Working with Grad Students: Stream of Consciousness, pt. 2

Rheophile had an interesting comment to yesterday’s post, listing some ways in which an advisor’s and grad student’s interests may be in conflict.

– 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.

Rheophile is a valued longtime commenter, and this is really meant just to start the discussion rather than be a confrontation.

Good advisors…will always put the student first in these cases

I disagree with this statement because the advisor is not a parent. A parent is someone who is expected to always put a child’s needs first. A good advisor can only be expected to give a lot of weight to what the student wants, but cannot be expected to always put the student first, even if we are talking about what the  student needs as opposed to wants.

In most of these cases, there is a compromise that will work for everyone, but it is also true that, in most of these cases, the advisor does not have a 100% ability to grant or not grant student wishes. Several of the reasons are that: a) if the student is a research assistant (RA), then there are constraints as to what can be done with the money and requirements on productivity; b) the student is not the advisor’s only student; that student’s wants and needs may impinge upon someone else’s wants or needs.

Disclaimer: I do not/cannot/will not speak for all PhD advisors. I have no doubt that there are horrible advisors out there and that there are also equivalents of Mother Theresa out there. But most PhD advisors are neither; most try to do their best for their students and their careers when facing many often conflicting constraints. And, you know, they’re also human, not infallible deities wielding infinite power.

– 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.

I don’t know any advisor who wants the paper out sooner just because. Usually there is a good reason, such as a) danger of getting scooped (see last post on working in a high-pressure environment; some labs work only on hot-hot-hot stuff; if living in constant fear of being scooped is not what you enjoy, you might want to switch); b) grant deadline; c) tenure evaluation. These are, IMHO, all valid reasons for the PI to say, “No, we have to get this paper out first. Then you can go learn fancy technique.”

The following is an example from my group. I had a student who wanted to learn how to do something relevant to industry and there was a paid part-time opportunity for him to learn to do so on campus. I said that’s fine, and a slowdown in his progress was fine, but that I did not want his progress on his research to drop to zero during that time. This was a mature and organized student, who came up with a strict schedule in terms of where he was which morning/afternoon, and was able to keep up decent pace on his project, as well as take on the added opportunity. Another student might not have done quite so well in the same situation.

Now, as for funding. This was a paid opportunity, so during this time he was paid primarily by those who provided said opportunity, and I had no problem agreeing to have him take it in part because it temporarily freed up some money so someone else didn’t have to teach. But, if this student had wanted to take on a similarly time-intensive opportunity without the pay, we would have had to come up with something. I cannot pay a student a full RA if he spends more than half a week, every week, doing something else. I would negotiate with the student that he take on a bit slower pace with this outside learning (maybe one day a week), or if he wanted to do it more intensively then his RA would have to be partially cut and he’d have to take on some TA-ing or something. It’s not just about me letting him or not; taking federal money and not working on the project as many hours as commensurate with pay (now we have effort reporting on federal grants) is a mishandling of federal funds. Basically, it’s OK for the student to carve out some time for professional development without a change in their RA appointment, but it cannot be an arbitrarily large amount of time. The advisor and student have to work together so that everyone understands wants, needs, and real constraints.

– 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.

I have had this situation several times. If something is boring or marginally publishable, the question is whether the paper should exist at all. If the science won’t be advanced by the existence of this paper, then the reasons have to do with the one who did the work and these reasons have to be compelling enough. For instance, one reason for the paper to exist is so the student will have something to show for all the time spent on it before moving to something else; in this case I’d bite the bullet and write it and submit it. But no, unless there is a really good reason to write this paper up, then we don’t do it. I am busy enough without polishing every possible turd nuggets.

By the way, I don’t know how other groups do it, but in my group there are no papers that are drafted without my OK. When we have enough data and understand it well enough that I feel we have a compelling story for a paper, then I say, “OK, go ahead, start drafting.”We outline the paper skeleton on the board (everyone takes pics) before the student goes to write.

I will OK the drafting of a marginal paper if there is a good reason to publish it (see above) and if I can envision a decent venue that would take it (no sending to Obscure Journal of Irrelevant Science). If I OK drafting something, then I will stick with it all the way through, yes, through all the awful writing and my extensive rewrites, to the bitter published end.

– 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.

Well, I have specific requirements for the number of papers to graduate, so a student can generally tell whether or not they are close to graduating. Students generally want to try to place their stuff in good journals, or at least to try. I do theory, so we usually can’t hit Glam Magz alone but do with experimentalists, but we can indeed hit some high-profile society journals. Again, students at least usually want to try. There are several we usually hit (society level) and several higher up where we try if I think the work is unusually good. In the latter case, we map out together where to send next, following a potential rejection.

Here’s another example from my group that’s related to some of the points above. I had a student who wanted to do stuff that is related to the type of work I do, but I don’t find these problems particularly interesting, I cannot really justify using existing grants to fund this type of work, and getting money to do it would be hard and I am not interested enough to fight for those types of funds. I tried steering the student in the direction that’s more aligned with the group, but he kept going back to the techniques and problems he liked. So we had a series of talks, the base of which was that I didn’t want him to be miserable, that he obviously liked certain types of topics and problems, but that I didn’t have the interest or funds to support that work, and that he should probably work with someone else. After this series of discussions, we figured out that he really wanted to get a degree in a more “pure” field and working on the topic of interest in that pure field, which would require that he go elsewhere (probably not in the pure field at this institution). So we made a plan in the spring that he would stay with the group until the fall the year after; in the first fall after the spring when he made the plan, he’d apply to different schools to the pure field; before then, I’d make sure he submitted two papers that he’d done while in my group, so his new application would be strong. (It’s important to note here that if he wants to ever be a professional purist, he needs a PhD in the pure discipline, otherwise they’ll never consider him one of them; since he does want to become a purist, he can’t get a PhD in my discipline or even in the pure discipline but with me as advisor, because the pure discipline really insists on impeccable pedigree purity if he’s to really advance; thus, he has to switch and work with a pure purist and not me, an impure purist, if he’s to be considered a true pure purist eventually). While in my group, which would be for a year and a half after we made the plan and for nearly a year after he’s done with a new set of applications and awaiting enrollment elsewhere, he’d mostly TA and continue the work he liked, and he would have a partial RA justified by helping wrap up some work by a student who had graduated and also help a new student ramp on a project I have funded. So nobody has to be miserable, and nobody has to be anyone’s parent, but people do have to figure out what they want and talk honestly. I am not my student’s enemy, but also not their mom. All I can do is try to lay out to the best of my ability what the different constraints are, and if the student does the same, then we can usually figure something out.

Maybe my advising motto should be “Nobody has to be miserable.”


  1. Thank you for the extensive reply!

    I think I agree with you – I may have been pushing the “good advisors will only do…” a little strongly, in response to “Herman’s Laws,” which seem wildly optimistic about student-PI conflicts. I also had in mind slightly different cases than the ones you’ve described, e.g. an adviser who only submits to glam mags for the third. (I know a few people like this; the median number of papers a graduate student publishes is probably between zero and one – making the Poisson fluctuations kind of horrific. I consider this bad advising, but the groups are well funded.)

  2. Yeah, my former student went to a group like that for a postdoc (half and half between this group and another more normal one) and was shocked to find that a grad student can be around for 7-8 years without a single paper because only Glamz are pursued. My former student, as postdoc there, ended up publishing well but mostly because of the second PI’s influence. However, I remember him lamenting over the students he had met there who were languishing forever in vain pursuing Glam. The group is also super well funded. I don’t know what to say to that — I think this extreme is abusive to students.

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