Friday, August 21, 2009

The Forbidden Zone

A comment on yesterday's post about professors sowing social discomfort and dread amongst the student populace raised an interesting (somewhat off-topic) question:

Should professors enter the Grad Office Zone?

Is the Grad Office Zone sacred space in which grad students should be free from professorial visits or are professor visits to grad offices a way of showing that the adviser is interactive and interested in their students' research?

I am sure there are all possible examples of professor-grad space interactions: from professors who have never and would never visit a student in a grad office to professors who naturally mingle with their students as they all work in group space; and from students who feel that there should never be professor incursions across the borders of the Grad Office Zone to those who think this is a great (or at least normal) thing for a professor to do.

There is an important structural (architectural/organizational) issue here of course: in some departments, grad offices are dispersed among other offices and labs and may actually be in the professor's solar system. In this case, professor visits to grad offices aren't an issue, though one could pose the question as to whether these clustered offices are a highly efficient way to promote interaction and productivity or whether they create constant stress and anxiety in students.

In other cases, grads are sequestered in a designated Grad Office Zone. This was the case when I was a student, but no one minded when a professor showed up for a rare visit. In fact, it was a matter of much discussion and fascination as to which professors dared enter the Grad Office Zone and which did not. There were only a few who dared, but they were respected for this. They did not visit often, but when they did they were welcome. These tended to be the professors who treated grad students as human beings, and that might have had something to do with their willingness to walk where most of their colleagues would not and also their positive reception when they did visit the Grad Office Zone.

As a professor, I visit my students in their (non-lab) offices if I have something urgent to ask or tell or show, and I don't think anything of doing so. My colleagues do the same. There is nothing unusual or sinister about going to see a student in their office.

When I go looking for a student in a grad office, I don't feel unwelcome or uncomfortable, though I suppose the nature of a professor's visit to a grad office is also relevant to the question of whether it is a good thing or a stressful thing for the student; e.g. a constructive comment, urgent question, or something interesting to show = OK, but constant biting criticism = not so great?

Another relevant structural issue is whether grads have individual offices, share with only 1-2 other people, or are in a room packed with cubicles. I have encountered all of these types at various times and I am more comfortable visiting a student in a small office than in a cubicle farm in which even a quiet conversation disturbs a lot of other students, all of whom look up whenever the door opens and listen (perhaps not by choice) to all conversations.

If grad students (or postdocs) want to discourage visits from their advisers, there are non-verbal ways to do this, as I found out inadvertently years ago as a postdoc when I (innocently) placed a large cactus on an extra desk in my office. I really thought my postdoc supervisor would see the cactus before perching on the desk and leaning back, but he did not.


Ashley said...

I am currently a grad student and I appreciate it when professors drop by the grad offices. It makes me feel like "wow, they do care about us"!
I like the idea of a more congenial professor-grad student relationship and I think inter-office mingling would strengthen the learning environment.

Anonymous said...

the issue of respect, why don't all professors treat grad students as human beings....

those who were tortured should not torture (they would know).

kind of like hazing....grad student life like in prison.

Dr M said...

As someone who has recently been a grad student, my answer is fairly simple: do visit!

There is such a thing as professors becoming overbearing, micromanaging, looking over the shoulder, etcetera, but even worse, and much more likely to happen, is that the absence of visits feels like the professor isn't all that interested in what you are doing (presumably in collaboration with said professor). There are few things quite as discouraging as the sinking feeling that your professor doesn't actually care all that much.

Also, visits, when they do happen, shouldn't be limited to urgent situations. That makes professor contact ominous. Remember, what your grad student (or indeed postdoc, or anyone working together with you under your supervision) needs is to feel that you are interested and that you have a communication flow going, an exchange of thoughts and ideas.

For the same reason, grad students and postdocs should be encouraged to come talk to you, even when it is not vitally important. However, professors often seem preoccupied with Important Stuff (which in reality may be boring administrative tasks), and can seem somewhat unapproachable. As the person on the higher rung, a greater (not sole) responsibility falls on you to facilitate conversation.

JaneB said...

A useful reminder to check desks before sitting on them!

Anonymous said...

Faculty should feel free to TRY to visit the student offices, but students should similarly feel free to deny the visiting professor access if the student is busy. I mean, students don't get to barge into faculty offices and demand the professor's attention any old time they want, right? They are expected to knock and ask permission to enter, with the understanding that sometimes (or often) they may be denied permission because the professor is too busy. This is just common courtesy in the workplace even among peers. Other times, the professor's door is simply closed and locked even when they are inside but want to be left alone. It should go both ways - students should have the same rights to privacy and the right to deny visitors, even if the visitor is their advisor

Only those who are status-conscious would want to propagate a workplace culture whereby one person has the power to invade the other's privcay but not vice versa.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure my supervisor knows where my office is. We have a couple of big rooms for junior students in the basement and then the senior students smaller (shared usually with one other) offices close to the faculty offices. I moved to these senior offices about 6 months ago. Usually if he wishes to speak to me he summons me be email and I walk down the corridor to his office.

plam said...

Following my advisor, I park myself in my students' office pretty much every day. For me, Visiting Hours usually occurs around 2pm, and I drop by and see how everyone's doing. Actually, I only have students come to my office when we have more in-depth work to do (e.g. hours of revisions on a paper), although of course they are always welcome if they have a question.

I come from a Mixed Zone-type place (one of our complaints about our new building was doors between us and our advisor---although doors didn't happen in the end) and now I'm in a Grad Office Zone-type place (number of doors: 4, not including office doors, which are always open anyway).

Anonymous said...

In my dept we have 3 basic forms of grad student office arrangements:

1) Grad students' desks are all in the lab area.

2) Grad student's offices are separate from the lab area but all students in an office share an adviser.

3) Offices are shared by grad students from many labs/advisers.

In case 1 obviously students are in public space so it's a moot point. I'd argue this situation is the worst of all worlds, but I know some students who like this arrangement.

I'm in case 2, and our adviser visits often, and no one has a problem with it. Our adviser checks in on us at least once per day, often just for small talk.

In case 3 (esp. for offices with >5 students) I could see an argument for avoiding entering "the sacred space" since otherwise multiple profs would be stopping by all the time, which could be disruptive to students... Might be more practical just to email.

Genomic Repairman said...

The GradOffice is hallowed ground like some ancient Catholic cathedral in the Vatican. Most of the PI's that do stop by are the most student friendly. But the technicians and postdocs don't mind dropping in to ask questions, try to chat with us when we are in our temporary sanctuary, or just sleep on our futon in the office (Yes we keep a futon there for when we do time points). But for the most part the 1st commandment of the GradOffice is "They who shalt be the beaten down trainee shall only be allowed in." We can't hide in the lab so that is where we do it to get some writing or reading done, bitch about our relative situations, and of course eat/drink. So most PI's are wary and tend not to lurk in our dark dimly lit corner of the building.

thm said...

I'm a product of a building in which offices for grad students that were affiliated with a research group were adjacent to but in separate rooms from the lab spaces, and my advisor even kept a desk in his group's grad student office room. There were a number of offices for 1st and 2nd-year students who were TAs, but aside from that, the idea of a professor-free zone strikes me as really odd.

I do know that architecture matters, and sometimes in counter-intuitive ways. The math department had been in an old building with a confusing warren of offices and hallways into which you could make your own joke about oddball topology. Faculty offices, student offices, and classrooms were almost randomly strewn about. Consequently, it was a very collegial place. Then it moved to a newly-renovated, hierarchical and logical space, with the faculty offices and lounge on the upper floors and the student offices in the lower floors and basement. The faculty-student interaction dropped off tremendously.

Anonymous said...

As a grad student, I shared an office with other people from my lab (grad students+postdoc) and our boss very rarely invaded our space. I appreciated that my office was my space. Sometimes she would pop in to say hello or to find us - which was fine - and it was nice to know she cared enough to just sometimes ask how we were doing. Our office was also quite small so there wasn't room really for her or anyone else to hang out.

As a postdoc I have an office in a building other than my lab so my boss never invades my office. In our lab, there is desk space. When I am working in the lab, I do find it unnerving if I see my boss go and sit even next to my space. On occasion, he has asked to use my computer (it is mine as in I bought it and it also doubles as my personal computer), and that really freaks me out. I always say yes, how to say no to your boss, but I will sometimes say, well let me check first. I don't even like my email to be up - nothing bad in it - but it just does seem a violation of my space.

Kevin said...

Our department has most of the grad offices right across the hall from the faculty offices of the supervising faculty---this encourages interaction, both of students coming to the faculty and the faculty going to the students. We also don't have assigned desks---grad students can work at any grad student desk that is currently unoccupied, though there is an accepted tendency to stake out a desk and use it as one's main work space. Different rooms have deliberately different "styles" from the "graveyard" which is for silent work to the room where there are refrigerators, microwave, toaster oven, coffee machine, ... and music is almost always playing.
Faculty generally enter the "graveyard" only to ask a student to visit them in their offices, but socialize routinely with students in the loud room.

Brandles said...

I think it depends on the type of PI and the reason for visiting. My office (I'm a grad student) is in between several PIs offices and my boss is just two doors down. I don't really like my PI visiting mainly because she is so nosy and overbearing. She likes to sit very close and read over your shoulder and start critiquing immediately. This is frustrating if you are in the flow! I don't think most PIs are like that. I think it is fine as long as you knock and treat the students with respect. (I've had some professors just walk in to grad offices without knocking - they would never to do that to their colleagues or anyone else. Now I keep my door locked:))

studyzone said...

My grad institution solved that problem by doing away with offices for grad students and postdocs - every student's and postdoc's desk is next to their bench. Thus, the PI can come and go as they please. The whole idea of a grad student office was completely foreign to me until I became a postdoc (where I now share office space with several other postdocs). To be honest, I preferred my grad lab setup since we interacted a lot more with one another and with our PI, who was very involved in his own bench work. In my current setup, while it is nice to have a quiet place to read and write, I feel a bit cut off from the lab since I have to spend a lot of time on my computer doing data analysis, and there is no room for my computer in the lab.

Alex said...

I'm the person who was reluctant to enter grad student offices. A few reasons why:

1) I was chatting with students as I headed toward the building exits, but I wasn't in a hurry so I took directional cues from them. I wound up there inadvertently. I wasn't there on a mission, we just kind of drifted there. I was new in the department and unsure of protocols. Being very junior, not too far from the students in age, I was also unsure how to maintain professional boundaries.

2) Related to space and privacy, it was after hours (evening class) and I wasn't sure if it would seem too informal to be hanging out in their offices after hours. Remember, I wasn't there on a mission with a specific query, we were just kind of chatting after class.

3) Frankly, I wasn't sure if they meant for me to follow them or not. We were just kind of talking.

Being in a different job where I'm more settled in and comfortable, I'd have fewer qualms now about going by grad student offices. At the time, however, being so new and young and not sure of professional boundaries, I wanted to err on the side of respecting their space and privacy. I wasn't trying to be aloof and not treat them like humans--quite the contrary. I wanted to respect their space. Maybe they don't want the guy who just gave them a massive assignment to come into their private space after hours when they're trying to relax and eat and get ready for a long night of homework.

Anonymous said...

We had a grad cube farm in the basement. No professors ever came there. Ever. Except mine, who started dropping by constantly to check up on me. That wasn't fun. I prefer the sacred inviolate grad office. It keeps advisor-student boundaries well defined. Otherwise a pushy advisor can start to take over your life at all hours.

John V said...

Why is this even an issue?

Of course faculty should drop by grad students' desks and vice versa. We're trying to conduct research together!

Some rules of etiquette should prevail - find another space to talk if discussions in the grad student office would disturb others in the room, for example, and don't ask to use your grad students computer unless absolutely necessary, and if the student would prefer to talk later one should try to be sensitive to and respect their non-research life.

Anonymous said...

as a new grad student, I was expecting to see professors visiting the grad office (ours is a cubicle farm). I was surprised to see them avoid them...

I guess they *do* visit - seldom and quickly. To drop photocopies we would need, to get or bring books to a particular student... There was even a nice bouquet from my advisor the first time I gave a lecture waiting for me at my carrel.

Since I would rather be closer to the professors' offices (in case they need me or I need them), I decided to snob the grad office and set up camp in the (shared) computer room. Now everybody knows where to get me, profs and grads alike, and I even claimed one of the work station as my own... ;)

Anonymous said...

I am a grad student in a lab that formerly had three grad students crammed into a single office (plus the stray undergrad from time to time) but moved to a room with a desks-in-open-lab floorplan. I have to say that my productivity has tanked since I am subject to the random conversations, deliveries, tutorials and whatnot in the lab. My advisor's office is in the lab (always with the door open) so I'm also under the constant stress of being ambushed...his preferred method of mentoring. I would die for a grad office and/or "visiting hours" for my mentor!

Anonymous said...

I find that the attitude of the professor and relationship they typically have with their group members makes all the difference. I have more than one adviser, and visits from one into the grad student offices are not welcome, I would even say dreaded. That's because the purpose of the visits is typically to assign more work, or banter about something useless. Even if the visit has an important purpose, this professor can be so condescending and critical that no one ever wants to talk to him.

On the other hand, my other adviser is funny, approachable, and genuinely cares about his students. Visits from him are normal and appreciated. It all depends on the kind of relationship both the professor and the student/post-doc cultivate.

Balancing Act said...

We used to have a grad student office which no prof ever visited. But that was because it was for students who did not have a lab yet. That space has been converted to a grad student lounge for any grad student.

Our building has grad students with desks in fairly private rooms, large office with several students, and in lab. It depends on your part of the building.

My office has always been of the several grad students in one space-style, connected to the lab but not in the lab. Originally, my advisor was down the hall, and now he is next door. He comes through the offices as he pleases, either to access the lab or to speak to someone in the office. He also accesses the lab using the other door if he is trying to avoid grad students. There is no privacy in our offices and we are quite close together. I have difficulty with productivity with the style of office that we have. I'm happy for my advisor to stroll through. Unfortunately, if he pops in and says, "Can I talk to you?" it seems more like a command for instantaneous "how high?"-type response than something you could try to schedule.
My advisor may just be odd in that he swings from extreme of completely approachable to completely inapproachable and it is quite difficult to tell where he is on the spectrum sometimes.

Beth B. said...

My advisor's office is more like a mini-complex, with his own office, a small foyer for sample storage, and an auxiliary office off to the side where his three current students are located. Visitation is thus daily plus whenever he has to use our printer. I have a feeling if anything he wishes we wouldn't visit *him* as often.