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.


  1. I think some dialog can help too. I loved my doctoral advisor but we *never* discussed anything personal about his life or mine. I found out after finishing my degree that his dad has died and he was so worried about funding that he was looking to leave academia. When I learned these things, they totally explained some stuff about how distracted or unavailable he was or why he felt so pressured to publish at one point. I think if we’d been a bit more open we could have moved through these kinds of things with more understanding and less confusion or resentment. Though there’s always a fine line about how much personal info to share, both as an advisor and as a advisee.

    Now I’m stuck over sharing alllll the time because I have a mentally ill kid who requires that u get creative with work scheduling when he lands himself in a hospital or has an appointment with a specialist or whatever.

  2. There’s a flip side to this too, that I got in my first couple of years on the tenure track. Sometimes there are students (mostly female, I think) who *do* think about a professor’s out-of-work life, and make lots of assumptions, sometimes incorrectly.

    I know that when I was in grad school I kept an eye on which professors had kids and which didn’t and how they seemed to balance things and what their partnership with their spouse looked like from my limited ability to judge the division of parenting labor. Many of the other female grad students did this too (some of the male grad students may have as well, although they never discussed it with me), because we were all thinking about how we were going to balance kids and work a few years down the road.

    I’ve noticed some of my chattier students doing the same thing now that I’m a professor. In fact, one of the daggers through my heart a few years ago was when my first female masters student was sitting in my office one afternoon musing about how while I was a fabulous research mentor for her, some of the other faculty were better mentors in other ways, like the other (male) junior faculty member in the department because he had kids and I didn’t. Little did she know that I had just started undergoing evaluation and treatment for infertility, which as anyone who’s been through it will tell you is an incredibly time-consuming, unpredictable, and emotionally draining process. Sometimes I suspect that others of my (especially female) students are thinking the same thing, and that they think it’s easier for me to be successful than for my 3-kid colleague because I don’t have kids yet (even though his wife works part-time at a much less demanding job and has taken off more than half a year from work for each kid). I don’t know how many of my students know about our daughter who died when I was 4.5 months pregnant last year, and I’m pretty sure none of them know about the various brushes with infertility we’ve had in the meantime, but it’s been strange to go through a huge life crisis right in the beginning/middle of my tenure-track years while watching students being cluelessly self-centered (normal) or incorrectly judging me against my junior male colleague (also unfortunately normal, I think).

    Anyway, short version is: some students are clueless, but I think some students judge, and I bet most of them get it wrong for various reasons, and that bugs me more than the clueless ones.

  3. lyra211

    I understand the importance of academics addressing balance issues, but sometimes I think we’ve gone a bit too far in the balance conversation, as evidenced by your student comfortably telling you that your biggest drawback as a mentor is that you don’t have kids. Even if your childless status wasn’t the result of a painful ordeal, and was simply an unconstrained choice, I would say that “You know, why hasn’t she had kids yet?” is the sort of conversation that is only supposed to happen when relatives and in-laws are sitting at the Thanksgiving table with a bit too much alcohol in them.

    My childless status is a consequence of a number of complicated issues for me and my wife, and these issues also complicate our adoption discussions. That’s all I want to say about our situation, but I have gotten occasional remarks about how comparatively easy my life is, and how it is so easy for me to do certain things at work. It doesn’t help that such comments have come from someone who is pretty good at shirking work, and openly uses kids as an excuse while other parents in academia are trying to prove that they can be contributors and should not be prejudged as unproductive or uncommitted.

  4. There are definitely students who are simply rude, either meaning to offend or just too clueless about how their words affect others.
    I am not for too much sharing between students and advisors, but for a baseline understanding that there are multifaceted people on both sides of the equation. I feel that, for a lot of students, we don’t exist as complete persons, and are instead one-dimensional, the only dimension being the one that the students see interacting with them.

  5. This is a really thought-provoking post. I think the difficulty sometimes lies in the reluctance of either party (advisor or advisee) to share personal details (I’ve been there on both ends, its all about wanting to maintain boundaries and avoid broadcasting anything that may come across as a “weakness”). Its easier to forget that someone is a real person without some glimpse into non-work aspects of their life. I like your proposal that we just establish “yes we are all human and probably have complications in our life” as a baseline assumption and go from there.

  6. “… somewhat less rationally, I felt this was not just a praise of Younggun, but also a criticism of me.”

    Well, I don’t know what else, exactly, motivated this post, but if it was mainly the former undergrad’s comment, then I’m sorry, but I think you’re being *WAY* too sensitive. But before you lose your shit over this comment, please understand that I say this to you as another woman in a male-dominated field who also shares this trait. I find that most people – men, women, undergrads/grads, etc. – are simply not as sensitive as I would like them to be. They are also not as neat as I’d prefer, either. (I’m not a total neat-freak, but definitely closer to that end of the spectrum than the other.) So I have learned to adjust expectations – on both counts. Because the alternative is to (almost) always be hurt or be cleaning, and that is just no way to live life, IMHO.

    I would also say that I hope you make it perfectly clear to your students that you expect them to ask when they feel that a meeting would be at all helpful. I bet some don’t ask because … well, I’m sure you get it: they don’t want to be a bother.

    I think the misunderstandings and lack of understanding go both ways. But I do have more sympathy for clueless undergrads who have never experienced life as a grad student or prof.

    Please don’t think that my intent here is to tell you to just shut up about this and deal. As a matter of fact, these types of posts from you are rather reassuring for me, as they make me feel that I’m not a complete anomaly/loser for feeling as I do sometimes. But when comments like the undergrad’s get you down, I hope it makes you feel better to know that “it’s not you, it’s them.” But unfortunately, I think it’s you that will need to do the adjusting in the end.

  7. Notwithstanding the very important issues of balance and sharing/knowing the details of personal life in professional relationships, it brings up an important issue.
    Some people- students or seasoned professionals- thrive on a really structured schedule- creatures of habit, and so on, knowing that they will have a meeting every Xday at Y o’clock, and they feel more free and validated to bring up issues with a “superior” from the comfort of a regularly scheduled meeting, while that would drive other people crazy, preferring meetings on an “as needed” basis. [A colleague told me that recently her department went from having regular faculty meetings every Monday morning, to only having them on an “as needed” and irregular basis when there are enough urgent issues on the agenda- and it’s driving a lot of the department members crazy.]
    It’s a human relations issue not unique to academia, it’s the same in the private sector or any line of work.
    But it does bring up a point that it’s more often “personality” or “human relations” compatibilities like this- whether someone prefers regularly scheduled meetings or a more ad-hoc approach, whether people are neat freaks or clutter tendencied, whether people would rather communicate by email/text or telephone/voice, whether people are early-morning people or late-night people, which “make or break” a scientific or business/work relationship and make a project succeed or fail, even more so than GPAs, GRE scores, or technical competencies. This is crucial for things such as PhD student-postdoc/PI relationships, or collaborations between two academicians. This has actually been investigated and published… attended a lecture on it once, wish I had the reference.

  8. None of us can help being human, profs or students, and most of us naturally make assumptions about other people’s lives. When there is no information, we rely on the stereotypes. This is the part that is particularly annoying for women in the sciences, because we already do not fit the stereotype. I am loud and aggressive and unapologetic, so I immediately get sorted into the “bitch” category. Several students have told me over the years that I am *actually* really nice (not kidding).

    Also, sometimes you do not want to share personal information. I went through the exact same thing as lyra211 above and really did not want anyone at work to know, especially my students.
    Work was one place where I could briefly pretend not to be a heartbroken, devastated mess that I really was. They probably thought I was just being a bitch, but their tender feelings were low on my list of priorities at the time (breathing in and out and getting through the day was more important). They all got their PhDs and are off in the real world doing fine, so things worked out.

    I feel for you, girlfriend. Hang in there. It took forever, but I got my happy ending and I hope you will too. And I hope you’re used to paranoia by now, because that will not go away.

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