Day: November 2, 2017

Working with Grad Students: Stream of Consciousness, pt. 1

As MC3 requested yesterday, there will be a few posts on working with graduate students.

I have been an advisor for over a decade and I think I am a better advisor for everyone involved (the students and myself) than when I started out. This sounds like a trivial statement, but I assure you it’s not, as I see plenty of young guns who think they are already beyond reproach in this capacity (or at least present themselves like that to the world) even though I can see the ways in which they might be messing up, mostly because I used to mess up in the exact same ways myself.

Here are several insights into advising that likely become apparent to most faculty, with experience.

Regardless of how much I bitch and moan here — perhaps exactly because I bitch and moan here — I am actually even-keeled and patient with my graduate students. In fact, I can now work with almost anyone, which wouldn’t have been true when I first started out.

My students are not me

I now understand that students come to graduate school for a number of different reasons, most of which are valid reasons and most of which are not necessarily the reasons for which I came to graduate school. Most of my graduate students are international; they were among the top performers in their home country, and while some nominally want to become professors, by the time they’re done, most want to graduate and get a good job and a green card. These are valid goals, and smart, educated people can contribute to the society in many different ways.

Most graduate students are smart enough to do well. They may not have the right background, or motivation, or attitude, but most have the ability to do if not well, then passably. But most students also have a different combination of background knowledge, drive, motivation, and plans for their lives than what I had and what many of my faculty colleagues had. Understanding — at a visceral level — that graduate students are not my clones and that just because they are not  motivated to the same extent as me, or want the same things as me, doesn’t mean they are not suitable for a PhD or even a career in science.

What really helped, other than experience alone, was deciding what the minimum was that I was willing to be OK with for someone’s face time, productivity, and output. I have a document that details what this minimum is in terms of papers, conferences, etc. This incoming-student document also details what I expect in terms of presence in the office; it contains words such as “…graduate school is perfectly compatible with having a personal life, but you have to use the time you do work efficiently” and “…assume that an extended weekend is always OK to take, just drop me a line that you’ll be away…,” also “…summer internships near the end of your studies are encouraged…” It also specifies what they can expect of me.

We, faculty members, are usually academic overachievers. Not each graduate student will be like that. Some will be average. Some will be below average. Decide on the minimum you find acceptable, communicate it clearly, and stick with it. The best students go well beyond this specified minimum. But there is a minimum, and once a student hits the minimum, I will happily let them graduate.

Different levels of stress for students with advisors who are pre- and post-tenure

Working for a faculty member on the tenure track really isn’t for every student. No matter how awesome, patient, and emotionally intelligent the faculty member is, without tenure they are under tremendous stress, work very long hours, and are also inexperienced as advisors. So if you are a student who needs a lot of hand holding, or who has a very restrictive home life (little flexibility with your time), then a tenure-track faculty member might not be the best choice for you. This sounds like a blanket statement, but I have yet to meet a junior faculty member who is not under a lot of pressure, so it should not come as a surprise that they will apply pressure to you, their group member, to work hard, go all in, and produce. A PI on the tenure track is also less likely to be able to carry an unproductive student or a student who’s just a bad fit for a group for a very long time. Their clock is ticking and their ability to waste time, money, or energy is nonexistent.

This high-pressure environment is like a startup, and it’s invigorating for the right kind of student—motivated, confident, independent, thriving on a challenge. But it’s definitely not for everyone.

If you need a lot of supervision/help/pats on the back, then you don’t want to be in a pressure-cooker lab. Many (most) tenure-track labs are like that. Some are like that even after the PI’s tenure. Those that aren’t only aren’t because the PI has enough money to afford some waste, enough people to distribute the workload, enough empathy and experience to see beyond low self-esteem or whatever and zoom in on the productive quantities, and is willing and able to find the time to actually mentor.

There are many reasons why some grad students and some professors don’t work out. Some advisors can work with almost anyone. Some can and will work with only a certain type of student. If you are a student in a bad situation, try talking to your advisor. If you get a feeling they don’t appreciate you or that things won’t change for the better, get out, change groups.

But! Don’t expect friendship or a parenting relationship even from the best advisors. You and your advisor have a symbiotic professional relationship. Your advisor is your work supervisor, teacher, mentor, and senior colleague. Not a mom, dad, friend, shrink, or cleaning lady. You know, as per The Laws of Herman. [PDF]

What annoys me most in my role as advisor

I would say, overall, what annoys me most is when a graduate student makes my work with them much harder (more laborious) than it needs to be.

Many aspects of interaction with graduate students are not annoying at all, because I consider them an inherent part of my job.

Not annoying EVER

1) Writing letter of recommendation until the day I die or the student no longer needs them, whichever comes first

2) Meeting with the student in person about data/coursework/progress/general career discussion/brainstorming as often as they need

3) Giving feedback on talks/posters/papers/miscellaneous presentations/CV/cover letter for job hunt

Things that are ALWAYS annoying as all hell

1) Giving me a manuscript riddled with typos, with a sham of a reference list, or where it’s in other ways apparent that you don’t give two $hits and expect me to do most of your dirty/boring/labor-intensive work (see the bit about me not being your mother or your cleaning lady)

2) Being obstinate without a good reason

Example of being obstinate without a good reason:

You prefer to use the software that you are used to even though everyone else in the group uses certain other software for the same purpose. It’s not the question that your tool is superior and that you are enlightening us, it’s a matter of you knowing the tool you know and not wanting to learn the tools we use.

I had a student like that recently. I don’t think he realized how fuckin’ annoying he was, or maybe he did but didn’t care. We argued about some tools and I came close to losing my $hit with him several times. At some point, I gave up arguing, because I have limited energy and he’s not the only thing on my plate. He was a smart student otherwise, so I didn’t let him go, but even though he probably thinks he won, he did not; I was simply reducing my own annoyance. With a student like this, in the past I probably would have let him go. The reality is that I did end up working with him, but he did not make me happy, I admit avoiding him more than my other students, and this persistent annoyance resulted in me not going to bat for him as much as I could have if he had been less obstinate. When he graduated, I was much less sad and much more relieved to see him go than for my other students.

I am not going to adjust to you, you need to adjust to the group. Do not piss off advisor without a good reason. Use the goddamn tools that everyone else is using.

Half his $hit is not directly usable by others now that he left. And his presence resulted in specific lines in that grad-student document that will hopefully prevent other new students from being irritating in the same away.

Example of being obstinate, but with good reason:

You believe I am wrong about a technical issue and you are right. You should always fight for your ideas with math, data, and references. I will be delighted for you to convince me that I am wrong! See The Laws of Herman again. [PDF]

You have an idea about something new that we should try and are very excited to try it. I never say ‘no’ to new student ideas is the idea holds water and there’s any chance of me justifying it on my current grants and/or otherwise finding the money to support the work.

However, if I say ‘no’ and tell you why not, don’t pester me. If there’s no money, there’s no money. If I said ‘no’ on technical terms, then do a better job of convincing me that your idea holds water. I assure you I am not impossible to convince; I’m just not particularly easy, but neither will your eventual manuscript referees be.

Related: Just because you think that what I ask you to do is stupid, or your gut tells you that it’s stupid, doesn’t actually mean that what I ask you to do is stupid. In fact, between my gut and your gut, I trust my gut, because my gut has seen $hit and done $hit and felt $hit that your gut can only dream of. So, if you think what I ask is stupid, you can a) go do what I say and show me the results of my stupidity OR b) prepare to argue very seriously, with math, data, and references, why it is stupid, AND follow up either a) or b) by proposing something better instead. If you don’t have a better, less stupid idea, then we are going with my stupid idea.

What say you, blogosphere PIs and grad students? What grates your cheese (or your carrots, in case you don’t eat dairy)?

To be continued, sometime…