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.”