Archive for the 'advising' category

Intersecting spheres

Jun 01 2011 Published by under advising, faculty, graduate school

A reader wonders:

What do you do if you and one of your advisees share outside interests that bring you into social contact off campus, and some of these interactions might affect your advisor-advisee interactions on campus?

That is, what if an advisor and an advisee (think: grad student, but could also be undergrad or postdoc) have a hobby or other outside interest in common and see each other frequently outside of work/campus? Perhaps these interactions are quite positive -- perhaps advisor and advisee become friends outside of work, owing in part to these shared interests.

Is there a problem?

There might be. I haven't been in this situation as an advisor, but here are some related questions for discussion, formulated based on additional information in e-mails I have received on this topic:

Does the beyond-campus interaction/friendship affect the advisor-advisee relationship in some ways that are unfair to other advisees?

It could, but I think there are ways to deal with any perceived inequity arising from external interactions with some (but not all) advisees, much as we advisors (should) deal with perceived issues related to the fact that it's normal to enjoy conversing with some advisees more than others. Perhaps with some students, all conversations are restricted to research and other academic topics, whereas with others, conversations may range widely to politics, movies, cats etc. As long as we are alert to the situation and are careful to be equally accessible and supportive of all advisees, this should not be a problem

As a grad student, I had some low-level anxiety that my grad advisor's shared interests with other advisees in certain outdoor activities (in which I did not participate, but they all did together) made him like them more, and that this would color his overall opinions and therefore his letters of reference.. but in the end, there was no reason to worry.

What about the dynamics of the advisor and advisee who share an outside interest? If you are sort-of friends off campus, do you switch off that aspect of your interaction when on campus?

This is where it will be useful to have reader input, as I have not encountered this myself. I can imagine that it could be awkward if you know something about your advisee's personal life -- maybe they are having a crisis, for example -- but you aren't sure whether to acknowledge this on campus, or pretend you don't (really) know because you don't necessarily have this level of knowledge about your other advisees.

A (too) simple answer would be to say that we advisors should just do our advisor-jobs the same way, whether or not we know the details of our advisee's personal lives and even whether or not we like them, and provide whatever professional support is necessary and appropriate in our role as advisor. More difficult would be deciding whether/how to use 'outside knowledge' of an advisee's emotional state when providing (or withholding) criticism of an advisee's work. If you know that an advisee is having personal problems, for example, should you hold back or behave as you would without the additional information/insight?

Speaking from inexperience, I would say to put on your advisor hat and have the professional conversations you need to have with your advisees about their work. Even though you might know that you will likely upset a fragile or sensitive student with criticism (however kindly worded), or you might suspect that you will harm your beyond-campus friendship with an advisee (by exerting your authority as an advisor), you aren't doing an advisee any favors by withholding feedback about their work. If you give a struggling student advice that is constructive -- e.g., here's what you need to do to improve, and here are some suggestions and guidelines (perhaps to be worked out more fully in discussion) -- this might help the student more than if you tread lightly around them, not wanting to upset them.

But that's easy for me to say -- I am not in that situation. So, I am interested to hear from those who are: advisors and students.

20 responses so far

The Normal Advisor

May 17 2011 Published by under advising

A reader, Dr. Z, has been feeling a little sad that Z's PhD advisor didn't congratulate Z on a recent honor: Z was elected a Fellow of a professional society. Z thinks a "normal" PhD advisor would have congratulated a former student who received such an honor.

"Normal" isn't a word typically associated with PhD advisors in general, but we have to consider this situation in context. Would most PhD advisors congratulate their former advisees on attaining a rather prestigious award or other significant honor? (I know that being elected/selected Fellow varies in importance in different professional societies, but assume that the scenario involves a prestigious example).

First, the PhD advisor would have to notice. The award/honor would presumably therefore be of an academic sort or a high-profile industry/government/foundation award such that it is reasonable to expect a professor in a particular field to notice. Some people keep track of these things; some don't. My former PhD advisor, for example, does not.

Then, if the PhD advisor knows about the honor, s/he has to remember to send -- and make the effort to send -- a congratulatory message, rather than just waiting for the next conference for an in-person congratulations.

It used to bother me that my former advisor did not proactively support me (post-graduation) in the ways that some other grad advisors support their former students. As a member of various committees for professional societies and such, I commonly see grad advisors who continue to support and promote their former advisees. Mine didn't. I am of course grateful that he wrote positive enough letters that I was able to get a faculty position, but at times -- early in my career -- I felt at a bit of a disadvantage in some respects.

But: I was fortunate to have other colleagues who supported me in much the same way that some former advisors do. This completely made up for the lack of such involvement/interest by my advisor in my post-graduation career. It is important to have such supporters, and they don't have to be your former advisor.

Years later, when I'd been doing pretty well in my career for a while, my former advisor told me he was proud of my accomplishments, that I was one of his most successful advisees, and he picked me to give the citation when he received a big award recognizing his career contributions. Some advisors are more proactive about being proud of their former advisees, and some are not; in the latter case, it doesn't mean they don't care -- they just might not make it obvious that they do (until they retire).

I like to think that I am a little more aware of these things than my former advisor is, but I'd also like to think that former advisees don't sit around feeling bad about a lack of sufficient notice on my part of their post-grad school careers and lives. And if I ever overlooked something -- like an award -- I would be happy to get an e-mail from a former advisee saying "I just got elected as a Fellow of the Science Society of Scientists", and I would reply with sincere congratulations, pleased that a former advisee wanted to share this great news with me.

Grad advisors: Do you follow the exploits of your former advisees closely? Have you ever sent a congratulatory e-mail on hearing that a former advisee had received an award, promotion, or other honor? (And if so, do you consider yourself normal?)

Former advisees: If you mostly got along with your grad advisor, how would you feel if your former advisor did not congratulate you about an academic honor? Of course there is a vast array of grad-advisor interactions and personalities and so on, so this is a somewhat meaningless question, but the original question was sent by someone who was bothered by the lack of a congratulatory message from the former advisor, so I ask it anyway.

24 responses so far

Nothing to Prove

May 10 2011 Published by under advising, sexism, students, women in science

Here is an intriguing situation, with a question for discussion:

A female science professor is asked by a colleague to be on the examining committee of one of the colleague's doctoral students. The doctoral student has told the FSP to her face that he does not think that women are good scientists, and that women should not even do certain kinds of science (particularly those involving field studies).

What should the FSP do?

  • Agree to be on the committee, be as fair and objective as usual, and show by example that she is a talented scientist whose expertise and advice could be quite useful to the student. Serving on this committee would be a good use of the FSP's time if the student saw an example of a professional, smart FSP doing her job, just like the MSPs.
  • Refuse to be on the committee. Why should she have to deal with a student who has explicitly demonstrated prejudice against women and who is unlikely to appreciate her expertise and advice? Serving on the committee would be a waste of the FSP's time.

I deliberately removed information about the career stage of the FSP in order to present the most basic facts of the scenario, but it might matter whether the FSP is pre-tenure or tenured. I have experienced this exact scenario twice: once as an assistant professor, and once as an associate professor.

I hope the fact that I have not experienced it as a full professor means that there are fewer students who hold this view about FSPs (or at least who would state it openly), but it could mean that if you stick around long enough and acquire enough wrinkles, the student-skeptics will assume you must have learned something over all the years you've been a professor.

In the case when I was an assistant professor, I agreed to be on the committee. I did what was required of me as a committee member, and even went slightly above-and-beyond for one particular part of the student's research, but I never made any obvious progress in convincing the student that I was a 'real' scientist like his advisor. Every time we had a one-on-one meeting, the student made sure to tell me that he was only talking to me because his advisor made him do it. He was aggressive and confrontational ("What do you know that can help me?" A lot, actually..). I did not enjoy our interactions, but I fulfilled my responsibilities as a committee member.

In the case when I was an associate professor, I was inclined to refuse to be on the committee. Some of the student's research, however, was directly related to my expertise, so I sort of felt like I should be on the committee and said I'd do it. But then I found out that the student had scheduled his oral preliminary exam without consulting me about the day/time (he consulted the rest of his committee). I could have changed some things around to be available for the exam, but I decided not to, so I was replaced on the committee. Perhaps that was the student's intention all along, but it was a relief to me also to limit my interactions with him.

What happens to these people? In the first case, I never saw or heard of the student again after he got an MS and disappeared into the rest of his life. In the second case, the student got a PhD and eventually returned to his home country, where he has a job as a scientist.

I wish I had a happy-ending story of a miraculous change of mind. I wish I could say that I worked with these guys and we developed mutual respect and understanding, and they realized that women can be scientists, and in fact, it's not a big deal to work with one. Perhaps someone else can share a story like that? I can think of  a couple of mini-examples involving senior scientists, so I know such transformations can happen: FSP 1, FSP 2.

But back to the main question: What would you do: serve on the committee or refuse? And does your answer vary depending on your career stage?


37 responses so far

Abstract Rules

May 03 2011 Published by under advising, students

A few student-readers, both grads and undergrads, have written to me in recent months about errors that they have made -- not errors in research, but errors in following the (mostly unwritten) rules of what I will call 'research culture'. Now they fear that they have annoyed their advisors so much that they wonder if they should switch advisors, schools, fields, countries, planets.

I can't comment on any particular circumstance because of course a major factor in each case is the personality of the advisor and the specific details of each situation. But I do want to discuss this as a general issue, giving an example of one of these 'violations', and getting comments from readers on how serious you think such violations are.

One example that has cropped up a few times in my inbox and in my own experience occurs when a student submits an abstract or other type of conference paper without showing the text to the co-authors (that is, to the advisor and others involved in the research). And then the advisor and others find out and are angry, whether or not the abstract is accepted by the conference.

Years ago, when an undergraduate research student submitted an abstract with me as co-author and without showing me the abstract prior to submission or even telling me that an abstract had been written and submitted, I was mad because -- when I eventually read the abstract -- I saw that there were serious errors in content and writing. The student withdrew the submitted abstract on my request, before it was reviewed by anyone. I found it hard to believe that this student thought it was appropriate to submit this without showing it to me or the other co-authors, and I was disappointed that the abstract contained such serious errors.

When the student had asked me months before whether it would be a good idea to submit something to a particular conference, I had given a vague yes in reply. The student interpreted this as a green light to submit something without further input from me, but of course I was really only saying "This is, in theory, a good idea, but let's see what you come up with, if anything." Now I try to remember to specify to students, especially undergrads, that I want to see a draft before any submission of work in which I am involved. I am a quality control freak.

[Yes I know that unresponsive advisors who don't give feedback and delay submissions of abstract and papers can be a problem, but that's a separate issue.]

I am also a hypocrite, as I have submitted conference abstracts and papers and added names of people in my group without informing them all before I submitted the abstract. I do this if the abstract is based on a paper we've already written together, or if it is a review of several projects (e.g., for an invited talk). When presenting new material, I am more likely to consult my co-authors.

One could argue (rationalize) that it is not quite so bad for me to do this because I have written 57 million of these things and presumably know what I am doing, but it's not a good idea for an undergraduate to go rogue with their very first conference abstract. One could also mention that I am not relying on my co-authors for letters of recommendation in the future, whereas a student author may well need their co-author's high opinion and good will. That's a somewhat obnoxious justification, but is nevertheless the reality of some of these situations. Really, though, we should all show our co-authors the text prior to submission, no matter what our academic position and no matter how routine the content.

Some organizations (journal publishers etc.) make corresponding authors certify that all co-authors have read and approved a manuscript being submitted, but this may be less common for some conference submissions. Perhaps if an inexperienced student-author encountered such a question during submission of a conference abstract, it would be a signal to discuss the abstract with co-authors before clicking the "submit" button.

So, in the incident I described above, did I forgive the student or was the student's life and career ruined by my rage and the humiliation of the withdrawn abstract? I got over it, had a calm but forceful discussion with the student, and wrote decent letters to accompany graduate applications. The student has recently completed a degree in a graduate program at another university.

Here is my question of the week for readers:

If you were the advisor and a student submitted a conference abstract or paper without telling you (a co-author), would you be mad if the abstract is bad but not mad if it is good, or would you be mad no matter what? And if you were mad, would you be terminally mad, or would you get over it?


35 responses so far

Insecurity as Motivator

Apr 18 2011 Published by under advising, postdocs

Today's question for discussion is a bit complex, but has some interesting implications (ethical, practical, cosmic).

Imagine that a PI is supervising a postdoc or research scientist who is quite talented and has great expertise, but who tends to lack motivation when it comes to writing papers and proposals. This researcher would be happy just getting data, but, because he/she is not a technician and is in a position that requires writing papers and proposals, the PI has to find ways to help (motivate) the research scientist to write.

Of course, one option in this situation is to not renew the contract and replace the non-writing postdoc with someone who writes, but let's assume that this research scientist has expertise that the PI values and there isn't a large pool of candidates with similar skills. Also, the research scientist is not eager to move on. It is in the interests of both the PI and the research scientist to continue working together.

The research scientist needs to raise at least 25% of their own salary each year from grants, but to get grants, one typically has to write proposals. To get -- and continue to get -- grants, one has to write papers.

Question #1: What to do? Is this a survival-of-the-fittest situation, and the scientist - however talented at some aspects of research - should be cut loose because s/he is not functioning well in all required aspects of the job? Or, because this person has a high level of expertise in particular research applications, should the PI find a way to work with the research scientist anyway, even if it means writing papers and proposals for them? I guess we have to assume that changing the scientist's job title to "technician" isn't feasible in this case.

Now let's assume that the PI figures out a way to cover the research scientist's entire salary for the near future. Telling the research scientist (RS) that these funds exist would relieve the RS of stress and anxiety about their financial situation and job security for a while.

But: telling the RS that these funds exist would completely obliterate any chance that the RS would write any part of their own proposals and papers, and would make it more difficult for the PI to hire additional postdocs because those funds would likely be committed to the non-writing RS. Although the PI doesn't want the RS to live in unnecessary uncertainty about funding, the PI does want the RS to have some motivation to write papers and proposals: for their own career development, for the good of the research group as a whole, and because it is still a part of the RS's job description.

Question #2: Should the PI tell the research scientist about the stable source of funding? Must the PI tell the research scientist? Or is withholding this information justified by the possible benefit it would have of motivating the RS to write?

Perhaps someone who is not functioning well in an essential aspect of their job (in this case, writing) should seek other employment that better fits their abilities, but is there any other way to solve this problem so that this otherwise beneficial collaboration can continue?

Would you tell the research scientist about the new funding, even if the consequences were no papers and no proposals?

Or would you maintain a certain level of insecurity in the hopes it would act as a motivator?


52 responses so far

Why We Are Awesome

Feb 22 2011 Published by under advising, career issues, graduate school

Yesterday in my FSP blog, I mentioned that graduates of my research group, which is comprised of 4 professors, have been very successful obtaining jobs that are relevant to their doctoral research. Most are in academia (in tenure-track or tenured positions); others are in industry/business or government positions. The database I discussed covers graduates from the past 20 years. We are equally proud of them all, PhD and MS graduates.

One factor in the success of our graduates has been that there have consistently been academic and other PhD-relevant jobs available; some years/decades are better than others, but there have always been some academic jobs. Even in drought years, however, our graduates have done well on the job market, so, although the availability of jobs is certainly important, a discussion of possible reasons why our graduates have done well needs to consider other factors.

The success of our graduates is primarily a testament to their talents and hard work. There is no doubt about that.

Even so, we (the professors) like to think that we had some role in launching these careers. I should say here that I am using the research group 'we', although I am the youngest professor in the group and #3 in terms of number of PhDs graduated, so the credit primarily goes to my colleagues.

In any case: What, if anything, do we do that maximizes the chances of post-graduate success for our advisees? Earlier today, I discussed this with one of my research group colleagues, the most successful mentor of us all. We came up with the following, only somewhat-self-serving hypotheses:

1. We encourage our advisees to consider their doctoral research in a broad context. We expect that their research talks (in the department, at conferences, in job interviews) and published papers will start with an explanation of why the work is interesting and important. This sounds basic, but it is surprising how many people (at all career stages) don't do this. Anecdotal evidence from a recent graduate who has been interviewing for faculty positions confirms that this characteristic of our group members is noticed and appreciated, particularly by those whose research expertise is not closely related to ours; this can be an important factor in job interviews.

2. We work with our advisees to find interesting research topics. Some grad students work on part of a much larger project, but there is nevertheless something special about each project. We therefore try to find a balance so that the student is at the same time closely identified with our research group and yet can get credit for their own work and ideas.

3. A combination of 1 & 2: we encourage breadth and depth in the research topic, so that most of our graduates who seek academic positions can apply for a jobs in more than one subfield. This increases the number of jobs for which they are qualified, and increases the number of funding programs to which they can apply, the journals to which they can submit papers, and the courses they can teach. It can also lead to more varied future research topics, collaborations, and other fun things like that.

4. Most of our graduates are supported by a combination of research and teaching assistantships (and some by fellowships), resulting in a range of experiences that are desirable for being competitive in academic jobs. Many also help mentor undergraduates in research. We encourage them to participate in workshops and courses designed to prepare grad students (and postdocs) for academic careers, if they so desire. Nowadays, it is important for academic job applicants to have teaching experience: for most jobs, they need to include a teaching statement in their applications, and I (as a letter-writer) am specifically asked to describe the applicant's teaching and mentoring abilities, even for applications to Major Big Huge Research University.

5. We push them to publish, attend conferences (and present their research), and write proposals. I had to think about what verb to use in that statement: encourage? (not strong enough), force? (too strong); 'push' is probably about right, implying some force but not excessive force (I think). The other options was pull/drag. In any case, we very strongly encourage, semi-force publications, conference participation etc. no matter what the career goal of the individual. This is important because (1) career goals may change; you want to have as many opportunities as you can and not close off any options; (2) the research group will cease to function at its current level/scale unless everyone participates as much as possible in communicating interesting research results.

I have stated many times in the FSP blog, and probably here in Scientopia as well, that I view a research group as a community: a community of people who work together and who, by the work of the individuals and the group, help each other. Today's topic is a great example of the community concept: If graduates of our research group are successful at getting good jobs, this becomes widely known and attracts new excellent students to our group, and the cycle continues for as long as we are fortunate to have ideas, students, grants..

17 responses so far


Feb 07 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school

Perhaps the most common theme of questions/laments that I get from readers concerns advisor-student interactions: grad students send me (long) sad tales of dysfunctional working relationships with remote and neglectful advisors, and advisors send me tales of woe about students who are not working hard (if at all). If only the neglectful advisors could be paired with the students who don't work hard (if at all), and the caring, responsive advisors could have hard-working, productive students..

So, what do you do if your advisor doesn't seem to have time for you; i.e., doesn't give you the feedback that you want, when you want it (or ever)?

And what do you do, as an advisor, if some of your advisees make little or no progress with their research, even when given lots of attention (and money)?

If I only I had answers to those questions.

Well, possible answers to the student question are: quit or switch advisors. So I should say, if only I knew effective, good, or useful answers.

But let's see if we can collectively do better than advising quitting. For now, I will only discuss the student lament about neglectful advisors.

Of course, the best approach is going to vary considerably depending on the details of the situation and the personalities of the individuals, but there are several obvious things to do (and clearly most of my frustrated grad readers have already tried some of these steps, proving how intractable the problem can be):

First, try to figure out if your discontent about the amount of time your advisor devotes to you is reasonable. I am sure in most cases it is reasonable -- clearly, some advisors give little to no time to their advisees, even at critical stages. In possibly-ambiguous situations, however, it can be useful to get some perspective on the issue by talking to more senior members of the research group. Maybe the advisor is well known for being inaccessible and unhelpful (something it would have been useful to know before signing on as an advisee), in which case, consider some of the other suggestions below. But, I can't help noting, from the point of view of an advisor, that some students have unreasonable expectations about the timing, magnitude, and nature of assistance from an advisor. For example, one of my readers wrote to me about his unhappiness that his advisor spent too much time writing grant proposals; didn't he have enough grants already? No, probably not; or, maybe enough for this year, but not for next year.

This is where I start to think I have been blogging for too long because I can hear student-commenter voices in my head saying: but the student doesn't yet know what goes into writing (successful) grant proposals and keeping a large research group funded because the advisor hasn't mentored the student about these things. And then I hear advisor voices in my head replying: yes, but students shouldn't be so passive; they should look and learn and ask questions and figure some of this out.

Anyway, advisors should provide clear feedback about these issues instead of refusing to respond to e-mails, keep appointments, or proactively check up on their advisees' progress and well-being, no matter how clueless or high maintenance the student is. The key here is communication, and it is unacceptable for an advisor to go silent or to sit on drafts of manuscripts or thesis chapters for excessive amounts of time, but, in less extreme situations, students shouldn't assume that they know how the advisor should and should not best allocate their time.

Make sure your advisor knows that you do not feel that you are getting sufficient help, feedback, attention, critical input, or whatever your main need is that is not being met. Be professional and clear (not whining and vague). Discuss the situation if at all possible. Make constructive suggestions. If you have deadlines, make sure your advisor knows them. Perhaps you can agree on a schedule or plan for the submission and return of drafts, if that is part of the problem you have been having. Perhaps you can also discuss other sources of assistance for times when you most need it and your advisor is unable to help you as much as you need.

If you are sure that your expectations are reasonable and your best efforts to communicate with your advisor result in no improvement (or even no response), consider discussing your untenable situation with the graduate program advisor or whichever faculty member is responsible for general issues related to graduate studies in your department or unit. To get the most effective help, you might want to present documentation of the problem -- e.g., evidence for how long an advisor has been sitting on document drafts without providing feedback, despite repeated (reasonable) requests and reminders. Although faculty are typically reluctant to micromanage each other's work, if a graduate student's progress towards graduation -- and/or their career prospects -- are being greatly slowed by the lack of response from an advisor, it should be the graduate program supervisor's responsibility to try to fix the problem, possibly by facilitating communication between advisor and student and making it clear that the department supports the student's need to make more timely progress towards completion of the degree.

For those students who are not yet committed to a graduate program or specific advisor, you may want to ask current advisees about issues such as these. Different students are comfortable with different amounts of structure vs. independence, and this balance can vary considerably from advisor to advisor. You may not know in advance what would work best for you, but at least you would have an idea of what you were getting into regarding this aspect of advisor-student interactions.

Does anyone have other specific strategies to suggest? Bleak tales of futile efforts are useful, to provide counter-examples of what doesn't work, but it would be great to hear some examples of strategies that have been tried with some success. These suggestions could be from students who found effective ways to deal with uncommunicative advisors, or from advisors who figured out how best to work with advisees who had varying levels of need for feedback.

22 responses so far

Moving Students

Jan 24 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school

Last week's post discussed the issue of faculty who may or may not be considering moving to another job. Following on this, a reader asks:

What about graduate students who move from one program to another?

My first response to that question is: Well, what about it? This happens all the time. Perhaps the first program was not a good fit for the student. Perhaps the advisor was a jerk. Perhaps there was a family reason for needing to move to another place.

I have had grad students leave after 1-2 years because their significant other took a job in a distant place and they didn't want to be apart. I have had students leave because they wanted to work with a different/saner/easier advisor in another place. Some gave me warning, some did not.

I have also advised students who moved "mid-stream" from another institution. You win some, you lose some.

To those who think that faculty should always tell their advisees that they might possibly consider moving at some point in the future, even if this is just a remote possibility: Should grad students give the same information to their advisors, or does the power differential make the situations different?

In fact, the situations are not analogous for this very reason, but I also know that if an advisor supports a grad student on a grant for a couple of years (or more) and then the student drops the project entirely, even for a good reason (e.g., to move somewhere else to be with their spouse), this can be a big problem for a research group. It would be better if that RA money had gone to someone who would actually complete the project.

Even so, that's the way it goes. These things happen, and we all have to deal with it.

The specific question of the reader who wrote is more complex than the basic question above. In this case, a grad student moved to a different institution, and now finds that it is necessary to interact with faculty at the institution that was left behind. In this case, it sounds like the student communicated well with the advisor and the graduate program advisor, and the move was made not-too-far into the graduate program. If you find yourself in a program that is not a good fit and you have an opportunity to move somewhere better, this is the way to do it.

Unless the people at the left-behind institution are not sane, there should be no issue of "burning bridges". You should be able to have professional interactions with faculty at your old institution.

If, however, before leaving your old institution, you set your desk on fire, defaced your (ex)advisor's office door with a chainsaw, and glued all the cabinets shut in the lab, the people at your former institution may not be so happy to hear from you again.

In the end, I feel the same way about moving grads as I do about moving faculty. Grad students have a right to move, just as faculty have a right to move. It's important to be professional and to communicate the relevant information when a move is definite, but ultimately everyone has a right to make these decisions about what is best for their life and career, even if it is (very) inconvenient for others.

17 responses so far

Research Group Feedback

Jan 05 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school

A reader wonders how to get feedback from research group members; that is, to find out from one's grad students and postdocs how things are going for the group or for specific group members. Is there a good, systematic way to do this?: Have a group discussion? Ask each person for comments in individual meetings? Get written, anonymous comments? Set up a suggestion box?

Do any readers who are advisers/mentors have a particular approach they find constructive?

My own opinion is that the group dynamics as a whole should be open and friendly enough to encourage discussion  in a group or in an individual meeting of any problems that arise, but I have no system for acquiring feedback.

The types of information that would be useful can be divided into two categories: everyday kinds of issues and serious issues. Ideally, the research group is functioning well enough that the everyday issues can be openly discussed, or one or more group members could bring such issues to the attention of the faculty.

Serious issues are of course more complicated to discuss and to deal with. Serious issues may be ones that affect the entire group or might be specific to an individual. Even in the latter case, the entire group might be affected.

At various times over the years, I have learned, typically indirectly, that someone in the group is unhappy. For example, years ago, I kept hearing that one advisee was complaining all the time about me, about the research, about everything. I therefore asked this student in our individual weekly meeting, without saying anything about having heard rumors that s/he was unhappy: "Do you want to talk about how things are going? Do you want to change anything? Are there things that I can do to help you more?" The answer to everything was no, no, no.

The first time this happened, I assumed that the rumors were untrue and that this student was actually fine and had been misunderstood; perhaps routine venting was interpreted as deep distress. But the reports kept coming: so-and-so is really unhappy, s/he blames you for not providing enough help etc. Nothing I could said or did elicited any direct indication from the student that anything was wrong; s/he continued to maintain (to me) that everything was fine, nothing needed to change. Yet the unhappy student continued to complain (to others) right up to the unhappy end.

If I had had an anonymous system by which advisees could complain, suggest, or criticize, would this have helped? I don't think so, in part because my group is not so huge that someone could be really anonymous. In being specific enough to complain or criticize in any useful way, the person's identity would become obvious.

This particular situation bothered me a lot at the time, but ultimately I decided that some people are determined to be unhappy, at least in certain circumstances. Some adviser-student relationships just aren't going to work out, even if the adviser is well-meaning. Perhaps the student will do well with another adviser and another research project or perhaps the problem is graduate school (or life) in general.

One thing that can be difficult for an adviser is to know how much to tell the group as a whole about attempts to solve a problem involving a particular group member. This relates to my point above that even issues that are related to one particular individual can affect the entire group.

In the situation described above, for example, I didn't want the rest of the group to think I didn't care or wasn't doing anything to help the unhappy student, so I told some of my other students about my efforts to discuss any problems with the unhappy student, but that all my efforts had failed. Perhaps some of these students (reasonably) concluded that I was ineffectual and, if I were a better adviser, I could have found some way to get through to the unhappy student and make things right, but it was important to me to show that I cared and had tried.

Over the years, I have at times marveled at the fact that some of the most successful research groups in my field are led by professor who really don't care whether their advisees are *happy* or not. These advisers somehow consistently produce successful students who go on to do well with their subsequent scientific careers. Other groups headed by professors who devote much time to devising individualized advising strategies for each student end up mired in complexity, drama, and woe.

At times, some colleagues and I have wondered whether the "factory" approach is somehow more effective because the focus is on the work, whereas the more "sensitive" approach encourages a focus on problems. According to this totally unsupported hypothesis, the range of personalities, backgrounds, learning approaches, life issues, interests, priorities, and sanity level of graduate students is so great that trying to adjust advising style for each advisee is impossible and causes more problems than it solves. (Discuss)

I prefer to think that it is possible to have a high-functioning research group somewhere between those extremes; that is, a group in which the adviser is not an unfeeling person who only cares about the "product" (data, papers, grants) and has a sink-or-swim advising philosophy, but instead is one who encourages independence, self-reliance, problem-solving, and a healthy amount of communication among group members.

Whether that goal can be realized depends in part on the advising abilities of the professor(s) leading the group, but also is affected by the other members of the research group. Research groups change with time, and therefore so do research group dynamics. Perhaps this variability is why having a system for obtaining feedback is a good idea, and I hope readers will share information about how they approach this in their own research groups: as advisers, students, postdocs, or other group members.

27 responses so far

MSc en route to PhD?

Dec 07 2010 Published by under advising, graduate school

The question of whether to do an Masters degree (specially in Science) before continuing on for a Ph.D. is one of the most common questions that I get from readers. This is an impossible general question to answer  because the 'right' answer will vary:

  • for each individual, depending on their goals and skills;
  • for each field, depending on whether an M.S. is valued as a step toward a Ph.D. or seen as an unnecessary distraction for the uncommitted, unconfident, and underprepared; and
  • for each institution or department; some graduate programs view the M.S. as a consolation prize for failed Ph.D.s, others require the M.S. as a useful 'weed out' step on the way to the Ph.D.

A reader recently asked if an M.S. would be seen as a "black mark" on an application for a Ph.D. In my experience, as long as the M.S. was good/productive and the M.S. advisor or other respected faculty at the M.S. institution is willing to write a positive letter of support, an M.S. can even be seen as a plus. A student with an M.S. has (in theory) gained some research experience and focus.

A successful M.S. is also one way that students with less-than-stellar undergraduate records can show that they may have what it takes do to a Ph.D., an option that might otherwise have been closed to them when applying directly to Ph.D. programs as undergraduates.

If anyone is in a field or at an institution where a Ph.D. applicant with an M.S. is considered less qualified than one without, I think some student-readers would be interested to know of those examples.

A few years ago, I addressed the issue of M.S. vs. Ph.D. students in my research group. In general, I like to have some of both, but realistically, M.S. students are not cost effective for me, given constraints on time and money and the need to produce tangible results from research. Nevertheless, some excellent Ph.D. students start out as unsure M.S. students, so I am reluctant to have a policy of not advising any M.S. students ever.

Certainly the M.S. is a useful degree for many jobs in industry, government, and education. But I wonder what my colleagues who are Science Professors at major research universities think about advising M.S. students. Here are my questions for you:

Do you write M.S. students into your grant proposals or do you only advise M.S. students supported by teaching assistantships?

Do you value M.S. students  or consider the M.S. an option for "failed" Ph.D. students? (Or something in between those views)

For those who value M.S. students as an important component of your R1 research program, feel free to rhapsodize. Or, if you think M.S. students are a huge waste of time and money, best educated at M.S.-focused graduate programs, that's useful information as well.

28 responses so far

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