advising

Hoodwinked

This topic has been popping in and out of my mind for months now, but I never seem to have the time to jot anything down before I forget again… So today is the day!

Professors, do you go commencement ceremonies to hood your PhD graduates?

I did it with my first PhD graduate. While I am sure it meant something to her, it was loud, crowded, and just a pain in the butt for me. Then several students following her didn’t attend their ceremonies, so my hooding services were not required.

Last spring two of my PhD students “walked.” They were talking about their families coming for the ceremony, and they seemingly casually asked if I would be attending with them, but I cited a conflict and that was that. The truth is, if I had wanted to go, I would have made the time, but I didn’t and admit to feeling a little guilty about it. I am not even sure where my cap and gown are, probably in the office; wherever they are, they need ironing and/or dusting since they haven’t seen the light of day in years.

I really don’t like crowds and will avoid them in every way I can. So a big ceremony is really unpleasant for me; however, once could say that I should suck it up and do it for my students. My PhD advisor went to hood every one of his graduating students (obviously, including me), but many of his colleagues never did. Many of my colleagues don’t seem to go hood anyone ever.

DH, who fortunately has enough of a celebratory and holiday spirit for both of us (else our kids would never know the consumerist joys of Christmas or Halloween), thought it was very uncool that I had weaseled out of hooding my students this spring; I know he has a point that it’s the students’ once-in-a-lifetime celebration and do feel a little bad about not playing my part. But I just couldn’t stomach the idea of hours of ceremony, and hanging out awkwardly with the students and their families. We did have a small party to send the students off, with the whole group, several hours before the ceremony; I bought food for everyone and the parents were there as well. I generally make a point of feeding everyone when someone graduates (I buy lunch or dinner for everyone), so it’s not that I don’t want to celebrate my students’ success. I just don’t like the craziness that are the crowds of thousands of young’uns and their extended families in a huge arena for hours on end, and I don’t care for the shared captivity, with the ensuing awkwardness, with my soon-to-be former group members.

What say you, blogosphere? Professors, do you hood your PhD students? Graduate students/postdocs, do you care about the hooding ceremony and your advisor being there? Everyone who’s received a PhD, did you elect to go to the ceremony, and do you have any feelings whatsoever about it today? 

Notes from the Road 2

* I am in one of the most famous and most beautiful cities in Europe. I have visited it before. It is a lovely European city. It is not unlike the city I was born in.

I find I have no desire to live here, ever. I find the buildings are old, the apartments small. Everything is very expensive.

It’s interesting how a place — the US, for me — can start to feel more like home by way of every other place becoming less and less appealing by comparison.
When I first moved to the US, I longed for home. Then for a while I imagined I could live in a more prosperous version of home, somewhere in the first-world countries of Europe.
Now I don’t long for my ancestral home, and I don’t envision myself anywhere in Europe.  I have been irreversibly and thoroughly Americanized.

But I admit, I would not mind coming here or elsewhere for a sabbatical, mostly to improve my German, which has become quite rusty. I used to be able to carry a conversation or watch TV in German; now I fear my limit is ordering food or getting transportation.

* It is very hot outside. As I seem to keep forgetting, air-conditioning is far from ubiquitous in Europe. My hotel had it, but the seminar room where I spent most of the two days didn’t and neither did the restaurants we went to. I have felt sticky non-stop. The airport is judiciously cooled — e.g. not in the toilet stalls, but yes around the sinks (because we really want that $hit to stink, don’t we?). The check-in and gate areas are air-conditioned, but still pretty warm by most US-airport standards.

* I had forgotten how numerous the immigrants from the Middle East are in Europe. I look at those poor fully draped and veiled women roasting in this heat and humidity, and then look at their male “guardians” in shorts and short-sleeved T-shirts… Inhumane.

* Having lived in the American Midwest for over a decade, I have access to very good and varied local beer; I am very particular about my beer. Yesterday’s trip to a Biergarten (in case it’s not obvious, it’s a beer garden, basically the restaurant part of a brewery) was disappointing beer-wise, but very fun company-wise.

* I gave a talk and spent two pretty intense days at a technical workshop with several people who work with a very niche technique, one that I also work with (among others). I really enjoy this aspect of science, where we really get together and openly share what we think the problems are, and we brainstorm ideas and talk about real solutions. We actually managed to tease out a few technical nitty-gritty details over food and drinks. I love when that happens. There may be some collaborative papers emerging from the workshop, which is what I would consider travel money well spent.

* The older I am, the more I enjoy talking about science. I think it has to do with me knowing more and, perhaps more importantly, with me believing I know a lot, having very specific opinions, and being confident about articulating and defending them.

* Whenever I think I am hot stuff, or when I think I am a worthless piece of turd, I should make myself fly somewhere, preferably far away and with a long layover. As much as I hate the hassle of travel and generally being on planes, I love airports and engaging in a favorite sport: people watching. So many folks, all different, all so important and yet so unimportant. It reminds me that I am just one puny human. I could vanish this instant and the world would keep spinning; no one except my immediate family would give a $hit. I personally spend too much time in my head, taking myself too seriously. Being reminded of my own irrelevance is strangely liberating.

* As has always been my experience, even when I was a student, graduate students magically become more productive when the PhD advisor leaves town. Sadly, this phenomenon does not take place when I am in town but ignore them. Thus far, I have received 2 revised drafts to look at while traveling and I will be Skyping with two students today and tomorrow evening.

* Off to board a flight to another European metropolis, where I am to give another talk and attend another conference. And I am very much looking forward to the excellent beer!

Question from Reader: Difficult Relationship with PhD Advisor

A reader — PhD Student — has recently written to me, asking for advice about the situation with her PhD advisor, which has become very difficult:

I’ll start off with some background about myself.  I’m a 25 year old female PhD student.  I left just shy of my master’s degree at another university so that I could switch fields and accept an offer for a research assistantship elsewhere.  The new school is a tech school, so is mostly engineers and has an overall (including undergrads and business majors) boy to girl ratio of 3:1. I am technically a transfer student as I transferred a couple of my classes over so that I could take less classes here.  From the very beginning, I have felt intimidated and nervous around my advisor.  I feel like he doesn’t listen to me.  He will ask me a question in front of people, and then cut me off mid sentence.  I’ve had him call me “high maintenance”, simply for asking what time a luncheon will be held.  I’ve also had to deal with him being bros with the guys, but calling me “unprofessional” anytime I try to join the conversation.  He’s constantly critiquing my personality and telling me I need to read professional etiquette books.  Well, what is my personality?  I’m very friendly and can be quite talkative.  I’m easily excitable and I love pure academic research.

When I first met him, he seemed friendly but he definitely made me nervous.  I didn’t think twice about it as I was there for an interview, so it was natural for me to be nervous…but I didn’t get the same feeling with anyone else I met during that visit.  He seemed very upset when I asked him for some kind of informal email of my offer so I could have something in writing.
I’ve dealt with some severe anxiety, partially due to my interactions with him. In terms of research, the two of us never seem to be on the same page.  I always seem to misunderstand him, and have to do things over and over and over again.  I’ve also had moments where he specifically tells me to do something…I do it…and then he asks me why I did it, as if I did the wrong thing.
Last October he chewed me out (no warning) and told me that the door was open if I wanted to go. I didn’t. He kept saying that I needed to trust him.  He was upset that I was still nervous that I was going to regret leaving my other university without finishing my master’s degree.  I love what I do and I want to work on this project. I started seeing a counselor, who has helped with my anxiety.

I had an important conference (my university was hosting) that I needed to present at, and I couldn’t seem to get my advisor to give me feedback at my presenations (x2) and poster that I wrote. I ended up having to submit the presentation with him only taking a glance at it, and the poster without him seeing at all due to the deadline for the printing. Well, I finally went into his office to ask for feedback directly, rather than just through email. “Did you see my poster?” I asked. “No,” he shrugged. “I hope it’s good.” I literally then specifically asked him to pull it up on his computer. He was in a very weird sing songy mood and kept insisting that I listen to music with him, telling me it was important, rather than looking at my poster for a conference taking place the following week. I found it quite odd, but tried to brush it off.

I asked another professor to come to our group meeting that Friday… flash forward…that Friday during our group meeting where I scheduled myself to present for a practice run…I was so excited and it a great mood because I finally got some feedback about my project. I’m very passionate about my project and I love presenting, so anything to learn more about the project and improving presenting made me very happy. I took careful notes and was sure to thank those who critiqued me: my lab mates, advisor, and other professor that I invited.

Flash forward again. Tuesday, day of my presentation. During a break from all the presentations, I walked up and started talking to my advisor. Right away, big mistake…I’m a first year student and didn’t realize that he doesn’t like to talk to his students (only network with others) at conferences. He started giving me advice about my presentation, that was at 2 p.m. “Just tell a good story,” he said.  It was currently 10 a.m. I was afraid I looked nervous…pale, shaking, sweating…or something…and so I said, “I’m not worried; do I like worried?” He replied, “I don’t want to talk about this right now.” And he walked off. I tried to shake it off. I figured maybe he was just upset that I had interrupted his networking. Or maybe that he had somehow misunderstood what I had said.

Well, my presentation went very well and ended up being one of the top ranked presentations. People were very responsive and I felt like things were going great. I had a lot of people come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed my presentation….with exception of my advisor, who seemed to be avoiding me. It felt odd, but at the same time I just figured he was….networking. He can talk to me anytime, why talk to me at a conference when there are people there he can only see twice a year?

Things seemed good. That night, after dinner, my advisor suggested we go to the local bar. So conference participants went to the bar. After having had a few drinks at the conference, my advisor drove a university vehicle over to the bar, where he proceeded to have a few more drinks and seem quite buzzed.  I had a couple of drinks as well, but was  driving my own vehicle and have always been quite the heavy weight when it comes to liquor.  He joked around with the male students, going so far as to make a joke with one about the student picking his female officemate’s dirty underwear. I tried to fit into the conversation, and I awkwardly mentioned that one of my labmates had initially thought I had a different sexual orientation than I do. Conversation seemed to flow, and everything seemed fine.

The next morning was when I found out that something really was wrong. I volunteered to swing by the hotel were conference participants were staying to make sure there was enough room in the university vehicles for all of them and their luggage.  If needed, I could take some of the guests or luggage up to the airport.  My advisor almost backed into me, so I honked at him. My car was backed into recently, and I definitely wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again. That being said, it was a school vehicle he was driving so I didn’t even know he was driving it. I jokingly told my labmate that he almost backed into me…trying to make light out of the situation….when he actually got out of his vehicle and started yelling at me and cussing. He swore that he had seen me and that he was backing up to make room for my car (makes so much sense right?) and that honking was disrespectful. At first I apologized, not wanting to upset my boss. But the more I thought about it, I’m glad I honked. I did the right thing.

There were several awkward encounters the next day, and I just tried to avoid him. After the conference was over, I thought that I would be able to avoid him and just let things die, but he scheduled a one-on-one meeting for the next day.

At this meeting, he proceeded to tell me how horrible I am at networking, because I scare people and that I talk too much. (I know I talk a lot, but I figure that some people don’t so it balances out). My talkative, excitable nature has been a life long battle, and I feel like we all have our quirks.  He did apologize for yelling at me after I honked at him, but maintains that I shouldn’t have honked, as honking is “disrespectful” and he saw my vehicle. He told me that my interactions with people are inappropriate (despite his comment about picking up female’s dirty underwear). (And I should just mention I was just trying to follow his lead). He told me that during my practice run of my presentation, I had seemed unreceptive and ungrateful to his feedback (despite my constant begging for feedback) and that the other professor who had come had felt the same way (despite me specifically inviting him for that reason…his feedback). He told me he feels like he can’t mentor me, and that he avoids me because he feels I cause drama in the workplace.

Lastly, he told me that I need to make an effort to cover up more, and pointed to his chest. I was wearing a shirt that’s collar line went up to my collar bone. He told me he had a hard time looking at me in the face because of the way I dress. Despite the fact we have no dress code, and that I wasn’t dressed badly anyway.

I didn’t know what to do. I just took everything he said and apologized for him feeling that way about me and told him I would work on things. I was shaken that day, but fine until I cried myself to sleep that night. I have felt worked up and intimidated by this man since I started last year. I love what I do, and I’m not going to change projects on his account.  Right now, I’m seeing an intern as my counselor is out of town. She recently found out about a support group in the diversity office for grad students with issues with their advisors. She hinted that I should make formal complaint against him, but I definitely fear retaliation and I know that no good will come of the complaint. He’s tenured, and things haven’t gotten bad enough that anybody would do anything. And, as it’s a small department that I’m in, he would even know an anonymous complaint was me.  I also feel like any complain that I make would burn the “bridge” (if there is one) between the two of us, and it would mean that I would have to switch advisors and projects.  I am also tired of trying to talk to my labmates, who at one second seem to support me, but the next tell me that I’ll find his advice will help me in the long run, even if it’s hard to hear.

I spoke with the other professor who I invited to our group meeting and specifically told him thank you for taking an hour out of his day to listen to my presentation.  I told him his feedback meant a lot to me, and that I was glad that he gave me some good advice for the presentation.  He didn’t seem to think I was unresponsive to his feedback or anything.

It’s now been a month since this all broke out.  I’ve tried to push it aside.  I’ve tried to make a lot of changes so that I could work with this man.  I’ve started wearing turtlenecks on days that I know that I am going to see him.  I avoid him as much as possible because I don’t feel like being intimidated and chewed out further.  Because he finds me unmentorable, unreceptive, and ungrateful despite me trying to get his feedback and communicate with him, I’m so nervous to talk to him at all.

I was gone for the past couple of weeks at a workshop at another university, 600 miles away.  My time at the workshop was really what showed me that I need to come up with some way to report this situation.  I had the opportunity for networking and was able to get close to another couple of girls within my field.  At first I noticed how different their experiences seemed with their advisors than mine.  I barely even mentioned mine, and right away these two girls told me that what was going on wasn’t right.  I hadn’t even mentioned anything close to everything that was going on, nor specific details.  I was shocked at how they reacted knowing so little of what was going on.  I was really careful not to bad talk him as everyone seems to think he’s such a great guy…and I don’t want to be gossiping.

My breaking point started coming when I needed to compose a couple of emails to my advisor.  I realize I was so shaken that I kept having to ask friends to proofread my emails to him.  I was going to bed, sick to my stomach because I figured I was probably going to get chewed out.  I had an abstract due only two weeks in the future.  As I wasn’t on campus, I had to take care of things via email.  I started to realize that I felt like I was playing a cat and mouse game.  I was trying so hard to every little thing my advisor wanted.  Since he chewed me out and called me unreceptive to his feedback…I’ve felt like he’s wanted me to blindly do everything he asks…make every single change to my abstract without even questioning it…I’m trying to get my PhD…doctor of philosophy…not blindly do everything this man says.  Then, to make matters worse, some of the changes he finally made to my abstract involved lying about the research we’ve done.  It wasn’t a huge lie, but one I wasn’t comfortable with.

I understand that he has a PhD in my field.  I understand that he knows (or should) more than me about the research.  But I’m trying to learn.  I’m not trying to dispute him.

And now that I’m back from the workshop, I realize I can’t do this anymore.  This anxiety I’m dealing with is gonna break me.  I can’t do this for four years.  So, I need to figure out what I can do about the situation.

… any advice you can give me is much appreciated.

A PhD Student (PS)

In a nutshell, my advice (given to PS over email) is to get out of there (I will chime in more later, in the comments). The dynamics between PS and her advisor has elements ranging from poor communication and personal incompatibility, to downright sexism and inappropriate behavior, including verbal abuse.  (N.B. Honestly, when someone throws a fit because you want them to provide some sort of tangible proof that they indeed gave you an offer, that’s a huge reg flag and you should run away as fast as you can.) The situation is damaging her health and well-being, and she needs to get out.

What say you, blogosphere? Please give advice to PS. 

Crankypants

There is work to do tonight, but I can’t make myself do it. Preparing a whole new midterm for one student who was ill, writing a letter of nomination for a student for an award, getting an abstract/bio ready for an upcoming talk.

This has been a really difficult semester and I am really cranky.

I am teaching a new (to me) large undergraduate course. I have essentially no TA support to speak of (thankfully, I have a grader for homework), and the course has required a lot of time to prep the materials (homework, homework solutions, exams) and grade the exams. I teach the lectures and the discussion and I have more office hours than usual, because they are needed — there is always someone in my office during those. This past weekend I graded nearly 100 exams; it took all weekend. The weekend before, I wrote the solutions to about 50 homework problems (postings of solutions before the midterm, making up for missed postings due to work travel). If you are at a teaching-heavy institution, what I wrote might seem like nothing, but I am at a research institution, and teaching is not supposed to take up 20+ hours a week.

I have had more travel than I am comfortable with this whole academic year, and much of it was service related, which means I traveled, worked a ton, then came back to a punishing backlog of work. I have a break in travel till July, and then it’s 6 effing trips between mid-July and mid-September.

I have written too many proposals, and the new NSF fall deadline is just around the corner. I also have some schmoozing with DoD to do to see if some money could be had.

I have way too much service at the department and university level. One of the university-level committees has turned out to be drastically more work than initially promised, so it has been a huge time drain and I have constantly been pissed off about it. It does nothing for me or my career, it is just a humongous waste of time and I feel like a fool for having agreed to do any of it. The way the whole thing is run is unbelievably inefficient and just plain wrong.

Eldest’s swim practice has moved to 4:30, which means I often have to leave at 3:50 to pick him up and drive him to practice. And this also means I always have to work evenings and often weekends, to make up the lost time because the work day is now even shorter than usual, so I also get no play time.

As a result of all this, I have virtually no time to actually mentor my students and work on the group’s papers, let alone read the literature. The fact that I get to do none of it is making me very, very cranky.

I find it mind-boggling that I have to fight hard to find the time to do research, because all the other stuff — most of which does not require me to seriously turn on my brain at all — easily fills 50+ hours per week. It should not be this hard to find the time to do the work that no one but me can do.

Reader Question: Recent PhD Grad Seeks Advice on Job Hunting

Reader E has a question for the blogosphere. I am retelling the original email to better anonymize the case (as per E’s request). I think I managed to capture the gist of the experience; E, if something is incorrect, please let me know.

*******

E completed their PhD in a physical science field at a tippity-top university (ranked 1 or 2), it seems quite recently. The first three years were spent on experimental work, while E was supported on a fellowship (I am guessing NSF); by the end of the fellowship, external funds for the continuation of the project did not come through. In the meantime, the advisor took a part-time position elsewhere and has been largely unavailable to E. At the end of the fellowship, E was advised to leave due to lack of funding, then it was decided E would switch gears and do computational work (I was unclear how that was funded, I am guessing on advisor’s other funds or perhaps a TA-ship). So, E spent the last 2.5 years learning how to do computational work with the help of another senior person (not sure if another faculty or postdoc/researcher), because the advisor does not have expertise in computation.

While E completed the computational project successfully, and defended their PhD recently, they don’t feel like the PhD experience has made them competitive for jobs. “While I produced several articles (2 journals, 1 proceeding), I wouldn’t call any of them career producing (the best was a mid range journal).”

I feel like I learned how to apply a very narrow set of computational skills to an even narrower problem. I have a hard time showing employers (postdoc, industry, gov, etc…not picky at all at this stage…have a growing family and need a job) that my skill set would be beneficial to them. My advisor has no way of helping me get employed (knows no one in the computational field…) and my mentor [the person who helped get E started on the computational front] is too busy with new professional developments. I would like to know, do you offer students (without a network to rely on) and struggling to get employed how to sell themselves? I would love to stay in science, but accept the fact that it is very unlikely that someone will take a chance on me.

*******

I will leave this open for blogosphere discussion. But I can get the discussion going by sharing what I do with my students.

I tell this to all of them, early and often:

This is not MIT or the like, and I am not famous. Just getting a PhD from here with me as advisor does not magically open doors. I tell them that I am very good at what I do and we will do good science together and that they will be well trained to be good PhD scientists and communicators, technically strong, who can write and present their work. But, I tell them that I also really want them to be able to get jobs when they are done. So they are encouraged from the get-go to get an MS in another field of their choice in addition to the PhD, and to take classes in other areas. I seem to be unusual in this respect, as I recently found out — most of my colleagues seem worried about productivity and want their students focused on research 100% of the time. I don’t. After the first 2-2.5 years, the students are done with classes for the major, and the resulting lack of class-induced structure to their days and weeks can be disorienting. I strongly encourage them to take 1 and sometimes 2 classes per semester in whatever they want until they are done; not only does this increase their knowledge base and potential employability, but I strongly believe is helps productivity on their main projects (alternatively, they TA when they are senior; regular contact with chirpy undergrads is good for the grumpy senior grad student). Nearly all of my students have taken the opportunity to get an MS in another science or engineering field while doing a PhD in our field (and also they get a “MS in passing” in the major, but that’s rather trivial for a well-performing student, just a bit of paperwork).

I also have some (not many) connections in industry (e.g. my grad school buddies and other people who were students when  I was), and now that I have placed some students in industry, they could (and do) further help other students. From my standpoint, all I can do is help as much as I can with the connections I have, and otherwise let the students know early on what the lay of the land is, and then let them figure it out for themselves. I am about to graduate a student who has a job lined up at a major software company. It has been a great experience: he interviewed, they gave him an offer, he asked and they agreed on a start date several months into the future, so he will both finish his project and his dissertation without a rush, and will then start at his great new job.

My industry students seem to do a few interviews to get a job, but not many. 1-3 is the norm before first offer. I had only one student several years ago who had like 12 interviews before the first offer, and eventually landed at a company that he had always dreamed of working for (I helped there by forcing him to go give a talk or two at venues where I knew the company would be having representatives). It has never been an issue that my students can’t get interviews. The student who is about to graduate, the one I mentioned in the previous paragraph, is part of an international community, and he appears to have access to a lot of job opportunity announcements through the network of his compatriots. Kudos to him, I say!

I think it’s impossible to get a job without some sort of network, but I it needn’t be your advisor and his buddies. Former group members are great, compatriots are great, checking websites of companies in the area or the companies you’d like to work with in general is great. In my experience, while job search is scary, it has always ended very well for my students and it didn’t take long. As advisor, I know that the last 6 months of their time here will be low productivity, because they are distracted and interviewing, and that’s fine; I plan on everything being done beforehand anyway.

As for postdocs, those are either awesome or awful in the physical sciences (I don’t have experience in the biomed world, but it sure seems to be a strange and scary place, based on the blogosphere). A great postdoc will propel you, an awful one will kill years of your life and, in some fields, might make you less employable in industry.
The worst part is you don’t know that postdoc opportunities are available until they are (i.e. notice of funding comes through) and then they are filled quickly and usually through personal connections (e.g. I will prioritize a student from a group whose leader I know and respect over a random other applicant).

Another issue: when it comes to advising, it seems to me that people with fellowships, especially graduate students but sometimes also postdocs, tend to have a crappy time disproportionately often. Unfortunately, I am guessing it’s the case of “well, I don’t have to pay the kid, so why not?” My rule is that if I wouldn’t work with a student/postdoc under the assumption that I am paying them off my grants, then I don’t take them (this doesn’t imply poor quality of student postdoc, but rather that they may be a poor fit for the group, or that I already have too many people and cannot effectively mentor another one). The same thing holds for the research topic: too often, people on fellowships end up working on advisor’s pet topic that may or may not be half-baked; they also end up being poorly supervised, because there is no funding-agency pressure that the advisor feels for regular grants. Obviously, that’s a recipe for disaster: before you know it, three years have passed, and the student has spent them on a poorly defined project with inadequate advising. Likely, it doesn’t help that most fellowship holders flock to tippity-top schools, which are competitive places and not known to be the oases of  warmth or fuzziness in student advising.

So, what’s the moral of the story?

E, I am really sorry for your experience. But, you got a PhD from a fancy school, and that won’t hurt in the long run.
Right now, pull all the strings you can — whomever you know, whomever they know, look at online postings, anything you can find. You don’t necessarily expect people to get you jobs, but rather to help point you towards jobs or places where jobs might be opening, and generally just meet people. It’s never too late to develop a network, and a network can be built in ways that you don’t expect: e.g. there are lawyers and doctors and professors and entrepreneurs among the parents on my kid’s swim team; sure, I know them because of swimming, but I know them now, and didn’t before, and if need be I could and would call upon our acquaintance in another context, and I would be happy if they did the same.

I also recommend consulting this great book “Navigating the Path to Industry” which helps exactly in your situation: finding a job upon leaving academia, as written by a biotech manager (the writer is awesome IRL and online, and sometimes comments here under a pseudonym, but I know doesn’t want to link work with personal blog, so I am not linking here).

Blogosphere, what say you? Do you have words of wisdom for E?

Musings on Coaching and Advising

As I wrote the other day, Eldest spends a lot of time swimming and the team he is on is very serious and successful. When compared to the best swimmers, he definitely has considerably less experience and his technique needs work. What I know is that he started swimming seriously in September, he’s a little above average for his age but below average for his very strong team. The good thing is that there are many things that he could still fix to become better.

However, I have no idea how talented he is, i.e. where the limits of his potential may be. I don’t think we are looking at the next Michael Phelps, but my impression, based on where he was when he started and where he is now, is that he could definitely make a solid, middle-of-the-pack team member throughout  high school. That is, provided that he has some good coaching, i.e. that his club coach and/or his high school coach spend some time working with him.

The problem is that all coaches seem to want to work with talented kids whom they see as potential stars, especially the kids who have shown very early promise. When you see someone who’s just starting and they are older than the common beginner, that someone might a priori be disregarded as not worth the investment because they have a nontraditional age-to-skill relationship. We have that in academia, don’t we?

I played volleyball for a local club when I was growing up (also for my high school when needed) from about 12-13 to maybe 19 or 20. On a semi-pro team that we sometimes played against (they kicked our butts every time) there was a woman who was in her late 20’s or early 30’s and she was very good.  I remember she had streaks of grey hair, although she wasn’t old at all.  What I also remember about her is that we heard stories about how she hadn’t started to play volleyball until she was 18, considerably older than average. But I remember someone saying that when you start as an older teen/young adult, you have the ability to improve much faster than you do as a teen. I don’t know if this is true or if it holds for only select sports, but it stayed with me.

Which brings me to advising graduate students. Many professors, regardless of how good their institution is, lament the quality of PhD applicants and think they’d do amazing things if only they had better students. The most important thing about being a professor in a STEM field that requires working with graduate students is learning how to effectively advise the students you have rather than the students you wish you had. Perhaps equally important is realizing that there is no such thing as a perfect student, that every student has a lot to learn, and that many (most?) students have something good to offer. Presumably similar to what coaches of a team do, you as advisor need to learn what  your student’s strengths and weaknesses are and work with them accordingly: pick a project that employs their strengths but also forces them to grow in the directions where they need help. A talented student could do many projects well, for a less talented one you might have to eliminate certain options. There are projects that could be done by many different students, then there are those that await someone with a very special skill set or affinity.

Sometimes a student who had shown great promise proved to be uncoachable, improving very little outside of the initial areas of strength,  because they they didn’t want to listen to me and didn’t think what I said was actually important. On the other hand, I was surprised several times by what some students could pull off within a year or two, after they’ve gained some experience and confidence. More than once, a student who had started out quite wobbly subsequently found his or her legs, and was then able to metaphorically outrun those who initially looked much stronger.

In academia, there are many students who are talented enough. If they want to listen, and they work with an invested advisor, they can improve and grow to become very good.

Eldest works hard in practice, so I hear. I think he realizes that he might not be very prominent on the coaches’ radars and might have to be proactive about getting feedback. I’m hoping he gets some quality coaching despite the lack of preparation.