Repost: Musings on Grad-School Work Ethic

I am very grouchy. Instead of wasting the time I don’t have on a new post, here’s a reasonably close approximation of my thoughts, a repost of this piece.

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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.”

12 comments

  1. There’s a lot here! And although my field is not collaborative in the way yours is–our grad students design their own projects completely unconnected to their directors’ work–I do occasionally run into those students I really wonder about. Mostly not.

    Wanted to respond to this: “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.” I don’t. Or more accurately, I do not send email to students/colleagues/etc. over the weekend, nor I do reply, except under real emergency circumstances. What that means is I deal with a lot of email first thing Monday morning. There are many different ways of handling email and still being productive as both an individual and collaborator…

  2. @gwinne: I think this is largely field-specific; different fields have different cultures. When collaborations are common, even necessary, then there has to be compatibility or even commonality among the collaborators’ work styles. (Btw, none of our admins work outside of the 8-4 work week, so I have no expectation or intention of having any admin work done during the weekend. But faculty and grad students, that’s different.) For instance, I would say that nearly 100% of my colleagues check their emails during the weekend. Many do it only at night or early in the morning, but there are very, very few who don’t at all (actually, I think the last few hold-outs might have recently given in). With many colleagues, I can email back and forth almost instantaneously between 9 pm and midnight any day of the week because everyone is at their computer. However, it is possible that we are all a little nuts.

  3. Agree about everything except for the emails. I dont expect them to respond to me over the weekend unless there is a deadline for a paper or proposal.

    Btw how long do you wait before you sever the relationship? a year?

    I have a MS student who is smart and has potential but does not work. The small amount of work she does is what she seems to think is going to get her through her thesis.

    And she wants to do a PhD in my group. I think I will go nuts if she continues to do what she is doing right now.

  4. I am always amazed by how much professors work. I really don’t understand how anyone can be so motivated, but good for y’all, I guess.

    I’ve also spent a lot of time in industry, and I guarantee you that everyone is goofing off more often than not there too. So while I understand your frustration about students not being productive, I do think there’s nothing unique here to academia.

  5. most students are “not very good;”

    This is why I am glad I am not a research professor anymore. I got to the point with a couple of students where I required them to email me every week what they accomplished and what their plan for the next week was. Good God.

    The most productive and superstar student from my grad cohort was a father of 3 by the time he graduated and he always worked 9-5. Slow and steady and all that.

  6. Sadly, the corollary to this is “most advisors are not very good.” Sure, they may be good researchers, even good colleagues/collaborators, but not good mentors. Some are not even good managers (lower bar). This is not a dig at you; you are likely an exception. Now if there were only some way of pairing up the not very good students with the not very good advisors….

  7. There’s a lot to respond to here…
    (1) After I got tenure, I basically stopped doing university-related work or checking my university email account on weekends, unless (as someone else above says) there is some sort of urgent deadline looming. I’m a human being, I have a “life,” and I figure I’ve earned it. I generally won’t deal with “work” from home: I try to keep them compartmentalized and separate. I may stay in the office or lab till 9 or 10 PM on some weekdays when things get busy, but once I leave campus, I leave it behind until the next morning or Monday. It’s become a sanity-maintenance and survival tool. That strategy was recommended to me at a NSF-sponsored workshop, by a mentor, and also by one of my previous department chairs, as a way to avoid burnout. Your mileage may vary, of course. I once put an “automatic reply” on my campus email account to send a notification between Friday evening and early Monday morning that the account is generally unattended on weekends. I had one member of the university administration scold me that it was bad form and inappropriate… and I had another administrator congratulate me on keeping work-life balance right. And I say this as someone who is super-collaborative, and in a collaborative field (I have literally over 100 collaborators on proposals, papers, and presentations in the last 48 months: I just had to calculate that number for a proposal) and one of the more “productive” members of my department by the usual metrics. If you want to work with me, those are my ground rules. If a colleague is not willing to let me make my weekends my own, they might lose me as a collaborator. Again, “your mileage may vary.”

    (2) “The Other Side,” you’re spot on. “Most advisors are not very good.” We hire university faculty due to their research ability, their brilliant minds, and/or their excellence as teachers: but NOT due to their communication, management, mentoring or human resources skills. I almost got burned out after a stint running our institution’s large graduate program… ran into many cases of professors doing things to/with their students that would get them fired and/or them and the company sued if they were in the outside world (like ordering students not to attend church, because that was a waste of time on Sunday that could be better spent in the lab… telling a student to end her relationship with her significant other because that would free up more time for her to work on her dissertation [by the way, that was a female faculty member who did that].. etc.)

  8. I may stay in the office or lab till 9 or 10 PM on some weekdays when things get busy, but once I leave campus, I leave it behind until the next morning or Monday.

    And therein lies the rub. Good for your that you can stay at work till 10 on weekdays. I can’t routinely do that, only for brief periods (a couple of weeks at a time, at most) around proposal deadlines, because my kids and my spouse start to vehemently protest when I am not with them in the evenings. Considering that there is much more work than 40-45 hours of the daycare I have per week, especially now that I am senior and the service does not let up, I do have to work for some time in the evenings after the kids go to bed and occasionally on the weekends. Many of my colleagues also head out at 5-6 pm for child pickup, and work in the evenings or weekends. So, to paraphrase what you said, if a colleague is not willing to check email once a day during weekends, they might lose me as a collaborator.

  9. Just to clarify: I don’t stay in the lab till 9 or 10 PM routinely: only in exceptional circumstances, probably never more than two days in a row. And if I do that, I may disappear for a day or two afterward. More than that and my health and relationships start deteriorating, And due to the nature of my research, much of it can’t physically be done at home.Probably 90% of all days I make sure to leave no later than 6 or 6:30. No proposal is worth staying in the office till 10PM a couple of weeks at a time!
    Now that I too am a senior faculty member, I have learned to say “no” to service beyond a certain limit- upon the recommendation of a trusted, recently-retired former administrator who told me that they knew I was a sucker for that (accepting too much service). There are probably plenty of not-so-active-in-research-anymore faculty who can take over the heavy service loads. To each their own, and your mileage may vary.
    I think if you have found what works for you, more power to you, and that’s great. But I question whether it’s appropriate to hold colleagues or collaborators to the same workload standard, beyond regular weekday hours or a rare, mutually-agreed upon push for a very short term for a deadline or an experiment that must be run 24/7 or whatever.

  10. I do sympathize with this issue. At my previous institution, I had a friend who was on the tenure track in an engineering field. His wife told him that if he didn’t stick to working 8 to 5, Monday through Friday, she’d file for divorce and take the kids. A mediator was eventually consulted, who advised him that a judge would agree with her. He made sure to work no more than 9 hours per day 5 days per week, reconciled with his spouse…. and was turned down for tenure for not being productive enough. Fortunately, in his case, he soon found a dream job in industry (that paid a lot more than his faculty position) and has never looked back.

  11. GoG, I only ever said that I expect people to check their emails once a day on the weekends, not that I have specific expectations on how much they need to work on the weekends. I don’t think that expecting that email be checked once every day is really that onerous. Let’s face it — everyone is on the computer on the weekend, even if just blogging, such as what you and I are doing right now. 😉 My students don’t work nearly as much as I do, and that’s fine. But I really don’t think expecting grad students to check email is unreasonable (unless I know they are traveling or on vacation), since they all fart around on the web playing video games, facebooking, tweeting, whatnot. As for faculty, obviously I have no sway over anybody one way or another. But most of my colleagues, as I wrote in a comment above, work a lot and similar hours to mine, and I do take their availability (and work style) into account when collaborating, just like you seem to as well.

    I am sorry about that former engineering prof you mentioned. But yes, there is a lot of work to be done even if you cut service to the bone. Productivity expectations at R1’s are quite high, and writing good papers and good proposals and training students so they can actually do science, those all take a lot of time.

  12. FWIW, much of the problem is the golden child issue. Most of those who make it into tenured research university positions were the golden children. They compare all their students to themselves. Doesn’t work.

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