Quaddroppings 6: On Advising Grad Students

Here is a repost of four recent casualties in my murder-of-darlings spree, as I work on this collection.

Dislikable

Do you actually have to like your students? Or is it at least important not to dislike them?

What if there is a student who really pushes your buttons? Perhaps they are not even doing it on purpose, maybe it’s cluelessness, or just a bad match. I certainly have experience with irritating people right off the bat, without actually having done anything. (I am sure some readers are going to come and tell me that this never happens to them and everybody who meets them loves them instantaneously; my DH is one of those people. Let’s just agree that some people are just universally lovable and some are universally irritating. I am not universally lovable. Kudos to you if you are.)

We professors are human, and I can attest that there are plenty of temperamental professors; also, there are plenty of even-keeled ones. While being calm and acting dispassionately can be learned, and with practice in advising you become better at dealing with common advising issues, if you have a temper you might get really irritated. Even if you don’t show it, you know it and you feel it.

I would say that I really like the vast majority of my students. I feel responsible for and protective of them. I make sure they are not just productive, but that they seem balanced, happy, and healthy. I guess (hope?) that most faculty feel the same about most of their advisees.

But, very rarely, there is a student who just pushes all your buttons. All the interactions are accompanied by friction, there is an underlying current of mismatch, of irritation. You start dreading meeting the student. You find that you scold the student in front of peers once or twice, which you don’t want to do. It’s particularly unsettling if the student is actually reasonably productive. Then you feel like a total douche for constantly butting heads with them over minutiae, but it is getting on your nerves that the student is the only one who insists on using a graphics software/presentation software/presentation templates/text processor/compiler/operating system  different from the rest of the group because that’s just what they are used to and don’t want to use anything else (I hate software snobs). You want to be permissive, accommodating, but it is in the way of actually doing work the way you want to in your group, it creates problems with sharing of material, it undermines your authority with the group because you are constantly butting heads, and it seems like the student just cannot pick up on the normal clues that things are wrong or to generalize from recent conflicting situations; you have to be unpleasantly explicit with stupid minutiae all the time, over and over again. The student seems to barely notice; your veins are about to pop.

Then you know that you really, truly dislike the student.

The question is whether you should continue advising them. For you and for them. If the only one irritated is you and you have plenty of Tums on hand, while they seem to be happy in oblivion, does it matter? Are you really an effective advisor if they get on your nerves? If they switch advisors, there is no guarantee that they wouldn’t irritate the next person similarly, especially if the stubbornness and general social cluelessness are truly an issue.

I think working with a student who really pushes your buttons is different than having a coworker who does so, because of the power differential. I don’t know that one can be a good advisor to a student they don’t like, just like I can’t believe you can be a good parent to a child you don’t like (plenty of examples say the latter is an awful predicament for the child).

But isn’t it shallow and frivolous to sever an advising relationship with a student basically saying “This is not working out. I think you might be happier elsewhere,” which is the advising version of “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Advisors are human. If you think they are infallible and immovable, that’s only because  they are pretending, to a degree, and some are better than others at it. Some let unbelievable offenses slide. Others do too, then write irritated essays on the web under a pseudonym. But if you are a difficult, they notice. If you think they are looking like they are fuming around you, that’s because they are. They are fuming because you behave like you know everything and you don’t listen. So shut up. Listen.

I wonder if professorial dudes ever experience these annoying examples of disrespect, of do just us professorial womenfolk have such precious gift bestowed upon us?

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 aMMORPG. 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 sufficienthours. 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.”

On Coaching and Advising

Many professors, regardless of how good their institution is, lament the quality of PhD applicants and think they’d do amazing things if only they had better students. The most important thing about being a professor in a STEM field that requires working with graduate students is learning how to effectively advise the students you have rather than the students you wish you had. Perhaps equally important is realizing that there is no such thing as a perfect student, that every student has a lot to learn, and that many (most?) students have something good to offer. Presumably similar to what coaches of a team do, you as advisor need to learn what  your student’s strengths and weaknesses are and work with them accordingly: pick a project that employs their strengths but also forces them to grow in the directions where they need help. A talented student could do many projects well, for a less talented one you might have to eliminate certain options. There are projects that could be done by many different students, then there are those that await someone with a very special skill set or affinity.

Sometimes a student who had shown great promise proved to be uncoachable, improving very little outside of the initial areas of strength,  because they they didn’t want to listen to me and didn’t think what I said was actually important. On the other hand, I was surprised several times by what some students could pull off within a year or two, after they’ve gained some experience and confidence. More than once, a student who had started out quite wobbly subsequently found his or her legs, and was then able to metaphorically outrun those who initially looked much stronger.

In academia, there are many students who are talented enough. If they want to listen, and they work with an invested advisor, they can improve and grow to become very good.

“Whiplash” and Thoughts on Achievement

I saw the movie “Whiplash”. It’s awesome. This movie got me thinking, again, about talent vs hard work, external pressure vs internal drive. This is what its IMDB blurb says:

A promising young drummer enrolls at a cutthroat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a students potential.

We see the lead character, a 19-year-old drummer, work obsessively and push himself to the limits (Bandaids are apparently a key part of equipment for drummers). That’s inner drive. What I still don’t know is whether or not it is possible to ignite that spark in someone who doesn’t already possess it. Sure, you can push and pressure kids while they are little, but at some point they will rebel unless what they are pushed to do is what they actually want to do.

The music school teacher is abusive in every sense — physically, verbally, emotionally. He’s a manipulative jerk. But, apparently, he believes that’s the way to entice greatness, by building up and breaking down those with potential, as he feels those with true greatness would not be deterred by abuse and would instead only work harder and harder in the face of adversity. I don’t know about that; in the process of uncovering a rare gem via great abuse, many will completely wash out and possibly kill themselves.

My spouse and I don’t push our kids very much, and I wonder if we are mistaken.  But at some point achievements start to count and you see that your kid might be behind because you didn’t know you were supposed to start pushing them much earlier. And does it make sense to insist if a kid doesn’t have talent? And who decides who has talent? I can judge talent for math and science and perhaps to a small degree art, but not much else. We all know “10% inspiration, 90% perspiration”, but what if the inspiration or natural ability are just not there?

Most people are unremarkable. Some, perhaps many, are marginally remarkable, at the level of high school or college or some professional community. None would be the wiser if most of us hadn’t been born at all. When you think about it, it’s quite depressing.

One thing that the teacher in “Whiplash” said was that “Good job” were the worst two words in the English language, because they encourage passivity. I tend to agree that they are overused, and that there is great focus on just showing up and putting in half-assed effort. Effort is a necessary but not sufficient condition for achievement.

I have a collaborator who dishes continuous praise to graduate students, for even the most idiotic of achievements (“You printed these 3 figures so you’d show them to us? Good job!”) There is no need to be abusive, but I don’t praise my graduate students until they have actually done something worth praising, something that took both effort and skill. Usually, when the materials are starting to come together for our first joint paper is when a student might expect to hear “Well done!” I might also praise for unusually good performance, when someone does someone much faster than expected, or shows uncommon creativity, originality, or initiative. So no, I am not an over-praiser because that cheapens true achievement, but I am not a praise-miser either.

Also, never outside of the US have I heard kids say so often and with such conviction “I am not good at x,” where x is something that they tried once or not at all. With my own kids, it gets on my nerves a lot that there are so many things they give up on before even seriously trying, and I don’t know how to fix that. I keep talking to them, that they just have to keep trying and they will keep getting better. It often falls on deaf ears.

But, on the other hand, many undergraduate students (and my own Eldest on occasion) have this idea that putting in great but perhaps misplaced effort is somehow supposed to be valued the same as achievement. Sometimes I get this as part of teaching evaluation, that I assign a lot of work and that the grade doesn’t reflect the amount of effort the student put in. The grade reflects what you have shown in terms of mastery. If you are between grades, sure, it may tip you over towards the higher one if you are a really hard worker, but hard work alone is not enough. You have to also work smart. If you don’t know how, you have to know to ask for help, as much help as needed until you crack the code of what the best way to apply effort is. That’s why people have coaches and advisors and supervisors…

I find that in trying to understand my kids I have serious limitations by simply being myself. I want to support their efforts and encourage them when they waver. But there is support and encouragement, and then there’s unwelcome pressure. The problem is that they can seem very alike.

Then there is just letting kids be. I grew up like that and it turned out I was plenty driven, but how to best parent the kids who may not be? What happens with the kids who are not driven themselves and who are also not pushed externally? Does everyone eventually find something they are passionate about? The world doesn’t wait for the indecisive to decide, and before you know it, it’s college admission time.

How do you determine that an effort is worth pursuing? That it’s something where you have the potential to be excellent, rather than barely above average with tremendous sweat? How do you decide you truly have no real ability versus that you would really get good with more effort? Where is the line between encouraging and badgering?

At my advanced age, I have found that I am doing better work than ever and am being more creative. Part is that I am finally believing that I am allowed to be here and do the things I do. I actually know that I can do this job and now I can, more often than not, actually summon this intellectual awareness to combat bouts of impostor syndrome. I have sufficient track record, so I finally have some confidence. I still think I am not at the tippity top, but with increased confidence the quality of the papers I publish has been steadily increasing and I am finally getting to the point of being bold and brave with my submissions, as opposed to conservative.  I have done a lot of work to earn my confidence. I envy those who were confident to begin with. Maybe that’s what having real talent means, never doubting that you will be successful (although considering how prevalent it is in dudes of certain demographics as opposed to others, I would say good old patriarchy has its hands in it, as well). I know the insecurity has been a driver for me, to get better and achieve. But now success is a different kind of driver, in that my appetites have increased. I think a good combo of external discouragement (leading to stubbornness, keeping at it and improving) and encouragement (leading to boldness and increasing ambition) may be the right thing leading to increasing performance. You need to grow your dreams, but you also have to grow the skills to match the ambition.

10 comments

  1. These are interesting musings to read on a snowy Sunday. It’s something I think about a lot as we prepare to become parents — how much should you encourage/push your kid, and how much should you just let them be?

    My parents didn’t push me at all, were clueless about academia in general, and that was very good for me — I learned to find my own path, and I was very much like the grad student you describe who actually worked 9-5 hours in grad school, didn’t kill myself evenings and weekends, but made steady progress and was generally easy to supervise (or so my advisor tells me). I’ve been consistently successful as a scientist, to the point of landing a tenure-track job straight out of grad school, winning some small awards, and being a really good junior faculty member at my top liberal arts college.

    I also watch a whole lot of struggling students at my university who seem to have stereotypical “helicopter” parents. Many of them struggle to figure out how to be independent human beings, and are overwhelmed by basic things like getting to class, finishing assignments on time, and figuring out what to do with their summer vacations.

    These experiences make me inclined to leave my impending kids mostly alone, operating under the philosophy that if they’re like me, they’ll ultimately be better off figuring things out for themselves. If they’re like my students, letting them fail early and often to get those failures out of the way might teach them how to function, and then they won’t be left helpless, texting me 12 times a day to figure out how to do laundry when they get to college (if college is even a thing that turns out to seem worthwhile for them).

    That said, some of the exact character traits that make me a good scientist are likely to make me a lousy parent. I’m careful, I keep track of details, and I like to be in charge of my group. It’ll be hard to back off and let my kids flounder. I also think that, like you, I’d worry about when to intervene with a kid who doesn’t seem to have a lot of direction. I think I can back off in grade school… but if they’re still the poky puppy by the time high school hits, I’d have a harder time.

  2. I’m pretty sure female profs get more disrespect but there was one professor/student pair in grad school who were like oil and fire. It ended in a trash can punching/shouting incident, following which the two (prof/student) were sat down and offered a compromise wherein the student took his two published papers, finished his project in 6 months, and defended, and the prof didn’t get in hot water for stepping over several lines. Only person to graduate in less than 5 years!

    Once past quals the spouse and I both worked 8-6:30 five days a week, plus Sundays. Of course, my advisor once chided Golden Boy for going from 80 hour weeks to 70 hour weeks (with little effect on productivity, due to diminishing returns).

  3. Last week example: I meet with 3 students, 2 of them advised by me, to get started with some complicated modeling stuff. I had opened a google drive with papers to read, just to get started. Meeting begins and I ask a round of: what did your learn? Answer from each: I was busy this week doing xyxz…I was so pissed!! My answer: well, I had an insane week, but I woke up at 6am this morning to study this and be prepared for the meeting (in between writing 2 proposals due in the next 2 weeks, teach 100 students, work on 2 papers and have a ton of editorial work right now for a special issue as AE).

    Story doesn’t finish here…after 3h getting all the equations on the whiteboard, some good discussions on understanding them…all students have a request: that I scan the notes I had brought with me to the meeting!! At first I said yes, but later realized this was upside-down, and in the spirit of following my 2016 resolution to be tougher on my students, I told them to actually do the work themselves, read the papers and take their own notes…which shouldn’t be that complicated considering I basically gave them a 3h lecture on the topic.

  4. I think that in every era the Kids These Days have wanted their hands held and have had to learn to take initiative. However, what might be different in our era is that Professors These Days have grown-ups whispering in their ears and telling them to actually pander to the Kids These Days because “something something be supportive STEM pipeline something something retention.”

    Tell them to take their own damn notes.

  5. This post is absolutely spot-on. I am really torn on whether I should push students who don’t seem to be intrinsically driven. Will that increase their motivation or backfire by further demotivating them? What’s the right balance between encouragement and negative albeit constructive feedback. What’s the right setting for giving feedback? How often should I give it to avoid being just perceived as a pain in the ass and ignored? These are really hard questions and I don’t think there are easy answers. What works for some trainees probably won’t work for others.

  6. I don’t agree with all of this. I have trained many PhD students in my own lab and have closely overseen the progress of many more students as the program director for the past almost 2 decades. I’m actually awe of the vast majority of our PhD students, they are not only incredibly smart but also very driven. We actually specifically look for these characteristics in admitting students because we consider them essential for a career in science. More important that test scores, in my opinion.

    Of course the students always need time to mature once in the program. Many students experience crises during their training where they lose their motivation and you have to counsel them back into productivity somehow. Like pawel above said, every student seems to have a different issue and responds differently.

    One of my biggest problem as a program director are faculty advisors who insist that the biggest problem is that their particular student is stupid and lazy. The students can easily detect the contempt, which is highly demotivating, and which engenders contempt back at the advisor and a loss of trust in the advisor’s abilities as a scientist and advisor. It’s almost impossible to reverse the damage done to the student/advisor relationship by this…sometimes the student can limp along and finish their PhD anyway with a lot of timewasting drama but if it occurs early in their training we usually just switch the student to a different advisor/lab. And then, every single time (!), the former faculty advisor becomes enraged and insists that the student be kicked out of the PhD program–they come and yell at me, the Dean, etc and try to trash the student and insist that the student be kicked out immediately and they don’t belong in graduate school. And, every single time, I have seen the student in the new lab go on to a successful PhD and subsequent career.

    The thing is, it’s all about the type of relationship between the student and their advisor, which is usually about their style and personalities and mostly things they can’t help about themselves. Some student/advisor combinations are just volatile and don’t work out well.

    There are indeed a few students in our PhD program who don’t belong there, but only approx 1 on 50—pretty rare.

  7. I’m about to start a Physics PhD at a non-top ten school and I am a little worried. I can do a solid 45h per week with no problem (it’s what I do at my current job, and I mean 45h of focused work with about 30 min of goofing off or socializing per day), but much more than that I I start to fall off pretty hard. I really need 8.5 hours of sleep per night, and if I start skimping I lose far more in efficiency than I get back in quantity. If I end up with one of those advisors who demands 70h weeks I don’t see how it could work. I tried to get a sense my first choice advisor’s personality during the visit but I couldn’t really tell.
    Well at least I know myself well enough that I can shop around for a more relaxed advisor if I have to.

  8. Matt, if you work 45 hours per week, but real focused work, you will do great with any reasonable advisor. Make sure you chat or email with current students of your prospective advisor (sans the advisor); see what they think, if they seem happy and relaxed, or anxious and downtrodden.
    Good luck!

  9. Good to hear. I’ve accepted a graduate school offer, but I keep making my self crazy by reading stories online of crazy overly demanding advisors.

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