advising

Dislikable

I miss FSP. I wish she’d post more, and I am sure I am not alone in this sentiment. One question I remember her asking is:

Do you actually have to like your students? Or  is it at least important not to dislike them?

What if there is a student who really pushes your buttons? Perhaps they are not even doing it on purpose, maybe it’s cluelessness, or just a bad match. I certainly have experience with irritating people right off the bat, without actually having done anything. (I am sure some readers are going to come and tell me that this never happens to them and everybody who meets them loves them instantaneously; my DH is one of those people. Let’s just agree that some people are just universally lovable and some are universally irritating. I am not universally lovable. Kudos to you if you are.)

We professors are human, and I can attest that there are plenty of temperamental professors; also, there are plenty of even-keeled ones. While being calm and acting dispassionately can be learned, and with practice in advising you become better at dealing with common advising issues, if you have a temper you might get really irritated. Even if you don’t show it, you know it and you feel it.

I would say that I really like the vast majority of my students. I feel responsible for and protective of them. I make sure they are not just productive, but that they seem balanced, happy, and healthy. I guess (hope?) that most faculty feel the same about most of their advisees.

But, very rarely, there is a student who just pushes all your buttons. All the interactions are accompanied by friction, there is an underlying current of mismatch, of irritation. You start dreading meeting the student. You find that you scold the student in front of peers once or twice, which you don’t want to do. It’s particularly unsettling if the student is actually reasonably productive. Then you feel like a total douche for constantly butting heads with them over minutiae, but it is getting on your nerves that the student is the only one who insists on using a graphics software/presentation software/presentation templates/text processor/compiler/operating system  different from the rest of the group because that’s just what they are used to and don’t want to use anything else (I hate software snobs). You want to be permissive, accommodating, but it is in the way of actually doing work the way you want to in your group, it creates problems with sharing of material, it undermines your authority with the group because you are constantly butting heads, and it seems like the student just cannot pick up on the normal clues that things are wrong or to generalize from recent conflicting situations; you have to be unpleasantly explicit with stupid minutiae all the time, over and over again. The student seems to barely notice; your veins are about to pop.

Then you know that you really truly dislike the student.

The question is whether you should continue advising them. For you and for them. If the only one irritated is you and you have plenty of Tums on hand, while they seem to be happy in oblivion, does it matter? Are you really an effective advisor if they get on your nerves? If they switch advisors, there is no guarantee that they wouldn’t irritate the next person similarly, especially if the stubbornness and general social cluelessness are truly an issue.

I think working with a student who really pushes your buttons is different than having a coworker who does so, because of the power differential. I don’t know that one can be a good advisor to a student they don’t like, just like I can’t believe you can be a good parent to a child you don’t like (plenty of examples say the latter is an awful predicament for the child).

But isn’t it shallow and frivolous to sever an advising relationship with a student basically saying “This is not working out. I think you might be happier elsewhere,” which is the advising version of “It’s not you, it’s me,” the ultimate bullshit. What you really mean is “You get on my freakin’ nerves, all the time. Why do I constantly have to fight with you about every single little thing about how things are done in this group? Why can’t you get it through your head that not everything is up for debate, not everything is up for negotiation, and you don’t know everything better than everyone else. Learn some respect and show some deference, because you think once you start working in industry anyone’s going to give a $hit about your personal software preferences? You think you will be able to install anything on your work computer? Get a home computer and install whatever the hell you want on it, I don’t care. Why is it that you are the only one everything has to be spelled out for, while everyone else seems to take it in stride? Why is it that you are the only one whose figures I have to ask be corrected 10 times, while everyone else just does it after I ask the first time? YOU. DON’T. KNOW. EVERYTHING. ALREADY. Shut up and try to learn.”

Phew.

Anyways…

Advisors are human. If you think they are infallible and immovable, that’s only because  they are pretending, to a degree, and some are better than others at it. Some let unbelievable shit slide. Others do too, then write irritated posts on the web under a pseudonym. But if you are a douche, they notice. If you think they are looking like they are fuming around you, that’s because they are. Listen to what they are saying. Their blood pressure may be dangerously high as a result of your stubborn-a$$ cluelessness. YOU. DON’T. KNOW. EVERYTHING. Shut up. Listen.

I wonder if professorial dudes ever experience these annoying examples of disrespect, of do just us professorial womenfolk have such precious gift bestowed upon us?

(N.B. This is usually a cue for CPP to come tell me that I am an awful human being and an even worse advisor, because he never has any problems with any of his awesome students at his elite institution, so don’t be alarmed.)

Musings on Grad-School Work Ethic

When you blog for a while, sooner or later you start revisiting the topics you discussed before. Some of them you visit multiple times. A few, ad nauseam.

One of these perennial conundrums is what the necessary skills are for someone to become a successful academic scientist or engineer. In particular, how much zeal, drive, motivation, whathaveyou, does a student have to have in order to get a PhD? I am not saying that they have to ever become a professor or even want to be one; just to finish a PhD, presumably funded on a research assistantship, teaching assistantship, or fellowship (i.e. not paying for the PhD out of pocket). (The usual disclaimer — I have experience with a physical science field at a major research university. This is a context in which I am interested.)

When I talk with my colleagues about students, there are two kinds of responses. On the one end, you have people who never say anything but the best about all their students; that usually means the colleagues choose not to talk with me honestly. In some cases, these colleagues appear to actually think all the best about their students, but it doesn’t mean that the colleagues are unusually fortunate to have exceptional advisees (I have met many of said advisees), but instead the colleagues have a combination of what I would call a low bar for student performance combined with a high belief in the good in people. I understand those who choose not to talk with me honestly, but I don’t understand the endlessly permissive and encouraging kind. I am simply too impatient, life is too short to wait for people forever to get their $hit together, plus I am responsible to funding agencies. Also, I don’t believe in people enough. Or, actually, I do; I do believe that most people would rather not work than work, and I believe there are few things that people who don’t want to work wouldn’t do in order to avoid doing work. What I don’t understand is why people who don’t want to do work elect to do a PhD, a degree that is arguably not mandatory to get. What I understand even less is why we in academia allow so many students who endured their PhDs with boredom and little effort to eventually graduate with a PhD. Getting a PhD could and should be a great time, a time when you do science and talk with other smart young people, go to conferences, and partake in pushing the cutting edge of human knowledge. Yet so many just… endure. The whole ordeal underwhelms them and they can’t wait to get out. Why? Why do the stupid PhD in the first place? They should have done something that doesn’t bore them instead; get some sort of job straight out of college, working regular hours, and spending their free time doing whatever they daydream about doing when they are not doing the research that they are supposed to be doing while in grad school.

The colleagues who talk with me honestly about their experiences with students all generally share the same sentiment: most students are “not very good;” it holds even at the very top places. That doesn’t mean that the students are not smart; there are plenty of intelligent people around. It generally means that the students are nowhere near as devoted to their work as we, their advisors, would like them to be. The thing is, I don’t think sane advisors expect complete and total devotion, or working 24/7; not even close. But we do expect sufficient work and sufficient devotion. I think if the students actually tried to work, but really work, 40 hours per week, a lot of work would get done. A. LOT. The problem is that most students in graduate school do not actually work even close to those hours. They sit and goof around more than they work. Those who put in the time for real are already ahead of the pack. They don’t have to kill themselves working, they don’t even have to work the hours of a grownup academic; they just have to work the hours of a normal grownup holding a secure and possibly somewhat mundane job (many admins at my uni come to mind).

Here are some examples of what irritates advisors:

1. Professor comes into their grad students’ office at something like 2 pm on a Wednesday or a Thursday. One of the students is playing a MMORPG. The student then proceeds to tell the advisor how he (the student) didn’t have enough time to do research because his teaching duties were taking too much of his time. Somehow, that plea would have been considerably more convincing if the advisor hadn’t just seen the student royally waste his time.  Also, this student rarely answers emails over the weekend. So he keeps his work strictly confined to the work week, making sure that work does not spill over into his free time. The fun, however, is apparently allowed to spill everywhere, such as into the middle of the work week.

2. Keeping regular hours at work is great, but they also have to be sufficient hours. A counter-example is a student who works regular hours, but they are 11-4 or 12-4. The output after nearly 5 years has been barely 2 papers (not enough for a PhD and well below typical group member output in that time). The student has of late been actively interviewing for jobs (as in, doing nothing but interviewing or cramming for the interviews); that’s all the student does these days, while being on a full research assistantship. The advisor has to remind the student that enough work for a PhD actually has to be done first. Before we say that the advisor is an awful human being and an even worse advisor, let’s just reflect for a second on how much time during regular work day one would be allowed to spend cramming for interviews anywhere in the fabled “real world” that academia is supposedly not a part of. Exactly none. So no,  it is not OK to drop research completely while interviewing, unless the student is entirely paying his or her way through grad school. No? Then  the student should actually keep working until done. But honestly, I am pretty sure the advisor would probably be much more understanding if this were a student who had previously shown strong or even sufficient productivity. By the way, this is another student who does not answer emails over the weekend.

Here is an example of a model (real) student. Note that nobody is talking about working 24/7.

The student is at the office at 9 and leaves at 5, and in the meantime actually works. In two years, the student has gone from one who was the youngest and the least prepared, to having a really impressive first-author paper already out, a couple of others in the pipeline, and generally now being the advisor’s go-to student for when something new and fun has to be tried quickly. In part, being in the office when the advisor is looking for someone to run crazy ideas by definitely helps with becoming the Golden Child. The advisor knew the student was smart from the get-go, but so are many others; the advisor is positive that the quick rise in competency and especially productivity has to do with the student having a strong work ethic. This student does answer the occasional email over the weekend.

By the way, I really hate people (students, colleagues, everyone) who don’t respond to emails during weekends. It doesn’t have to be instantaneous, but do check your goddamn email once a day over the weekend. Why is that so much to ask? Usually all I need is for a student to send me a file or clarify a  piece of data (if I send weekend emails to students, they are of the “Can you send me your PPT from last group meeting?” or “In Fig. 5 of the manuscript I am working on, what is the value of parameter alpha you used, it’s missing in the caption?”)

Another thing: in my view, one takes a vacation when one deserves a vacation, i.e., some work should be done between successive vacations. In my experience, the students who are most keen on having frequent out-of town long weekends and few-day vacations are also those who generally put in the fewest hours during the week. My honest gut reaction (don’t worry, I  keep it to myself) to that is “WTF are you so tired from that you constantly need to go on vacation?!”

I try to talk to my students, especially in group meetings, about the necessity of keeping regular hours and actually putting in enough hours. And I remind them that graduate school is not mandatory and it’s up to them to make it a successful experience and a good take-off ramp for the rest of their careers. I tell them that I am there to help if they are stuck or frustrated, but that they need to work hard and that how fast they finish and how many papers they have at the time is really up to them.

I am not sure what we as advisors can do to motivate people. I try to lead by example; I work a lot and I get a lot done. But for the most part all that my example has done is made people not want to do my job, which is fine. I think it boils down to whether or not the student is intrinsically motivated or not, wanting to adopt the practices that lead to growth and improvement. I think we as advisors can do little but encourage, talk, and at a certain point, if some threshold hasn’t been met, sever the relationship… Then the question becomes at which point is having an anemic performance during a PhD enough to tell a person “You really should not be doing a PhD in this group. For both our sakes.”

Question from Reader: Dishonesty in Fellowship Application

Reader Sameir had a question:

… I just found out that a student has copied my NSF proposal for his GRFP * and got awarded the fellowship. What should I do? On one side I think it is only a student and I should let it go, on the other hand this level of dishonesty is unacceptable.

Ouch.

Sameir, is it your grad student or an undergrad working with you and currently applying to grad school (presumably to go elsewhere)? Could you tell us a little bit about how the student got the proposal, and how you found out about him/her using the proposal for the fellowship? (I am just  asking for completeness.)

Blogosphere, what say you? What is the proper course of action for Sameir? Should the student be penalized and, if yes, how? Should NSF be notified?

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* GRFP: NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program

Workaholic Geeky Nonsense

The semester is about to start. Which means that the summer is over. Which means that, in order to fully get into all the fall proposal writing around all the undergrad course teaching and insane service, I have to get these last two papers done and submitted, like, yesterday.

So…

Over the past few days, I worked  12-14 hour every day. Really focused, high-productivity, long days. I fuckin’ loved it. I love working non-stop, and if it were possible to somehow forgo sleep, at least temporarily, without loss of sanity of productivity, I would love to be able to just go-go-go.

Man, I love working.

When I don’t waste my time and energy worrying about whether or not I am appropriately recognized and admired, the bottom line is that I love reading papers, looking at data, analyzing data, coming up with mathematical models and appropriate algorithms for their numerical implementation, troubleshooting, making graphs, writing papers, and talking with graduate student about every single one of these aspects of my job.

I love doing science.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I am actually a good role model for inspiring people to leave academia. More than one student has said that seeing me and the insane schedule that I keep has convinced them that mine is a job they don’t want.

I read all the time all around the web about there being a surplus of PhDs who all think they will be professors, who are then all surprised when that proves impossible and are also for some reason oblivious to the fact that there are other things they can do. Apparently, I do my part — without even trying! — to discourage young’uns from pursuing an academic career ; the few who were not discouraged have done very well for themselves!

I don’t know what it is that other professors do that (supposedly) makes all of their students and postdocs think they want the professor’s job and there is nothing else. I bet the professors look really cool while doing their job. Luckily, I never look cool, especially not while doing my job.

How do I achieve this elusive goal of discouraging all but a few? You can do it, too!
Look sleep-deprived and incessantly drink coffee, having mild panic  attacks when a coffee cup approaches empty. Send emails before 7 am and after 11 pm. Respond to their emails immediately no matter what time of day or week. Share with them when the deadlines are and name all the things that depend upon certain grants being renewed (their food, shelter, tuition, and health benefits). Work with them closely on every paper and proposal and let them know how much effort goes really, truly into every piece that is meant to be read and understood by others while bearing your signature. Keep track of all the details of all of their many very different projects in your head and be able to give each of their talks at a moment’s notice with no prep whatsoever. Push them to do better and lift them up and don’t let them give up on themselves or their work. Forward them emails from industrial collaborators about job openings. Encourage them to attend all manner of professional workshops to broaden their soft skill set. Sleep less than any of them and take less vacation than any of them.

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In life, there are various quantifiable aspects that change over time. More often than not, it’s not the value of the function that we care about, as much as the sign of the first derivative. Sometimes a positive first derivative is good, sometimes a negative one.

ComicAug28_2014_Derivative

If anyone tells you that calculus is stupid or useless, you can print this post, crumble it into a ball, and shove said ball into the mouth of the heretic spouting such nonsense. Calculus is an almost absolute goodness, only surpassed by complex calculus... And calculus on spheres, donuts, and other cool objects, also known as differential geometry… *geekgasmic sigh*

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You know how The Oatmeal made me grumpy the other day? It’s all forgiven, as I came across an old classic — The Motherfucking Pterodactyl comic. And there is even a song (below)! It is hilarious,  but view at your own peril.

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Lastly, among the comments to the last post emerged the awesomeness that is this guide to acting like a Minnesotan. It has a very Monty Python feel!

http://www.mnvideovault.org/mvvPlayer/customPlaylist2.php?id=15519&select_index=7&popup=yes#0

Start Date ASAP

When I was last hiring a postdoc, I had no problem waiting several months for the candidate I really liked. Sure, we all want the person to start the second the grant starts, but it’s understandable that it would unlikely happen that a good candidate  would have his previous appointment end simultaneously with the grant money appearing in my account. The postdoc had been awesome and recently became a PI.

Now, I have a student who is getting ready to graduate, but we are waiting for him to find a postdoc. The student is excellent, one of the best I have ever had. We were able to get the student a very unique and valuable semester-long opportunity, but he had to commit to be here for the whole semester and he did.

Lo and behold, very recently there emerged a postdoc opportunity with a group that had previously said they would not have the money, but now they do and they basically want him to start ASAP.

A couple of years ago, another colleague also pressured one my students to finish ASAP and come do the postdoc; the colleague was relentless in checking “Is he done yet? When is he going to be done?”As a result, the student didn’t finish some work that he had promised to do, and the work will likely never be completed.

I am not even angry, I know people need to move on with their lives. And this student has been great and productive.

I just hate the situation.

I don’t expect the corporate world to give a fuck about what the institution where their soon-to-be employee got their PhD degree and I, the professor who trained said employee, want or need because we were the ones having in place contingencies so the student would be able to eat and pay the rent while looking for a job. Companies care about their own bottom line, and for the most part a student joining a company is leaving academia for good. It would be best if the student didn’t have to burn any bridges in the process, but to many a big paycheck is worth a bridge or two.

But it really pisses me off when fellow professors, who really should know better, don’t give a $hit about the things that the student promised to do in the next few months; all they care about is that the new postdoc materialize at their institution and start working on their stuff ASAP. The arrangements that were in place to take care of the student for the next few months in the event of no follow-up position are of no consequence. Where is fuckin’ professional courtesy? Why are you putting the screws on another person’s student, making the colleague a monster who won’t let the student move on with life if they don’t adhere to your schedule, and forcing  the student to be a no-good promise breaker?

If I really like the applicant, I will wait for him or her a reasonable amount of time. There is nothing worse than a bad postdoc (except perhaps two bad postdocs), but a good postdoc is worth his or her weight in gold and can energize the whole group. I will wait several months for such a candidate. Better to have  a good candidate for 2.5 years than a mediocre one for 3. And I understand that there is another colleague at the other end of that transaction, one who has trained my candidate so well,  and that I should be respectful of both the candidate and the colleague and try to accommodate their arrangements.

But apparently I am alone in this attitude and selfish is the way to go.  And I cannot really blame the student for wanting to grab onto the opportunity.

Impatient

I have been a slacker blogger… But for a good reason! A lot of technical writing is happening these days, making sure papers variously get submitted/revised/come out before the proposal-writing lockdown commences in August.

But there’s always time for a little rant!

If you have been reading my blog for some time, you might remember that I think one of my defining qualities is impatience. I am intense and a real pain in the butt, so says pretty much everyone who knows me. I am irritated when people talk really slowly or can’t get to the point fast for whatever reason. I have colleagues whose emails I dread receiving, because they always respond to even the shortest of inquiries with multi-screen emails and I just get queasy at the thought of parsing through all that verbiage.

I do try (and unfortunately sometimes fail) to be cognizant and respectful of the fact that not everyone has the same priorities or timelines as me. However, for my own sanity, I try to stay away from people whose relevant timescales are longer than mine by an order of magnitude or more.

When it comes to writing papers, it seems I want them written up and published more passionately than most people I work with, even when those other people are first author. That’s a source of puzzlement and irritation on my part, perhaps on theirs as well.

First of all, I love working on papers. I love doing the figures, writing the text, I love all of the aspects of organizing my thoughts into something fluid and cogent. And I LOOOVE the process of uploading and submitting a paper. It’s like Christmas morning every time. I felt this way even when I was a student.

These days, my students do the uploading and paper tracking for the most part. I consider it part of training to learn to correspond with editors and referees, to fight for the publication of their work (I oversee and edit all the correspondence). But I almost never see in my students that crazy enthusiasm, which has followed and still does every submission on my part; it confuses and saddens me.

I wonder to what extent I and the likes of me really understand what motivates most graduate students to go to graduate school.  I mean, I understand intellectually — in my field, most people want to put in the time to get a degree that leads to a well-paying job — but I don’t think I actually get it at my very core. Many students have multiple hobbies to which they devote considerable energy and time. Graduate school seems just another thing they do, and not a particularly important one at that, or one that brings them much joy. Basically, it’s like a job. They do what they are told competently, but very little creativity goes into the work. I see very little pride about their work, very little desire to show their cool contributions to the world. This is very different from how I felt about graduate school or how I feel about my job even now, with the ups and downs and funding uncertainties and post-tenure slump. Being in grad school is a freakin’ privilege!

This post is motivated by a recent experience with a former group member (FGM) who is now a junior faculty member elsewehere. We are writing up our last paper together, one that should have been published a year or more ago, but FGM was preoccupied with job applications, then moving, getting settled into their first year teaching, etc., so I didn’t want to get on their case. But it’s time, and FGM really needs papers (I know they do, I hope they realize how much they do), yet working with them on this last one has been like pulling teeth. I did a large share of edits, a very lengthy referee response (3 referees), not to mention cleaning up the text and have recently had to redo a figure in a way that completely pissed me off because, while I love fiddling with figures, I am far too senior to do things like this (such as doing a point-by-point capture of experimental data from a graph in another group’s paper, to which we compare our theory). I was pissed because I was doing this work as I apparently wanted this manuscript submitted and done more than FGM, the person who is first author and considerably junior to me, and they were acting nearly disinterested. I have had to prod and poke them to submit every revision.

Another student told me that I am the only professor he knows who actually works on the figures themselves;  everybody else’s advisors just mark corrections on the paper and do that as many times as needed. I do go back and forth with students several times, but then at some point I need minor layout tweaks and to try different combinations of panels or colors etc. and with all but one or two students, who seem to have a naturally good aesthetic sense and are able to produce appealing visuals on their own without excessive intervention, it’s sometimes much less painful for me to do the tweaks than for us to exchange 6 gazillion emails.

So WTF do I want? Good question. I seem to whine about doing figures, yet also enjoy doing them.

Doing science and getting data is hard. Writing papers and making figures is necessary, but it is also much easier than doing science and and is super fun (for me, at least), and I don’t know why junior folks don’t savor it. Savor it, damnit!

What I want is for my trainees to take pride in their work and to be hungry to publish their work. I want them to chase me and nag me to finish the paper and to send me 15 versions of each figure and to be engaged in writing their work up for publication. I don’t expect them to do anything perfectly, but wish they would want to do things, on their own, without prodding. I know being effective at presenting takes time and practice, but I don’t think you can learn to have a fire in the belly.  Apparently, what I need are students with chronic indigestion…