Archive for the 'students' category

No Jerks Allowed, with some exceptions

A reader ponders yet another mystery of advising, in this case graduate students:

One of the prospective grad students who would likely have worked with me if he had come to my institution accepted another offer instead. That's fine but I heard later that my current students were very relieved that he didn't accept our offer because they thought the guy was a total jerk and they didn't want him in the group. The fact that I wanted to work with him therefore meant that either didn't know he was a jerk (meaning I am clueless) or that I didn't care (meaning I think that as long as someone is smart, it's OK if they are a jerk). Either way this was bad for morale in the group. Or so I am told.

I did know that the prospective student was arrogant and I do care about group morale, but I don't think we can really tell what someone is like based on a short visit on a recruiting weekend. Should I use this as a teachable moment and explain that to my group? It occurred to me that I might end up wrecking their morale even more if I explained myself because wouldn't it be like saying I actually don't care what they think? There is a grain of truth to that, but just because I don't agree with their grad recruiting opinions doesn't mean I don't respect their opinions in general. In fact, I thought some of them were jerks when they visited, but they work well in the group and we get along well, I think. So it's complicated and I'm thinking of just not saying anything and assuming this is just one of those things that grad students need to complain about but it isn't a vital issue I need to address with them. Your thoughts?

This reminds me of something. It reminds me of when I was a grad student and a prospective student visited to check the place out. He was obnoxious, even by the standards of a department that was already overpopulated by gigantic egos and extreme levels of arrogance. His visit became notorious among the grad students, and we all hoped he would accept another illustrious offer that he made sure to tell us about.

But he didn't. He came to Our University. And he turned out to be a very interesting person with a great sense of humor. He was well-liked and made a lot of friends. Reader, I married him.

So, I come down on the side of believing that you can't really tell a lot about a grad student from their behavior during a recruiting visit. I am sure that some who display jerkish behavior during such an event are in fact pervasively obnoxious people and will be forevermore, but that is not necessarily true of all who give that impression.

Anyway, the main question is whether the advisor should have a chat with the grads about their grumblings on this particular issue (assuming the source of information is reliable about such grumblings) or assume this is a nano-tempest that can be ignored while you focus instead on the 57,892,345 more important things that need to be done now, or yesterday.

I guess I'd be tempted to ignore the issue, though it might be good at some point to devote a group meeting to general issues of Doing Research/Working With Others etc. Maybe there are issues that need explanation or discussion, even if you have no  intention of justifying all your decisions about grad recruiting and advising.

That suggestion, which may or may not be helpful, is based on the assumption that the research group is overall functioning well, with most or all students progressing towards their degree with no more than the usual amount of anxiety and complaints. If, however, this bit of unhappiness is symptomatic of something more serious, then the question becomes: How do you (the advisor) know if that is the case, and what can/should you do about it, if anything?

Advisor-readers: How do you know what the general mood is of your advisees, as a group? Can you tell from a general sense of camaraderie (or lack thereof)? From the number of complaints? Do you ask directly whether some/most/all group members get along? Do you gauge the mood by getting indirect information (for example, from someone who tells you what so-and-so said at the pub)? I am not asking whether you care (although that might be interesting as well), but whether you have what you think is a reasonably accurate sense for group dynamics among your advisees and between your advisees and you, the advisor.

30 responses so far

CreepPI

Feb 29 2012 Published by under advising, faculty, harassment, students

An undergraduate recently wrote to me about a difficult situation. I don't want to reprint her entire e-mail because it might have identifying details, so I will describe the general situation below (I told her that I would do this, and have her consent). I will, however, use the student's term for the professor in question; that is, she uses the term PI, indicating the professor in charge of the lab in which she does research, but not someone who closely advises her research.

This student has been doing research in a lab at a large university for several years, and her work is going well -- so well, in fact, that she recently gave a presentation on her research at a conference. The conference was far from her university, so the various members of the research group who attended the conference stayed in a hotel.  The student was pleased to get to know the PI of her research group better at this conference, as she seldom interacts with him in the course of her research in his lab. Her happiness at attending a conference, presenting her results, and having more interaction with the PI turned into anxiety when he texted her to ask if she wanted him to come to her hotel room one night. She did not text him back, and she has not talked to him or seen him since this incident.

This part is in the student's own words:

I really enjoy the research that I'm working on, and I love the group I work with, so quitting and finding another paid undergrad position seems unreasonable. I wouldn't put it past my PI to never speak of it again, but if he does, I'm afraid I might say something wrong. .. I want to go to grad school and expect to get a letter of recommendation from him in the near future when I start applying.

Have you ever been in a situation like this?  What should I do?

I know that this letter will seem very familiar to those who have experienced similar situations and/or who have read about other incidents like this in other posts. I wanted to post this anyway so that this student can get a range of responses and advice, which I expect may range from "Don't do anything" to "Report him. He's a creep and may be doing this to other students."

Although in some ways the situation is clear-cut (professors should not proposition their students), it is a difficult situation for the student. She has been doing her work, doing it well, and getting excited enough about research to want to apply to graduate school. Now she is worried and doesn't know what to do.

I hate to think about this student feeling anxious when she is doing her research, and worrying about asking this professor for a letter of recommendation for graduate school. Will this incident factor into his opinion of the student? Unless the professor proactively apologizes sincerely to the student, says he has never done anything like this before, and affirms that he thinks highly of her work, she is likely to worry about this until she graduates, and perhaps beyond.

The student worries about saying "something wrong" if the PI brings up the incident. If he does bring it up, I think that saying "That made me uncomfortable" is a perfectly reasonable thing to say, whether or not he apologizes. It tells him that he crossed a boundary he shouldn't have, and that his behavior had consequences. An undergraduate student shouldn't have to tell that to a professor, but this entire situation shouldn't have happened in the first place. If the student then turns the conversation to research issues and/or career plans (graduate school), maybe they will be back on track with their professional relationships.

Even so, I think it might be worth asking around about this professor, especially if the student feels comfortable talking to others in the research group -- a female grad student or postdoc, for example. If this professor is in a habit of propositioning his female students and creating a climate of anxiety in the research lab as a result, this information needs to get to someone in authority, if not the department chair, then an organization on campus that can provide information and advice. It would be good if the text messages are still on the phone.

But mostly I hope that readers who have dealt with similar situations can provide some ideas and support, to help this student through this anxious time.

 

 

 

77 responses so far

Honestly..

Sep 27 2011 Published by under advising, students

Below are excerpts from an e-mail I received from a reader. After much thought, I decided to "hide" part of the e-mail, even though doing so may make the resulting comments less useful to the person who e-mailed me. Before presenting the e-mail, let me explain why I am not including certain adjectives.

The e-mail is about graduate students/postdocs from a certain part of the world; in fact, I don't think it will be difficult to figure out which part of the world is in question. I can relate to the scenarios described, but have not found these problems to be quite so confined to students and researchers from one particular part of the world. Unfortunately, these problems can be universal (and I am including Americans in that universe), although the person who e-mailed me presents a convincing case for success advising a diverse, international group with the notable exception of students from a particular part of the world.

With that introduction, here is the e-mail and a respectful request for advice:

I seem to have the same fundamental problem in all cases: I ask the {deleted} researcher to do a task. He/she nods. The task doesn't get done. I follow up. He/she slightly evades the question, gives some information about something else he/she has done, or even flat out tells me that he/she has in fact performed the task. I end the conversation, and check again more carefully and see again that the task is definitely not done. I realize that the scholar either (a) decided that I was making a dumb request, and thought it would be more polite to verbally accept the task but not do it, than to object outright, or (b) didn't know how to do the task but thought it was culturally unacceptable to ask the appropriate questions to learn. But I don't know whether it was (a) or (b) and I don't know how to find out. I've tried explicitly laying out options (a) and (b) and asking the scholar in question, but all I get is more evasive but generally polite and affirmative answers. I've tried conducting these interactions verbally and in writing. I've tried being nice, I've tried being firm, I've tried threatening. I've tried explaining very explicitly that I have read about their culture, that I know they feel it is rude to say no or to object, but that here, in American culture, it is much worse to say something that is untrue, and that I welcome well-considered objections or questions. But I just can't figure out how to get honest (by American standards) answers.

.. I don't know how to handle this: how can I trust a researcher with $1M equipment, if every single question I ask is answered with "yes", and if I can't trust the researcher to tell me truthfully whether they have actually performed X task?

How can I break this cycle? I guess the obvious answer is that I'm an idiot to keep hiring {deleted}. But I can't bring myself to believe that.There are many brilliant and extremely hard working scientists in {that part of the world}, and I feel that there has to be some way to enable them to function productively in America. After all, the labs work smoothly enough there in {deleted}, and fantastic science is performed, and fantastic papers are written. How can this happen, if the researchers there aren't honest with each other? They must be honest with each other, but somehow I am failing to ask the right questions to get the honest answers here in my own lab.

Do you have any suggestions? Do you think any {deleted} readers of your blog {from that part of the world} would have any useful insight?

Readers? No matter where you are from or where you are now, if you have any positive or negative experiences with advising or collaborating with students and researchers from very different cultures, do you have any advice?

For reasons related to my incomplete anonymity, I prefer not to address this question directly from personal experience, although I will say that I have had a not-too-long-ago experience with a student -- not from the same part of the world as the one my correspondent describes -- who was unable or unwilling to give (apparently) honest answers to even simple questions and requests. I never did solve this problem, so it makes more sense for me to ask for advice than to give it.

This is not an invitation to bash people from a particular part of the world. The general question is how to deal with advisees who don't give you straight answers, including when it is critical for them to do so.

I didn't include the entire e-mail, but my impression of the person who wrote it is of a caring, thoughtful person who really wants to be a good mentor and who has tried many different approaches to improve the advisor-advisee relationship. I therefore hope that, despite my deletion of {a part of the world}, there will be some constructive advice from other readers about breaking through the cultural communication barrier in the advisor-advisee relationship.

28 responses so far

Author Credit Check

Sep 12 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school, publishing, students

A graduate student wrote and asked for advice; the e-mail is excerpted here:

I was hoping for some advice on dealing with another student in my research group, particularly in regard to author credit on a paper we submitted (where I was first author). We typically put the names from members of our group on our papers, because every member of the group helps out in some way.. This PhD student (who is senior to me) was supposed to help me with the paper, but came to meetings and did little else, avoiding meeting with me separately. Towards the deadline, this student sent out emails saying he was going to work on particular sections, and do an entire review of the paper, but he never completed either and silently let the deadline pass without any contact (without even an apology).

How would you deal with such a situation?  In particular, this bothers me because I helped this student with his [recent] submission .. by contributing ideas, writing and editing, and he did not reciprocate. I'm a new graduate student, and this is my first paper where I'm first author. I'm not really even sure of my role here. Who really has control over author lists on papers? Should I bring it up with our supervisor, and in what way? Does it really matter if he's credited as 5th (or so) author if he didn't contribute anything? I don't want to rat out a fellow student (who may be having problems), but I also don't like the idea of this student capitalizing on the rest of the group's work without contributing to it.
I don't know the dynamics of this research group, but it would be good if there were a way to have a general discussion about this topic with the advisor. Maybe, without ratting out the delinquent student, there is a way to ask questions about how authorship is decided.
If everyone-is-included-no-matter-what is just the way it is, it's not in this student's interests to single out a fellow student as a malingerer. If the slacker student has a systematic problem, the advisor likely knows and will have to deal with it in other contexts.
But other readers may disagree, perhaps reasoning that authorship is not an automatic right but one that should be earned in some way. I agree with this, but I am thinking about what is reasonable for a new graduate student to do in this situation.
The question of who gets to decide authorship order is an interesting one. Of course, different fields have different norms for authorship order, but in cases (such as the one in question here) in which inclusion and ordering relate to contribution (first = primary), some decisions have to be made.
In theory, the primary author should decide, and should be fair about this decision. Also in theory, the resulting decision shouldn't matter if the primary author is a student or a much-published professor, although in the case of a student who doesn't know the "authorship culture" of their fields -- e.g., who is a co-author, who gets a nice acknowledgment, and who is not included -- it's good to have a discussion about this with more senior people, perhaps getting more than one opinion. In some cases, authorship decisions about inclusion/exclusion and order may not be straightforward.
Different research groups, however, may have different philosophies about this, including possibly the one in question, in which all publications are group publications. In that case, it seems prudent to explore how hard-and-fast the everyone-as-coauthor custom is. Are there ever exceptions?
Does anyone have additional/different advice for this student?

26 responses so far

Sidekicks and bond strength

Aug 02 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school, students

A reader wrote wondering if the strong bond that forms between some male advisors and male students ever happens between male advisors and female students. For discussion, we could also consider the cases of female advisors/male students and female advisors/female students, but *important* for all possible cases, let's only consider platonic, professional relationships.

The reader who wrote to me used the term 'sidekicks'. I don't think this is a good word to describe this particular situation, but it makes a zippy (albeit possibly cryptic) title for a blog post.

Historically, strong bonds between male advisors/male students in the physical sciences and engineering have been most common because there have been so few women. In recent years, however, there are increasing numbers of women, particularly at the undergraduate and graduate levels, so there are more opportunities to evaluate advisor-student pairs in which one or both are female.

There are personality issues involved in advisor-student "bond strength", of course. Some advisors don't form strong bonds with any students.

But among those who do: what makes an advisor and student 'click' in such a way that they act like more like colleagues than professor and student? Similar personalities, drive, work ethic, cultural background.. other? And is gender a major or minor factor?

My own answers would be: similar drive and work ethic as factors, and gender is irrelevant in these cases.

A question for SP readers: Have you ever formed a particularly strong working relationship with particular students (as an advisor) or with a particular advisor (as a student)? What do you think the major factors were?

30 responses so far

Nothing to Prove

May 10 2011 Published by under advising, sexism, students, women in science

Here is an intriguing situation, with a question for discussion:

A female science professor is asked by a colleague to be on the examining committee of one of the colleague's doctoral students. The doctoral student has told the FSP to her face that he does not think that women are good scientists, and that women should not even do certain kinds of science (particularly those involving field studies).

What should the FSP do?

  • Agree to be on the committee, be as fair and objective as usual, and show by example that she is a talented scientist whose expertise and advice could be quite useful to the student. Serving on this committee would be a good use of the FSP's time if the student saw an example of a professional, smart FSP doing her job, just like the MSPs.
  • Refuse to be on the committee. Why should she have to deal with a student who has explicitly demonstrated prejudice against women and who is unlikely to appreciate her expertise and advice? Serving on the committee would be a waste of the FSP's time.

I deliberately removed information about the career stage of the FSP in order to present the most basic facts of the scenario, but it might matter whether the FSP is pre-tenure or tenured. I have experienced this exact scenario twice: once as an assistant professor, and once as an associate professor.

I hope the fact that I have not experienced it as a full professor means that there are fewer students who hold this view about FSPs (or at least who would state it openly), but it could mean that if you stick around long enough and acquire enough wrinkles, the student-skeptics will assume you must have learned something over all the years you've been a professor.

In the case when I was an assistant professor, I agreed to be on the committee. I did what was required of me as a committee member, and even went slightly above-and-beyond for one particular part of the student's research, but I never made any obvious progress in convincing the student that I was a 'real' scientist like his advisor. Every time we had a one-on-one meeting, the student made sure to tell me that he was only talking to me because his advisor made him do it. He was aggressive and confrontational ("What do you know that can help me?" A lot, actually..). I did not enjoy our interactions, but I fulfilled my responsibilities as a committee member.

In the case when I was an associate professor, I was inclined to refuse to be on the committee. Some of the student's research, however, was directly related to my expertise, so I sort of felt like I should be on the committee and said I'd do it. But then I found out that the student had scheduled his oral preliminary exam without consulting me about the day/time (he consulted the rest of his committee). I could have changed some things around to be available for the exam, but I decided not to, so I was replaced on the committee. Perhaps that was the student's intention all along, but it was a relief to me also to limit my interactions with him.

What happens to these people? In the first case, I never saw or heard of the student again after he got an MS and disappeared into the rest of his life. In the second case, the student got a PhD and eventually returned to his home country, where he has a job as a scientist.

I wish I had a happy-ending story of a miraculous change of mind. I wish I could say that I worked with these guys and we developed mutual respect and understanding, and they realized that women can be scientists, and in fact, it's not a big deal to work with one. Perhaps someone else can share a story like that? I can think of  a couple of mini-examples involving senior scientists, so I know such transformations can happen: FSP 1, FSP 2.

But back to the main question: What would you do: serve on the committee or refuse? And does your answer vary depending on your career stage?

 

37 responses so far

Abstract Rules

May 03 2011 Published by under advising, students

A few student-readers, both grads and undergrads, have written to me in recent months about errors that they have made -- not errors in research, but errors in following the (mostly unwritten) rules of what I will call 'research culture'. Now they fear that they have annoyed their advisors so much that they wonder if they should switch advisors, schools, fields, countries, planets.

I can't comment on any particular circumstance because of course a major factor in each case is the personality of the advisor and the specific details of each situation. But I do want to discuss this as a general issue, giving an example of one of these 'violations', and getting comments from readers on how serious you think such violations are.

One example that has cropped up a few times in my inbox and in my own experience occurs when a student submits an abstract or other type of conference paper without showing the text to the co-authors (that is, to the advisor and others involved in the research). And then the advisor and others find out and are angry, whether or not the abstract is accepted by the conference.

Years ago, when an undergraduate research student submitted an abstract with me as co-author and without showing me the abstract prior to submission or even telling me that an abstract had been written and submitted, I was mad because -- when I eventually read the abstract -- I saw that there were serious errors in content and writing. The student withdrew the submitted abstract on my request, before it was reviewed by anyone. I found it hard to believe that this student thought it was appropriate to submit this without showing it to me or the other co-authors, and I was disappointed that the abstract contained such serious errors.

When the student had asked me months before whether it would be a good idea to submit something to a particular conference, I had given a vague yes in reply. The student interpreted this as a green light to submit something without further input from me, but of course I was really only saying "This is, in theory, a good idea, but let's see what you come up with, if anything." Now I try to remember to specify to students, especially undergrads, that I want to see a draft before any submission of work in which I am involved. I am a quality control freak.

[Yes I know that unresponsive advisors who don't give feedback and delay submissions of abstract and papers can be a problem, but that's a separate issue.]

I am also a hypocrite, as I have submitted conference abstracts and papers and added names of people in my group without informing them all before I submitted the abstract. I do this if the abstract is based on a paper we've already written together, or if it is a review of several projects (e.g., for an invited talk). When presenting new material, I am more likely to consult my co-authors.

One could argue (rationalize) that it is not quite so bad for me to do this because I have written 57 million of these things and presumably know what I am doing, but it's not a good idea for an undergraduate to go rogue with their very first conference abstract. One could also mention that I am not relying on my co-authors for letters of recommendation in the future, whereas a student author may well need their co-author's high opinion and good will. That's a somewhat obnoxious justification, but is nevertheless the reality of some of these situations. Really, though, we should all show our co-authors the text prior to submission, no matter what our academic position and no matter how routine the content.

Some organizations (journal publishers etc.) make corresponding authors certify that all co-authors have read and approved a manuscript being submitted, but this may be less common for some conference submissions. Perhaps if an inexperienced student-author encountered such a question during submission of a conference abstract, it would be a signal to discuss the abstract with co-authors before clicking the "submit" button.

So, in the incident I described above, did I forgive the student or was the student's life and career ruined by my rage and the humiliation of the withdrawn abstract? I got over it, had a calm but forceful discussion with the student, and wrote decent letters to accompany graduate applications. The student has recently completed a degree in a graduate program at another university.

Here is my question of the week for readers:

If you were the advisor and a student submitted a conference abstract or paper without telling you (a co-author), would you be mad if the abstract is bad but not mad if it is good, or would you be mad no matter what? And if you were mad, would you be terminally mad, or would you get over it?

 

35 responses so far