Graduate students come with a range of technical backgrounds/levels of preparation, a range of natural aptitudes/talent, and a range of attitudes toward gradate school (comprising the willingness to work hard, coachability, etc.). There are other relevant axes if excellence, but for now let’s focus on these three.
Ideally, a student has a great aptitude, background, and attitude. It’s also common to have someone with a good background and aptitude, but less than ideal attitude; with some (or a lot) advisor irritation, these students often produce good work. Sometimes the student’s attitude improves when they switch groups to one better aligned with what they want to do,.
In the past, I’ve had students who were poor along all of three axes, and those usually left with a Master’s.
A good attitude can compensate for a lot of deficiency in background and aptitude. A LOT. Perhaps all. But perhaps not.
A few years ago, I had a student who had the right attitude (StuOne), but StuOne’s background and aptitude for what we do in the group were not high. Moreover, while StuOne worked hard and was coachable, I think StuOne’s sights were always on a software development job for which, to be honest, one generally does not have to have a PhD (except in the generic “I know how to think analytically and troubleshoot complex problems” sense) and definitely not a PhD in my field. I tried a bunch of projects with StuOne, but StuOne just couldn’t do them, even with plenty of hand-holding. We had talks of StuOne leaving because it was starting to seem highly unlikely that StuOne could complete any work in my group. Eventually, and probably 3-4 yrs into StuOne’s PhD, I found one project that StuOne could do, which was on the small side and much more focused on code development than on physics; StuOne ended up doing well on it. StuOne received what I would call a fairly minimal PhD compared to what I expect in my group, but definitely enough by my department’s standards. StuOne went on to get a well-paying job with a household-name company.
I faced a similar advising situation more recently and it’s one that saddens me. This student (StuTwo) has a great attitude, does everything asked of them, pours their heart and soul into all they do, and is the group’s social glue. But StuTwo’s aptitude for the work we do in the group is average at best and their Bachelor’s preparation was woefully inadequate. StuTwo has spent three years taking coursework but, perhaps because their aptitude isn’t very high, they don’t seem to be getting as much from their coursework as they could and should. Things aren’t sinking in well and they aren’t able to make the higher-level connections I need them to make. Also, StuTwo suffers from anxiety (I didn’t diagnose them; they told me). The normal course of what happens in academic science — someone graduates and leaves, and others in the group have to pick up their slack; funding doesn’t come through, a person has to switch from one project to something else — appears to greatly stress out StuTwo.
StuTwo is now done with coursework and is hopefully about to ramp up in their research. I have qualms about StuTwo’s ability to complete the project they started on, because it’s a very challenging one, but StuTwo is really into it and wants to keep working on it. The prospect of not having data when my grant-renewal time comes is really stressing me out.
Anyway, StuTwo’s PhD program moved to requiring dissertation proposals earlier during the student’s time than before, so StuTwo had to do it this summer. Despite several dry runs and PPT checks, it did not go well. AT ALL. One committee member (my longtime collaborator) basically said StuTwo should be kicked out of the program altogether; that they are too slow on the uptake, and that there’s no way they could complete a PhD in my group; this committee member hasn’t said anything that I haven’t thought myself at one point or another. Others chimed in with their stories. They shared that sometimes they would get a student to a PhD with great effort, which they regretted. One committee member revealed that they never regretted letting an underperforming student go, but they always regretted not having done it. The dissertation proposal paperwork wasn’t signed. Several committee members were in favor of chewing everything down into small, bite-sized pieces and providing a super-detailed outline of what is to be done in the near future, then revisiting. We can do that; I have a lot of mixed feelings, though.
On the one hand, I am resentful that such bite-sized pieces are needed. Graduate students are not kids; this is not middle school (seriously, I wish my kid’s middle school provided sufficient guidance on their projects; it’s all crazy and up in the air). This isn’t undergrad, either. Bite-sized pieces shouldn’t be required in the course of a PhD. The chunks should be larger and the student should be able to cut them up on their own or tear them off smaller ones with their incisors and basically figure out how to best swallow them without choking. The best PhD students never require micromanagement; they take broad direction and just run with it.
On the other hand, I think I can get this student to graduation, but it will be with a great investment of time and energy on my part. If there are intellectually nontrivial issues, I will likely have to be the one to solve them, which is what happened with StuOne. But maybe that’s OK. In the words of a colleague, faculty are usually the best people in their groups.
I feel like I owe it to this student to see them through, in part because they are such a good member of the group and have such a great attitude. In part because they’re three years in. One committee member feels my loyalty is misguided and is perhaps correct.
I met with the student after the dissertation-proposal fiasco and we discussed what comes next. I tried to convey the committee’s concerns as tactfully as I could. I mentioned the possibility of mastering out (they’re also getting a Master’s in another related field, so those would be two MS degrees). StuTwo felt this was unfair, that they were just about to ramp up (which is true) and that they weren’t able to do much work because of coursework (which is fine, but they demonstrated very poor absorption of concepts from coursework) and then went on to talk about how their anxiety was going up because of past deadlines: StuTwo gave a very thin talk at a recent conference on what should have been much more preliminary work; StuTwo was also sent to a Summer School to learn some cool stuff, but this was apparently all too much. StuTwo needs a very structured schedule and low-to-moderate demands on their time, otherwise their anxiety flares up. To be honest, I’m not sure how StuTwo will work in corporate America, but at least I can try to get them to a PhD with reduced stress and hand-holding. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can make all the stress go away completely.
Btw, a whole bunch of people whom I had in my fall graduate class have either mastered out and left or changed their original groups. I count four who seemed fine in my class, but have since left their research groups completely, and three who swapped groups. One of the group-swappers joined my group and is kicking ass; he’s on par with the best students I’ve ever had had. But there’s something going on in how we recruit students or maybe the funding demands are so high that we can’t tolerate the natural learning curves of PhD students, but so many people mastering out or leaving groups is bad for everyone’s morale. This is one more reason why I am reluctant to kick this student out; StuTwo is a well liked in the group, so their departure would likely be hugely disruptive to others.
But, note to self: I need to be much more selective when I recruit in the near future and I don’t think I will ever again recruit from StuTwo’s PhD program.
What say you, blogosphere? Thoughts? Shouts and murmurs? Related anectdotes?