Monday, February 25, 2008

Talking about Failure

Most professors who advise graduate students have had one or more students who did not do well, for whatever reason. I use the vague phrase "did not do well" to cover a wide spectrum of unsuccessful outcomes, including failing. Last year, I discussed some of the reasons why some students fail.

In the following discussion, I use the term "failures" to mean failed experiences advising graduate students, whether or not the failure was mostly/entirely the responsibility of the student, the advisor, the academic system, or factors beyond anyone's control.

Some recent conversations with colleagues made me think about how we talk about these failures. That is, how do we discuss (or not discuss), describe, explain, or justify this part of our academic life?

The simple answer is that it depends on context and audience. Many of us have stories to tell about some of our more exasperating and bizarre experiences advising students, and we talk about these experiences at various times, either by choice or when we are asked. The circumstances of a 'failure episode' might be difficult to explain simply* and without seeming defensive, but most other faculty will understand if the situation is described in a sincere and professional way.

For example, in a recent conversation, younger colleagues at another university told me about some of their problems with advising grad students. I could relate very well to what they were experiencing, as I had had similar problems over the years: e.g., students being paid an RA but doing no/little work. These colleagues said they were relieved to hear that others have had the same experiences, and that their problems didn't automatically indicate that they (we) are bad advisors.

I think that this was an important conversation to have. These failures can happen to anyone, no matter how experienced the advisor. However, it can be especially difficult for early career faculty because they don't have a long record (yet) of successfully advising students. When you've only advised a few students, the failures may loom large.

No matter how many students we have advised, we should never be so accepting of the fact that failures can and will occur that we don't try to learn from them (and of course prevent them if possible), but neither should anyone feel like a failure who sincerely tried to help a student. Hearing about the experiences of others can be useful in a practical way (e.g. sharing ideas) and also in an emotional way (e.g. not feeling like you are the only one with these problems), and I think we all need to have these conversations from time to time.

In another case, a professor at yet another university bragged about firing a student who was not putting in much effort. From the description of the situation, the firing seemed quite justified, but nevertheless it was shocking to listen to someone who seemed proud of failing a student. Everyone (faculty and students) who heard the boasting, which was repeated at least twice to two different audiences, felt either uncomfortable or angry. That was not a conversation that any of us needed to have.

* .. though sometimes it is very simple. As I have previously described, my Advisor's Guide to Advising a Heroin Addict is very short and very simple: You can't.


Speaking Out said...

How unfortunate that a professor actually brags about firing a student. In our research group, our advisor got rid of a postdoc by telling her that her project did not get funded. This is the typical way profs get rid of grad students/postdocs. What was upsetting to all of us is that this postdoc worked harder than any of us ever did. Our advisor said that she didn't do what he wanted. The truth was that his collaborator did not like the postdoc. She found out that the collaborator was lying about his research results and publishing those results with our advisor. She told the truth, but she got fired when the collaborator should have been fired. But since our advisor depends on samples from our collaborator, he did whatever the collaborator wanted. This is just an example how cowardly advisors can be. Politics in academia can be very ugly for sure!

Anonymous said...

Do professors ever acknowledge to each other that most of the burden lies with them in some instances? I'm a fourth year graduate student, and sometimes I think I'm still in graduate school IN SPITE OF my advisor.

This is not to say that I am not successful, I have passed my requirements and have two papers on the way, but his motivational talks are not motivating me and he freaks out when I want to talk about job options and post docs.

Chic Scientist said...

I think this is where either formal mentoring of young faculty - or informal networking if necessary - can play a huge role. In my experience, if you're a member of the good old boys club and you stand around the water cooler and chat about your day and all the stuff that is going on, you will learn from your senior colleagues that there are some trying times with some students, advisees, etc, and you will learn how to deal with these situations.

For example, I find thesis defense time to be very stressful: I (the advisor) was getting dumber and dumber as my first student approached her thesis defense. When I asked my colleagues about this, they all said,

"Oh Yeah. The dumbest day of your life is the day of their thesis defense. Then they go away to a postdoc and about a year later they email and thank you for all your critical feedback. It's kind of like living with a teenager."

If you're not having these conversations because you are not part of this club, which most women aren't, then the challenges posed by this job can create enormous personal stress, and you can feel like a total failure.

I am not a card-carrying member of the boys club here at my prestigious sweathouse, but I have been having lunch with other assistant professors from other departments who are at about the same stage as I am. (Yes, this is young and ignorant advising the young and ignorant.) In any case, some of us have now been promoted, and I can tell you that these lunches are enormously helpful in figuring many aspects of this job out. Two of my lunch buddies are women, and one is a man who is sort of a science outlier in his dept. We meet about once a week.

And to the anonymous commenter, YES good professors do continuously hash over how to handle situations and worry incessantly about their students. We know that this job is not all about us.

But unfortunately, the job does involve a lot of babysitting, which should be completely unnecessary. IMNSHO, graduate students are grown adults who need to take charge of their present and future, get their work done without prodding, write their papers without nagging from their bosses, etc.

Of course they need some guidance and need to be taught some things, but many of them rely too much on their advisors for every little thing. These kinds of students will never make it if they don't start figuring things out.

And if conversations with your advisor are freaking you out, wait until you get your first set of (mostly stupid) comments in reply to your grant application. Talk about the need for thick skin....

Ms.PhD said...

speaking out,

sounds very familiar to me.


I felt exactly the same way. I also graduated IN SPITE OF my advisor. You will, too. Just make sure you keep up with your other mentors (including FSP) as sources of advice, support, and guidance.


There are two sides to every story. At one point my advisor thought I was one of these failed students (I was his first student, and still his only student, to this day.)

When given the choice, I decided to fight, and they let me stay - so long as I was willing to jump through several additional hoops.

I've never been 100% sure it was the right decision for me to stay in science past that point, but I have done okay. I have my days.

My point being, there are a lot of ways to measure work.

At my school there [was] is a [continuing] pattern of kicking out female students in their ~ 3rd year, by failing them on their qualifiers or accusing them of various things like laziness or sloppiness.

('sloppiness' is the inability to just stand by and keep quiet when witnessing egregious ethical misbehavior of the sort Speaking Out mentions.)

I think it's perfectly fair to give warnings and threats and make expectations clear to students and postdocs, it is the only way.

What annoys me is when there is a lack of communication or the reason given is not the real reason.

Right now I'm dealing with a student who is consumed by wedding plans. While I know it is temporary and quite the norm (even for scientists!), it is very unprofessional and I'm not quite sure how to communicate this fairly, if at all.

I know this student is stressed out and feels torn and guilty about family pressure vs. work. While our work is pretty flexible in terms of when things get done, inconvenient absences are always noted.

The main problem always seems to be priorities, priorities, priorities. - and appearances. Sometimes appearing to work hard counts for more than the actual work. Other times, it doesn't matter how hard you work, if the results don't match the expectations.

K said...

This post makes me wonder.

A while ago I gave up on my PhD and switched to a masters. This was a very difficult decision for me and it was surprising for everyone who found out. When you make a change like that, you worry about all the questions that come with it. As it turns out, that was unnecessary.

No one has ever asked me why. Not my advisor, not the grad student advisor, the Chair, not my professors - nobody. At first this was relieving. Now it seems weird, almost surreal.

One reason for this could be that they're happy to see me go. Unsurprisingly, I don't think this is true. My work has been good, my grades great, and I've been since offered some nice positions in attempts to keep me. However, since no one ever asked why I'm going, these attempts to make me stay were off the mark (though appreciated).

So, when the faculty discusses my failure, what will they say?

Anonymous said...

What about getting over failure/disappointment/feeling like an imposter? Can a new PhD graduate overcome a less than stellar experience (such as a short list of publications, longer than average completion time, frustration with lack of equipment). Some research projects turn out to be hairier than others and sometimes it seems that luck can contribute quite a bit to the success of a graduate experience. Lack of funding when searching for a post-doctoral opportunity also seems to 'brand' one as a semi-failure. Getting a fresh/renewed start seems difficult. Your ideas on this subject matter? Your blog is awesome, it doesn't make me feel so 'alone'.

Drugmonkey said...

These colleagues said they were relieved to hear that others have had the same experiences, and that their problems didn't automatically indicate that they (we) are bad advisors.

I'd like to hear more thoughts on how to tell. How to tell when the "problem" is indeed the well intentioned advisor? I.e., not so useful to hear more trainee ranting about demonstrably and universally bad PI acting.

What situations have you seen in which naive or inexperienced (but well intentioned) PIs are at fault for a failed training experience? What did they do wrong that others might avoid?

usagibrian said...

IMNSHO, graduate students are grown adults who need to take charge of their present and future, get their work done without prodding, write their papers without nagging from their bosses, etc.


Sorry, was just mentioning to my boss, the Dean of Student Services, how I'm starting to actually resent students who call me to ask questions about when a specific class meets (rather than referring to the schedules that are available pretty much everywhere). Apparently expecting them to print out a single page PDF to refer to through the quarter is setting the bar too high. Grown adults [snicker], when you find that grad school, please tell me where it is because I want to bookmark their jobs page.

ARL said...

chic scientist,

I have to disagree in part with you. One of my advisors once said that I needed to work on some particular project (for which I knew nothing about, nor liked) because he had funding for it. I went on to work on it for a year but I was never really told what the project was suppose to be. He gave me one paper (not written by him) and that was it. At the end of the year, according to him, I hadn't done any progress on it , even though I knew tons more about the topic than him (the area was new to the group in general, so nobody really knew anything about it).
Anyways, my point is that since apparently (I say apparently because I have no idea if it is true, just commenting on what I've heard) funding is goal/project-specific. In a case like that, you cannot expect a grad student to be "independent". I grant that the student will have to do most (all?) of the work related, but it is IMPOSSIBLE for the student to know exactly what the professor wants.

Students usually work a lot (in hours) more than the advisor does. Fine, you guys write the proposals, but you also take most of the credit (whether voluntary or involuntary) for whatever results are obtained. Productivity cannot be compared across ranks since PIs have a lot more experience.

Female Science Professor said...

k - I don't know why you call your situation a 'failure'; it doesn't like like one to me.

next anonymous - True, it can be difficult, but I don't think it's an impossible situation from which to recover if you have the support of your advisors, have generated interest in your scientific community via some conference presentations/papers, and so on. In a few cases, I have written letters for an advisee explaining how and why they are better than they may appear on paper.

drugmonkey: Excellent points. For the first part, the unambiguous cases such as the one mentioned in my footnote are the easiest examples. Most situations are more complex.

I don't have a good answer for your next point either. I don't know if I could have salvaged any of my early-career student failures because every case was so different. Some students need lots of structure and close advising, but other students would hate that and prefer more independence; some students can balance research with life, teaching etc., and some cannot. One of my first student failures said that the reason he failed his exams is because he didn't feel comfortable having an advisor who didn't share his culture and religion. What did I learn from that? That you have to be prepared to deal with a lot of random experiences.

Buffalo Sally said...

I had to leave a postdoc position because our collaborator was incredibly hostile towards me. The collaborator had to eliminate me because I was sa threat to him and his position. I was not really, but in his mind, I was getting between him and my advisor.It was a pretty big mess. The collaborator did not feel that I respected him. Anyway, he convinced my advisor that I had to go...My advisor was sick and tired of listening to his collaborator complain about me. (I was also tired of the complaints.) He also depended on this guy for samples. So,reading "Speaking Out's" message sounded, unfortunately, very familiar to me. I am glad I am not alone but wish there was a way to prevent these things from happening. It was painful moving from one postdoc position to another but I survived.

Mickey Blake said...

Speaking as one of the ranks of failed (female) graduate students, I agree that it can be quite complicated. The advisor whose group I chose to join cared absolutely nothing for the fact that I was in the midst of a psychological breakdown, only that I wasn't in the lab 12 hours a day. The group was a total boys club (even the girls were boys, in their way), who also provided me with nary an ounce of support. Had I joined the group of the other professor I'd been considering, things might have gone very differently.

Chic Scientist said...

arl, I don't really understand what your point is. Grad students "taking charge of their present and future..." is different from grad students working completely independently. Yes, funding is project related, and yes, experiments need to be related to the project. But there is usually quite a bit of latitude in this.

I see my job as training scientists, not technicians. As students progress, I pitch them ideas and try NOT to tell them what to do. I share with them my opinion about the pros and cons of various experiments, but in the end it's up to them. Given a choice, they almost always do the experiment I favor, but I like it when they debate with me about things, and I like it even more if they have better ideas than me.

And I certainly don't see myself as running a fiefdom, where I'm doing nothing (Oh yea, except for incessant grant writing) and just collecting the credit. Regarding how many hours students vs professors work, I really don't think we should go there because I think your comment is uninformed about the demands on a professor's time.

I care about my students, like all the professors I know, and I want technically skilled, deep thinkers to leave my lab.

It's not at all about them "trying to guess what I want". I am not the ultimate authority on a project. I do have more experience and therefore I generally "know more", but I expect students to be intellectually engaged and to be critical thinkers about their results and their proposed experiments.

I know how important mentorship and emotional support is for students. I provide a lab environment that encourages open critical discussion 24/7/365. We have two lab meetings per week: one is a journal club in which we put data from papers up in ppt presentations and really try to understand everything about it; the second is a data presentation by one of the students. This is also a ppt presentation. We discuss EVERYTHING and every possible interpretation and outcome. We regularly provide constructive feedback to each other on how the data are interpreted and presented. Sometimes this offers solutions, sometimes this is a comment like "How you're presenting this isn't working". I give lab data meetings and journal clubs, too.

These meetings are most definitely not "presentations" where someone gets up and says stuff and everyone else sits there like lumps on a log.

But what gets me about students is that many of them still view this as school. As usagibrian noted, sometimes it's too much for them to be responsible enough to get a schedule that is widely accessible to them. For example, I think there is no excuse in our journal clubs for the presenter not to know how an experiment was done. I don't care if they have to walk over to the library and pull 10 cited papers from 1950, the data can't be understood properly unless the methods are known. I expect them to run this down and to know this. And they are taken to task if they don't. Similarly, if they give a poorly prepared data presentation, it will be pointed out. In fact they give me a full-sized paper printout of their slides ahead of time and I write on them the whole time with notes and pointers on how the slide could be better. Almost nothing bugs me more than gels without labels: that only happens once in our lab. I also meet with each of my students one-on-on every week when they first start and then every 2 weeks or so starting in their 4th year.

With these comments you might think our lab sounds kind of hostile; it's totally not. In fact, it's very friendly, and the students and I all get along. No personal criticisms are tolerated, and so everyone knows that feedback is "just business". We have an organized lab, and so don't have personal clashes over messes in common areas and stuff like that, which can really blow up and hurt a lab's atmosphere.

It's true that constantly being challenged to be better can be a downer after a while. I do constantly also offer appropriate encouragement to keep things positive. As an aside, I did a sabbatical last year in a place where there was minimal discussion and where the lab audience was expected to just be quiet in presentations, and after a few months of that I really missed the critical thinking of my home university environment.

And it's useful to think about when you want to hear criticism. Do you want to hear it from the reviewers when your paper has been submitted? Or do you want to hear it now so you can address it?

At our university, students do rotations. Our lab's rotation students also do journal clubs and practice rotation talks for the lab, so the students get a feel for how it would be in the lab. Based on a student's performance I can decide to take or not take a student, and I turn plenty down because they are not independently motivated enough or lack follow through. Still, you can't always know in 8 weeks how a student will turn out.

I hope this helps to explain the expectations I have for my students. They are partners with me in science, and this works best when they take responsibility for their education and progress with encouragement and direction, but not nagging from me.