In various posts over the years, I have discussed the concept of a Research Group and how it is important that all members (students, postdocs, faculty) be productive.
There are many topics to discuss, e.g.: What are the roles and responsibilities of being the advisor (manager) of a Research Group? What are the roles and responsibilities of being a postdoc? A graduate student? An undergraduate? And let's not forget the technicians, who are essential to the successful functioning of many research groups.
I don't know if I'll cover all of these topics (and certainly won't in this post). Today I am going to focus on graduate student research assistants because sometimes I feel like I emphasize too much (in this blog) the fact that students and other group members are workers who are doing specific tasks, and I've been meaning to give a more complete view of the subject.
My point of view is of course very much influenced by the norms of my field of the physical sciences, the size of my research group, and the specific type of research we do, but some things may be relevant to other situations.
Regarding graduate student research assistants -- that is, graduate students being paid a salary, benefits, and in some cases tuition by a grant -- I have two coexisting and perhaps apparently contradictory beliefs:
1 - Students paid on a grant must do the work they are paid to do.
2 - Students are students who are learning how to do research and who should be given the freedom to do some independent thinking and discovering.
The reason these statements are not entirely contradictory is that the phrase "the work they are paid to do" is actually not as well defined as it may seem.
For some projects, there are certain tasks that need to be accomplished. If a student is being paid to do these tasks, the student should do these tasks, even if they are boring, with assistance as required. Even if there are these specified tasks (and for some projects there are not), the student still has the time and resources to explore other ideas. I wouldn't mind at all if a student ended up doing something different from what the grant proposal described -- maybe the student will find a more interesting aspect in the general topic of the project. In fact, I would be thrilled if a student did some independent research, even while paid on a RA to do something else, and came up with something interesting.
But whatever the student does, there has to be a tangible product in a reasonable amount of time, ideally in time for the annual reports we have to write to our funding agencies, and certainly by the time of the final report. This is not some unfair requirement foisted on oppressed students. This is something we all have to do as people fortunate enough to be given money to do Science, and it is a reasonable expectation to show results from our research.
The student isn't the only one responsible for research progress. I also do research as part of grant-funded projects, and I take the lead in writing some conference abstracts and papers. Even so, I believe very strongly that, barring unforeseen and unavoidable obstacles to research progress, students should be getting results and writing abstracts and manuscripts, with lots of help at first, and then less and less as they get more experience.
Part of being in a research group is recognizing that it is a little community, with all that implies about doing one's share but also benefiting from the activities and support of others.
I have high (but, I think, reasonable and clearly articulated) expectations for how much 'work' graduate RAs should do. And by 'work', I don't count time spent physically in the department but not doing anything. And I don't actually care when the work is done as long as I see the student once in a while so that we can discuss things and interact to some extent.
In many cases my expectations are met, but it is amazing how many times they are not. For example, I have spent what I consider to be an inordinate amount of time advising students (male and female) whose research progress as RAs was essentially shut down for months while they planned their weddings.
And I once had a student who informed me that, because he had spent 6-7 years working in industry before returning to grad school for his Ph.D., he was not going to do any work that was of the level that he used to have underlings do. He wanted me to pay an undergrad to be his assistant so that he didn't have to do anything he considered beneath his dignity. At one point, it was urgent to accomplish a certain thing and he clearly wasn't going to do it. It had to be done, so I did it, and a visiting colleague kept me company while the grad student sat and did nothing nearby. I said to my colleague "What would you do if this were your student?". My colleague replied, very calmly "I would kill him." [This student did not remain my student for much longer but as far as I know he yet lives, albeit PhD-less]
Most advisors of graduate students can trade stories like this for hours. We also like to talk about our successful students, but in many cases it seems like the successful students were going to succeed anyway. It's also easier to take the failures and difficult cases personally, so maybe we talk about them more to try to convince ourselves that it wasn't (all) our fault. And the failures may be more interesting as stories.
Whatever the case, there are going to be successes and failures and everything in between. No matter how many years I've been an advisor, I'm amazed at the immense number of ways that things can go wrong, and the limited number of paths to success. Perhaps that is a failure of the academic system, but I can't say that there have been any student-failure incidents in my personal experience in which I've sighed and said "If only the system could be more accommodating of people who wanted to be paid for 3 months to do no work except plan their wedding" or "Wouldn't it be nice if that student could have a personal assistant to do all his work for him, thus freeing him to have big ideas?".
That doesn't mean the system shouldn't and can't change in other ways and for other reasons, but I still keep coming back to the numbered points above, which I will restate here as: (1) Students paid to do research should do the research; and (2) It doesn't matter what the results are, as long as there's been a good effort that ideally involves some creative wondering and thinking and writing.
8 months ago