Student Hearts Project, Prof Not So Much

(This post was drafted back in July, but never published; I think I just forgot about it. It’s an amalgam of several emails and stories I heard IRL.)

Working with graduate students comes with seemingly innumerable challenges. Sometimes I think it’s a continuum; a conundrum continuum, if you will.

Here are some scenarios.

A professor starts working with a graduate student and the student is funded on a grant on which the professor is the principal investigator (PI). The grant was received for a specific project, but there is considerable flexibility as to what gets done with the money; this flexibility doesn’t necessarily hold for the agencies that require strict gadget-producing quarterly milestones, but federal agencies that support discovery-driven science do give the PIs leeway.

Variant 1: The student comes in ready to work and full of ideas. The student has very specific ideas as to what they want to work on and they do work hard. They produce some  results and the work is not bad, but the student thinks it’s great and the advisor doesn’t share the enthusiasm; the student writes a paper and pushes for publication but the paper is far from ready and has serious shortcomings; it’s simply not a paper yet at all. The student is starting to get frustrated by the “delay” and worries that they will get scooped, but the delay really stems from the paper being nowhere near publication ready (we are not talking about waiting for high-profile journals; we are talking publication in a society-level journal). The student thinks the paper is ready to go and feels abused by the advisor’s delays. The advisor thinks the work is okay but not as great as the student thinks, and the paper is far from acceptable. Also, it’s really getting hard to justify doing that work with the funds that pay the student.

Variant 2: The PI takes on a particular student who had experience in the PI’s research area. The student worked with one particular technique doing some research after his Bachelor’s. The student was even a coauthor on a paper or two, using the technique, before coming to the group. The student basically wants to keep using that technique in the exact same way as before, and is not even attempting to learn anything else. The technique, like any technique, has limitations, and the topics the student wants to work on with the technique are not of particular interest to the advisor. In fact, the advisor thinks the way the student is employing the technique and the problems chosen lead to cookie-cutter and essentially boring work that the PI doesn’t want to be a part of. The PI thinks the work is not particularly worthwhile and does not wish to have it pursued in the group at all. The student feels misunderstood and stifled. (Being enamored of a project is often depicted in popular culture as the stuff of dreams: the protagonist perseveres against the advice of the “establishment” to eventual triumph. In reality, if the PI thinks your project is misguided, it sometimes isn’t but often is; if the PI thinks the project is boring, it very, very likely really is.)

What is to be done?

You need to give your students freedom, but it’s not absolute freedom. They cannot spend arbitrarily long on topics that have very little to do with the projects that fund them. People who do expensive experiments know that all farting around costs real money for reagents, equipment user fees, animal care costs. There’s freedom, ability to be explore and be creative, and then there’s just frittering away time and money.

I occasionally come across this problem, where the student basically wants to have free rein and do whatever they please, but somehow expects to be paid as research assistant yet not have to check with me if I think the direction is a good use of time and money. I understand the impetus — free money to do whatever tickles your fancy! — but it really doesn’t work like that. You have to spend some time making progress on what the funds are for, even if you itch to devote much of your effort to something you like better.

What happens if a student is really enamored of a project and doesn’t want to do anything else? Best-case scenario: I think the problem is well conceived and interesting, and can either justify doing it on the grant that pays the student or I can move the student to another grant where the justification will be less tenuous. Medium-bad-case scenario: the student can do whatever they want, the project is well conceived and interesting, I have interest and expertise to advise them, but can’t financially support them to do so and they have to TA, and TA-ships are available.  Worst-case scenario: I can’t advise them (e.g., I don’t have interest or expertise in what they want to do or I think the project is misguided) and they really should switch groups.

What say you, blogosphere?


  1. One more scenario (I’d classify it as good) (it recently happened to me, but is clearly probably exceptionally rare and likely won’t happen to me again): Student project is well conceived, doable and very interesting to me but totally unrelated to my current funded research. I have interest, facilities, and expertise to advise them, but can’t justify supporting that work on my own current funding. So, the student writes student research grant/graduate fellowship applications to (various agencies/foundations) for their study, and succeeds in getting their own funding to do their project in my lab. I get brownie points for having a Prestigious National Graduate Fellowship Winning mentee.

  2. Case 1 – may be fixable. What has worked for me before in this case is to suggest a meeting with a famous and grumpy (male) colleague of mine, where the student will be all excited to present their cool story for their paper to this famous person. Predictably, my famous colleague will destroy it. During the meeting I make my own suggestions for improving the paper (that the student previously shot down) and predictably, the famous colleague will agree with me, and then will tell the student to listen to me from now on. While raining down fire and brimstone on the student, etc.

    The downsides of this approach are obvious (it’s annoying to me and my ego), but at least the student will calm down and get to work on doing the project correctly. Afterwards I can even get the student back on track by simply alluding to the famous colleague, as in “do you think doctor so-and-so would think this is good enough?!” The student will also often later want to meet with famous colleague again and again, but I just refuse and say “you don’t want to annoy this famous person again with your project in this sorry state…you need to do this and this and this first, etc”. So…….similar to parents invoking the bogeyman to get their kids to behave.

    Case 2 – sorry, not fixable. Let some other mentor “steal” this useless student and his or her non-ideas from you. This type of student does not have the ability to do anything new, which is why they are fixated on the one thing they did once before. You can try to play the heavy and force them try new things, but they still won’t be successful because they lack the ability.

  3. I think that Gob of Goo’s solution is the best one—have the student get their own funding. I wish that the default model was fellowships rather than grant funding for students, so that there were more students pursuing their own research rather than serving as hands in the lab for someone else—it seems to me that a lot of the PhDs in biomedical research have never done original research, just served as glorified lab techs for their advisers. Even as postdocs,they are often not doing their own research.

  4. Of course, Gob of Goo’s solution is the best in principle, but for my field and my group specifically it has been essentially unfeasible. All the graduate student fellowships are for US citizens (I think NSF also allows permanent residents) who are early in their PhD. The vast majority of my students have always been international, so not eligible no matter how great they are (and they are great). The few Americans I’ve had so far were not with me from the get-go, i.e., by the time they got into my group they were no longer eligible. (I helped one undergrad get an NSF grad fellowship and he went to a school with better name recognition with it despite originally claiming he’d stay here. Let’s just say I am now much more hands off in similar situations.) At present, I finally have an American student who might be my first one ever actually eligible any of these fellowships, but I don’t foresee them applying without considerable prodding and technical input.

    So in my field the stars really have to align on many fronts for the student to be able to get the fellowship money. It is a shame that, for most of my students, it is never really even an option at all. But it is what it is and I have to assume I will either have to pay them or they will have to teach.

  5. I think that national funding priorities are messed up

    gswp, yes, agreed.

    Btw, it seems to me that the biomedical fields have a considerably higher ratio of American to international graduate students than the physical sciences. This is anecdotal, I don’t know if it’s true, but there’s probably data on it somewhere. If true, I understand that someone who has a lot of American students can legitimately expect that many (most?) will apply and some will even get a federal fellowship.

  6. I had a slightly different experience with this as a (senior-ish) graduate student. I was already funded on a (broad, non-project-specific) fellowship, so none of the financial concerns applied. I was even working on something right in the central set of interests of the lab. Nevertheless, my main concern was something my advisor thought was boring, and he wished I was using a different approach, more in line with what had been funded for the group in the past. In retrospect, this was a question of taste as to what aspects of the problem we wanted to capture – e.g. do we study a broader range of systems or go more in depth on one particular case.

    On a week-to-week basis, this was pretty excruciating – it is difficult to maintain enthusiasm when it is apparent the only person you talk to about your work thinks it’s boring. (This was a small group, so no fellow grads who were interested.) What I think about now, though, was how much my advisor was still contributing – checking to make sure the argument was as strong as could be supported, suggesting potential checks and improvements. Near the end, he caught something that convinced me he was paying attention and understood the issues in depth. My advisor could have checked out on that project and left me more or less alone, but didn’t – something I appreciate more now, and am striving to emulate as I start mentoring.

    I ended up being pretty proud of the paper that resulted, which has been cited well, and it also provided an incoming postdoc with a project after I left, so I think my judgment on this was good. So maybe I’m the rare exception about advisors knowing when a problem is boring!

  7. I don’t have statistics on ratio of foreign to domestic students, but anecdotally, the physical science grad admissions do seem to discriminate in favor of foreign students and biosciences in favor of domestic students.

    There are fewer fellowships available to grad students in the biosciences relative to their numbers than in the physical sciences, because the NIH doesn’t really believe in funding grad students—they want money to be spent on postdocs who produce the most research for the least outlay of money.

  8. Rheophile, thanks for the comment!

    I think there are different flavors of boring: boring as in beaten to death, and boring as in “I don’t want to work on that but I can sort of understand why someone else would.” I think most papers I read are boring, but the people who worked on them obviously don’t. Heck, I think that some of my most highly cited papers are boring — people cite them because they were timely, correct, readable, and not too complicated to understand. Some of my most exciting and novel papers don’t get cited as widely because they are not as easy to digest, but they were ridiculously exciting and fun to work on and I think really broke new ground.

    Choosing what one works on is a question of scientific taste. There are people who I think consistently produce interesting, novel stuff that really tickles my fancy, while a lot of other stuff, even high profile, leaves me thinking “Meh.” I guess some people are kindred scientific spirits.

    I had a postdoc some years ago with whom I worked very productively. He was great and published a lot and went on to a faculty career. He often lightheartedly teased me that I thought our joint work was boring, and I think he was right. Still, I worked very seriously with him, and I think I made serious contributions to the overall clarity of the arguments, correctness of the calculations, writing of the publications, and generally making sure that what we were saying was as impactful as possible. Our joint papers are all highly cited. After he left, we diverged in interests from that common point. I think it’s natural that everyone brings their own style to science. It may not be bad to have a curmudgeon in your corner, they keep you honest. 🙂

  9. 1) in some fields, the fellowship/TA and apply for your own funds is the norm (Anthropology for example). And 2) international students can absolutely apply for NSF DDIGs so long as they are at an American institution- the advisor is PI, student is co-PI

  10. I let my students have some play time when I can–the efficient ones can do the work we are paid for and still have time left over to work on their side interests. Alas, most students are not that efficient. Even in this case, I want to know what they are up to , and to discuss the experiments so they don’t get to the end and find out they are missing a vital control.

    My worst case of this was when I lost interest in a whole area I used to work in, and had one student still working on a project in that area. I did my best to maintain enthusiasm for the project, but I did drop it after the student finished.

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