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

Like A Business

Aug 23 2011 Published by under advising, faculty, graduate school

In recent posts over at FSP, we have been discussing to what extent a professor should intervene if a student exhibits signs of possibly maybe (but probably not) needing to see a doctor. In the specific case described, an undergraduate student fell asleep during a meeting with a professor about the student's research project. Some commenters said that, despite the student's claim to be fine (not ill, not feeling faint etc.), the professor should have done more to insist that the student seek medical attention.

I don't want to talk about that specific case in more detail here, but one commenter's argument for more assertive intervention by the professor hinged on the opinion that we professors are supervisors and are therefore responsible for the physical and mental well-being of our "team members"; in this case, an undergraduate student.

Agree or disagree?

There is no doubt that we professors are managers in many ways. We supervise the work of our researchers, whether these are postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates, technicians, or others. Grants that we obtain pay the salary, benefits, and -- in some cases -- tuition of those we supervise. We fill out lots of forms.

And yet, there are differences. We are advisors, not employers. The employer is the university. If I have a problem with one of my graduate advisees (for example), I can't "fire" them in the way that employers can. I can remove myself as advisor, but if this occurs within the time-frame of their guaranteed support, my department has the responsibility of helping that student find another advisor, or facilitating the student's transfer to another department or institution. Similarly, if a student decides to change advisors, they can. In this way, they are treated more as students than as employees.

Perhaps the argument that professors aren't really employers or managers in a business or industry sense is analogous to the argument that students who are research and teaching assistants may (or may not, depending on your opinion) be "workers" in the same sense as employees who are not also students.

So, the question for discussion is whether (and/or in what ways) a professor has the same type and level of responsibility for the physical and emotional/mental well-being of their advisees as those in business or industry.

Certainly we professors are responsible for providing a safe, healthy, and fair working environment for our advisees, but what can/should we do beyond that? I know little of the non-academic world of work, and therefore have no idea how (or whether) an employer in industry would intervene in the personal life of an employee who showed signs of possibly/maybe having a health problem; for example, an employee who fell asleep during a meeting.

What, beyond asking the employee if they are OK, would/could a non-academic employer do? Is it really the same for a professor to ask probing questions about a student's health, as it is for an employer to ask an employee, or is it different?

 

 

33 responses so far

Who Talks?

A student reader wanted to present their thesis research results at a conference, but the student's advisor said no -- he would present the results, and the student couldn't even go to the conference. The student wonders why he/she couldn't give the talk or attend the conference.

The easiest way to find out would be to ask the advisor, but in the absence of this information, we can muse about some possibilities. Please add to the list if you know of other possibilities. I think it would be most useful if we confine ourselves to examples we know have occurred, but if you want to throw in some paranoid speculation, go right ahead (though it would be helpful if you noted that you are just speculating.)

Possible explanations:

1 - The advisor is on the tenure-track or otherwise needs the exposure (see point #4 in GMP's recent post). The student may need the visibility as well, but if the advisor doesn't get tenure, that isn't in the student's interest either. If this is the case, the advisor should just explain to the student: "This is really great work and I think it would be best for my tenure case and for the research group as a whole if I present it at the X Conference." Ideally, the student will get due credit for their work, will have other opportunities to 'own' the work (at conferences and in publications), and should feel some satisfaction that the advisor thinks the work is good and important.

2 - No matter what the career stage of the advisor, there may not be enough money to pay for the travel of both student and advisor. Some conferences -- particularly if they involve international travel and high registration fees -- are very expensive. If there is only enough money for some, but not all, people in a research group to go a meeting, the advisor will make decisions, some of which seem (or are) selfish. If it is important for the work to be presented (e.g., to show progress on a grant-funded project), and the advisor definitely has to go to the meeting (to chair a session, serve on a panel, attend a meeting-within-a-meeting, schmooze with funding program officers), the advisor will go and the advisee might not. Again, the advisor should just explain: "This is really great work, but I only have enough travel money for one of us to go to the X Conference, and I need to go for [these other professional reasons]". Note: As a a grad student, I paid my own way to some conferences in the US when I could afford to because otherwise I wouldn't have gone to the most important conferences in my field, so a separate question is whether the advisor would/can forbid a student to present their own work if they pay their own way.

3- If the advisor thinks the student won't do a good job with the talk, s/he may decide to give the talk to make sure it is presented well. This decision may be based on experience or speculation. If this is the reason for not wanting the student to give the talk, the advisor should be clear about the reason and proactively help the student improve for the future. (Yes, I know that advisors can and do give poor talks as well, but we are discussing here why an advisor might choose to present a student's talk instead of the student).

If the advisor is giving the talk on research primarily being conducted by a student, it may not be possible for the student to attend the conference if not giving a presentation. Depending on the source of the travel funds, their use might be contingent on active conference participation.

Mostly, I think the advisor should explain the situation and reasoning to the advisee, whatever the reason. And if that doesn't happen, it would be good if the advisee could ask for an explanation in a non-confrontational way. I know from the e-mails that I get from students that some are very reluctant to ask their advisors these types of questions, as if asking implies criticism, and perhaps fearing negative consequences of some sort.

These students may well have experience that shows this to be the case, and if so, perhaps the information could be obtained in an indirect way -- by asking more senior students, postdocs, or friendly faculty who are willing to explain some of the more mysterious aspects of professorial behavior and decision-making. In other cases, advisors might be happy to explain their decisions, and it just didn't occur to them that there were questions and confusion.

56 responses so far

Intersecting spheres

Jun 01 2011 Published by under advising, faculty, graduate school

A reader wonders:

What do you do if you and one of your advisees share outside interests that bring you into social contact off campus, and some of these interactions might affect your advisor-advisee interactions on campus?

That is, what if an advisor and an advisee (think: grad student, but could also be undergrad or postdoc) have a hobby or other outside interest in common and see each other frequently outside of work/campus? Perhaps these interactions are quite positive -- perhaps advisor and advisee become friends outside of work, owing in part to these shared interests.

Is there a problem?

There might be. I haven't been in this situation as an advisor, but here are some related questions for discussion, formulated based on additional information in e-mails I have received on this topic:

Does the beyond-campus interaction/friendship affect the advisor-advisee relationship in some ways that are unfair to other advisees?

It could, but I think there are ways to deal with any perceived inequity arising from external interactions with some (but not all) advisees, much as we advisors (should) deal with perceived issues related to the fact that it's normal to enjoy conversing with some advisees more than others. Perhaps with some students, all conversations are restricted to research and other academic topics, whereas with others, conversations may range widely to politics, movies, cats etc. As long as we are alert to the situation and are careful to be equally accessible and supportive of all advisees, this should not be a problem

As a grad student, I had some low-level anxiety that my grad advisor's shared interests with other advisees in certain outdoor activities (in which I did not participate, but they all did together) made him like them more, and that this would color his overall opinions and therefore his letters of reference.. but in the end, there was no reason to worry.

What about the dynamics of the advisor and advisee who share an outside interest? If you are sort-of friends off campus, do you switch off that aspect of your interaction when on campus?

This is where it will be useful to have reader input, as I have not encountered this myself. I can imagine that it could be awkward if you know something about your advisee's personal life -- maybe they are having a crisis, for example -- but you aren't sure whether to acknowledge this on campus, or pretend you don't (really) know because you don't necessarily have this level of knowledge about your other advisees.

A (too) simple answer would be to say that we advisors should just do our advisor-jobs the same way, whether or not we know the details of our advisee's personal lives and even whether or not we like them, and provide whatever professional support is necessary and appropriate in our role as advisor. More difficult would be deciding whether/how to use 'outside knowledge' of an advisee's emotional state when providing (or withholding) criticism of an advisee's work. If you know that an advisee is having personal problems, for example, should you hold back or behave as you would without the additional information/insight?

Speaking from inexperience, I would say to put on your advisor hat and have the professional conversations you need to have with your advisees about their work. Even though you might know that you will likely upset a fragile or sensitive student with criticism (however kindly worded), or you might suspect that you will harm your beyond-campus friendship with an advisee (by exerting your authority as an advisor), you aren't doing an advisee any favors by withholding feedback about their work. If you give a struggling student advice that is constructive -- e.g., here's what you need to do to improve, and here are some suggestions and guidelines (perhaps to be worked out more fully in discussion) -- this might help the student more than if you tread lightly around them, not wanting to upset them.

But that's easy for me to say -- I am not in that situation. So, I am interested to hear from those who are: advisors and students.

20 responses so far

The Normal Advisor

May 17 2011 Published by under advising

A reader, Dr. Z, has been feeling a little sad that Z's PhD advisor didn't congratulate Z on a recent honor: Z was elected a Fellow of a professional society. Z thinks a "normal" PhD advisor would have congratulated a former student who received such an honor.

"Normal" isn't a word typically associated with PhD advisors in general, but we have to consider this situation in context. Would most PhD advisors congratulate their former advisees on attaining a rather prestigious award or other significant honor? (I know that being elected/selected Fellow varies in importance in different professional societies, but assume that the scenario involves a prestigious example).

First, the PhD advisor would have to notice. The award/honor would presumably therefore be of an academic sort or a high-profile industry/government/foundation award such that it is reasonable to expect a professor in a particular field to notice. Some people keep track of these things; some don't. My former PhD advisor, for example, does not.

Then, if the PhD advisor knows about the honor, s/he has to remember to send -- and make the effort to send -- a congratulatory message, rather than just waiting for the next conference for an in-person congratulations.

It used to bother me that my former advisor did not proactively support me (post-graduation) in the ways that some other grad advisors support their former students. As a member of various committees for professional societies and such, I commonly see grad advisors who continue to support and promote their former advisees. Mine didn't. I am of course grateful that he wrote positive enough letters that I was able to get a faculty position, but at times -- early in my career -- I felt at a bit of a disadvantage in some respects.

But: I was fortunate to have other colleagues who supported me in much the same way that some former advisors do. This completely made up for the lack of such involvement/interest by my advisor in my post-graduation career. It is important to have such supporters, and they don't have to be your former advisor.

Years later, when I'd been doing pretty well in my career for a while, my former advisor told me he was proud of my accomplishments, that I was one of his most successful advisees, and he picked me to give the citation when he received a big award recognizing his career contributions. Some advisors are more proactive about being proud of their former advisees, and some are not; in the latter case, it doesn't mean they don't care -- they just might not make it obvious that they do (until they retire).

I like to think that I am a little more aware of these things than my former advisor is, but I'd also like to think that former advisees don't sit around feeling bad about a lack of sufficient notice on my part of their post-grad school careers and lives. And if I ever overlooked something -- like an award -- I would be happy to get an e-mail from a former advisee saying "I just got elected as a Fellow of the Science Society of Scientists", and I would reply with sincere congratulations, pleased that a former advisee wanted to share this great news with me.

Grad advisors: Do you follow the exploits of your former advisees closely? Have you ever sent a congratulatory e-mail on hearing that a former advisee had received an award, promotion, or other honor? (And if so, do you consider yourself normal?)

Former advisees: If you mostly got along with your grad advisor, how would you feel if your former advisor did not congratulate you about an academic honor? Of course there is a vast array of grad-advisor interactions and personalities and so on, so this is a somewhat meaningless question, but the original question was sent by someone who was bothered by the lack of a congratulatory message from the former advisor, so I ask it anyway.

24 responses so far