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

  • postdoc says:

    "Students who fail do not think it their own fault that they are failing."

    This is the line that worries me. I find it surprising that the adviser could encounter so many deeply delusional students. Instead, what I'm afraid is happening is that the students do not clearly understand how and where they are underperforming, or they only hear it when it is too late.

    Most of the PIs I've worked with have been less confrontational and direct than good managers--much less mentors and advisers--need to be. They'll complain about students to other professors (in front of me sometimes, which is how I know), but from watching their style of interaction, I'd be surprised if they were ever so blunt with the people who were offending them. There needs to be regular, direct feedback about progress and expectations from day 1. This shouldn't take any significant time; even "hands off" advisers can do it.

    • Amanda says:

      Agree. I myself am a student and have overheard faculty speaking negatively about their students (my peers.) For one thing, I can't help but wonder why they are so loose lipped in front of everyone! Second, given my interactions with these peers and that they usually are under the impression that their relationships with their advisors are completely fine, I can't help but think that the advisors aren't helping themselves much if they can't speak with their students about potential issues.

    • Charon says:

      Absolutely. This happened in my graduate department as well - professors would criticize students to other faculty, but very rarely actually deal with the students themselves. When professors only get around to letting students know that they're doing badly when it's gone on for a long time, and is the end for the student... it's too late. The student will naturally feel frustrated that they weren't told about the problems when maybe they were small enough to address. (Problems that were obvious to the advisor really, honestly, might not have been evident to the student.)

      Sure, I know students like to blame others for their failures. But... so do professors and advisors, sometimes.

      • From the advisor side says:

        I agree it's cowardly not to talk directly to the student, but honestly, the types of problems that cause students to fail at grad school tend not to be fixable. Being a researcher is something that can be explicitly taught only up to a point. After that, the researcher-in-training simply has to "catch on." Some students just never catch on, no matter how much you try to instruct them on this particular failing or that particular failing. You can't give someone a personality transplant.

        I think it is this sense of futility with a certain type of student that causes professors to take the cowardly route, and leave it up to the student to eventually notice that they are not getting anything done, that they haven't generated any fertile hypotheses, that they are not getting any publications.

        I also think there may be another factor at work in today's world, namely fear of getting sued. We can all imagine the nightmare student who, if we were honest with them about their shortcomings, would claim bias and sue our butts off.

        • Shamu2k says:

          "I think it is this sense of futility with a certain type of student that ... haven't generated any fertile hypotheses, that they are not getting any publications."

          But you, professor, are the determinant of whether or not a manuscript is submitted to a journal, since you are the corresponding author.

          If the student can't get a manuscript to you, then, OK, I'll agree that is their problem.

          But what if they have sent you the manuscript, and you just didn't like it?

          Perhaps it could publish in PLoS One, but not PNAS? Maybe to you, such a manuscript would be "infertile" - and perhaps you would advise the student to "make your paper more fertile and publishable."

          I'm not saying that's the kind of advisor you personally are. But I know of plenty who would fit this description.

          If you want to avoid getting sued, be honest about the issues before they get big! And give specific expectations, deadlines, decision points. And for God's sake be honest about the funding situation.

  • postdoc says:

    As a small aside, I've had people come to me to get information about what a PI thinks of them when the PI won't be direct. And often I'll have a pretty good idea from the PI's comments to me, but, of course, I don't let on. It feels a little like I'm the third party in a romantic dispute. It's silly--if you're in a position of power and influence over the careers of the people, you have an obligation to be direct with them about your expectations and your assessments of their performance. This can help you get the results you're looking for. There's almost nothing that's immutable about a person's performance.

  • Dr Moose says:

    postdoc has a good point, and I have seen the phenomenon they describe, but I have also seen what I think the person who wrote the letter meant -- such as students who are really at a loss for what to do, even when they get help from their PI and fellow students. They need to be told every little step, and even then they make mistakes and don't really know what they are doing. The PI may be totally approachable and willing to help and provide structure, but the student just isn't good at research. Do they blame themselves? I have yet to see this. Typically the student gets bitter and spends a lot of time complaining to other students. I can see why an advisor would wish that some nonfunctioning students would say (in the first year!) "Hey, this research thing isn't for me. I think I will go do something else instead." and then thank everyone for the opportunity, apologize if anyone's time and money were wasted on this failed attempt, and then everyone shakes hands and parts amicably. Does that ever happen?

  • AR says:

    I do agree with postdoc. When I was a PhD student, my advisor was very nice and supportive to me. He treated me as a postdoc, giving me full freedom to do what I felt was right. The (minor) downside was, I had no idea what he thought of me, particularly since I could see no tangible results from my work. While I turned out fine and finished my PhD on time, I can see how another PhD student might have drifted away, not realizing what was expected of him/her. By making the student aware of what is expected from day 1, the student can more quickly either fall in line or realize that research is not meant for him/her. I feel that a few blunt, slightly uncomfortable conversations are definitely better than this feeling of not knowing what your advisor thinks of you.

    • pramod says:

      I think a university mandated review system can help with this. At my place we have to fill out this annual review form (eerily remniscent of the time I spent in industry) where one lists all that one has "achieved" in the last year. Then, the advisor and advisee have a meeting in which they discuss past performance and review future plans.

      Maybe this is a bit pessimistic, but my policy in such matters is that unless I *know* that something is going well, I assume that it is probably not going well.

      • postdoc says:

        Mandatory reviews can help, but I've still seen advisers and committee members blow them off. For example, my graduate school's mandatory annual review by committee members included three questions with spaces for comments after each. I don't think I ever saw more than one sentence per form on my reviews the entire time I was there (and it was never "[X] is perfect!"). There needs to be a departmental culture of regular, honest reviewing. I once said to a senior professor that it would be nice to get feedback on preliminary exams beyond "pass" and "no pass," and his comment was, "But we're just here to evaluate you. We don't owe you anything else." I see his point, but then stop pretending it's a training environment and that you're "advising."

        • postdoc says:

          I should add that prelims at my institution were a 45-min talk about independent research, a 20-pp research paper on another topic, and an oral exam. Plenty of material by which to judge someone's strengths and weaknesses.

  • Postgrad says:

    I agree with postdoc. I am in the final part of my PhD and I have never had a review of my performance with my prof. And I would have liked one, but it's a bit late for one now. I'm assuming my PhD is going fine, and I do have a good relationship with my prof. However I'm assuming there are certain things I could improve on, but I don't know for definite what should be my biggest concern. I could ask my prof for a review, but I guarantee if I do that I will see fear run across his face when he realises something else has just been added to his to do list, he has his grant application due, still has to sign off off on that paper we've been talking of submitting for the last 6 months, he has his teaching, all his administrative work etc etc. So I'm not going to ask him for a review. But it does leave me guessing at what I should improve on. Every now and again he gets in a bad humour and will make comments,and I do try to improve on what he has made a comment about. However I have to keep in mind that he could just be in a bad humour so while I will try to improve on those things I can't take these comments too much to heart. If I see him the next day my work could be fine again. So in many ways it is like a bad romantic relationship where neither partner is talking to each other in clear concise words, and everyone is trying to guess from the other persons gestures what's going on.

    All this said he did let a fellow grad student go, who was in my view not capable of doing a phd. ( Not that my view is worth anything in this situation, but after working closely with the guy for a few weeks i was shocked at how ill fitted this guy was to experiemental work, he tried really hard, put in the hours, but it was just not happening) I'm not sure how many direct discussions there was about things this guy could improve on, I think when things got bad he did organise a meeting to talk about how things were going, but was it too little too late? And from my point of view, if we never have a review meeting is that a good thing?

    With regards to letting my fellow postgrad student go, I think that was a really difficult thing for my prof to do, and I respect him for doing it. He also did it at the right stage of the phd, at a year and a half. This way the guy may get a masters from the work he has done, rather then spend 4-5 years working in the group to find out then that he might not get his phd and that in effect 3 years of his life has been wasted all because someone didn't want to have a direct conversation with him, and give him bad news. But I think it is a very tough things for a profressor to do. So with regards to fsp, you may have used to be nicer, but you still seem nice enough. And sometimes it's nicer of you to pull the plug on a student at a year and a half rather then at 5 years.

    With regards to the effect it has on your career, clearly I have no idea with regards to your future career. However in my opinion, your past phd students do reflect on you. If they are good then a large part of the credit for this will be given to their supervisor who managed to recognise and supervise an excellent scientist. However, if they are dreadfully poor and they managed to get a PhD from a prof and an institute it does reflect badly on both the prof and the institute. Or perhaps this is a very naive opinion?

    • Science Professor says:

      Sorry if it wasn't clear that I didn't write that letter.

      • Postgrad says:

        Apologies, I thought the title of the article was your opinion, and the idea of the article came from the letter.

        • Science Professor says:

          Oh I see, yes that is confusing. Although I can relate to what the letter-writer described (as I wrote, I think it is common for pre-tenure advisors to help struggling students more), the title comes from the letter. In my own case, I think I might actually be getting overall nicer with time, although not everyone in my immediate work environment would agree with that self-assessment.

  • Anony says:

    I see a lot of passive behavior in students these days. Maybe there are some big labs in which the advisor is basically unapproachable and doesn't concern him/herself with direct advising, but in some fields, many grads could communicate more closely with their advisor, but they don't. If everything is going well and they just check in now and then to explain their exciting discoveries and ideas, OK that's great, but if the student is having trouble and doesn't even try to do anything about it? They just dig themselves into a hole. Maybe they can get out, maybe they can't, but I agree with some of what's been said about how students don't blame themselves for this and think everything is the advisor's fault. It really puzzles me because grad school is very competitive so doesn't everyone know you have to work hard and communicate and all that?

  • sciencecanary says:

    Re. students wanting to know what their advisor thinks of them: I think that most students will be unsatisfied with anything short of seeing a letter of reference written for them by the advisor. Students today are used to being told Great Job! Nice Try! etc. and so they can't handle it if they aren't praised all the time, or aren't praised in a certain way. Or it could be that grad school is so stressful that even if an advisor is being positive about their work and showing encouragement, the student is too anxious to realize it and wants something more. If you really really want more information, organize a meeting with your advisor, go over your progress, present your plans for the next increment of time that is relevant, ask for any advice you need, and show that you are a hard-working, professional person. This worked for me.

  • fspostdoc says:

    One of my fellow grad students dropped out of grad school without a PhD after 5 years. And that's in Germany where grad school usually lasts 3-4 years (because it only begins after our version of the qualifying exam). What happened seems to be a question of perspective...

    His perspective on things: He had had excellent grades in his qualifying exams and in his undergraduate diploma thesis. He tried really hard. He went through periods of extreme frustration but managed to get himself back on track and motivated for more trying. He tried to get direct feedback from our (common) advisor. He bluntly asked him "Do you think I am able to still finish this PhD project successfully?" several times, after 2, 3, and 4 years. He never got as clear an answer as he hoped for. Rather, he always felt supported in continuing to try. After 4.5 years, his funding was cut because of institutional reasons but he continued (earning unemployment money from the State). After 5 years, he made the decision to search for a job in industry while still working on his research project. He found one in no time and is happy with it. He says he continues working on his thesis project in the evenings and still plans to eventually graduate.

    Our advisor's perspective on things (as I was told by him): He took on this student although he had a very weak undergraduate diploma thesis because the undergraduate advisor had written such a positive letter. He gave him a challenging project. He told him some ideas of how to approach it. He talked to him a lot more than he had ever talked to another grad student. He encouraged him a lot because he seemed to need it. He tried to make it clear to the student that it is the student's decision whether or when to drop out of grad school. He wanted to give him the chance to finish when the student seemed so convinced that's what he wanted. He cut down the funding when it seamed to him that the project wouldn't be successful. He shouldn't have taken on this student in the first place. He was eating up his time and blocking a very fascinating research topic for 5 years so that no-one else in the group could work on it. He will never again take on students with such weak undergraduate diploma theses.

  • anon says:

    As an asst prof with a non-productive grad student, I was advised by more senior faculty that advising/mentoring is a TWO-WAY street. This student was unresponsive to requests for written work (necessary for the quals, etc) and to feedback regarding his lackadaisical attitude toward productivity. In retrospect, I think newer asst profs should be less tolerant of students like this. This person brought down the whole lab - I could not support him with the extremely limited resources I had. He eventually turned himself around when the qualifying exams came around and it looked to him as though failure was imminent, but at that point, the damage was irreversible.

    • SusieQ says:

      I had a very similar situation and I came out of the experience both knowing that I could have handled it better but also that the outcome (the student leaving my lab) was inevitable and I only prolonged the pain with my ineptitude.

  • cmt says:

    I am recently on the advisor side of this debate, but still remember some of the good and bad advisors from my graduate school experience. I don't know how broad of a brush to use here, but I am sometimes shocked - shocked! - at the attitude of graduate students in my department. To me, many of the ones that "fail" are just not that into it. If you don't put in the time and effort, it is silly to expect success.

    The truth is, there is a cavernous gulf between the students and advisors. It is difficult for the student to understand the amount of resources I put into various projects in terms of time and money. Standards in fields are different but the goal of all this time and money is a publication. And the publication should not cost too much money, lest the funding stream be lost. A good project in the hands of the wrong student can also lock up that project and result in someone else getting there first. The stakes can be really high. On top of this, advisors have several hats to wear - administrative (making the department run), teaching classes, mentoring an entire group of students and postdocs, guiding research, professional service (making the broader scientific community run), and writing. This limits the time. Good mentoring practice also requires that I let the student work some things out by him or herself. This often means, from my point of view, waiting around for drafts, calculations, data, etc. that *I* could have gotten significantly faster. That is as it should be - students are learning - but this is extremely frustrating since a lot of resources go into training. On top of all this, students don't seem to recognize any of the sacrifices involved in taking a student, as I myself did not when I was a student.

    I am not blaming the student here (in general, anyway). Students have also sacrificed to be in graduate school and we owe them a fair attempt at a Ph.D. Because we are not trained to manage, we are not sufficiently clear on our expectations for graduate students. These expectations should be communicated to undergraduates BEFORE they enter a graduate program. In many cases, I think we fail to treat graduate students as adults, and as a consequence they fail to mature sufficiently quickly. I do worry about whether students sometimes fail in getting a Ph.D. because they did not readjust their mentality quickly enough; if so, that is the fault of the department as a whole. I can't arbitrarily have higher standards than the department as a whole without developing a "reputation".

  • BugDoc says:

    I sympathize very much with the person who wrote the letter. There are a number of approaches that I've tried to help me navigate the best path with my current lab folks. First, I am MUCH more stringent about whom I accept in my lab. If their references and interview don't show some real superstar potential and strong work ethic, I don't take them in the lab. You can still end up with some stragglers since life situations can change, but if you pay close attention to any red flags in letters, that can save a lot of angst.

    Second, I make my expectations clear up front, i.e., hard work and productivity are necessary for their own success in a very competitive job market (both within and outside of academia). I provide ideas, perspective, mentoring and scientific guidance when needed, but I expect them to bring motivation, initiative and effort to the table from Day 1. I explain that it is NOT enough just to show up X number of hours/week, since the PhD degree is not awarded for time served, but for results, insights and publications.

    Lastly, I give positive or negative feedback anytime it is warranted and I don't wait for annual reviews. I try to put any feedback in the framework of what the student wants to accomplish, i.e., if not coming up with their own ideas, I make it clear that every level of their career will demand more from them and it is best to develop the consistent habit of trying to come up with solutions for us to discuss, instead of just coming to me for answers. Hopefully this reminds them that their success doesn't depend on my opinion of them per se, but rather their own effort and achievement.

    At the programmatic level, our graduate curriculum focuses towards really pushing the students into deep critical thinking with careful evaluations on how they are doing in the first year. The goal is to make sure that we can identify early the few students who either need help or are not well suited to the program so that we can aid them in finding a situation that better fits their skills and interests.

    • Catherine says:

      This response is awesome. You should teach a course. The idea of getting people to look at the long term consequences of what they're doing is so important, can be so motivating for real change, and is so neglected. Good luck!

  • Naomi says:

    Difficult advising situations really aren't clear cut. Possibilities for reasons why students may struggle in a program (beyond laziness, lack of interest in research, lack of aptitude) may be due to cultural issues within academia that are very difficult for anyone: sexism, racism, classism, other forms of social exclusion. I wonder if advisors adopting the "sink or swim" approach are more likely to have students who are similar to them culturally or are representative of the dominant group in their field. If this is the case, what are the implications for the profession? Does the profession remain largely represented by one gender, one ethnic group, one religious group?

    Attention to - and dialogue around - these issues *early* in a student's doctoral career may help prevent "extreme" advising problems later.

  • Anon2 says:

    I have to agree with the statement "Students who fail do not think it their own fault that they are failing", at least in general (I'm sure there are exceptions). As an example, when I was a new professor, I had the bad fortune to have a very bad grad student and a very bad postdoc at the same time. Actually, both of them had similar flaws, though the roots of their problems were different. They worked very little, were unable to get simple experiments to work, didn't ask for help from the other people in the lab, etc. Despite conversations about the working hours and work ethic I required (which was not onerous, I would have been happy with productive 40-hour weeks including the time the student spent in class and TA'ing), despite me going into the lab with them and without them to make sure the experiments I asked of them should, indeed work, and despite the efforts of the rest of my group (who were quite good), neither was making any improvement. With the help of some senior people in the department, I was able to convince the student that it was really in her best interest to graduate with a masters. Throughout the stress, I was concerned about what the rest of the group would think. I didn't want the whole group to be dragged down by these two slackers, or to think that their level of productivity (or lack thereof) was appropriate. Fortunately, they read the writing on the wall and understood the situation. However, I was flabbergasted when the bad postdoc came to me after the student left and commented that he was sorry to see her go, she'd been doing so well, etc. Clearly, he was completely clueless both about his own shortcomings as well as hers. Needless to say, he left shortly thereafter.

  • Postdoc 2 says:

    "Students who fail do not think it their own fault that they are failing."

    I have seen PhD students who are extremely delusional about success. It is more common, I think, in labs run by famous professors. Sometimes, the students come to PhD straight from Bachelors and all the experience they have is that of succeeding at exams. But one thing that every PhD student needs to get clear in his/her head is that a PhD is completely different to a standard exam. It is a "real life" problem. Hence it comes with the uncertainties that are associated with real life. Many times, students who are sinking fail to realize that they are sinking not because of their lack of intelligence but maybe, because they underestimate human qualities such as patience, persistence, accepting failure with equanimity, distinction between your ego and your work, not adhering to a strict 'life formula', not giving in to peer envy/excessive comparisons and most importantly standing your ground when it comes to sensible, practical and ethical research notwithstanding any external pressure.

    As a PhD student I have been through both the cycles. Of blaming my supervisor and then, blaming myself. But looking back, I realize that the sky wasn't always falling when I thought it was. Now I realize that the fact that I finished my PhD in 3 years was enough to make me neurotic.

    I think Supervisors and guides are really just there to put you back on track if you go astray and to cheer you on when you are doing well. All the rest is you building yourself as a scientist. And no external source is responsible for your success, your failure or any of your insecurities.

  • a says:

    It's interesting how it is always the student's failure to realize they are failing. The professor apparently has no responsibility to take for a failing student. Maybe a little guilt, but hey they are too busy to worry about that for too long. I think in the vast majority of cases it is both to blame. There is something wrong with the relationship between the 2 of them if the student is failing. I am sorry, but a student is there to learn, not to churn out your papers in record time.
    Our whole system is so messed up!

    • Anony says:

      I don't think anyone said that it is always the student's failure. The letter just says that it isn't always the fault of the advisor if the student fails, and that is clearly a true statement. There are some examples in the comments showing the complexity of some of these situations but if someone said it is always the fault of the student, I missed that.

      None of my colleagues think of students as paper-churns. It is strange to me that anyone would even say that but maybe it is different in other places. With a few exceptions in my experience, most students require a lot of help getting to the point of writing their papers, at all stages from the research work to the interpretation to the writing. The hope is that by the end of their PhD they can do this with little help. I think the letter was about those students who don't do well at even the first steps of research, not even with help from the advisor.

  • Sally says:

    "Every level of their career will demand more from them..."

    BugDoc nailed it. It's not as if the qualifying exam or the thesis is the hardest part of a career. Being a postdoc is much harder than being a graduate student, and being a professor is much harder than being a postdoc. I have heard myths of students who struggle early and then have a kind of awakening, but I have yet to see it happen. Chances are, if a student is struggling early in grad school, s/he will not have a successful career.

    I have had exactly the same experience as the letter writer. Early on, I invested an inordinate amount of time in a student who was thoroughly unsuited to research. In retrospect the warning signs were all there, but I ignored them because I was having trouble attracting students and I didn't want to push away one of the two who were willing to work with me. The student in question eventually left with a master's degree and most definitely blamed me for hir lack of success.

    Now that I have a big group, I don't have time to drag anyone through a degree. Furthermore, I have learned to heed those warning signs. I don't think advisors who let struggling students keep going for 4-5 years are doing the students any favors. Let the students get out and find something they can do before they waste a lot of time in grad school.

    • Charon says:

      You're ignoring the fact that people face different kinds of challenges at different points in their careers. I've known people who were brilliant experimenters, but were mediocre in class exams - so the qual was actually one of the most difficult parts of their careers. And while I had a lot of fun writing my dissertation, certainly a lot of people who have no trouble doing research do have trouble writing a book. For people in the sciences, the dissertation is likely the longest thing they'll ever write, and writing a ~200-page book is very different from a ~10-page paper.

      And personally I did poorly at the beginning of grad school partially because of an unfriendly and unsupportive atmosphere. I found a supportive advisor, and... started having fun doing research, published papers, got a good postdoc... and maybe I'll fail in the end. A lot of us do. But my first year in grad school was a piss-poor predictor of my subsequent career.

      • aprof says:

        How students do in their first year in grad school is not a perfect predictor (as in some students might do better than that - like you) but is a much better predictor than anything else (like GRE, recommendation letters etc). Plus, the end of the first year coincides with the arrival of the next batch of first-year students and so there is even less an incentive to give a struggling first-year student a longer leash.

  • GMP says:

    I share the sentiments of many profs who commented above.

    The more experience I have advising, the better I am at recruiting good students off the bat as well as at noticing warning signs early on. Usually, if a student looks like they won't work out, I will get them though to a master's degree (1.5 - 2 yrs) and then let them go. If a student stays beyond the master's , then I am committed to getting them to graduate. I am pretty clear about my expectations and give a lot of feedback (especially if I am not happy with progress) in 1-on-1 meetings, group meetings, and via email. I don't think any of the students whom I have had to let go was surprised about being let go. There is usually a whole string of emails with details on what I think the problems are and deadlines for improvement (I have become quite bureaucratic that way as in "once bitten, twice shy") preceding the severance.

    I am very happy with the composition of my group now -- they are all smart, dedicated, creative, and nice people who work well together. It is probably a combination of being better at recruiting and being better at identifying and letting go those who really won't work out.

    We should not neglect the effect of bad students on the rest of the group. Students sometimes know better than us profs how (in)competent their peers are. As an example, when I finally let go the last poor student I had (it was a couple of years ago, he cheated in my class and was all sorts of trouble), I actually had another grad student (who was excellent, btw) say in the group meeting that she was surprised the bad student lasted as long as he had and that she thought he would have been let go long ago. We should not underestimate the capabilities of our smart and dedicated students, nor should we protect the few bad apples at the expense of our own time/sanity and our other students' time/sanity.

    • pramod says:

      This is sort of off-topic, but do you worry about how your firing of bad students is perceived by other prospective students?

      I know of a case where one professor who fired a few students in the is now having trouble recruiting new students. This professor is now extra-nice while trying to attract new students. It's not clear whether this is working.

      I should mention that I'm at one of these places where gradstudents are fired very rarely. Also, all first year students are university/department supported, so students have some time to look around get to know the professors they want to work with.

      • Science Professor says:

        I have a post on this in the next FSP

      • GMP says:

        do you worry about how your firing of bad students is perceived by other prospective students?

        No, not really. I think I take good care of my group members. I don't require crazy work hours. I am accessible to them via email and phone pretty much non-stop. My students publish well, go to conferences, win best paper and best dissertation awards. They receive good training and find good jobs. All prospective students are encouraged to talk to my group members and whomever else they like before joining my group. If a student is serious and motivated, we can usually find a way to make things work. On occasion there are students who are a bad fit (for the group or PhD in general) or have serious issues (like the cheater I mentioned); in those cases the best thing for everyone is to let these students go sooner rather than later.

        • pramod says:

          Thanks for the answer! I certainly wasn't trying imply to imply that you aren't a good adviser.

          As the post itself and some of the comments here have said, students' perception of advisor behavior might be disconnected from reality and I was wondering whether that factors into your decision making.

  • CHC says:

    As "nice" as advisors may be, and as "motivated" as graduate students may be...at the end of the day, PhD research is hard. And it really is the first time a graduate student would have done anything like it in their lives...think about it: you're not "really" doing independent research as an undergraduate...even the independent projects are a grad student/PI's pet project. You may have done well in classes...but that doesn't really mean you can do research.

    So even if there were perfect intentions on both sides, there are going to be some mismatches, simply because the number of unknowns is extremely high. And like most things in real life, sometimes you have to make decisions with incomplete information.

    With that being said, I imagine it might be *slightly* easier to recruit good postdocs? Postdocs have completed a PhD and therefore have done research...so you at least have some record to go on now?

  • asst prof says:

    I think that one thing that is left out in discussions of the student's view of what it really means to be a graduate student is that in many (most?) cases they are being supported on grants that are funded by taxpayer dollars. When I was in graduate school this was a source of motivation, if not outright guilt, that provided that extra little push when I started feeling sorry for myself or tired. While there are many tangible and intangible benefits to society that come from the ability of academics to pursue the types of research we are all so passionate about, the truth is that taxpayers are ultimately the ones taking a risk on each graduate student and their future careers.

    Particularly in this day and age, in this economy, I think that the entitlement I see among some (definitely not all) graduate students is particularly repellent. I personally feel extremely fortunate to be able to do the work that I do and I do my best to pass that on to my students. Perhaps it is, to some extent, a cultural thing, but I definitely have the best, most productive relationship with those who seem to feel driven to prove that they are "worth" all of this investment rather than ones who see this as just an extension of their education (funded by some abstract entity).

  • Katie says:

    I think that I can offer a perspective that may (or may not) be unique to this feed. I am a junior (first year) professor in STEM at a large university. During my first year, I took two PhD students into my group. One of the students is phenomenal. To give you specifics, this student emails me product numbers of items that she needs (if you are/have been/will be a junior TT faculty member, you can/will appreciate how useful this is as your time is more valuable than finding what products are necessary to complete your instrumentation), emails me lists of books they think are applicable to the research, finishes the dropbox folder of research papers and looks for additional papers through scientific search engines.

    The other student I had weekly meetings with from the beginning. At some point (~2-3 months after hiring this person), I reached the conclusion that this student was saying that they understood what I was saying when they really did not. This could be blamed on the different culture that this person grew up in academically and socially. My solution was to write everything and send it via email. This is not a solution that I would recommend lightly as I could imagine that it could easily back-fire. The real problem came when I realized that the student was not reading the amount of papers they should have (after having access to a dropbox folder I created for 2 months, this student said they read 2-3 papers) I decided to give them an assignment of writing two thesis chapters to demonstrate that this person understood the material. One of the chapters would be on the technique and one on the literature. For the sake of length, after 3 times of this student revising the chapters, I had a very difficult conversation with this person. Two major problems arose out of all of this: (1) I assigned a proof for the student to complete, which he did not attempt and, upon my asking where the proof was, asked if I could provide references for them and (2) the questions that I asked in the previous chapters were unanswered.

    A couple of months after I fired this student, they asked to be let back in my group. When I told him again (the firing process took 2.5h) that their not doing the assignments that I asked them to do coupled with not answering my questions was unacceptable (especially when this was the third iteration, meaning that I asked him these questions twice). The student's response was of complete shock that I fired him for this. I can completely empathize with the person who wrote the text quoted in the blog, but at the same time, I firmly believe that these are rare cases. As I said earlier, I have a graduate student who is great. I also have 4 undergraduates, all of which are completely independent (as in doing experiments on their own) and 2 of which I consider equivalent, intellectually and research-wise, on par with incoming graduate students.

    • Katie says:

      I should add that the issue I had with the writer of the email posted is that when you are an assistant TT professor, you don't have the time to foster students in the way a more senior professor would. By that I mean that the only senior lab members are me and I need preliminary results for proposals. This does place a higher expectation on the initial students that you mentor. But the side that postdocs and graduate students might not realize when judging potential advisors is that some students may take advantage of new professors as they are desperate for graduate students (bodies in the lab). New faculty members might not have the foresight that more experienced professors have to recognize these types of students, and can be in an unfortunate predicament - to fire or to attempt to foster for, which might be, 5 years.

  • Phd student with a great supervisor says:

    "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 sounds fair, but only if it is a policy the students are aware of when they sign up. A lot of the issues discussed seem to stem from differing expectations of the supervisor - student relationship. It has to be the supervisors responsibility to make sure the student knows (depending on their individual needs) what support they will and will not get.

    I would be interested in what a supervisors priorities are, and how they change as their careers progress. As you have less and less time for your students (why?), do you invest more in making sure you choose students who will be successful without much help? or take more care in managing their expectations?

  • fspostdoc 2 says:

    Perhaps it would be more productive for everyone to stop obsessing about "failure" and who to blame for it. Just sayin'.

    I have seen students who were probably not cut out for a PhD be nursed along for years, only to drop out in the end, and I wondered what they and their advisors were *thinking* all that time. Would it have been a "failure" for them to cut their losses and leave sooner? I don' t think so. I have also seen students "fail" because of incompetent or neglectful advising -- some people are probably not cut out to be advisers. Were those students "failures" because they were not lucky or wise enough to chose a good advisor?

    Often though, people "fail" for reasons that are beyond the control and foreknowledge of both the adviser and the student, truly "nobody's fault". This may, however, not be apparent to outside observers. For example, I know a number of people who have dealt with serious health issues and personal difficulties (e.g. relationship abuse, divorce) during graduate school. These things were not their fault, not their adviser's fault, and not foreseeable by anybody, but significantly slowed their progress towards the PhD. I think their future career opportunities may be in some ways limited by others' perceptions that they were not as productive as they "should have been" during graduate school (or took "too long" to complete their degree). It does not help that students do not always share these issues with their advisers, and advisers do not always respond well when they do.

    Actually, writing the above leads me to a question for FSP and the blog readership: do you have any advice for people early in their careers (grad students, postdocs) who have been slowed down by (temporary) circumstances beyond their control, but which cannot be easily disclosed due to their personal or confidential nature? Certain health, personal, or workplace conflict issues fall into this category. What can someone in such a situation do to maximize their chances on the job market despite the probably inevitable underestimation of their abilities that will arise from those circumstances?

  • fb says:

    I was in the process of researching what options my friend has. She was asked to end her Phd after 6years! Six years or research at a highly ranked institution. She is incredibly intelligent and graduated among the top of her class at an excellent university for her master and undergraduate in a science degree. She went into the Phd under parental pressure and realized within a year that she did not like it and would have preferred to do her work in a different subject. It was a scholarship and changing the subject was not an option but felt she could not quit. Culturally we are told to revere our parents and education is paramount. I urged her to quit after her second year but she felt she could not.

    Reading your post I reject the idea that only poor intellectual candidates fail Phds. Students with high intellectual abilities fail as well. And I think it is incumbent on a professor to tell a struggling student to take a time out at the very least for 6months -1year of reflection; and spend that time working and reconsider the Phd. In my friend's case her experiments were the problem. But I also doubt the professors' judgment of her work. And I wonder if there were other issues in play. This friend of mine looked up the work of others who had done similar work to hers and received phds and found at least one former professor of hers who had done similar work and received her phd having submitted less work than my friend.

    If you feel there is a good chance your student will not get a Phd under your supervision inform them at the earliest possible time. It is criminal to let somebody continue beyond 3 years when you feel they will not be candidates for a PHD. CRIMINAL. I also doubt some of the assessment processes at even the best institutions. Please reflect on your own role in a student's success. Yes I know posting means you are doing just that. But you might want to research why those who fail do o..beyond mere incompetence..

    Thank you for posting. And I enjoyed reading the posts.

  • lobo says:

    Just another chime in that the passive-aggressive, contradictory nature of an adviser's attitude toward their students and their actual feedback and self-presentation to them can be alarming. I was an undergraduate research assistant in a lab for 2+ years and my lab-boss would, in the course of conversations about where I should go for grad school (or if I should), tell me about how out of the four grad students she had, she only felt one had a clear shot at a great job post phD. One other she thought was fantastic but would have to widen his research interests to build a more pleasing CV, a third she thought had no future in the field but she at least personally liked (if that is worth anything), and the final she thought was incompetent, had no future and wished dearly the student would drop out one day of their own accord.

    At the time, she communicated none of these attitudes (even in the filtered, professional tones one may expect) to these students. My own relationship with her did not end up faring well.