Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Grad Planet

Last Friday I wrote about how undergrads and professors exist on different planes or planets with respect to expectations and general views about certain educational issues (grades). Graduate students and advisors can also exist on different planets and have very different views of issues relevant to graduate research.

For example, some graduate students apparently feel that they are being exploited as cheap labor, employed at low wages to work long hours accomplishing various tasks that benefit the research endeavors of an advisor who doesn't really care about them and whose own 'work' may not be apparent to the student.

There are surely extreme cases in which this description applies, but I do not believe that it is an accurate description of the typical graduate experience, at least not in the physical sciences with which I am familiar.

The description is not accurate for at least two important reasons:

1 - Grad student stipends may be low compared to other employment options, particularly in science and engineering fields, but grad students are not 'cheap' for advisors. When salary + benefits + tuition are factored in, grad students may cost the advisor as much as a postdoc. Grad students don't see these additional costs; they just see their modest salary. In fact, grants may be largely consumed by grad salaries and indirect costs; research expenses may be the smallest component.

2 - Most grad students do not arrive in grad school knowing how to do research. It takes time to learn, and, unlike most postdocs (who have already successfully attained a Ph.D.), some never learn. If the training time and the uncertainty that a grad student will do well in research are factored in, one could reasonably conclude that grad students are an extremely inefficient way for an advisor to conduct a research program. When students tell me how lucky I am to have so many students working for me, I wonder if they have any idea how much work it is for me to advise a large group of students.

In fact, the most efficient way to conduct a research program would be to hire non-student workers who require little training and who would stay in the position on a long-term basis rather than leaving just at the point when they finally know what they are doing. This would be more efficient even than hiring postdocs who only stay a couple of years and then move on. Alternatively, if I wanted to have a small research program and work on 1-2 projects at a time, the most efficient scheme would be for me to do all the research and writing myself.

That would be fine if efficiency is the only thing that matters, but a completely efficient scenario of trained workers doesn't sound very appealing to me, nor does working in isolation. Most of us science professors aren't here to manage a group of technicians or even to work alone. I do like to get results, and as I've ranted many a time in this blog, I expect students who are paid on a grant to get some results, but I also expect a bit of inefficiency along the way.

I like having a research group, and I like working with students. I enjoy doing research and discovering things and developing new ideas and communicating the results, and I enjoy teaching others how to do all this as well. It takes a lot of time and energy for both advisor and student, even when it works out well and even when the student thinks he/she is doing most of the 'work'.

Some advisors are more involved with their student's research and education than others. Some leave a lot of the day-to-day advising to other members of a research group. Maybe some advisors would prefer to have more 'workers' and fewer students, especially if an advisor has had a lot of negative experiences with unproductive grad students. It can be extremely frustrating and demoralizing to (try to) work with a dysfunctional grad student.

But I think most of us advisors have enough good experiences to balance out the bad. By working with many different students over the years, we can acquire a reasonably upbeat perspective on the overall experience. Most grad students, however, work with only one or two advisors, so a bad experience with a bad advisor can be crushing.

A science professor who is at a research university and who has no students is not viewed in a positive way. There was a time in the 1990's when some advisors stopped taking on new PhD students because the faculty job market was so bad, but things are better now in the physical sciences. Now the most common reasons for not advising students are (1) the faculty member doesn't have the energy, ideas, or funding to advise students; and (2) the faculty member has extremely high standards for students, and few/no students meet these standards. I hope I never fit either of those categories.

Most of us science professor types at universities advise students, for better or worse, and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. Successful advisor-student interactions require of both parties a balance between being patient and being assertive, keeping complaining to a minimum except in your blog, and realizing that what seems like insensitive and/or strange behavior in the other might have a reasonable explanation.

30 comments:

Dana Io said...

thank you for writing about the world of academia, FemaleScienceProfessor. as a science grad student to be, i read your fantastic blog with much interest and pleasure.
thanks again

Anonymous said...

Any thoughts on the common feeling that post-doc's are an exploited work force, particularly in the non-biological based sciences where the NIH payscale does not apply?

Tas said...

By the by, might I mention as a prospective astrophysics graduate student I find your blog immensely helpful?

Here's a thought from my perspective: I consider the grad student-faculty relation to be a form of long-term investment. The professor has to put in money and time and effort, especially in the beginning of the relationship, to get the student established (I imagine this holds most aptly for grad students who, unlike myself, have never done research before). Then, if the investment pans out, in 3 or so years the faculty gets some pretty decent work out of the grad student. That's not the return, however; it's just the beginning. The return is the creation of a peer in the field--a potential future collaborator or someone whom the faculty knows is going to go on to advance the field in some way, thus bringing benefit the faculty as well.

Of course it's important not to forget that it's an investment for the student as well. Effort and time and work has to go in to the advisor's focused project, in part to *learn* how to put effort and time and work into a project, but also in order to build the skills and expertise necessary to, at last, establish one's own project.

Now I've heard that it's more common for Ph.D. thesis students to, even while working on their advisor's project, find their own unique direction that's related to that project--an investigation which is more independently their own. Or that that's the way the best Ph.D. projects are supposed to work out. Any thoughts?

coffeeandpajamas said...

Well said! I've been lurking around your blog for awhile and I really enjoy reading it!

I was lucky enough to have a great supervisor when I did my Master's. I never felt my supervisor treated me as cheap labour. My supervisor gave me lots of freedom to explore my own interest which wasn't always a good thing. Many times I was over-enthusiastic and I needed someone to reign me in. However, I learned to solve my own problems and find my own answers through my exploration of wild ideas (some of the things I tried was pretty "out there"). It was a great learning experience.

I am currently working as a technician in a lab where my boss tells me EXACTLY what to do for each experiment and he does the same to everyone else in the lab, including the postdocs. While I don't expect to be treated like someone with 20 years of lab experience, I do expect to be treated like someone who's capable of learning and making her own decisions. I never felt like cheap labour as a grad student but I certainly feel like a cheap labour benchbot now.

When I was a grad student, I hear these horrible things my friends say about them and while I sympathized with their predicament, I never really understood their situation. Having the chance to experience myself now some of the things they went through, I am starting to feel their pain. I am not a student anymore but I still want to learn, have the freedom to explore. I don't need to be told how many microliters of reagents to add to each reaction at every step. I enjoy research because my Master's supervisor directed me down the right path. But had I done my graduate degree with my current boss, I probably would be turned off research for the rest of my life.

You are very correct in saying that students are not cheap. We had one undergrad student in our lab who only showed up a few days a week (randomly, I might add) and he didn't do much while he was there. He might've felt he was cheap labour but in reality, he was more expensive than a postdoc. A postdoc who works hard everyday can get results in a week. Our undergrad student spent months in our lab and wasn't able to clone even a single gene successfully. He had wasted our time, our resources, not to mention our funding.

daisy mae said...

love this post!

i actually work for a professor who had the "too high" standards. except everyone thought he was waiting for some bright student... turns out he was just waiting for someone who would show up more than 9-5 M-F, and was actually interested in the research. his thought process is that he can teach someone a skill set, but he can't teach them to work hard or be curious.

now that i've been formally accepted in the lab, the postdoc i work with does a bulk of the "mentoring" as well (we're a small lab)... which has worked great for all parties involved.

Anonymous said...

When I started working with my advisor he had not had a student for 10 years. He fell into something close to category 2 - " the faculty member has extremely high standards for students". Working with him was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Anonymous said...

I changed advisors during PhD. The list of reasons is long and don't belong here. But one major difference was, that my first advisor would not talk to me about grants, overhead costs and indirect returns etc. I had no idead, that he would have to pay money to the university in addition to paying my salary.

My second advisor talked about these things, talked about how important it is to know the rules of the game, how to get the most out of your grant money.

I assume, that most undergraduate and some graduate students have no idea about these additional fees. But it is worthwhile to talk to your graduate students about these fees. I am grateful for my second advisor to be open and offering these important insights of the professorial duties.

John said...

One could view the salary and situation of the grad student as determined by market forces, not a fair balance of productivity vs apprenticeship.

Pushing up the salary is rich grant support and dept fellowships. This arises from high interest from NSF/NIH/corporate sponsors. Fields, topics, or individual group with less support make do relying on subsidization with (underpaid) TAships, less than 100% stipends in the summer, or students taking time off to earn more money.

By almost any definition, grad students are underpaid by a factor of 2 to 4 for people having a good college degree and working hard. I try to rationalize that it is the system, and the system works well, but I have to say that we exploit the grad students.

The other weakness of the system is the disconnect between the job market and the general enthusiasm for most profs individually and universities as a whole for more tuition-paying students. The system collects tuition and overhead on the whole enterprise, and the profs fortify their influence through the generations of their students they embed in academia (and to a lesser extent industry), so perhaps too many students are enrolled and graduated.

Anonymous said...

If advising students is that hard why there are so many of them?

Survivor said...

As a graduate student who paid my own health benefits & tuition, who got paid 20 hours a week for 80-120 hours a week of work, & was expected to work 7 days a week year round, with only the occasional begrudged holiday, I know I was taken advantage of as slave labor. This was the norm for my professor, and not much better in the rest of my department. It wasn't till much later that I found that better working conditions could be had, depending on the department & the professor.

Survivor said...

As a graduate student who paid my own health benefits & tuition, who got paid 20 hours a week for 80-120 hours a week of work, & was expected to work 7 days a week year round, with only the occasional begrudged holiday, I know I was taken advantage of as slave labor. This was the norm for my professor, and not much better in the rest of my department. It wasn't till much later that I found that better working conditions could be had, depending on the department & the professor.

Hope said...

Now the most common reasons for not advising students are (1) the faculty member doesn't have the energy, ideas, or funding to advise students; and (2) the faculty member has extremely high standards for students, and few/no students meet these standards.

As a practical matter, how would a student be able to tell the difference between 1 and 2? If the student has her own funding, are 1 or 2 ever a good choice?

mlsurfs_postdoc said...

I don't think schools should charge faculty members "tuition" on grad students that are post-candidacy, not taking classes, and perhaps even teaching classes. It seems that schools take enough "overhead" as it is.

DrDoyenne said...

I’m one of those advisors/ supervisors who sets high standards in my lab group. Why? Because it’s a competitive world out there. I do my students and post-docs no favors by lowering standards.

In my area (biological sciences), top-tier journals have acceptance rates of 15-20 percent. I explain to my research group that this means that their papers must be better than 80 percent of all submissions to have a chance at being published. A tall order, even for experienced scientists.

The same goes for grant proposals—funding rates of 10 to 20% at many agencies. I’ve had reviews of 4 or 5 “excellent” and perhaps 1 “very good” and still not been funded.

And publication in top journals helps scientists get funding, and better funding leads to scientific results that are more likely to be of interest to top journals—and so on.

I find that many students and even post-docs do not have a realistic picture of what it actually takes to succeed in science.

Add on top of all that—gender bias…

Sam said...

As a grad student, I have mixed feelings regarding the "slave labor" attitude/feeling. I am at a great school with a supportive department. I also chose wisely in terms of the lab I work in and the PI that I work under. On the other hand, I know people in my same department that do not like what they are doing and the hours they must work to keep their advisor happy.

I work reasonable hours and am respected by my peers and my PI. My stipend is livable in the area in which I reside. I do live with my girlfriend though, which offsets expenses for both of us; if I didn't have her I would have to have other roommates, which is not entirely desirable for someone my age (mid 30s now; I went back to undergrad in my mid 20s).

While my stipend is livable with roommates and a non-extravagant lifestyle, I also took a 50% pay-cut when I quit my job to start my PhD program. Even so, I am frugal and live well, even if on the 'poor' side compared to my peers who went into industry right out of undergrad.

I don't feel like a slave and I enjoy what I am doing immensely - otherwise I wouldn't have chosen it.

I think I would feel differently if my PI expected me to be in the lab 100 hours a week and I would probably not do well. I also was old enough to know myself and what type of advisor to look for - this may be something that one entering grad school right out of undergrad isn't able to recognize yet, which may be much of the problem.

quasarpulse said...

mlsurfs_postdoc has a good point. It is absolutely insane for the school to charge "tuition" for students who aren't taking classes and are in fact contributing valuable labor to the university. The money should go to either the student (if it's part of the student's official compensation package under the grant) or the research (which is what the grant-funding agency provided it for in the first place). Siphoning it into the university's general fund as tuition is cheating the grant-funding agency.

Fernando Pereira said...

Non-course graduate student tuition pays for the faculty member's time training the graduate student to become a scientist. Typical research grants may just cover one month of the faculty member's time per year (and that includes many tasks besides working with students, from writing period reports to preparing presentations of the research), while the faculty member easily spends several times that working with their students. Not thinking about the research or doing the research in the lab, but just advising students on how to do research. Most schools I know charge a number of tuition credits to (the grants that fund) their students well under the actual faculty effort involved in the graduate programs. Typically, masters programs make money for the school, but PhD programs are money losers, sometimes big money losers in fields that have big infrastructure costs, such as nanotech or research with live anaimals.

Curt Fischer said...

mlsurfs_postdoc and quasarpulse seem on the right track to me.

Fernando Pereira believes that grad tuition pays for the advisor's time to train said student, but this does not add up. First, grad students who have passed qualifying exams and all the required coursework are generally in their 3rd or 4th years. These students should already be well-trained in the art of doing research.

Second, if the tuition really did pay for the "faculty member's time training the graduate student to become a scientist", faculty members would have much, much higher salaries, at least at many institutions. That is, the amount of tuition charged is incommensurate with the time it takes faculty to train graduate students, and faculty's salaries.

I do not have detailed knowledge, here, but I suspect that a large fraction of non-course graduate tuition represents a route for the NIH, the NSF, or other grant givers to subsidize undergraduate programs, curricula, and tuition.

Oh yeah, and....great post FSP. Very important points for grad students to keep in mind. One quibble I have with your point #1 is that just because a PI pays lots of money to support a graduate student is not evidence that graduate students are not "exploited". Maybe its evidence that the PI is not the exploiter, but I don't see how it addresses the broader issue.

Naj said...

I am interested in a professorial explanation for a behavior like this:

A manuscript returns from peer review, with request for major revision.

The student completes the revision.

Hand in the professor the revised paper a month ahead of resubmission deadline!

The supervisor, utterly unaware of the 'data' starts working on student's revision only 6 hours head of expiry of the deadline!

Mangles the article!

student complains that he is repeating the error that the reviewer warned against: "unsubstantiated philosophization"

The superviros throws his arms in the air and says, "I just wanted to help you" ... now go clean up the mangled article and submit!

Of course, the student doesn't meet the deadline of resubmission!

What should the student do/think?

female Science Professor said...

Curt - Because having your tuition paid for you should count for something. If the sum of what you are getting as a grad student RA is salary + tuition + benefits, focusing on the modest/low salary gives an incomplete view of the situation.

CurtFischer said...

FSP - Thanks for the response.

I agree that the award of tuition is indeed worth something.

But my perception, shared by lsurfs_postdoc and quasarpulse, is the value we perceive in receiving the tuition award is much less than the value the university says we derive.

Here's a more extreme example to illustrate my point: What if your university made you the Lance Armstrong Professor of the Really Hard Sciences? Only instead of $100,000 annually in discretionary funding, you got a bicycle? Say it was a nice bicycle and you enjoyed using it, but you'd still rather have the cash. You say as much to your dean, and they respond "I can't believe you're complaining about compensation! That Lance Armstrong FSPUniversity bicycle is worth ten million dollars! I guess ten million dollars in free benefits isn't enough for someone like you."

You may think my hypothetical is ridiculous, and maybe I am wrong to devalue the free tuition dollars that my institution has paid for me, but that is the perception.

Anonymous said...

I think Curt has a point...anyone else?

Curt Fischer said...

I just realized a much better way to make my point:

The high tuition charged to late-stage graduate students represents an exploitation of both the PI and the grad student. The PI's grant pays out excessive (in my view) tuition expenses, and the grad student (probably) loses out because they would stand to capture at least a part of the money that currently goes to the university general fund.

female Science Professor said...

At many institutions, advanced grad students move to a low-tuition category to account for the fact that they are not taking classes.

Curt Fischer said...

At many institutions, advanced grad students move to a low-tuition category to account for the fact that they are not taking classes.

Wow, I honestly had no idea! I don't believe such is the case at my institution. I suppose this is another lesson for me on the dangers of extrapolation...

Anonymous said...

I'm a science grad student too.

I appreciate the fact that I am investing in my future, that much of the work is done by my PI, and that much of her time is taken by advising me. I don't expect to earn much money as a student.

She was advising me when I was taking classes and paying tuition. She is advising me now that I am paying reduced tuition. I suppose my continuing student fees may go to the department, I'm not betting on it.

But ... I am still living below the poverty line. Reduced tuition fees are 25% of my stipend. Stipend - reduced tuition fees doesn't amount to much. I'm not as far below the line as when I was paying full tuition, but still well below. Even if tuition was paid, I would still be officially 'poor'. I am also in the lab 6-7 days a week and part time employment isn't really an option.

I love the work that I do and the opportunity to continue my education.
I don't feel exploited. I feel underfunded.

Anonymous said...

I am neither a grad student nor a professor, nor I have ever been either. I found the logic of your post difficult to follow.

Your caricature of the grad students' p.o.v. was so loaded with negative qualifiers as to be a virtual straw man and a tautology.

If we focus on the core complaint of financial exploitation, your argument makes no sense. Somebody paid very little for heavy labor is pretty inarguably exploited, and being conscious or not conscious of larger contingent costs does not impact the lifestyle impact of that. Would you go back to 1800 and tell an indentured servant or a company-store worker, "Well, you're paid next to nothing for extreme labor, but you don't see how much it costs the plantation master, plus you get the run of the house"?! Or a working family living below the federal poverty line, "Well, you don't deserve a raise because you're not thinking of how much you cost society"?!This sounds more to me like justifying a cycle of abuse: "I got exploited this way, so it's OK to do the same to others now."

Your post also does not address the historical fact that grad students working, teaching courses (or even taking courses) is a very recent phenomenon. It appears to correlate to the corporatization of universities.

You made a very good argument for hiring skilled, decently paid workers for menial-ish departmental tasks. What I didn't understand was your attempt to demolish this argument. You like having students in the positions because...it's somehow more rewarding? As long as they don't complain about exploitation? I didn't get it. Would you argue for replacing all the non-student departmental secretaries/program coordinators with student labor? If not, why?

I personally believe there is a monastic element to be expected in university life. (Well, perhaps except for richly paid profs, even more richly paid admins and grant-based programs that blow money on a new set of furniture every year.) But I don't believe in telling people who feel exploited that they're wrong because of the "picture" is bigger than the numbers on their paycheck and hence the amount of food on their table.

Anonymous said...

Just cause you are paying money doesn't make it my income, or something I as a grad student should be grateful for. If I can't buy ramen with it, or pay fees and health insurance bills with it, it is NOT my income, and talking about it as if it was is like the student complaining that their fees contribute to your salary instead of recognizing that some things are just the cost of doing business.

Second, FSP, it sounds like you care for and take an active part in developing your students. As someone who didn't have that relationship with my advisor, I'm glad on their behalf.

Anonymous @ 8:01
I don't see that being antagonistic is useful for a participant, but thank you for an outsider's point of view. FYI, from what I've seen as student and faculty member over the last decade in several quite different settings (CC, state school, elite R1), the stereotypes you allude to (outlandish admin pay, annual furniture purchases, etc) are pretty well false or misunderstandings of what actually happens.

Astronomum said...

It's interesting that you hinted that keeping postdocs longer would be a good thing in terms of research efficiency but then just moved on. Most postdocs I know would like to have a longer term position. In my field it seems almost never possible to extend a postdoc beyond 2-3 years. Longer postdocs would mesh better with the reality that most of us now have to do 6+ years in postdoc before being considered senior enough to get a "real job". You seemed to imply that the postdocs are choosing to leave - who would choose a career path that requires you apply for jobs every year and move almost as soon as you settle into your new location and job.... why not extend postdoc term lengths?

xombie said...

You haven't talked about disengagement. Bad advising can have a bad effect on the commitment of the student. For example, 'it is my policy that foreign students do not write papers because they do not have a good enough standard in English'. How can anyone take their work seriously after such a shattering comment?