To Advise or Not to Advise

Last year was good in terms of grants, so I am entering the next three-year period well funded (knock on wood). I also have a relatively new group, with only one senior person and the rest are brand new or only a year in. I have enough funds to cover everyone for the next three years, and also funds to pay self summer salary and not stress out about going on a yearlong sabbatical next academic year. The group members seem bright, content, and jovial.

Then comes an additional student who wants to join the group.

Pro: He seems to be really strong in math and physics and really into the type of stuff we do. Based on what he’s done so far, he might be an outstanding talent.

However, there are two cons.

Con 1: He is extremely uncommunicative. I don’t know if he’s shy, socially awkward, terrified of me, or perhaps he’s simply not neurotypical. My students who met him all brought this up with concern. He has serious issues respecting personal space (stands really close to people), which really weirds me out. Honestly, I don’t know that I have it in me to deal with all this.

Con 2: I didn’t actually plan to hire anyone else. I would love, for once, to not have to stretch every last penny until it breaks. I want to pay myself more than a month of summer salary and not always have to use that money to cover additional students instead.

Basically, he might work out great, but it would be tough money-wise (not so much tough as not as relaxed as I’d hoped) and I have serious concerns about my ability to work with this kid and about his ability to become part of the group.

Esteemed academic blogosphere, what say you? Would you take a chance on this kid or not? 


  1. I always think of it as cost-benefit balances. If you have lots of space and lots of money, maybe this is a kid you take a chance on. But if you are already full-up (which it sounds like you are) and money is not abundant (don’t blow your safety net on a new car) then maybe it’s better not to. If I was in your situation, the kid would have to really be spectacular (in all areas, including communication and writing ability as well as math talent) for me to take him on.

    I also think it is very important for an advisor to know when there is a good fit for the advisor-advisee match. It’s not necessarily about good advisors or good advisees, a lot of successful advising is whether the styles match. Communication styles are part of that. You’ve told us of difficulties you’ve had with communications with certain students. You’re smart and very self-cognizant about this stuff. If this is sending you red warning flags, then I recommend you take those into account.

    One of the dangers of the “always reaching for …” that we’re taught as academics is that we don’t always recognize when we’ve got a good crew, and the gathering job is done. If you have a good group, let them run and see what they can do. It doesn’t sound like you need this kid.

    PS. Congratulations on having funding!

  2. This is a clear “no” to me based on what you have described. I have learned the hard way to listen to my instincts about people – if the match looks poor, it almost never gets better. It also sounds like your other students may not get along well with this person, which will impact them as well. Poor match will in the end be painful for this student too. For these reasons, I would not take this student into my group even if money was of no consequence. Let the student find a group that is a better match for him/her.

  3. As a student I was always frustrated when my advisor didn’t listen to us when we had concerns about a new hire/new student…and then we had to deal with this person every day. If your students are worried about it, I’d skip hiring this guy.

  4. At a SLAC I don’t really have a choice about who I take on — the expectation is that if it’s feasible, I’ll take on any student who wants to do research. If I had the choice… I might well choose not to work with the student you’ve described. Communication issues are about 80% of what drives me bonkers with student advising. It is such a breath of fresh air right now for me to have a non-traditional student who is a mother of two and about a decade older than my other students — even though she doesn’t have the strongest background, I’d rather work with her than pretty much any of my other students, just because she’s so mature and I don’t have to teach her how to adult as well as how to science. She doesn’t have hangups about asking questions, she follows through on instructions, she talks to me if she runs into snags that will make her miss a deadline, even a soft one, and she’s reliable. Last year I had the wunderkind who also had all sorts of boundary issues and communication issues, and I have to say that now that he’s off in PhD-land, I don’t miss him. He did manage to publish a paper before he left, which is unusual among undergrads and will help my tenure case, but if I weren’t up for tenure… it would not be worth it for me. Better to have slower research and/or more work from me going into a paper than to have to deal with that crap.

  5. Don’t do it! Uncommunicative is a huuuge red flag that trumps everything else you’ve listed. Someone who is not easy to work with (and uncommunicative = the opposite of easy to work with) will make your work life incredibly frustrating. Seriously, don’t do it.

    PS. I also want to second what another commentator said: matches that seem poor from the beginning do NOT get better with time. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. Going into this expecting that things will get better is not a good idea.

  6. Based on what you described here, don’t take him on, for basically all the same reasons folks said above. Don’t blow your safety net on a new car, listen to your students, & it sounds like there is enough of a advisor/advisee mismatch here that its not worth trying to make it work.

  7. Lyra, that is interesting. Im at an UG institute as well but there is no way I could feasibly do research with the number of students who ask… so I say no a lot. If I didn’t, I’d have 40-50 research students at all times and no lab space or funding to pay for their experiments.

    Maybe it’s a field thing? I’m in bio so am swamped by premeds who think having research experience will help them get into Med school.

    i am curious whether at your place you get teaching credit there for advising students. Currently we don’t, but there’s some talk about giving us a little bit (not 1 for 1 per credit though).

  8. More good students than you can handle is still more than you can handle. Your post has (just under the surface) some good talk about limits. Do yourself the honor of respecting them.

  9. Yeah, don’t do it. Why risk the really good for the maybe great/maybe a hot mess. You’re fine. You don’t need the student. Recommend some other faculty to them.

  10. You deserve to feel comfortable doing good science for the next few years! The current situation you describe already has the potential to achieve that. Since there is no need to put everything in jeopardy, this sounds like a situation where typically less (students) is going to be more (money, happiness in the lab, feelings of being relaxed…).
    I have felt cornered into bad hiring decisions recently (hire an OK but maybe not ideal candidate or loose the funds) and in retrospect, I wish I had given more consideration to the option of forfeiting the funding. This experience has made me very cautious of possibly problem prone recruits.

  11. Noooooooo. I would personally feel unkind (poor kind of creepy [for whatever reason] kid who… also hasn’t managed to develop the skills that would let him succeed in your lab) but also I would not do it.

  12. I ended up not hiring the student. Thanks everyone for the comments! I decided I didn’t have it in me right now to take on this challenge. I need things to not be super hard workwise for at least a little while; the group I do have is nice and harmonious and there’s enough money for everything. I’d take the risk and the strain on time/money for a phenomenal applicant, otherwise it’s not worth messing with a good thing.

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