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.
6 months ago