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…



  1. Re “Not Annoying Ever” #1:
    it becomes annoying to me when being asked to write letter of recommendation by a grad student two hours before it is due, with the entitled expectation that of course I will drop everything or anything else to meet that deadline and professors are never REALLY that busy… this seems to happen a lot with our students at my campus. Like, every semester. I am going to add to my “incoming-student document” a requirement that I be given X days advance notice before due date for letters of recommendation, or they can’t count on it!

  2. Great post, thank you. I have a couple of follow up questions. How can you tell if someone will be a motivated and productive student when you interview/select applicants? And second, which is from my European perspective, if you are unlucky to have accepted an unproductive student and can’t let the person go, how do you ensure that they will still graduate within the allowed time (for us 4 years and there is a big pressure from the universities on both students and supervisors to submit by end of year 4).

  3. Does your department/PhD program/university have set standards for what is required for PhD in terms of papers, conference presentations, etc.? Are you as an individual advisor allowed to impose requirements on students above and beyond what is acceptable to the PhD program? In some places these things are not mutually compatible, and I’ve seen it lead to conflict.

  4. One of the things I learned, from being in charge of a PhD program for some years, is that one’s relationship with one’s dissertation advisor is probably the second most important “voluntary” one-on-one relationship one will have in one’s life, only behind one’s spouse/romantic partner. And to succeed, you have to at least tolerate each other, if not have “chemistry” with each other, personally.
    A “match” between a PhD candidate and their advisor can look perfect “on paper”- in terms of qualifications, experience, and meshing research interests and motivations, comparing transcripts and CVs. But I’ve seen numerous cases where the student and advisor seemed “compatible” in these regards, but when they actually started to work with each other in person- sometimes, after the student gave up life half a world away and travelled and pulled up roots from thousands of miles away to come work/study under someone for their PhD- it became clear sometimes within weeks that they couldn’t stand each other, personally, they were just incompatible with each other in terms of interacting with each other, habits, mannerisms, work styles (not being bad or unprofessional, just different), and basically hated each other’s guts and couldn’t stand to be in each other’s presence. There was just an inherent personality conflict that only became apparent when the student and advisor actually started working together in the same lab. And if these two are going to be working together for four years… well, it’s NOT going to work out. Ugh, what to do in situations like this? Most of the time, we were able to find another prof that the student got along with in a different lab, and switch projects.
    But it is something to be considered when choosing one’s PhD advisor or PhD student. Some due diligence or advance inquiry is helpful.

  5. Very interesting post! Just out of curiosity, what’s your experience with favoritism in your lab? There’s an awkward dynamic in my lab where my advisor very obviously favors some students over others. Admittedly, the students he favors are the highly efficient and productive ones (so it’s clearly not random), but it still often makes for an uncomfortable dynamic between the students in the lab.

    Also, this may just be me, but I’d be very curious to see more excerpts of the grad student document you reference. My advisor never did anything even close to that when I was starting out (but then again, he’s in his 70s and has been tenured for a LONG time, so he’s more hands-off than most).

  6. A few brief responses to the comments thus far:

    GoG: Our PhD requirements are vague and require general excellence in the field of research plus defense and dissertation. What I require from group members is pretty standard for my field.

    anonP: A talented and motivated student can work on any project. A weaker student can be productive if they have a good work ethic and a right project. Choosing the right project is critical when you are with an average or below-average grad student. I’ve had a student go from hopelessly stuck for a year to very productive when I switched him to another task. He simply could not make headway on the original one. With a stronger student a few years later, the original project was done fast and very well.

    Some students can do almost anything. Most cannot, and have notable strengths and weaknesses. Playing up to their strengths is quite important. Identifying strengths takes time and advising experience. If you have a really unmotivated student… Ugh. I’d say get the bar really, really low, partition the project into teeny tiny nuggets, and act far too proud whenever the student produces anything… And celebrate when they’re done.

    MC3 & GoG: Re a good match and favoritism. Prodigal Academic wrote about this before, I will try to find her post. But yes, with some people you have more chemistry than with others. That’s only human. But, I think keeping a really professional (as opposed to personal) interaction with your students helps. As for favorites, I am sure everyone has them, it’s the question of degree. I can say I am rather fond of most of my students and am sorry to see them leave when they graduate because by then I know them very well. Some are better at this, others at that, some great all around; we try to play to their strengths while correcting their weaknesses. What’s important is that I try to give all of them equal exposure and ability to travel, apply for funds, awards, etc. Also, opportunities for various facets of professional development. Some want these, others don’t. It’s important not to withhold professional opportunities from anyone and it’s important to try to help each reach the professional goal they’ve set for themselves — I think one can do that even without great chemistry between student and advisor. If an advisor is doing that pretty uniformly, then I would say there is no favoritism. I don’t know what MC3’s advisor is doing, but it’s hard not to think very fondly of your stellar, most productive students.

    I’d say if things don’t look good within the first semester or two, it’s a good idea to switch. You can see the writings on the wall pretty quickly, within a few months. GoG, sometimes when you have two strong personalities, things can get difficult. Most people will defer to the advisor (I know I did), but sometimes it gets tricky, e.g., if the PI is a woman and the student doesn’t think she’s worth deferring to… Sometimes it’s chemistry, but often it’s other bullshit…

    MC3: I can’t really share the document (anonymity and all that), but I only wrote it a few years ago. It takes a while to crystallize these things. Btw, if your advisor is older, he’s probably like mine (late 70s); my former advisor is far less restrained in his emotions and displays of favoritism than younger folks like me, so maybe yours is also a bit too old school to think that he’s doing something wrong by fawning over some and not other students — he might even think this encourages competition. I don’t know what your advisor is thinking, but I know that mine is mostly unaware that he’s doing what he’s doing and when I drew his attention to it at some point, he was taken aback and embarrassed.

  7. Whooo, reading Herman’s Laws spiked my blood pressure a bit. I know it’s tongue in cheek, but reading:
    “19. Whatever is best for you is best for your adviser.
    20. Whatever is best for your adviser is best for you.”
    inspires a bit of rage. This is a central piece of academic myth, and when everything lines up perfectly, it’s true, and it’s wonderful. But there are just so many cases where it’s not… e.g.
    – Student wants to do project with fancy technique that will benefit them in industry job search – but it’ll take a few extra months to learn, and their adviser wants the paper out sooner.
    – Project resulted in boring, marginally publishable results, but the student’s an awful writer, and the prof thinks it’s not worth their time to help write the paper up.
    – Student wants to publish in society journal, so they can finish up project and graduate; prof thinks another year of experiments will put the project into a glam journal.

    There are conflicts of interest! Good advisors, I think, will always put the student first in these cases (except maybe the first one). But I’ve definitely seen advisers take the other side, too.

  8. I don’t begrudge spending hours on students’ proposals and manuscripts, as long as they don’t drop them on me at the last minute. Most students can’t write for beans. I’ve made my peace with that. But it drives me crazy when I hear students downplay my contributions as minor feedback or editing. Seriously! I gave you the idea. I coached you along. I told you how to do analyses. I corrected your interpretations. AND I REWROTE YOUR ENTIRE MANUSCRIPT! Not because I am picky, but because what you wrote sucked.

    Obviously I need to figure out a way to nip this in the bud early on. It should not keep happening. And yet, it does.

  9. Great post! I am surprised by the number of my colleagues who are not clear with expectations (both for productivity and for expected work hours) from the beginning and then have problems down the line when the student’s idea of productivity and work time is different from the advisors. I always tell students what I expect in terms of hours and the minimum productivity required to finish the degree, and then no one is surprised later on, even if there are issues.

    The two most annoying thing my students did: Web surfing/Facebooking on the instrument computers. If you feel the need to waste time when you should be working, at least use your own laptop! Those computers are only connected to the network to allow for easy updates and access to data. Why on earth would it be OK to potentially expose the instrument computer to malicious software? This doesn’t happen anymore to my knowledge, now that I know this is not obvious to everyone.

    My posts (mentioned in a previous comment) on socializing with students and favoritism:

    Comments on working with students and trying not to play favorites:

  10. Beautiful. Your statements about expectations on the tenure track are spot on.

    Re Not Annoying EVER #2:

    Maybe because I’m going through this fraught period, I find I do get frustrated by repeated requests to meet to review data, analyses, etc., when it seems the student could have just sat down and worked things out a little more by him or herself. I try very hard to get my students collaborating with one another quickly so they do not have to come to me with every microdevelopment. Meeting once or twice a week should be enough most of the time. I am not (yet?) good at toggling between methodological minutiae of the different projects, but this is something I’m working on, mostly by reducing the number of parallel projects in my lab. I also get frustrated when students come to me for debugging help. I do not mind teaching them the basic approaches to debugging, but helping them figure out why their code is not working is as much fun for me as correcting someone’s grammar and syntax, especially when they haven’t followed good practices (modularity, unit testing) from day one.

  11. Would you be willing to share the doc by email (I used a real one to comment)? I’m a late-TT faculty and I feel like I’ve never gotten my advising game together, and seeing something like your doc might show me what I’m aiming for. I have definitely learnt that my advisees are not mini-me, over and over again.

  12. Holy crap, those lab manuals make me (an impatient micromanaging workaholic) look like a cool laid-back older brother.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s