative groups with other scientists, at least for some projects, whereas others work primarily with their own students and maybe a small group of other colleagues. My impression is that the "lone wolf" professor still exists, but is endangered (Does anyone think that is a good thing?).

But what about students? How self-centered vs. unselfish should students be?

Again, context matters, but I think in general, students need to find a good balance between immersion (self-centered focus) and learning how to collaborate with others (beyond the advisor), particularly if their career goal will involve work situations involving collaboration and cooperation. Working collaboratively does not work well for all people -- I am not a real doctor and am not going to opine about the prevalence of Aspergers/autism spectrum people in the sciences -- but, at least in my corner of academia, working well with other scientists is essential.

It is very common to see a brief works-well-with-others paragraph in letters of reference for academic jobs. These paragraphs typically give examples of how a student, postdoc, or other early-career person was a "good department/research group" citizen. Of course we don't expect students and most postdocs to do a lot of service work, so most of these examples involve ways in which someone was generous with their time and knowledge in helping others. This is seen as a good sign that someone will be a good colleague and mentor.

That doesn't mean you have to get along with everyone -- there are some people with whom I cannot and will not work -- but it's fine if it is a minor issue of some (but not many) specific personality/priority clashes and not a general trait of being unable and unwilling to work with others. It is also important that problems working with others not follow general patterns related to gender, ethnicity, religion etc.

It is also important that a student (or postdoc) not spend too much time helping others, to the detriment of their own work. What is too much vs. enough depends on the research, research group dynamics etc., but if anyone (student, postdoc, advisor) feels there is an imbalance, it's important to discuss it and work something out.

Questions for readers: How do/did you, as a current or former grad student/postdoc, feel about working with others, either in a collaborative role or in a sharing-your-expertise with other students/postdocs role? Do/did you feel that you spent too much time helping others and would have liked to focus more on your work? If so, did this problem ever get resolved (and how)?

16 responses so far

Token Award

Apr 17 2012 Published by under women in science

This week, let's talk about the rewards of diversity:

Some departments, schools, professional organizations, and so on have awards that are specifically for women, such as an award by one of the societies in my field for an outstanding female PhD student. As far as I can tell, these are not very prestigious awards and don't come with a lot of money. I guess there are some awards for women at the national level that are better in these terms but most are not. My university also has awards for outstanding minority students (anyone not white or Asian-American). These also are not prestigious and they come with less money than some other awards that are for anyone. I am offended by all these token awards but at the same time I am glad they are there, if that makes any sense. I am considering nominating one of my students for one of these awards but I can't get over the feeling that I may be setting her up for a humiliating experience, not if she doesn't get the award but if she does. Should I go ahead with the nomination anyway?

I have very mixed feelings about these awards too. I think they were set up with the best of intentions, but they do have the effect of relegating women and underrepresented minorities to a category of awards that are lower in value ($) and lower in prestige than other awards because these awards are not based on "merit". In some cases, the existence of these awards seem to free an organization (or whatever) from having to make an effort to consider women for other (merit-based) awards. I have written about this before and am not going to repeat the main philosophical arguments for and against these awards, but will focus today only on the practical aspect: should you nominate your students for such awards?

I would, and I do. However conflicted I feel about these awards, I take the practical approach in cases involving students. If there is a fellowship or award for which one of my students is eligible for whatever reason, I nominate them. Fellowships funds for students are scarce, and if such things exist, I want all of my students to have as much chance for success as possible, and these fellowships can help a lot.

If, however, I were in a position in which I could influence the existence and purpose of some of these awards -- the ones that really are "token" in all respects -- I would try to get the award changed or eliminated. (I have only done this in one case so far). In some cases, this can mean getting rid of the special designation of certain awards as only for women, such as in a department or subfield in which there is a strong (in number and/or achievement level) contingent of women who will receive awards based on merit as a natural outcome of the awards evaluation process. Maybe those situations are still rare, but they exist. In those case, there is no need for these 'special' awards.

For now, though, some of these awards are necessary and I nominate female students and colleagues for them. Of course, that doesn't mean I don't also nominate them for other awards -- the ones that are not specifically for women or underrepresented minorities -- but if there is an additional opportunity, I go for it. It would be a mistake to assume that because an award has a special designation that seems to involve an irrelevant factor (gender, ethnicity) that the recipients aren't truly outstanding in terms of intellectual merit, or whatever would be considered a "relevant" criterion.

Is there anyone reading this who would not nominate a student (for example) for a fellowship or award that was specifically for an underrepresented group for the reason of being offended by these awards? (and if so, are you a member of this underrepresented group yourself, or not?)


19 responses so far

I Used to Be Nicer

Apr 09 2012 Published by under advising, graduate school

Does anyone share this advisor-angst?:

When I was an assistant professor and establishing my research group, it was difficult for me to recruit excellent PhD students. I define "excellent student" as someone both willing and able to do PhD-level research, although I know there is a lot of subjectivity in that. I understood that many students didn't want to work with someone who didn't have tenure, but I had grants with funding for students and I had to show that I could advise students, so I accepted to work with almost any student who seemed interested. Some of these students turned out to be great, as great as any of the ones who worked with my more famous colleagues. Quite a few were not even very good but I dragged them along as best I could to their degrees. It was a lot of work and very stressful.

So time passed, I got tenure and got more established. I can now compete with some of the more senior professors for the "best" students. Of course there is variability in the research aptitude and work habits of even the "best" students, but I can now much more easily have a research group that mostly consists of smart and motivated students.

So what is the problem with that? Maybe nothing but sometimes I advise (or start to advise) a student who lags behind the others in some way, like motivation or research skill. In the old days (pre-tenure), I would have taken the time and made the effort to drag them to a degree, and now I don't, or can't. No time, mostly. I don't have the time to give them the amount of help they need although sometimes I try if I think I see something that gives me hope that a bit more time and help might get them over their slow start. If I don't see that, I tend to give up on them after about 1.5 years. Otherwise, 2-2.5 years and I give up.

My colleagues say that there are so many excellent students, don't fret about the ones who don't have the ability or maturity to succeed in grad school. I know they are at least partly right but something about it still bothers me.

When I was an assistant professor, I thought that later in my career, when I had advising successes under my belt, this would get easier and it would be more obvious that these situations didn't happen because I am a bad advisor. I thought that students would blame themselves more if grad school didn't work out for them. It's not like that though. Students who fail do not think it their own fault that they are failing. It's not like I want them to think they are losers and I do understand that it can be humiliating for students who have so far succeeded academically (but in classes, not in research), but I'd like them to be able to have more perspective and realize that getting a PhD just doesn't work out for everyone and it isn't always the fault of the advisor when things don't work out. I think I still have a lot of learn about being an advisor, or maybe students are all so different there is never going to be a time when I feel like I have it all figured out.

I guess I don't have any particular questions and am just wondering if this happens to others and if anyone else worries about it.

Yes on one, and yes on two. I think it is very common for tenure-track professors who are just getting established to attract a different type of grad advisee than more established (more famous) professors. I am sure that many advisors do a lot more to help students succeed when it's a matter of career life-and-death, but, as you describe, don't have the time to do this later, especially if your research group gets larger.

Should you worry about it? No, not really, unless you become a monster-advisor who chews up and spits out students at an alarming rate (it doesn't sound like that is the case). If you give students a fair chance (~2 years sounds fair) and then it doesn't work out, maybe you are helping them in the long run to find something that is a better fit for their interests and skills. This could be another advisor/project or something outside academia. It's almost always difficult, but it would be worse to drag them along for 4-6+ years and then decide they aren't going to get a PhD.

But I know that these situations are seldom clear-cut. You wonder if a little more time would make a difference, or if there is something different you could have done, and so on, but ultimately you come up against the reality of what is possible and even reasonable in terms of time and effort for students who don't seem to be making any progress in their research. I think a key point is the one about students all being so different, you may never "have it all figured out".

Some professors who have a "cookie cutter" style of advising, or a "sink or swim" philosophy, also seem to experience less angst when students don't make the cut and sink. That's not true in all cases, of course, but there are some apparently angst-free research groups that seem to run very smoothly, occasionally spitting out a student who doesn't work out, but otherwise producing a steady stream of PhDs. Or, at least, that's the view from outside. It's probably always more complicated than that. In any case, I don't think I could ever be like that, but the angst-free mode of advising does have its appeal.

No matter how many advising successes you have, no matter how "good" you are at advising some/many/most students, the advising experience in general is never going to be perfect, and it may never even be easy. There are just too many personality issues involved and situations we can't predict in advance, not to mention the difficulty/impossibility of predicting which students with perfect transcripts, amazing letters, and even undergrad research experience will do well in grad school.

So, my advice is to stay angsty enough about it so that you don't go too far the other way of not caring, and yet not so angsty that you lose confidence or the ability to enjoy your advising successes. I think that you are going to have to give up on the hope that more of your problematic students will realize it isn't (entirely) your fault.

But now I have a question. In terms of the general issue of whether we make "extreme" efforts to help struggling grad students, I wonder how much it matters:

(1) what the funding situation is for PI: that is, how much/little grant money you have, including funding for students; and

(2) what the employment situation is for a particular field -- I don't mean just in terms of tenure-track faculty positions, but speaking more broadly for other graduate degree-relevant employment opportunities.

If grant money and/or job opportunities are abundant vs. exceedingly scarce, does this affect your advising philosophy? Do issues related to grants affect how long you are willing to work with a struggling student? -- for example, if you have supported a PhD student for a couple of years and there's no way you could start over with a new student in that project, but the current student is really not working out, what do you do?  Drag them along or cut your losses? And getting back to the e-mail that started this post: Does it matter what your career stage is?




44 responses so far

Promote Yourself

Apr 02 2012 Published by under career issues

An interesting question/topic from a reader; touched on before in previous posts, but worth a revisit:

I would love if you posted on active self-promotion in the sciences... that is, the idea of specifically and intentionally promoting yourself and your work to others in your field.  In my field, this is almost a faux pas because "the science speaks for itself" and so its hard to get straight answers from people.  The people I've seen who are successful are active and effective promoters of themselves and their own work, even if that's not what they say they are doing.  (e.g. I have a colleague who regularly contacts strangers in other fields that he doesn't know to make them aware of his work because, "they need to know about this research, its so important"... it's really not, but the practice and his confidence have contributed to his success, I think)

I guess my question is, in your experience, what are (socially) acceptable and nonacceptable forms of self-promotion?

Does this vary from field to field? I don't know. My impression is that it varies from person to person, with maybe some departmental/institutional variation, and perhaps also variation by culture/country.

I think a key question is: What is the purpose of the self-promotion? Is it essential to your progression in your career; for example, making you more visible (as an early-career scientist) to those who might eventually write letters as part of your tenure evaluation? Is it important for your tenure evaluation that you give invited talks? Is it a way to develop new collaborations and recruit excellent grad students and postdocs (important for any career stage)? Or do you just generally want to be more famous in your obscure field?

In my discussion, I will focus on strategies for self-promotion as an essential element of career development, not for hunger-for-fame purposes. I am also writing from my point of view as a non-extrovert. You do not have to be loud, talkative, sociable, aggressive, or even supremely self-confident to self-promote in the interest of career development.

So, what can you do? What about the example given in the e-mail above? In a situation similar to that example, I have a colleague in my same general field who has long sent copies of pre-prints to others in the field, even to people he doesn't know well and even in the days of paper-and-slowmail, just to help spread the news of his work and results. I consider this a completely acceptable means of self-promotion (and beyond the self, also promotion of the work of a research group, including students, postdocs etc.). The pre-prints are accompanied by a simple statement that this work might be of interest. Does anyone think that is obnoxious?

There is clearly disagreement, even within fields, about what is a 'good' form of self-promotion.  For example, a young scientist recently suggested himself to join a professional service group of which I am part. My reaction was "Great, this might be a good person to join us in the future", but some of my colleagues in this group said (privately, to the rest of us), "What a jerk." They thought the young scientist was obnoxious for making the suggestion instead of waiting for us, in our collective wisdom, to think of him when we needed a new member.

If this young scientist had said something like "I am so awesome, I know that you will want to benefit from my awesomeness and you are fortunate that I happen to be willing to help you", then OK, that would be obnoxious, but the communication was more like "I just wanted to let you know that I am interested in joining your group if you have need of a new member at some point. I have the following qualifications [list] and am looking for opportunities to be more involved in the professional community." I consider that entirely appropriate and even very welcome.

If there is a professional service opportunity that is of interest and would be useful for career advancement and valued by your department/community, I think it is good to look into ways to pursue this opportunity, perhaps in an (initially) indirect way, scouting out nice and knowledgeable colleagues who might have some advice or assistance to offer for each circumstance/field. If you ask around to learn more about the culture in your field and whether a proactive approach would be welcomed or rejected, you might get some clues as to how to proceed. Or, quite likely, you will get a range of opinions and just have to guess anyway.

I noted above that culture/country might play a role: that is, in whether we are likely to self-promote and in how such actions are perceived. For example, in the "self-promotion" scenario I described, my colleagues who thought the young scientist was obnoxious are not American. I -- the only American involved in this incident -- thought the self-promotion was appropriate and inoffensive. Did I feel that way because I am more used to a culture of self-promotion? Maybe. [I should note that the self-promoting young scientist in this anecdote is not American.]

Anyway, what are other possible forms of self-promotion in academia? One way to become more visible in one's field is to give talks at other institutions. Ideally, you will get inviations, typically because someone read an interesting paper of yours or saw you give an excellent talk at a conference. If you have been publishing and speaking at conferences but the invitations to visit other universities are slow to come, you could try to be more active in inviting people to visit your department (this might make them more likely to reciprocate with an invitation), or you could express your interest to a senior colleague, who might be able to help spread the word that you give interesting talks and would be a good person to invite.

A nice way to self-promote, in fields in which this is possible, is to organize or co-organize a session at a conference. This is seen as professional service, but it also gets you out there in front of an audience of people in your sub-field and gives you a chance to interact with co-organizers and speakers. If you pick a broad and interesting topic that involves more than just your close friends and associates, session-organizing can be an effective and non-obnoxious way to self-promote.

You could also let program officers know that you are interested in serving on a proposal review panel. I think this would generally be seen as less obnoxious than inviting yourself to do some other time-consuming service activity. Some panels have a habit of inviting early-career scientists to serve for a round or two, in part to give them a glimpse of how things work. If you serve on a panel, you will likely spend an intense few days working closely with a group of scientists you might not otherwise encounter, even if they are in your general field. I am only familiar with some NSF programs in this respect, so you'd need to ask around about other funding agencies that are relevant to your field; and, within NSF, whether this is how 'your' programs work.

Another service-oriented way to self-promote (sort of) is to be a diligent reviewer. I am not objective about this (speaking as an editor always seeking good reviewers), but my positive impression of thoughtful, thorough, and prompt reviewers can certainly affect my overall impression of these people and their research. It doesn't make me more likely to accept their manuscripts (if there are problems with the manuscripts), but it would make me more likely to invite them to give a talk in my department or in a conference session, read their papers, be interested in working with their students/postdocs, and to just be generally more aware of (in a positive sense) them and their work.

I suppose some forms of self-promotion also relate to where we send manuscripts for review (that is, the impact/prestige of the journal), but this involves a complicated equation involving many factors that I will not discuss here.

Are there other forms of professional self-promotion that most people would agree are acceptable, and even welcomed, or necessary? Do you welcome self-promotion in others, at least in some form, or do you think this is obnoxious ('the science will speak for itself' etc. etc.)?

11 responses so far