Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Bad Advisor

Every once in a while I (as FSP) get a comment or an email from a student saying something to the effect of they wish I were their advisor or they wish their advisor were more like me. That's nice and I will admit that I have a few redeeming qualities as an advisor, but I am actually just as deeply flawed as most advisors. Between grad students and advisors, there can be a substantial gap in expectations and experiences, and this certainly affects my interactions with my advisees.

Also I can be quite sarcastic, may not be as sympathetic as students would like (especially when confronted with what I think is a lame excuse that my students find compelling), and have many of the classic advisor opinions about work ethic, writing skills, and so on.

And here is another reason why you might not want me as your advisor, illustrated by an example:

In the months leading up to the defense day of one of my PhD students, I was struck by his wild mood swings. The empathetic person that is hiding deep within my advisorial soul thought:

Oh no, how difficult life must be for Moe [not his real name] that he is experiencing these extreme mood swings, including wells of doubt and depression in which he questions whether his years of work have all been for naught, leading to non-conclusions and stupid results that no one will think are interesting even though that is most definitely not the case and his research is in fact quite awesome.

The evil scientist that also resides in my advisorial soul thought:

How fascinating. I want to graph this.

So I did. I assigned a number on a scale of -50 (completely freaked out, depressed, nearly destroyed by self-doubt) to +50 (confident, happy, maybe even exuberant) to Moe's mood each day based in part on my assessment, but also using self-reported data from Moe. For the 50 days leading up to his defense, I asked him each day how he was feeling, what his mood was etc. I was checking up on him frequently before I started graphing him -- in fact, we talked every day, typically more than once -- because I wanted to see how he was doing and make sure he was on track, but once I started graphing him, my questions had another purpose: to acquire data for my spreadsheet, and ultimately a mood-time graph.

At some point Moe suspected what I was doing and asked me "Are you quantifying me and making a graph?". I admitted that I was, and he seemed quite pleased and even intrigued. In fact, for a few days after that he provided me with multiple data points/day, and when I was out of town he sent me helpful mood updates by email so that my graph would not have unsightly gaps.

The graph (below) is interesting. Moe never hit what I thought of as -50 or +50, but he got close on the negative end. There were a few -40's (near total freak outs), but these never lasted for more than a day. Moe's mood was more negative than it was positive, but there are some notable positive spikes: e.g., when he submitted a manuscript to a journal.

The most interesting part of the graph is near the end. When Moe submitted his thesis to his committee, he felt really good about that. He turned the thesis in exactly on time, a deadline that for months he was sure he would miss. He worked extraordinarily hard and he produced a really nice thesis draft, part of which is already published, part of which is submitted, and part of which is imminently submittable. It was a very impressive document.

His mood stayed high for a few days, but descended when anxiety about the defense kicked in. He had an excellent academic position waiting for him after graduation, but somehow he feared that his committee would fail him despite abundant evidence that he had had a successful graduate career and was bound for further scientific glory. I suppose it is good that he didn't take the final defense for granted and do a sloppy job, but that was never even a remote possibility for him.

I have left the defense day (D-day) point on the graph blank. I suspect Moe had mixed emotions that cannot be quantified. That's how I typically feel on D-day too.



note: the gaps in the graph are mostly weekend days on which I did not see or hear from Moe

36 comments:

CurlyO said...

One question: Did you check with your former PhD student before publishing his data? ;o)

J_B said...

The bare fact that you speak daily (or more) with your students place you somehow higher than most advisor I have met ;-)

The Running Chemist said...

Being a grad student myself, I most certainly would like to have an advisor sufficiently interested in my well-being (or lack of) to ask me how I feel today and be really sincere about his/her concern. Sorry FSP, but that fairly scientific and amusing example simply depicts you as an even more desirable advisor...

Anonymous said...

WIN. You kill me, you really do!

Anonymous said...

This is great! It would be interesting to see such graphs for other important periods in life.

Mood swings seem to be really too frequent with Moe. But as for mood sinking after submitting the draft - that appears perfectly normal to me. The initial excitement and happiness that all is almost finished is followed by the realization that nothing has changed in the world and no one actually cares.

Anonymous said...

You are insane. Still, I'll note that you're insane in a way that shows more empathy, care, and concern about your students than actual "bad advisors."

Danielle said...

How fascinating. The scientist in me doesn't see this as a sign of an evil advisor at all. I love that Moe got excited about the graphing too.

Sounds like something a psych department would think is interesting too.

I've sent this to a couple of friends who 1) defended a week ago and 2) is headed into her defense within a month. Maybe it will console them to know they are "normal" (if an n of 1, can help us tell what is normal, of course).

Anonymous said...

evil but hysterical. I am tempted to plot my own moods as a function of days in my postdoc.

John said...

This reviewer is disappointed to see that the obvious minima around day -22 is unexplained. Please include a justifiable explanation for this result and resubmit. Your theory is somewhat compelling.

joanium said...

Hahaha... that's very funny. I know a host of people whose funny bone this would tickle.

unlikelygrad said...

Any advisor who cares enough to ask how a student is doing every single day (even if it is for nefarious purposes) is a win in my book.

I have a great PI right now. We get along well; we talk almost every day that I'm in lab; we even joke around a bit. But he never asks how I am feeling--only how things are going.

You see your student as a person, not just a student, and that is a big plus.

Anonymous said...

Wow. That's really a great idea. I bet having someone care and keep track of his feelings actually helped "Moe" cope with his stress and mood swings. At the very least it made him more aware of the changes and reminded him that the downs are only temporary. I wish my advisor (or friends or family or anyone) would care enough to do something like this for me when I'm freaking out about stuff.

Anonymous said...

you are awesome

JSH said...

I think what makes FSP a great advisor goes beyond checking in daily. She clearly has a sense of humor and of perspective about emotions, PhD theses, and work; and she's passing on this sensibility, about the bigger picture, to her student. THAT is a great advisor.

scicurious said...

John: I personally think that the minima around -22 is due to the deep anxiety and issues that come directly before the submission of the thesis, usually coupled with the thought "it won't get done!". The rising phase would probably correspond with "it's getting done! perhaps I can do this after all..."

tideliar said...

I can't work out if that is insanely cruel, insanely brilliant or just freakin' hilarious!

Anonymous said...

Ooh, look out - I'm totally reporting you to the IRB!

mareserinitatis said...

Although I have no quantitative data with which to substantiate my claim, I'm thinking that is pretty much the same thing I would have gotten had I done this to my husband in February and March. Dude, that whole defense thing totally turns people into pills. (I'm going to keep my fingers crossed that it doesn't happen to me.)

John V said...

It's great that FSP is in touch with her students, and I've sometimes seen similar behavior in graduating students, but I'm at a loss to understand it.

Like the number of faculty failing to get tenure, the number of students that fail their thesis exam, especially when their committee has not expressed concern about the thesis and there is a good job waiting, is very small.

Perhaps the anxiety is more about the next step, transforming from a student to post-doc or faculty. I'd like to think grad students are not irrational.

Azulao said...

ROFL. But this looks pretty typical for most phd students, I'd think...and I agree with JB. :-)

Comrade Physioprof said...

FSP, there is something seriously wrong with you.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!!

yolio said...

What I would have given for an advisor that checked in on me to make sure I was on track! My advisor took a sabbatical for the year that I was writing my dissertation. He did not mention this until about two weeks before he left, and he failed to see how this might impact me. My dramatic and health threatening mood swings went unmonitored.

Geoknitter said...

What? You don't talk to your advisee *every* day of the week? How can you make sure that he/she is making reasonable progress on the weekends?

:)

Anonymous said...

I think this is brilliant. Maybe we should all be self graphing the highs and lows of our scientific careers. I reckon Moe is not an outlier, but the visible tip of a scientific iceberg.

GirlPostdoc said...

Would that graph also be applicable to the entire grad school experience. I agree with most of the commentators - the fact that you cared to plot out his mood swings suggests that you are a good advisor. Unless of course, some of the downs are a result of what you say to him. ;)

Charles said...

Have you tried plotting this against the weather? The year before I finished, I noticed a strong (but somewhat depressing) correlation between my research mood and the amount of sunshine. Unfortunately I did not gather data to back this up...

Marcos de Carvalho said...

Maybe your entire lab can start using lifemetric.com :--)

Anonymous said...

You realize, of course, that you broke one of the fundamental rules of human subjects research (assuming that "Moe" is a human). Namely, you did not get informed consent. Furthermore, even if you did get informed consent, I don't think think "Moe" would have freedom of choice as you are his adviser. At the very least, you ought to have known to get IRB approval. And finally, this seems a modestly sadistic diversion.

Change said...

This pretty much depicts my mood swings before my defense six months ago. However, I only rarely met with my adviser during that time (only to give him the drafts of the chapters I finished writing).

AnotherReviewer said...

Similar research was conducted previously by Jorge Cham (1999a and 199b, available online at: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=125 and http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=124). This previous work should be acknowledged by the author. However, this reviewer feels that the data presented represent a substantial new contribution to the field, and are worthy of publication in this blog.

Ms.PhD said...

I agree with the other reviewers: this work is not novel. I am more interested in knowing whether there was ever a high point in Moe's career; what that was; and whether you think his mood correlates at all with his performance or job prospects. Discuss.

Anonymous said...

Might I request a control that involves measuring his mood for 50 days post the thesis defense?

Peter Pruyn said...

With overwhelming support for such an exercise, where do we go with such an idea?

I envision an organization where everyone self-reports their mood and workload on a daily basis. Such graphs could be used at least by each individual for their own reflection as well as by supervisors. (It is true that such information could be manipulated by either party, but that is the case with any organizational process where trust and respect are absent.) Any caring manager should want to know what the aggregate graph would look like.

Many quality organizations provide senior executives with organizational "dashboards" that track critical metrics over time. Unfortunately, such dashboards are usually financially-oriented. I think it's time we installed a "humanity meter" on the panel.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I'm afraid this is a mega 'bad advisor' FAIL. The fact that you were meeting with your advisee and giving him feedback on a fairly regular basis shows that you were actually taking your duties seriously.

I only heard from my advisor when she needed a babysitter. No I'm not kidding. All her female advisees were her childcare staff.

Luke said...

FSP, that's messed up. Next time I'm in town to see you two I'll have to discuss how to keep your research sneakier. After all, by letting your subject know what was going on, you must have somehow altered the experiment. For shame.

female Science Professor said...

Maybe that's why I'm a physical scientist and would be a disaster at anything that involved research on people.