I Used to Be Nicer

Apr 09 2012 Published by under advising, graduate school

Does anyone share this advisor-angst?:

When I was an assistant professor and establishing my research group, it was difficult for me to recruit excellent PhD students. I define "excellent student" as someone both willing and able to do PhD-level research, although I know there is a lot of subjectivity in that. I understood that many students didn't want to work with someone who didn't have tenure, but I had grants with funding for students and I had to show that I could advise students, so I accepted to work with almost any student who seemed interested. Some of these students turned out to be great, as great as any of the ones who worked with my more famous colleagues. Quite a few were not even very good but I dragged them along as best I could to their degrees. It was a lot of work and very stressful.

So time passed, I got tenure and got more established. I can now compete with some of the more senior professors for the "best" students. Of course there is variability in the research aptitude and work habits of even the "best" students, but I can now much more easily have a research group that mostly consists of smart and motivated students.

So what is the problem with that? Maybe nothing but sometimes I advise (or start to advise) a student who lags behind the others in some way, like motivation or research skill. In the old days (pre-tenure), I would have taken the time and made the effort to drag them to a degree, and now I don't, or can't. No time, mostly. I don't have the time to give them the amount of help they need although sometimes I try if I think I see something that gives me hope that a bit more time and help might get them over their slow start. If I don't see that, I tend to give up on them after about 1.5 years. Otherwise, 2-2.5 years and I give up.

My colleagues say that there are so many excellent students, don't fret about the ones who don't have the ability or maturity to succeed in grad school. I know they are at least partly right but something about it still bothers me.

When I was an assistant professor, I thought that later in my career, when I had advising successes under my belt, this would get easier and it would be more obvious that these situations didn't happen because I am a bad advisor. I thought that students would blame themselves more if grad school didn't work out for them. It's not like that though. Students who fail do not think it their own fault that they are failing. It's not like I want them to think they are losers and I do understand that it can be humiliating for students who have so far succeeded academically (but in classes, not in research), but I'd like them to be able to have more perspective and realize that getting a PhD just doesn't work out for everyone and it isn't always the fault of the advisor when things don't work out. I think I still have a lot of learn about being an advisor, or maybe students are all so different there is never going to be a time when I feel like I have it all figured out.

I guess I don't have any particular questions and am just wondering if this happens to others and if anyone else worries about it.

Yes on one, and yes on two. I think it is very common for tenure-track professors who are just getting established to attract a different type of grad advisee than more established (more famous) professors. I am sure that many advisors do a lot more to help students succeed when it's a matter of career life-and-death, but, as you describe, don't have the time to do this later, especially if your research group gets larger.

Should you worry about it? No, not really, unless you become a monster-advisor who chews up and spits out students at an alarming rate (it doesn't sound like that is the case). If you give students a fair chance (~2 years sounds fair) and then it doesn't work out, maybe you are helping them in the long run to find something that is a better fit for their interests and skills. This could be another advisor/project or something outside academia. It's almost always difficult, but it would be worse to drag them along for 4-6+ years and then decide they aren't going to get a PhD.

But I know that these situations are seldom clear-cut. You wonder if a little more time would make a difference, or if there is something different you could have done, and so on, but ultimately you come up against the reality of what is possible and even reasonable in terms of time and effort for students who don't seem to be making any progress in their research. I think a key point is the one about students all being so different, you may never "have it all figured out".

Some professors who have a "cookie cutter" style of advising, or a "sink or swim" philosophy, also seem to experience less angst when students don't make the cut and sink. That's not true in all cases, of course, but there are some apparently angst-free research groups that seem to run very smoothly, occasionally spitting out a student who doesn't work out, but otherwise producing a steady stream of PhDs. Or, at least, that's the view from outside. It's probably always more complicated than that. In any case, I don't think I could ever be like that, but the angst-free mode of advising does have its appeal.

No matter how many advising successes you have, no matter how "good" you are at advising some/many/most students, the advising experience in general is never going to be perfect, and it may never even be easy. There are just too many personality issues involved and situations we can't predict in advance, not to mention the difficulty/impossibility of predicting which students with perfect transcripts, amazing letters, and even undergrad research experience will do well in grad school.

So, my advice is to stay angsty enough about it so that you don't go too far the other way of not caring, and yet not so angsty that you lose confidence or the ability to enjoy your advising successes. I think that you are going to have to give up on the hope that more of your problematic students will realize it isn't (entirely) your fault.

But now I have a question. In terms of the general issue of whether we make "extreme" efforts to help struggling grad students, I wonder how much it matters:

(1) what the funding situation is for PI: that is, how much/little grant money you have, including funding for students; and

(2) what the employment situation is for a particular field -- I don't mean just in terms of tenure-track faculty positions, but speaking more broadly for other graduate degree-relevant employment opportunities.

If grant money and/or job opportunities are abundant vs. exceedingly scarce, does this affect your advising philosophy? Do issues related to grants affect how long you are willing to work with a struggling student? -- for example, if you have supported a PhD student for a couple of years and there's no way you could start over with a new student in that project, but the current student is really not working out, what do you do?  Drag them along or cut your losses? And getting back to the e-mail that started this post: Does it matter what your career stage is?

 

 

 

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