Day: November 28, 2015

There Are Humans in Academia

This post, ill-formed when I started writing, has been motivated in part by an email exchange with a former undergraduate researcher of mine, now in grad school at Fancypants Uni, and in part by a recent online interaction with another blogger.

I am not even sure how to articulate what it is about, but I guess it has to do with how our students and postdocs perceive us, their advisors; how little most students and postdocs care that we as advisors actually are humans and thus may have limitations, even though they want their own work-life balance respected and accommodated.

The undergrad worked in my group for nearly two years. He was stellar and, unsurprisingly, got offers from several top universities to go to grad school. He ended up at Fancypants Uni, in the lab of my occasional collaborator, Prof. Younggun. The student reports he is very happy in Younggun’s group and how, even though the group is large, Younggun still manages to meet with everyone weekly 1-on-1.

Rationally, I don’t think the student meant to imply anything by this comment other than that he’s happy where he is; somewhat less rationally, I felt this was not just a praise of Younggun, but also a criticism of me.

I don’t meet with group members 1-on-1 weekly. We have biweekly group meetings and frequent brief updates via email.  The individual-meeting frequency is adjusted to what’s going on: sometimes there is a need to meet several times a week, and sometimes a meeting every 2-3 weeks is fine, as a larger chunk of work needs to be done. I know what everyone is working on at all times and I leave them alone until they finish or get stuck and then we troubleshoot. Usually, a student says, “I am almost done with such and such, I think I will have some data early next week,” and then we schedule to meet on Monday at 3 pm or whatever. Or a student sends an email, ” I have been stuck with this and that, when do you have some time?” and then we usually meet the same day or as soon as possible thereafter.

I hate standing meetings, as I have said many times on this blog. I will much rather meet with a student for as many hours as needed when it’s needed than have an hour blocked out every week just to touch base. Also, I have to say this: I have a limit on how much face time I can take. If I have to interact with too many people, I then need time to recuperate. A day full of meetings leaves me not wanting to do anything at all the next day. I suppose these are my own personal limitations that spill into the professional sphere.

Another aspect that students usually don’t think about and generally do not consider are the finer aspects of how a professor’s home life affects what they can do at work.

For instance, Younggun is not much younger than me, maybe a year or two. He is, however, a DINK. He can spend as much time as he wants at work (and he does spend a lot) and when the takes time off work, e.g., on the weekend or in the evening, he probably gets to rest and recharge. Someone like me, who has responsibilities for little people at home (I am guessing it’s the same if you care for elderly parents), goes home and that’s where the second shift starts. Finding the time to rest and recharge is really challenging.

Now, when I say things like these usually someone comes to tell me that it’s my fault that I chose to have kids and that of course the people focused on the career are going to be more successful and whatnot. I am not begrudging Younggun; he’s smart, pedigreed, ambitious, and successful. I wish him all the best in his stratospheric ascent, even if I am a little envious.

What’s I am aiming at here is the fact that I am pretty sure many (most) of my students don’t actually ask themselves how their advisor lives, what he or she is motivated or limited or propelled by.

For instance, for my former undergrad, his new advisor probably seems awesome, as he manages to meet with everyone frequently and regularly; I am probably not awesome because I meet irregularly; he therefore might think that I must be a disorganized mess. The fact that Younggun and I have different personalities and live very different lives probably doesn’t enter the student’s mind at all; after all, we  both belong to the Professor genus.

I often mention this example from graduate school, where I was able to communicate very well with my notoriously difficult advisor upon realizing what makes him ticked off (losing face), avoiding triggers, and communicating on tough topics via email. I have friends from grad school for whom our advisor is still a mysterious beast, as opposed to a senior person with his own hangups, regrets, insecurities, and career path, but also someone who can be their big professional champion.

In the academic blogosphere, we often discuss how we as advisors need to be understanding and permissive of graduate students. But I think the communication might further be improved if the junior people tried to extended similar courtesy to the senior folks. I know it’s harder for junior people to completely put themselves in a senior person’s shoes, largely because it’s hard to empathize when you haven’t actually had many of the older person’s experiences.

Also, I wonder how much of it is socialization across gender lines. I see my DH and Eldest, and they spend vanishingly little time thinking about what anyone else is thinking or feeling; they don’t want to hurt anyone, but they go merrily on their way, doing what they want, until someone complains. I see it in my male colleagues, too, even very junior ones. I was a complete ball of nerves and insecurity when I was a junior professor, nearly paralyzed by a combination of the fear that I would mess things up because I didn’t know what I was doing and the fear that I would be inconveniencing people by asking them for advice. My junior male colleagues are much more bold (even when they objectively ought to ask for advice) and much more unapologetic about requesting help (or anything else they need). They are laser-focused on what they need and want, and perhaps only in the rear-view mirror they occasionally glance at the effect they might have left behind. In contrast, many female colleagues and I spend enormous amounts of energy wondering if we are entitled to do what we want or even need, and who might be inconvenienced or upset by our actions. I bet this stupid energy-drain channel is a major cause of burnout.

I just had a Master’s student, after I had signed off on their MS paperwork, simply declare in a group meeting they didn’t want to fulfill what we had agreed they would do before the end of the semester (generate certain plots so we could write a short paper) because they are “busy with their classes.” DH says he doesn’t think the student is a bad person but that they don’t understand that they have violated our agreement; they are just happy they get to finish their degree. The thing is, if the student tried to for a second not think about the MS being 100% about their own experience and me just being there in the service of it and tried to put themselves in my shoes for a microsecond, they would realize that the whole thing was not worth my time at all unless they completed what we had agreed on. (I don’t really need the stupid little paper, but I certainly don’t like being made a fool of.)

I suppose one reason for me writing these essays that have to do with student-advisor interactions is to try to hopefully get some junior people to view their advisors as people. I know there are bad advisors and generally bad bosses around, and nobody should tolerate being disrespected or abused in any way. This is not about bad advisors. I really think that most advisors are normal people, which means they are human, and as such they are neither omniscient nor clueless, neither omnipotent nor helpless, neither 100% selfless nor 100% selfish. Or, in the words of Corpsman Day from Guardians of the Galaxy, nobody is 100% a dick:

Professors are human, they have limitations on time and energy, and are not there in the sole service of the student’s educational experience. PhD and postdoc advisors are people who have their own career interests (which overlap to a great extent, but not 100%, with the student’s career interests) as well as their own personality traits and private lives. For everyone’s benefit, we should keep it professional, but should also try to have empathy and it goes both ways.

In a group like mine, most students (being young, unencumbered, and male) have no frame of reference for the life that I lead and the constraints it puts on how the group operates. I wonder if they all leave thinking that they spent years working with a complete alien.