(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?