Archive for the 'graduate school' 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

Grant Expiration

Mar 16 2011 Published by under graduate school, grants

This post addresses grant-related questions sent by readers who wonder how to deal with the mismatch in timing that may occur between the life-time of a grant and the time-frame of a grad student supported by a grant. What do you -- as a PI or as a student RA -- do when the mismatch in time is rather large?

If a doctoral student and a 3-year grant start at exactly the same time, and the student finishes their PhD in 4-5 years, things are probably going to work out fine if the grant goes into a no-cost extension for a year or two (it may not have any RA salary left in it, but it can cover some research expenses) and if the student and advisor are efficient about publishing dissertation-related papers so that any publication costs can be charged to the grant.

PIs in doctoral programs that typically take >4-5 years need to get successive grants in order to support a student fully during their grad program.

In a 4-5 year PhD program, if a grant kicks in after a doctoral student has started, chances are even better that one grant will cover the student's research expenses during the entire program of graduate study. And of course it is also possible that a later, related grant might be acquired that can reasonably cover a student's research expenses during their grad school years (and perhaps beyond, if there are continuing expenses relate to the dissertation research).

But what if that doesn't work out? What if the student, for reasons beyond the control of the advisor, takes a really long time to finish their PhD, and the original grant or grants have long expired? Or, in one case described by a reader, what if an advisor suddenly leaves (quits, retires, dies) before a student has completed their research, or leaves just after a student finishes but the student has post-graduation dissertation-related expenses that would normally be covered by their ex-advisor's grant?

Case 1: student time-to-degree >> expiration date of grant(s), through no fault of advisor

Unless the advisor has a slush fund (from indirect cost return, from an award, from residual start-up funds) and is very nice, there may be some expenses that can't and won't be covered: e.g., publication costs, travel to conferences to give presentations related to the dissertation research. This case sounds straightforward, but it may not be if the reasons the student took so long to finish and write their papers were owing to health problems, family situations (including childbirth/adoption), or other factors that have nothing to do with procrastination, writing problems, or a strong desire to remain in graduate school as long as possible. As has been much discussed elsewhere, however, PIs have limited means to provide long-term financial help in these situations.

In this case, students should think ahead and be aware that their advisor might not be able to pay for some research-related expenses after a grant has really and truly expired. PIs should communicate about these issues as well, but students can be proactive about getting the information they need about the lifespan of grants.

Case 2: student starts project after grant has started

Sometimes it can be hard to recruit a student to start on a project at exactly the same time a grant begins. I can typically get someone by Year 2 of a grant and then deal with the mismatch via no-cost extensions, but sometimes even this is not sufficient. It is the PIs responsibility to make sure the student has sufficient resources to do their research in a reasonable time-frame, perhaps by getting a new, related grant to continue the project.

Case 3: the advisor leaves academia (e.g., quits, dies) during or soon after their advisees' years of graduate study

If a PI leaves academia before a grant expires, another colleague can take over the grant so that it can continue to fund ongoing research by students and/or postdocs. It is the department's responsibility to find the best solution that minimizes harm to the personnel involved.

I once had a colleague leave suddenly to take an industry job; we were co-advising a student in his department. I had been PI on the first grant that funded the student, but after that expired, my colleague was PI on the second grant. When he left, his department chair got a professor in that department to take over the grant (there were logistical reasons why I couldn't do it) and co-advising responsibility until the student finished. These things can be worked out.

The department's responsibility may not, however, extend beyond the graduation of a student. If there are lingering expenses for publications etc., a former student or postdoc could contact the department chair to see if there are residual funds, but if not, the outcome is not so different from in case 1 -- when a grant is gone, it's gone -- but in this case there is no chance of additional funding to continue the research.


My biggest challenge with this general issue has been finding ways to pay for publications by students (long) after a grant has expired. PIs can't just charge expenses from one project to another, unrelated grant. In fact, we aren't even supposed to use a pencil bought by one grant to scribble a note or equation or brilliant illustration related to another project. Actually, I don't think we are even supposed to buy pencils with grants. In any case, there are restrictions. So, even if a PI seems very well funded, it doesn't mean that s/he could pay for your publication costs if s/he weren't so cheap.

It would be nice if grants never really expired, and continued to pay for all justified research expenses for as long as needed, but so far this doesn't seem to be a realistic option.


12 responses so far

Left Behind

Mar 09 2011 Published by under career issues, graduate school

An occasional theme of e-mail that I get from readers involves angst, anxiety, or anguish about possibly (or definitely) "leaving" science. In these cases, the "leaving" in question is voluntary and stems from a lack of interest (to put it mildly) in an academic career and/or a discovery of an interesting non-academic career path.

Keeping in mind that I am speaking as someone who has long been a science professor and has never had any other job since college and that I am therefore speaking from the point of view of a science professor and advisor, my advice is: Don't worry so much. It isn't really "leaving" science if your career will somehow involve science, even if your new career is not research-oriented. And even if you do "leave" science, partially or entirely, why feel bad about that? What's so bad about leaving something you don't want to do?

I know, some people do in fact feel very bad because they have spent several (or many) intense years with a group of peers who are focused on science careers, academic or otherwise, and it can be difficult to admit to wanting something else; perhaps something that friends and co-workers might not respect (even if the rest of the world would).

Some of my readers worry that they are letting down their advisors by "leaving" science. I have colleagues who do, indeed, feel that their *most successful* advisees are the ones who are clones of themselves -- science professors at major research universities. I admit that it does feel good when an advisee wants to pursue a similar career path as my own rather than run screaming from anything that resembles having a life like mine. But that doesn't mean we professors don't like and respect those who choose other careers, and it doesn't (necessarily) mean that those who want to have a different kind of career are repulsed by the thought of being like their advisor (although some are).

I will say, though, that some advisors will not appreciate it if an advisee uses the fact that they don't want a research-focused career as a reason to scale down their efforts while still in graduate school. Just because someone wants to have a career in which they never have to publish, give a conference presentation, or write a grant proposal doesn't mean that they don't have to write papers, give talks at conferences, and perhaps contribute to grant proposals while they are still a graduate student. Maybe they don't have to be quite as intense in some ways as those revving up for an academic job at a university, but an RA supported on a grant has responsibilities no matter what their ultimate career goal.

Even so, if you are working hard and thinking of a different life, don't feel guilty or anxious.

So: I personally do not feel let down if a PhD advisee wants to pursue a non-academic career, but, to be completely honest, I am not sure I have always felt this way. I think that it gets easier to feel this way, as an advisor, when you've been around for a while -- long enough for various advisees to follow various career paths.

And that leads me to my questions for readers:

To those who are or have been the advisor of PhD students, especially those in fields in which academic careers tend to be valued (within academia) over non-academic careers: Do you feel particularly satisfied when students choose to pursue a research-oriented science career (preferably in academia?)? What do you think of those who "leave" science? Do you just want them to be happy, or do you feel that time and money have somehow been wasted?

To those who are or have been a PhD student who does/did not want to pursue the career path that is widely viewed to be the *best* by others in your department: Did you admit to your interests in an "alternative" career and/or your desire to "leave" the field chosen by most of your peers? If not, why not? What did you fear most? And if you did, how do you think you were viewed as a result? Do you have any advice for others in your same position?

51 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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