Musings on Grad-School Work Ethic

When you blog for a while, sooner or later you start revisiting the topics you discussed before. Some of them you visit multiple times. A few, ad nauseam.

One of these perennial conundrums is what the necessary skills are for someone to become a successful academic scientist or engineer. In particular, how much zeal, drive, motivation, whathaveyou, does a student have to have in order to get a PhD? I am not saying that they have to ever become a professor or even want to be one; just to finish a PhD, presumably funded on a research assistantship, teaching assistantship, or fellowship (i.e. not paying for the PhD out of pocket). (The usual disclaimer — I have experience with a physical science field at a major research university. This is a context in which I am interested.)

When I talk with my colleagues about students, there are two kinds of responses. On the one end, you have people who never say anything but the best about all their students; that usually means the colleagues choose not to talk with me honestly. In some cases, these colleagues appear to actually think all the best about their students, but it doesn’t mean that the colleagues are unusually fortunate to have exceptional advisees (I have met many of said advisees), but instead the colleagues have a combination of what I would call a low bar for student performance combined with a high belief in the good in people. I understand those who choose not to talk with me honestly, but I don’t understand the endlessly permissive and encouraging kind. I am simply too impatient, life is too short to wait for people forever to get their $hit together, plus I am responsible to funding agencies. Also, I don’t believe in people enough. Or, actually, I do; I do believe that most people would rather not work than work, and I believe there are few things that people who don’t want to work wouldn’t do in order to avoid doing work. What I don’t understand is why people who don’t want to do work elect to do a PhD, a degree that is arguably not mandatory to get. What I understand even less is why we in academia allow so many students who endured their PhDs with boredom and little effort to eventually graduate with a PhD. Getting a PhD could and should be a great time, a time when you do science and talk with other smart young people, go to conferences, and partake in pushing the cutting edge of human knowledge. Yet so many just… endure. The whole ordeal underwhelms them and they can’t wait to get out. Why? Why do the stupid PhD in the first place? They should have done something that doesn’t bore them instead; get some sort of job straight out of college, working regular hours, and spending their free time doing whatever they daydream about doing when they are not doing the research that they are supposed to be doing while in grad school.

The colleagues who talk with me honestly about their experiences with students all generally share the same sentiment: most students are “not very good;” it holds even at the very top places. That doesn’t mean that the students are not smart; there are plenty of intelligent people around. It generally means that the students are nowhere near as devoted to their work as we, their advisors, would like them to be. The thing is, I don’t think sane advisors expect complete and total devotion, or working 24/7; not even close. But we do expect sufficient work and sufficient devotion. I think if the students actually tried to work, but really work, 40 hours per week, a lot of work would get done. A. LOT. The problem is that most students in graduate school do not actually work even close to those hours. They sit and goof around more than they work. Those who put in the time for real are already ahead of the pack. They don’t have to kill themselves working, they don’t even have to work the hours of a grownup academic; they just have to work the hours of a normal grownup holding a secure and possibly somewhat mundane job (many admins at my uni come to mind).

Here are some examples of what irritates advisors:

1. Professor comes into their grad students’ office at something like 2 pm on a Wednesday or a Thursday. One of the students is playing a MMORPG. The student then proceeds to tell the advisor how he (the student) didn’t have enough time to do research because his teaching duties were taking too much of his time. Somehow, that plea would have been considerably more convincing if the advisor hadn’t just seen the student royally waste his time.  Also, this student rarely answers emails over the weekend. So he keeps his work strictly confined to the work week, making sure that work does not spill over into his free time. The fun, however, is apparently allowed to spill everywhere, such as into the middle of the work week.

2. Keeping regular hours at work is great, but they also have to be sufficient hours. A counter-example is a student who works regular hours, but they are 11-4 or 12-4. The output after nearly 5 years has been barely 2 papers (not enough for a PhD and well below typical group member output in that time). The student has of late been actively interviewing for jobs (as in, doing nothing but interviewing or cramming for the interviews); that’s all the student does these days, while being on a full research assistantship. The advisor has to remind the student that enough work for a PhD actually has to be done first. Before we say that the advisor is an awful human being and an even worse advisor, let’s just reflect for a second on how much time during regular work day one would be allowed to spend cramming for interviews anywhere in the fabled “real world” that academia is supposedly not a part of. Exactly none. So no,  it is not OK to drop research completely while interviewing, unless the student is entirely paying his or her way through grad school. No? Then  the student should actually keep working until done. But honestly, I am pretty sure the advisor would probably be much more understanding if this were a student who had previously shown strong or even sufficient productivity. By the way, this is another student who does not answer emails over the weekend.

Here is an example of a model (real) student. Note that nobody is talking about working 24/7.

The student is at the office at 9 and leaves at 5, and in the meantime actually works. In two years, the student has gone from one who was the youngest and the least prepared, to having a really impressive first-author paper already out, a couple of others in the pipeline, and generally now being the advisor’s go-to student for when something new and fun has to be tried quickly. In part, being in the office when the advisor is looking for someone to run crazy ideas by definitely helps with becoming the Golden Child. The advisor knew the student was smart from the get-go, but so are many others; the advisor is positive that the quick rise in competency and especially productivity has to do with the student having a strong work ethic. This student does answer the occasional email over the weekend.

By the way, I really hate people (students, colleagues, everyone) who don’t respond to emails during weekends. It doesn’t have to be instantaneous, but do check your goddamn email once a day over the weekend. Why is that so much to ask? Usually all I need is for a student to send me a file or clarify a  piece of data (if I send weekend emails to students, they are of the “Can you send me your PPT from last group meeting?” or “In Fig. 5 of the manuscript I am working on, what is the value of parameter alpha you used, it’s missing in the caption?”)

Another thing: in my view, one takes a vacation when one deserves a vacation, i.e., some work should be done between successive vacations. In my experience, the students who are most keen on having frequent out-of town long weekends and few-day vacations are also those who generally put in the fewest hours during the week. My honest gut reaction (don’t worry, I  keep it to myself) to that is “WTF are you so tired from that you constantly need to go on vacation?!”

I try to talk to my students, especially in group meetings, about the necessity of keeping regular hours and actually putting in enough hours. And I remind them that graduate school is not mandatory and it’s up to them to make it a successful experience and a good take-off ramp for the rest of their careers. I tell them that I am there to help if they are stuck or frustrated, but that they need to work hard and that how fast they finish and how many papers they have at the time is really up to them.

I am not sure what we as advisors can do to motivate people. I try to lead by example; I work a lot and I get a lot done. But for the most part all that my example has done is made people not want to do my job, which is fine. I think it boils down to whether or not the student is intrinsically motivated or not, wanting to adopt the practices that lead to growth and improvement. I think we as advisors can do little but encourage, talk, and at a certain point, if some threshold hasn’t been met, sever the relationship… Then the question becomes at which point is having an anemic performance during a PhD enough to tell a person “You really should not be doing a PhD in this group. For both our sakes.”

29 comments

  1. As a PhD student, this is a great perspective to hear. So thanks for the view from the other side of the desk.

    With regard to being present in the office, how do you (and the commenting gallery) feel about students working from home? What if there is a good reason, such as avoiding a long commute or childcare?

  2. Junior, I do theory and computation so for my group members doing work remotely is possible. I can tell you that I have had a postdoc and a grad student telecommute from a city that’s 2.5 hrs away, because their families were there. They would come over for group meetings for a day once every 2 weeks. Both of them were people who showed that they were self-motivated and productive, and they remained so after starting the long-distance work. However, they both shared that they would get really isolated and bored being at home all the time, and that they felt they were not as productive as they could have been if they had been able to come to the office. There is much to be said for being with other people, going to seminars, or just being able to go to coffee or brainstorm with others.

    I also worked from home on my sabbatical, largely because i also had a small baby. I can say that working from home while taking care of a kid is not really working. Or it is working but with very low productivity. If you really want to work from home, you need some sort of childcare (Laura Vanderkam, a successful writer who works from home and a mom of 3, talks about it often).

    What I am trying to say, when electing to work from home, make sure you are doing it for the right reasons and that you account for the real downsides of isolation from peers and activities in the institution, and that you are honest with yourself about how much you are really truly working as opposed to goofing off. Some work (like lab work) cannot be done from home; but writing or coding can.

    And I think I speak for all advisors everywhere, be responsive. Nothing is more rage-inducing than a student who is MIA, and can neither be found at the office nor are they answering email (without previously having notified advisor that they would be traveling or for another reason be MIA). If you are going to work from home, make sure you are really working productively and that you are responsive; I think most advisors wouldn’t mind a student working from home on occasion or even long term, if the work is such that it is doable away from lab/office, and the student is productive and responsive.

  3. At least here, grad students are paid to work half time. There is a strong expectation that they are students the other half of the time, so if they are already advanced to candidacy, they are expected to be working 40 hours a week on their thesis. If they are TAs, they are expected to work 20 hours a week on the TAship and 20 hours a week on their thesis.

    Working on a thesis includes a lot of reading, thinking, and writing, which is often better done at home than in a noisy lab.

    I do have problems with student who don’t show up for meetings and who don’t answer e-mail, though I don’t expect instant response to difficult questions.

  4. I enjoyed reading your article and I very much agree with your main points! Work ethic does seem to be really a key factor in what people get out of a PhD. I (and many of my peers) remember finding this a surprising realisation that only slowly dawned on us, as the culture at my institution traditionally focused on “smarts” not steady work. We were often told “I don’t care what you do as long as the work gets done”, and there was no encouragement to turn up to the lab at all beyond a weekly meeting with your supervisor (if you were lucky). This led of course to many of the pitfalls (including the work not getting done) that you highlighted so well in your article and the comments!

    Beyond institutional culture, I was wondering what you thought about two other factors; namely age of the students involved (anecdotally, I’ve noticed that people who’ve had longer Masters degrees or are generally older seem to cope much better, and personally I’ve got much better since leaving my early twenties) and selection process (my institution selected on exam results, which people traditionally crammed for, rather than anything that might indicate a steady work ethic)? Do you find in your experience that these are important/can be addressed?

  5. I think the root of the problem lies in the words “student” and “grad school”. There is no real transition to the more advanced graduate level when you are still called a student and you still go to school. As an undergrad people can decide themselves if they want to show up to a course. To internalize that “school” is not that flexible anymore on the grad level is a step that maybe needs some different packaging to come across. The student with the good work ethics went to his courses as an undergrad and he’s in the lab as a grad student. But the other will just find it hard to “suddenly” commit to his work.
    I find that in countries, where grad students are not called students anymore, but they are properly employed, with a decent salary and certain amount of vacation days (and you have to hand in an official paper if you want to go on vacations), the “students” show much better work ethics and are more likely to get their $hit together. Because they feel more responsibility towards they employer/their advisor.

  6. In my case it gets more irritating because I share my room (lack of space, the curse of success) with some of my advise-es. The rush of blood to my head every time I see them extending their social network while day after day passes without result…

  7. I love that any complaint that Xykademiqz might offer can immediately be dismissed as anger at her husband. Nice analysis, CPP.

  8. @ivoryspires: Test-based admissions to grad school does not make a lot of sense. What grad schools want are students who can do research. Tests are terrible at determining that (particularly wimpy tests like the GRE). Much better is to look for evidence of prior research from the essay and letters of recommendation. Even a small 10-week research project tells grad faculty more than a test does.

  9. I had the same experience with two (out of many students). There’s two aspects: one is you need to put in an average of 40 real hours of work a week, and second, during crunch times (thesis submission deadline, conference talk preparation, gran application time), which are really not that common you need to be ready to put in 80 hours a week.

    Most of my students are quite ready to do this, but I had two students who would always prioritize their social life and teaching duties over research. Needless to say, this held them back quite a bit and only started making progress when their work habits improved.

  10. “What I understand even less is why we in academia allow so many students who endured their PhDs with boredom and little effort to eventually graduate with a PhD.”

    And this is why all the belly-aching by advisors over students will never amount to anything. Because in the end, profs enable the bad behavior by compensating for it themselves. The slacker students are just gaming the system, and the profs, as the ones in charge, have no one to blame but themselves. As the saying goes, “You’ve made your bed….”

  11. Anon @ 7:49, I am going to pretend your comment isn’t plain obnoxious (“The slacker students are just gaming the system, and the profs, as the ones in charge, have no one to blame but themselves. As the saying goes, “You’ve made your bed….”)

    Here’s the deal. Doing a PhD is a creative endeavor, and people need space to be creative. Therefore, rigid policing of graduate students is hardly a recipe for a vibrant group (although plenty of people do it). However, some structure appears necessary, as too many people are very bad at providing structure for themselves. Secondly, ambition and drive have to come from within; you will never get as get good of a work by forcing it out of someone who isn’t driven as you would from someone who truly is driven. However, some people do actually have a fire but it may take the right project or the right advisor or just a year or two more of maturing for the fire to ignite. So we as professors do try to accommodate the different work styles, and learning styles, and project preferences, and work hours etc. And often, with a little flexibility, a lot can be improved for a student who has the right attitude and drive and work ethic. Other times, it’s just BS, just excuses, and the student shouldn’t get a PhD. But it’s sometimes really hard to tell, especially early on, if the student is really someone you should kick out or just someone who needs a little different project or a different advisor, or a different style of advising. And before you know it, by the time it becomes clear that the student really should not be getting the degree with your group, both you and the student have sunk in several years of push-and-pull and it’s not easy to cut them loose at this point (although it probably should happen more often than it does). Or you see it, as a member of the student’s committee, but the advisor doesn’t.

    Working with people is not easy, especially on a creative endeavor, and things are not black and white. If you are too rigid, you will never get much out the people who need space. On the other hand, some structure and work guidelines are necessary. But they are not uniform for all and it’s not entirely trivial to see when more structure is needed vs. that no amount of structure or anything else will help.

    I am sure many women here will relate to the following metaphor. Trying to find what works with certain students is little like trying to find the right type of birth control pill. You try many different ones, and it’s often mind-boggling to discern if your body is still acclimating or if the pill is really bothering you in one way or another; then you switch the brand and go through the same things again. Then you try a shot. Or a hormonal IUD. Eventually, some women decide that hormonal birth control (or certain types) isn’t really for them and cut them loose, but it can take forever before that decision is finally made.

    Unless you are going to tell me that the minute I see a student playing a video game I should fire them on the spot.

  12. The one I can’t necessarily agree on is the weekend thing. I have two colleagues who are incredibly hard workers and extremely productive. They will work late hours during the week, very often 60+. The refuse to have anything to do with work on the weekend, though, because that is their family time. I don’t fault them one bit, and if anything, I feel like a slacker trying to get things in on the weekend. (On the other hand, I have a weird schedule, so I can’t keep the types of schedule they do…)

  13. @Xyk: “And before you know it, by the time it becomes clear that the student really should not be getting the degree with your group, both you and the student have sunk in several years of push-and-pull and it’s not easy to cut them loose at this point (although it probably should happen more often than it does).”

    Look, no one said this was easy. All I’m saying is that too often, what I see is the attitude among students that if they just put in their time, they’ll walk out with a degree x yrs later that will be the ticket to a higher-paying job in industry. Maybe if students saw that it was possible to invest all that time in a program and not get the degree in the end, perhaps only then the ones with the true fire in their bellies would sign up. I’m all for flexibility and giving people chances, but the PhD should not be a consolation prize.

    *You* have to make the tough call. Because by refusing to do so, you and your colleagues make it worse for everyone. The fact that a problem doesn’t have an easy solution is not a justification to throw up your hands and say, “Oh well!” You and your colleagues are supposed to be the gatekeepers — you need to start doing more of that.

  14. Part of the problem is that PhD criteria are so nonuniform. A student I would never work with is another professor’s poster child. See this old post and especially comments where some people were all over my case for suggesting people should in fact have publications for a PhD.

  15. > I think if the students actually tried to work, but really work, 40 hours per week, a lot of work would get done. A. LOT. The problem is that most students in graduate school do not actually work even close to those hours.

    This is very true. I worked in business and in academia, and I can confirm that my productivity was much, much higher in business. The nature of academic work is pretty weird:

    1) Our external reward comes some 2-5 years after the effort (not even when your paper is published, but when it gets cited!)
    2) Our main activity (thinking) is very similar to daydreaming. It’s just so hard sometimes to make sure which one is happening.
    3) We are supposed to leave space for procrastination (as you mentioned in one of the comments: it’s a creative activity, you have to get stuck every now and then).

    So it’s really, really hard to get yourself to work. Academic work just goes against the rules of our brain; against all intuitions. In my experience, forcing yourself to work is actually the only thing that matters in research. Or nearly the only one.

    The sad part of this story though is that the majority of slackers make the minority of hard-workers suffer as well. Even if you work really well, the sheer amount of slackers doom upon you, press you with anxiety of never getting a job just because of bad luck, or family situation, or something like that. So even those people who have everything in them to enjoy grad school sometimes end up not enjoying it. That’s the saddest part of this whole situation for me, and I am not quite sure what I would even recommend to do about it…

  16. I don’t understand why nobody just tells grad students: look, normal people work 8hr per day without slacking. How about you do that, too, so you build up at least a tiny little bit of fucking discipline?

    But noooo, because some outstanding genius grad student might feel ‘restricted’ by having to work like a fucking normal person, this very basic life advice is taboo in academia. Because academic freedom and ‘science should be fun not work’ bla bla bla. WTF.

    These guys are KIDS. They are not used to *actually* work. You need to TELL THEM EXPLICITLY what you want. All this BS going on in academic mentoring makes me sick.

  17. “By the way, I really hate people (students, colleagues, everyone) who don’t respond to emails during weekends.” Sorry, but that, my friend, is you own problem. When I am not available, then I am not available, I don’t care if you piss your pants because you can’t wait for an answer.

    “Another thing: in my view, one takes a vacation when one deserves a vacation”
    Vacation is not a prize, it’s recovery. You don’t ‘deserve’ vacation, you NEED vacation. Maybe people spend as little time as possible in your lab because being in your lab just sucks? Maybe some would work harder if there was less distractions and chitty chatty in your lab and some workplace discipline to begin with? I wouldn’t even try focus on work if I was surrounded by chatting and gaming students the whole day. Or maybe you are really bad at picking students and end up with people who actually just need an alibi for their parents.

  18. I don’t care if you piss your pants because you can’t wait for an answer.

    Maybe people spend as little time as possible in your lab because being in your lab just sucks?

    Or maybe you are really bad at picking students

    The only thing I am apparently bad at is keeping a$$holes off my blog. Getting right on it, though.

  19. Maybe buy a copy of Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore you and leave it in a common area in the lab? I’m only half joking. The book isn’t perfect, but it does a pretty good job of demonstrating that you won’t be good at anything worthwhile unless you put in the effort.

  20. To play Devil’s advocate: People need different things to be “productive.” One person might be able to work straight for eight hours a day, five days a week, with no distractions. Another (and I think this applies to 90% of people) might take several mental breaks a day. If they both come out with a good product, who’s the better worker? Should the second person be docked pay for that “decompression” time that allows them to produce?

  21. Advisors need to write contracts stipulating milestones. When completed work is given an advisor should not squat in it for a year, not read it and expect an article to be submitted. The advisor needs to meet the student half way.

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