Archive for the 'graduate school' category

No Jerks Allowed, with some exceptions

A reader ponders yet another mystery of advising, in this case graduate students:

One of the prospective grad students who would likely have worked with me if he had come to my institution accepted another offer instead. That's fine but I heard later that my current students were very relieved that he didn't accept our offer because they thought the guy was a total jerk and they didn't want him in the group. The fact that I wanted to work with him therefore meant that either didn't know he was a jerk (meaning I am clueless) or that I didn't care (meaning I think that as long as someone is smart, it's OK if they are a jerk). Either way this was bad for morale in the group. Or so I am told.

I did know that the prospective student was arrogant and I do care about group morale, but I don't think we can really tell what someone is like based on a short visit on a recruiting weekend. Should I use this as a teachable moment and explain that to my group? It occurred to me that I might end up wrecking their morale even more if I explained myself because wouldn't it be like saying I actually don't care what they think? There is a grain of truth to that, but just because I don't agree with their grad recruiting opinions doesn't mean I don't respect their opinions in general. In fact, I thought some of them were jerks when they visited, but they work well in the group and we get along well, I think. So it's complicated and I'm thinking of just not saying anything and assuming this is just one of those things that grad students need to complain about but it isn't a vital issue I need to address with them. Your thoughts?

This reminds me of something. It reminds me of when I was a grad student and a prospective student visited to check the place out. He was obnoxious, even by the standards of a department that was already overpopulated by gigantic egos and extreme levels of arrogance. His visit became notorious among the grad students, and we all hoped he would accept another illustrious offer that he made sure to tell us about.

But he didn't. He came to Our University. And he turned out to be a very interesting person with a great sense of humor. He was well-liked and made a lot of friends. Reader, I married him.

So, I come down on the side of believing that you can't really tell a lot about a grad student from their behavior during a recruiting visit. I am sure that some who display jerkish behavior during such an event are in fact pervasively obnoxious people and will be forevermore, but that is not necessarily true of all who give that impression.

Anyway, the main question is whether the advisor should have a chat with the grads about their grumblings on this particular issue (assuming the source of information is reliable about such grumblings) or assume this is a nano-tempest that can be ignored while you focus instead on the 57,892,345 more important things that need to be done now, or yesterday.

I guess I'd be tempted to ignore the issue, though it might be good at some point to devote a group meeting to general issues of Doing Research/Working With Others etc. Maybe there are issues that need explanation or discussion, even if you have no  intention of justifying all your decisions about grad recruiting and advising.

That suggestion, which may or may not be helpful, is based on the assumption that the research group is overall functioning well, with most or all students progressing towards their degree with no more than the usual amount of anxiety and complaints. If, however, this bit of unhappiness is symptomatic of something more serious, then the question becomes: How do you (the advisor) know if that is the case, and what can/should you do about it, if anything?

Advisor-readers: How do you know what the general mood is of your advisees, as a group? Can you tell from a general sense of camaraderie (or lack thereof)? From the number of complaints? Do you ask directly whether some/most/all group members get along? Do you gauge the mood by getting indirect information (for example, from someone who tells you what so-and-so said at the pub)? I am not asking whether you care (although that might be interesting as well), but whether you have what you think is a reasonably accurate sense for group dynamics among your advisees and between your advisees and you, the advisor.

30 responses so far

Works Not Well With Others

Apr 24 2012 Published by under colleagues, graduate school

A reader wonders about

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 responses so far

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

Academic Fish Ponds

This is a recent e-mail from a reader, but it's a topic I was thinking about in a related context, so this is timely (for me):

I'm a grad student in a respectable PhD program in the physical sciences here in the U.S. (ranked by U.S. News as either in the low teens to mid-20s, depending on the particular year of the ranking).  I didn't realize until I was knee-deep in grad school just how tough the academic job market is (like, I think I know more PhDs without permanent jobs than I know with jobs!).  I'm starting to get very nervous about my job prospects.

While mulling over my options--Take the Master's and run? Switch to a different field?--it occurred to me that I could always apply to higher-ranked grad programs (you know, Harvard, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley, and their ilk).  Graduating from a Top 5 school would surely increase my prospects of getting an academic job, right? Provided, of course, I could get admitted to one of those programs...

I haven't asked too many people for advice (I don't want my professors or advisor to know that I'm considering leaving), but the one person I asked said it was better to be a big fish in a small pond (translation: stay where I am and try to stand out among my cohorts).

As an aside, if you look at the most recent faculty hires for my department, you'll see that they're all Harvard/MIT/Berkeley/Caltech/Stanford grads; there's not a single graduate from a 20-ish rank school in the bunch. We're good enough to be their grad students, but not good enough to be their eventual colleagues???

This e-mail raises many interesting issues, in addition to the usual ones involving stress about (potentially) seeking a faculty position in a field that seems to have an oversupply of PhDs. [insert required mention that academia isn't the only option for PhDs, there are many excellent careers in industry/business/government etc.].

I am going to ignore the issue of whether rankings have any merit and whether the Prestige Universities deserve their high level of prestige etc. Let's just take these numbers (Top-5, Top-20 etc.) at face value for now.

An important question for the person who wrote the e-mail is: In the context of thinking about possible future jobs in academia, do you think you would only be happy in one that is a research-ranking peer of your current university (or one more highly ranked)? I know it can be hard to predict (as a grad student, I was completely wrong about what kind of job/place would be best for me), but it's worth thinking about other options within academia: teaching-focused schools (small colleges, universities that are focused on undergraduate education, community colleges) or research universities other than the top-ranked ones. These jobs are difficult to get as well, but overall you may have more opportunities than you would if you only consider major research universities of a certain rank as job prospects. Perhaps you know some people who work at these types of institutions and could talk to them about their jobs, or you could do some investigating/mingling at conferences to interact with a broader group of academics and others.

But let's say that you are quite sure that you want to be at a major research university, a peer to your current university or better (in rankings), and jobs are extremely scarce in your field. I don't know about your particular institution/field, but from what I've seen over years of serving on various committees and panels and such, top graduates of top-20ish schools can compete with those from top-5-10 schools for academic positions. If you do interesting research, give conference presentations, publish, and put together an impressive application, you could be competitive with the top-5 people.

The person you talked to was right to mention the 'big fish' scenario; if your department/advisor are respected in your field and your advisor writes reference letters saying you are the best student s/he has ever had, that can count for a lot. You may have to work harder to be perceived -- on first impression -- as just as good as the top-5 people, but it's doable.

Important considerations in whether you stay or try to move could include:

  • the nature of your research project (is it exciting? significant? can you play an important role in it?),
  • the reputation of your advisor as a scientist and mentor (will s/he write you awesome letters if you do well?), and
  • your assessment of your abilities (difficult to do..).

When you consider those (and other) factors, maybe you will decide that the best place for you for research and career development is a top-5 department, maybe it's another place, or maybe it's where you are right now.

Another question: Have you been around for any of the searches that resulted in the recent top-5 hires in your department? It would be interesting and instructive to look at the applicant pools (were all the interviewees from top-5 departments, or just the person who got/accepted the offer?). If you attended the interview talks and/or met the candidates, what were your impressions? If there are any upcoming searches, it would be good to take a close look at the process and the people involved.

And if you look at departments in your field at peer institutions of your current one, do you see a similar preponderance of top-5s on the faculty? That is, is your department typical in this respect? If so, and you want to try to stay in your field, perhaps you should send out some applications..

If you have the time, it's worth doing a bit of 'career field work' before making a big decision. There may be more options than you know about now, or you may find you are in the best place for you already.

26 responses so far

Independence Day

Nov 17 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school

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

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

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

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

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

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

.. and everything in between those most extreme cases.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 responses so far

Author Credit Check

Sep 12 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school, publishing, students

A graduate student wrote and asked for advice; the e-mail is excerpted here:

I was hoping for some advice on dealing with another student in my research group, particularly in regard to author credit on a paper we submitted (where I was first author). We typically put the names from members of our group on our papers, because every member of the group helps out in some way.. This PhD student (who is senior to me) was supposed to help me with the paper, but came to meetings and did little else, avoiding meeting with me separately. Towards the deadline, this student sent out emails saying he was going to work on particular sections, and do an entire review of the paper, but he never completed either and silently let the deadline pass without any contact (without even an apology).

How would you deal with such a situation?  In particular, this bothers me because I helped this student with his [recent] submission .. by contributing ideas, writing and editing, and he did not reciprocate. I'm a new graduate student, and this is my first paper where I'm first author. I'm not really even sure of my role here. Who really has control over author lists on papers? Should I bring it up with our supervisor, and in what way? Does it really matter if he's credited as 5th (or so) author if he didn't contribute anything? I don't want to rat out a fellow student (who may be having problems), but I also don't like the idea of this student capitalizing on the rest of the group's work without contributing to it.
I don't know the dynamics of this research group, but it would be good if there were a way to have a general discussion about this topic with the advisor. Maybe, without ratting out the delinquent student, there is a way to ask questions about how authorship is decided.
If everyone-is-included-no-matter-what is just the way it is, it's not in this student's interests to single out a fellow student as a malingerer. If the slacker student has a systematic problem, the advisor likely knows and will have to deal with it in other contexts.
But other readers may disagree, perhaps reasoning that authorship is not an automatic right but one that should be earned in some way. I agree with this, but I am thinking about what is reasonable for a new graduate student to do in this situation.
The question of who gets to decide authorship order is an interesting one. Of course, different fields have different norms for authorship order, but in cases (such as the one in question here) in which inclusion and ordering relate to contribution (first = primary), some decisions have to be made.
In theory, the primary author should decide, and should be fair about this decision. Also in theory, the resulting decision shouldn't matter if the primary author is a student or a much-published professor, although in the case of a student who doesn't know the "authorship culture" of their fields -- e.g., who is a co-author, who gets a nice acknowledgment, and who is not included -- it's good to have a discussion about this with more senior people, perhaps getting more than one opinion. In some cases, authorship decisions about inclusion/exclusion and order may not be straightforward.
Different research groups, however, may have different philosophies about this, including possibly the one in question, in which all publications are group publications. In that case, it seems prudent to explore how hard-and-fast the everyone-as-coauthor custom is. Are there ever exceptions?
Does anyone have additional/different advice for this student?

26 responses so far

Like A Business

Aug 23 2011 Published by under advising, faculty, graduate school

In recent posts over at FSP, we have been discussing to what extent a professor should intervene if a student exhibits signs of possibly maybe (but probably not) needing to see a doctor. In the specific case described, an undergraduate student fell asleep during a meeting with a professor about the student's research project. Some commenters said that, despite the student's claim to be fine (not ill, not feeling faint etc.), the professor should have done more to insist that the student seek medical attention.

I don't want to talk about that specific case in more detail here, but one commenter's argument for more assertive intervention by the professor hinged on the opinion that we professors are supervisors and are therefore responsible for the physical and mental well-being of our "team members"; in this case, an undergraduate student.

Agree or disagree?

There is no doubt that we professors are managers in many ways. We supervise the work of our researchers, whether these are postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates, technicians, or others. Grants that we obtain pay the salary, benefits, and -- in some cases -- tuition of those we supervise. We fill out lots of forms.

And yet, there are differences. We are advisors, not employers. The employer is the university. If I have a problem with one of my graduate advisees (for example), I can't "fire" them in the way that employers can. I can remove myself as advisor, but if this occurs within the time-frame of their guaranteed support, my department has the responsibility of helping that student find another advisor, or facilitating the student's transfer to another department or institution. Similarly, if a student decides to change advisors, they can. In this way, they are treated more as students than as employees.

Perhaps the argument that professors aren't really employers or managers in a business or industry sense is analogous to the argument that students who are research and teaching assistants may (or may not, depending on your opinion) be "workers" in the same sense as employees who are not also students.

So, the question for discussion is whether (and/or in what ways) a professor has the same type and level of responsibility for the physical and emotional/mental well-being of their advisees as those in business or industry.

Certainly we professors are responsible for providing a safe, healthy, and fair working environment for our advisees, but what can/should we do beyond that? I know little of the non-academic world of work, and therefore have no idea how (or whether) an employer in industry would intervene in the personal life of an employee who showed signs of possibly/maybe having a health problem; for example, an employee who fell asleep during a meeting.

What, beyond asking the employee if they are OK, would/could a non-academic employer do? Is it really the same for a professor to ask probing questions about a student's health, as it is for an employer to ask an employee, or is it different?



33 responses so far

Pity PhD

Aug 16 2011 Published by under career issues, graduate school

A question from a reader:

I'm about to start my 3rd year of grad school in a physical science working at a top 10 university in my field for a world leader in my sub-field. I'm terrified that I'm going to wind up with a pity PhD, and its going to hurt my chances of getting a good job. Its not like I'm not working really hard, but my project just seems to have an unwork-around-able fatal flaw caused by years of neglect on a major piece of equipment in our lab. I'm trying to fix it, but maybe this means that in about a year I'll get transitioned to a different project, but pretty much no matter what happens at this point I'm going to wind up tainted as the grad student who didn't produce that many publications.

I used to have dreams of being an awesome grad student who produced a couple fantastic publications and maybe had a shot at doing the tenure track. At the rate I'm going, that seems like a pipe dream. So now I'm hoping that I get a fantastic letter of recommendation from my boss and get a good postdoc where I manage to produce enough to demonstrate that it really wasn't my fault as a grad student. If you (or maybe some of your readers) are looking for a postdoc, would you seriously consider a candidate that doesn't have any publications but has a letter from their advisor swearing that they worked really hard, are really smart, and that it just isn't their fault?


I would hire such a person as a postdoc if I knew and respected the advisor or someone else who could confirm that the lack of results and publications was not owing to an inability to finish projects or write papers. I'd be concerned, of course -- I have supervised more than a few postdocs with major writing problems and would prefer to work with those who can and will write their own papers -- and it would be best if there were some evidence to back up an explanation for lack of awesome research results and publications.

If at all possible, a PhD student who wants to pursue an academic career should find something to write up, and the advisor should help with this effort.

My situation may not be analogous, but as a postdoc, the main project I was supposed to be working on was clearly headed for failure because a key collaborator wasn't going to provide a necessary and promised part of the research. My supervisor wasn't about to be proactive and help me with another project, and I feared that my future was going to go up in flames. So I kept working on the original project in the hopes that something would come of it (nothing ever did), but I also started dividing my time between that project and another one -- something I came up with myself. My supervisor didn't mind that I was working on an additional project, which required very few resources, and in the end, the only publications from my postdoc work are from that 'side project'.

I learned a lot from that experience: how to survive a failed project and how to come up with my own research project and carry it through to completion (publications). These are very useful skills for an academic career. I know that some graduate students can have a lot less freedom to take on additional projects, even if they are related to the main thesis project, so it may not be possible to do this. In that case, the student will have to rely on the advisor's ability to make a compelling case that the lack of results/publications is not the fault of the student and should not be taken as an indication of their abilities (or lack thereof).

Readers who supervise/mentor postdocs: Would you consider hiring a candidate such as the one described in the e-mail above? Have you hired such a person before?

Readers who have supervised graduate students with projects that failed, through no fault of the student: What, if anything, have you done to rescue the student (and their future career opportunities)?

Readers who have had a failed project as a graduate student (or postdoc, or assistant professor, or at any vulnerable career stage): What did you do?

41 responses so far

Sidekicks and bond strength

Aug 02 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school, students

A reader wrote wondering if the strong bond that forms between some male advisors and male students ever happens between male advisors and female students. For discussion, we could also consider the cases of female advisors/male students and female advisors/female students, but *important* for all possible cases, let's only consider platonic, professional relationships.

The reader who wrote to me used the term 'sidekicks'. I don't think this is a good word to describe this particular situation, but it makes a zippy (albeit possibly cryptic) title for a blog post.

Historically, strong bonds between male advisors/male students in the physical sciences and engineering have been most common because there have been so few women. In recent years, however, there are increasing numbers of women, particularly at the undergraduate and graduate levels, so there are more opportunities to evaluate advisor-student pairs in which one or both are female.

There are personality issues involved in advisor-student "bond strength", of course. Some advisors don't form strong bonds with any students.

But among those who do: what makes an advisor and student 'click' in such a way that they act like more like colleagues than professor and student? Similar personalities, drive, work ethic, cultural background.. other? And is gender a major or minor factor?

My own answers would be: similar drive and work ethic as factors, and gender is irrelevant in these cases.

A question for SP readers: Have you ever formed a particularly strong working relationship with particular students (as an advisor) or with a particular advisor (as a student)? What do you think the major factors were?

30 responses so far

Who Talks?

A student reader wanted to present their thesis research results at a conference, but the student's advisor said no -- he would present the results, and the student couldn't even go to the conference. The student wonders why he/she couldn't give the talk or attend the conference.

The easiest way to find out would be to ask the advisor, but in the absence of this information, we can muse about some possibilities. Please add to the list if you know of other possibilities. I think it would be most useful if we confine ourselves to examples we know have occurred, but if you want to throw in some paranoid speculation, go right ahead (though it would be helpful if you noted that you are just speculating.)

Possible explanations:

1 - The advisor is on the tenure-track or otherwise needs the exposure (see point #4 in GMP's recent post). The student may need the visibility as well, but if the advisor doesn't get tenure, that isn't in the student's interest either. If this is the case, the advisor should just explain to the student: "This is really great work and I think it would be best for my tenure case and for the research group as a whole if I present it at the X Conference." Ideally, the student will get due credit for their work, will have other opportunities to 'own' the work (at conferences and in publications), and should feel some satisfaction that the advisor thinks the work is good and important.

2 - No matter what the career stage of the advisor, there may not be enough money to pay for the travel of both student and advisor. Some conferences -- particularly if they involve international travel and high registration fees -- are very expensive. If there is only enough money for some, but not all, people in a research group to go a meeting, the advisor will make decisions, some of which seem (or are) selfish. If it is important for the work to be presented (e.g., to show progress on a grant-funded project), and the advisor definitely has to go to the meeting (to chair a session, serve on a panel, attend a meeting-within-a-meeting, schmooze with funding program officers), the advisor will go and the advisee might not. Again, the advisor should just explain: "This is really great work, but I only have enough travel money for one of us to go to the X Conference, and I need to go for [these other professional reasons]". Note: As a a grad student, I paid my own way to some conferences in the US when I could afford to because otherwise I wouldn't have gone to the most important conferences in my field, so a separate question is whether the advisor would/can forbid a student to present their own work if they pay their own way.

3- If the advisor thinks the student won't do a good job with the talk, s/he may decide to give the talk to make sure it is presented well. This decision may be based on experience or speculation. If this is the reason for not wanting the student to give the talk, the advisor should be clear about the reason and proactively help the student improve for the future. (Yes, I know that advisors can and do give poor talks as well, but we are discussing here why an advisor might choose to present a student's talk instead of the student).

If the advisor is giving the talk on research primarily being conducted by a student, it may not be possible for the student to attend the conference if not giving a presentation. Depending on the source of the travel funds, their use might be contingent on active conference participation.

Mostly, I think the advisor should explain the situation and reasoning to the advisee, whatever the reason. And if that doesn't happen, it would be good if the advisee could ask for an explanation in a non-confrontational way. I know from the e-mails that I get from students that some are very reluctant to ask their advisors these types of questions, as if asking implies criticism, and perhaps fearing negative consequences of some sort.

These students may well have experience that shows this to be the case, and if so, perhaps the information could be obtained in an indirect way -- by asking more senior students, postdocs, or friendly faculty who are willing to explain some of the more mysterious aspects of professorial behavior and decision-making. In other cases, advisors might be happy to explain their decisions, and it just didn't occur to them that there were questions and confusion.

56 responses so far

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