Monday, November 05, 2007

Terminal Advising, 2

Topic: The different ways that advisors deal with graduating students or departing postdocs in terms of continuing research projects. The ‘data’ on which this post is based represent an amalgamation of the experiences of several colleagues and me.

Two scenarios representing the best and worst case examples (from the point of view of the advisor), both of which involve a former advisee moving on to another position that involves research, are:

Best case scenario: The departing person is a creative and productive individual who contributed significantly to a shared research project and who is either moving on to research projects that are entirely their own or who is taking the ‘old’ research in new directions. In the first case, the advisee intellectually owns the project, and although there are likely some rules about archiving research materials, there should be no problem with the departing person's taking the research project with them. Even in the latter case, most of us are more than happy to help our former advisees continue working on shared projects and for them to take relevant research materials with them (again, leaving archived copies of some materials – e.g., notes – as required by university/funding/ethics requirements). It is in a former advisee’s best interests to become independent as soon as possible, but in some cases it can be important or necessary to continue existing projects for some time.

[This post is told from the point of view of the advisor, although there are probably cases of evil advisors cutting off excellent advisees from their promising research for nefarious (selfish) reasons. I am not personally familiar with such situations and I hope they are extremely rare.]

Worst case scenario: A marginal student/postdoc demands to continue working on a particular project although he/she has not demonstrated the ability to take the research any further, at least not independently. If the project was not their original idea, even if the student/postdoc has provided some data (and is therefore a co-author on publications), it is not their project to take, intellectually or physically. This particular scenario has resulted in problems ranging from illegal/unethical situations (former advisees taking research materials without permission) to uncomfortable interactions (telling a former advisee that you aren’t willing to continue working with them).

It is difficult to tell an advisee that you don’t want to continue working with them after they leave your institution. Even if there is historical evidence to show that in general you are happy to continue working with former advisees, you will seem like an evil, grasping ogre who is selfishly trying to keep for yourself all the glorious rewards that obscure basic science research can provide. And what do you do if you have several advisees all finishing their degrees/projects at about the same time and you are not treating them all the same in terms of your willingness to work with them after they leave?

And then there are the complex intermediate situations: In one recent case involving a colleague, a very talented and hard-working former student is demanding that the former advisor and fellow researchers not be coauthors on his publications, even though everyone contributed ideas and work to the project. It remains to be seen whether this demand will be met. In general, being unethical and manipulative (“I thought you wanted me to succeed”) is not a good route to take to demonstrate independence, and will likely backfire anyway (most people in their field will know that the advisor and other people in the research group were involved in the project and will wonder why they aren’t coauthors..).


There is no cookie-cutter approach to handling the terminal stages of advising, as each case is different and comes with its own special mix of pride, hope, and anxiety.

9 comments:

sylow said...

FSP, I have a question. Suppose a student/postdoc wanted to pursue his project after he left without the PI's consent and he started writing single author paper(s). Well, besides what you said (namely it would backfire since everybody in academic circles know PI thought out that project), the person in the question would be kaput because PI would stop writing reference letter for him and that is the end of his career especially if the PI is his PhD avsisor. I cannot imagine what people would think if your PhD advisor is not writing letter for you. What do you think?

Female Science Professor said...

I think you answered the question already. It would be a bad situation for all concerned. If, however, there was some reason why such behavior was justified, other reference letter writers could explain the situation in their letters.

Drugmonkey said...

sylow, some of the people evaluating scientists are not completely out of touch. There are people who, in a situation of a missing PhD or postdoc advisor letter are willing to consider the possibility that "fault" may be evenly distributed or accrue to the PI. So some people may not automatically assume that it means the applicant/trainee is bad. but they are going to want to know what the deal is, you better believe it.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why a person would refuse to write letters for a former advisee under any circumstances. The substance of the letter is only what occurred during that person's tenure in your lab. Why would something believe their responsibility is done and they do not have to validate what appears on that person's vita via a letter just because they no longer want to? This is about people's careers, not the advisor's free time and convenience.

Female Science Professor said...

Which is worse: no letter or a negative letter?

sylow said...

Drugmonkey, it is understandable up to an extent if a postdoc mentor does not give you a letter (it could be due to the fact you only spent one year there and did not have time to collaborate sufficiently etc.) however if your PhD advisor is not giving you letter it will look awful because he is your scientific father essentially. You will not be hired by anyone in that case so no matter what you do you should not piss your PhD advisor off.

Female Science Professor said...

I doubt if any of my students think of me as their scientific father.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this thoughful post. Several issues come to mind. First, unfortunately, in biomedical science there are PIs who refuse to let departing postdocs take with them ANYTHING they have done in the lab, regardless of whose "idea" it was (in fact, I think in my field IDEAS are often overrated--what is limiting is usually the ability to explain the data in a consistent and exciting way). I view this an unethical and it can severely hinder a terrific postdoc who has to start over. This sort of aggressive paranoia by a boss is a sad thing.

The issue of what to do about overlap when all are of good will is also a tricky one. In my experience, it usually only is severe for the first few years, and then the advisor and postdoc diverge sufficiently that things ease. I advocate for close communication, heavy doses of goodwill, and some allowance by the advisor to let a new person get off the ground. Luckily I haven't had a serious situation develop with my own former postdocs, though I did have some rough moments with my generally quite generous former advisor.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

Hi - I recently discovered your blog, and I'm thrilled and will most likely start to read regularly. My husband is working on going back to school to get his Ph.D. in Chemistry (he currently) has a Masters). Do you have any advice for a spouse that will be working full-time while he is in school and perhaps wanting to start a family (Or could you refer me to a previous post that touched on this subject -- I know you are most likely a very busy gal.)

Thanks - Cate