A perennial topic, perhaps even semi-annual:
Some graduate students, even some postdocs, have no idea how much work goes into advising. Yes, I know there are bad advisers in every discipline, and I know that there are advisers with big labs filled with grad worker drones who toil for years at low pay to provide some data crumbs that feed the hotshot adviser's research machine, but in my > 20 year career, I have encountered very few of these. I am very sorry for those students who endure situations such as these, and hope that they can eventually put the bad experience behind them and have a rewarding career.
My sympathy is sincere, but nevertheless I am amazed when I read or hear general statements about how much advisers benefit from the labor of students relative to the efforts of the adviser. For the many advisers who devote much time and effort to advising, it is a disservice to focus on the extreme cases and blithely state that advisers benefit more from students than students do from advisers.
The vast majority of the advisers I know spend considerable time and effort advising students and giving them the support and opportunities they need to succeed in their graduate program and beyond. Some advisers are more nurturing/sociable/friendly than others, some provide a more structured research environment than others, and some are better at fostering a student's independent research than others, but it is a very rare situation in which the overall 'benefit' that an adviser receives from a graduate student's research exceeds the effort/funding put into advising the student. Yes, I have written/ranted about this before here and in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, but it keeps popping up as a topic in comments or in real life.
That isn't meant to be a controversial statement. It is a statement based on my experience and observations at this point in my career. This doesn't make things any easier for those students in difficult or abusive advising situations, but it is important to recognize what is a normal adviser-student relation and what is abnormal and wrong.
Determining whether an adviser 'benefits' from students relative to time/effort advising or is mostly a recipient of benefits is not straightforward, as it requires comparing advising activities of both tangible (money, writing) and intangible (time, ideas, advice) sorts with the end results of students' time, efforts, and creative input.
Nevertheless, I will state this: For some students, the results of their research ideas and activities far exceed the creative input (ideas, interpretation of results) and writing provided by the adviser, but this is not the case for many students. Such independent, productive students certainly exist, and I am very happy to have encountered some. Ideally, the adviser-student relationship allows for students to be creative and independent.
Many students, however, do well, are enjoyable to advise, and teach us things in the course of their research, but it would be inaccurate for even these students to say that their tangible benefit to their advisers (in terms of results or papers) exceed what the adviser contributed to the research.
And then there are students who are a huge amount of work to advise; they might be good (or even excellent) scientists and very smart people, but they can't focus, can't write, or have some other problem that involves much time and anxiety for all concerned. They have to be carried or dragged to the finish line.
Note: I admit that having a few of this last sort can skew an adviser's opinion about adviser-student cost-benefit ratios and swamp out some of the warm and fuzzy feelings we have about our more independent students.
My point of view about adviser/student efforts stems in part from the fact that I do not sit back and watch the papers roll out of my research group. I would be quite happy if some of my students took the lead on manuscripts and wrote up some of their own research/ideas with minimal or no involvement from me (and I would therefore not be a co-author), but it is a fact that most student-authored manuscripts require my time and effort -- some more, some less. The effort is in many cases quite fun, so these statements should not be interpreted as complaints, but time and effort it is, in some a cases considerable amount.
I am sure there are many points of view depending on personal experience, the culture of different disciplines and institutions, and other factors. I certainly don't claim to be objective, being firmly on the side of Advisers of the World, but I think it can be difficult for grad students to have an informed perspective on these issues.
That probably sound patronizing, but I will provide one example to explain in part how I came to that opinion:
A PhD student I know had great difficulty focusing, organizing results and thoughts, writing, and all sorts of other important things. After many attempts at finding ways to overcome some of these problems, the adviser would sometimes step in and do whatever needed doing, especially if a deadline was looming. Whenever the adviser did this, the student always said something like "Yeah, that's exactly how I would have done it" or "That's what I was thinking too". Perhaps these statements were a way of minimizing embarrassment about the situation, but from that point on, the student would refer to text, figures, or ideas provided by the adviser as things that he/she (the student) had done. I am convinced that by the time the student graduated, the adviser's contributions were considered to be minor technical assistance. If you asked this student who had 'benefited' more from his/her research, I am sure the answer would be very different from the adviser's answer to that question.
What does that prove? Perhaps only that we are each most aware of our own efforts, whether we are adviser or student.
As I've written before (somewhere..), if we advisers just wanted efficient workers who would get a job done right the first time and move on to the next task, we wouldn't be advising students. We would hire technicians.
We advise students because it is part of what many of us love about our jobs, despite the frustrations. We do it for the many times when it does work out (for student and adviser). If you factor in these intangibles, the adviser-student relationship makes more sense than if it's considered only in terms of who 'benefits' more.
[alert: Comment moderating will be sporadic this weekend, as my ability to internet will be severely limited, but I welcome any and all comments, however hostile, except for obscene non-CPP comments and those annoying attempts to get me to post an ad]
7 years ago