Friday, November 06, 2009

First & Foremost?

An interesting question that arrived by email involves the issue of being the very first graduate student of someone who has never before advised a student. What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Probably in most cases the adviser has not yet advised a student because he/she is a new professor, but there are other possibilities, such as a research professor who can advise students but who chooses not to until a particularly enticing candidate comes along.

I was my adviser's gazillionth student, so I don't have personal experience with being someone's first advisee.

When I was a new professor, my very first graduate advisee left after a year to follow her husband (a postdoc in another field) when he got a position in a faraway place. This was very bad for me. Students of new advisers may be taking a risk by signing on with someone inexperienced (who may or may not get tenure), but new advisers are also vulnerable to the vagaries of students whose priorities change and whose abilities and motivation may or may not match expectations.

But I digress. Back to the student point of view: there are some general advantage and disadvantages of working with an assistant professor who has never advised students before:

ADVANTAGE: New professors may be very energetic and are likely to be working on new and interesting research in emerging fields. It can be a good career-launching move to work with an early-career professor and be part of their first projects as a professor.

DISADVANTAGE: How do you know which new professors are on track to succeed and get tenure and acquire fame that will rub off on you vs. those professors who will not get tenure and who will therefore not be much help to you when you need letters of reference and a good reputation for being an excellent researcher?

Answers to questions about the advantages/disadvantages of a new adviser also depend a lot on the specific personality and advising style of the adviser in question. For example, consider the following possibilities associated with working with an early-career adviser:

ADVANTAGE: A lot of interaction with someone who is very interested in helping you succeed.

DISADVANTAGE: A lot of interaction with someone who is very interested in having you help them succeed.

Again, how would a student know in advance which situation was more likely?

A potential danger in a lab-based science is working with a new PI who has funding and projects but who is in the process of building a lab using a lot of student labor. Is it an advantage for a student to learn how to build a lab and be part of something innovative or is it a huge time-sink that detracts from their ability to get their own research done?

A possible way to maximize your chances of having at least one nice, sane adviser is to have co-advisers, although being co-advised has its own issues and perils.

I think that unless you have specific reasons based on specific information that leads you to be anxious about the advising skills and motivation of a particular professor, the advantages of working with a new professor outweigh the possible disadvantages. And if you're worried about the they-might-not-get-tenure issue, you could get to know some of the senior faculty as well so that there will be someone around to support your career should your adviser take a hike.

63 comments:

Anonymous said...

There is another aspect to advising that i do not know that you considered, and that is of the adviser being an advocate for the student. The adviser must be an advocate in many ways - if the student wants to apply for funding, when it comes time for a job search, and even when it comes to preparing and representing the student in qualifying and final exams. As one of the first students of my adviser, i found this to be a real liability of working with a young, un-tenured, professor. I recognized that my adviser had not yet earned the clout to argue as effectively within the department, and also that the necessity to prove herself resulted in higher than average demands on my performance.

I do not mean to argue that this is all negative - my adviser is a wonderful research, a dedicated adviser, and someone i respect and appreciate the chance to work with. The demands almost certainly resulted in better results from my own research than otherwise would have been the case. However, i think it is a noticeable enough change in dynamic between the new adviser and an experienced, tenured, adviser that it is a point worth considering.

FemalePhysioProf said...

Being the first student means that you will learn techniques from the advisor directly. If you are the kind of person who learns by watching and doing (as opposed to reading and studying), this is an opportunity not to be missed. If you learn better by reading and studying, the biggest advantage of being the first student might be lost on you.

The risks are obvious, with one of the biggest ones being the possibility that your advisor might fail to get tenure before you finish. Speaking from first-hand experience, this stinks with a capital S. However, it is possible to survive even this horror.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I was my advisor's first student, and this is the analysis I made (and would still suggest to others as a general policy). In my case, it unfortunately turned out very badly, but I was able to change advisors (switching to a senior prof I had already worked with) and all ended well.

Although co-advising does indeed sound fraught with its own perils, I would highly recommend that students with newbie advisors have at least one informal senior mentor (and if possible, work on a small project in this person's lab). In a department where such cross-lab work is encouraged (or at least tolerated), this experience is very valuable on many levels (and not only for newbie advisor cases). The grad student will learn about another research area/methodology (even if only slightly different), will have the opportunity to observe a different way of structuring a lab/writing papers/etc., and eventually will have another source for letters of recommendation.

Term said...

Excellent entry! I'm been looking for topics as interesting as this. Looking forward to your next post.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I would say that it is not a good idea for a grad student to be the first *trainee* of a brand new professor, but it is fine to be the first grad student of a somewhat new professor. It is best for all involved if the first trainee of a brand new professor is a post-doc. This is because post-docs can work more independently--and thus more effectively help the brand new professor get her lab going--and also because post-docs can more tangibly benefit from being part of the new lab as it is built from the ground up (as they will be doing in a few years when they start their own labs).

Anonymous said...

When I did my PhD, my advisor was already an established associate prof about to get tenure so I didn't have to worry about him being inexperienced or not having funding. However, in our highly male dominated field, I was his first female graduate student. He was not a US citizen and (whether related to his culture or what) he had some pretty sexist views of women. I ended up having to work ten times harder than everyone else in the lab (incidentally I was the ONLY female in the lab as well) to prove my worth to him. He did noticeably treat me differently from his other, male, students. With me he was much less supportive or encouraging and far more critical or simply apathetic. It was like I was the black sheep of the lab. sometimes it seemed as if he would even actively try to avoid interacting with me. I'm just fortunate that by working ten times harder than my male colleagues, and having undisputed results to show for it, that this sufficiently impressed him to change his opinion of me and women in general. So at least he was open minded enough to be convinced to change his mind gradually, even though it took about 6 years....(hey it could have been a far worse situation where he might have sabotaged me in order to cling to sexist beliefs)

I graduated over 10 years ago. since then he has had several more women grad students over the years and when I've met them at conferences and chatted with them or when they've contacted me for postdoctoral positions, they seem to not be experiencing anything of what I did with him. He's like a totally different person now it seems. I guess I "showed" him and broke his stereotypical views. It's tough being a trailblazer though.

Bagelsan said...

This is a great (and timely) post for me! I'm trying to pick an adviser some time in the next few months, and my favorite candidate so far is a brand new assistant prof, so I would be her first grad student. Generally I'm optimistic; she seems energetic and focused but not to the point that she'll try to use up all my time. I'm also interested in seeing how she gets started out -- she just got her first ever RO1 application rejected the other day (awww, so cute :p) so I'll get to see pretty much the whole female-prof-building-a-lab process if I stay in her lab.

Anonymous said...

I am my supervisor's fist student. I have found that the advantages outweight the disadvantages. I also particularly like the fact that I get to "set the standard" rather than be held to the standard of my supervisor's memory of his previous students. I have however found it a good idea to involve some of the senior faculty in my area, this has been particularly useful as I am jobsearching now and the senior facutly have been able to give my advice that my supervisor due to inexperience cannot.

muddled grad student said...

I and another student are my advisor's first advisees; he did have one before us but he left for similar reasons as your first advisee.

The advantages that you mention are definitely there in that he works on very new ideas and is energetic, plus he is also into the whole advising thing and has a lot of interaction with us and so on. The disadvantages are also there in that he doesn't have tenure yet and I don't know how it will pan out. The problem of building up the lab is there though - as we have to take a lot of time to set up equipment etc while other labs have things running smoothly. But I personally enjoy this aspect of it (whether it is beneficial or not I don't know)
One other disadvantage is that know one knows what his advising style is, and what sort of quirks he may have - knowing some of these may have changed my choice and you can get to know these thing with a advisor who has been around and has a reputation for such and such good/bad points.

Overall though I think the advantages have outweighed the disadvantages in my case. As I see some others rehash old ideas with little or no advisor interaction (albeit in their smooth running labs) and struggling to publish in good journals.

Anonymous said...

I think this is an interesting system, where most students have just one advisor for their entire PhD (or have I misunderstood how this works?) Personally I think I would have found it intimidating though, to choose just one person when starting doctoral studies.

In my country students are required to have two advisors/supervisors, and it is more common to have three or even four. This is intended primarily to safeguard a student's salary for their entire PhD period, but also has a few advantages, including allowing students to work with both junior and senior faculty, even in different research areas.

As an new assistant professor I am currently co-advising four PhD students. I like to think they benefit from me having gone through the process more recently, in some cases being more up-to-date on current research, having a bit more research time than more senior faculty, and (perhaps?) a bit more energy.

On the other hand there are still many things I simply don't know, and some things I don't have the power/prestige to handle. Also I am less able to guarantee funding for a PhD student (currently I pay equivalent to 1.5 salaries - but that could go up or down in the next few years). And there is no guarantee I will even be here by the time these students defend their theses.

Henchman said...

Try having a conversation with some older tenured professors. 20 years of job security has given them unshakable confidence in their own wittering. Aside from long hours spent complaining about undergraduate teaching, the wireless signal and other physicists they usually manage to devote upwards of 10 minutes a day to reading new papers and declaring them to be obvious, stupid or proved by them 20 years ago. Fortunately thanks to a lifetime of academic workaholism leading to a loveless home life and an IV coffee drip they manage to stay in their offices upwards of 20 hours a day giving a comforting feeling that they're working. Of course they're usually at conferences in Belize talking about the things they did 20 years ago so you may not have the pleasure. Or, you know, they're writing in their blogs.

k8lh said...

My husband and I are both first graduate students of new advisors. The best term I've heard for this is "the burnt pancake."

Our experiences have varied greatly. It seems like things have worked out fairly well for the both of us, since we'll graduate on time, etc. I think the "family dynamic" of a lab is even more pronounced when dealing with the first few grad students...I can't help but feel resentment when my "silblings" have an easier time with things because my advisor has already been there/done that with me.

Jen said...

I was the first postdoc of a new faculty member, which was advantageous for many reasons (the PI still did a lot of bench-work, which led to fruitful discussions while we were both at the bench; new equipment, no competition for projects, etc.) However, it was a huge disadvantage when applying for postdoctoral funding (such as the NRSA) - the lack of PI experience was considered a major weakness in my application, and I missed the funding cut-off.

Anonymous said...

As a finishing PhD student who has worked for someone who is setting up a lab, I can attest that it is a tremendous time sink.

My advice to prospective PhD students is to try and see whether the supervisor is new (or new to the field of research for the PhD) and if so, ask them about the facilities that are in place. Don't necessarily believe the answer!

If at some point you realise you are being used to set up a lab, in such a way that is not furthering your own research, it is time to develop a bit of a ruthless streak. Work out your own personal plan to get you the results you need, and stick to it above all other demands on your time.

Anonymous said...

My rotations were long--about 10 weeks each. I had one brand new advisor, one advisor who was there for six months and the other who had been there for 12 years.

The six month old advisor was _crazy_. They'd run up and down the lab muttering to themself. The new advisor was awesome. He was too busy trying to get a lay of the land that he had just enough time to spend in the lab, yet also teach me science. My 12 year advisor ended up being my dissertation advisor. I chose project over advisor and 12 yo.

He was a great PI, don't get me wrong. But, he also was so into his committees and other things that to get him to pay attention in the early years was, to say the least, difficult. Science was great and everything eventually worked out, but now that I'm applying for my first fellowship, I wonder if I had picked new advisor over 12 yo advisor if New advisor would have been more focused and streamlined in the science to get me out in a more timely manner.

AB said...

I too was my supervisor's gazillitionth student, which had its negatives but was generally positive. However, one of my good friends was the first student of another supervisor and I've never seen someone work so hard for so little appreciation. They had to set up almost the whole lab while their supervisor closeted themselves in their office, only to come to the lab when things weren't going fast enough. Other professors in the department actually had to tell them to seriously lower their expectations and lay off.

Who, me? said...

I've chosen a new-ish faculty member for my PhD advisor. The deciding factors were: #1 what's he doing in his lab and will I get to do work that turns my crank? #2 the location/school. I did look to see if he'd supervised other students (he has) and if they were happy (they were) but his seniority was not a consideration in my decision-making process. Now that I've met him in person, I think I'm going to enjoy working with someone who is closer in age to my own peer group and who hasn't forgotten what it's like to be a grad student; I already feel like I'm being treated as a colleague.

Anonymous said...

"Burnt pancake" made me giggle.

I'm an assistant professor with four graduate students. I was very concerned about 'burning' my first Ph.D. student, so I had a long talk with her while she was deciding whether to work with me about the disadvantages of being my first student, and she decided to take the risk anyway. For this I am eternally grateful - I set her up with the highest profile project I could find, am making sure that she's getting opportunities through this project to collaborate with big-name senior folks that can serve as informal advisors and write reference letters, etc. If anything, I probably overcompensated, but she's doing great and on track to land a decent postdoc in a couple of years. Now that I have a full lab I'm not able to pay as much attention to each of my grad students (though I'm more experienced at advising now), so in some ways she definitely got some advantages (of my undivided time/attention, pick of the best project, etc.) by choosing to be my first student!

Anonymous said...

I am a graduate student who is being advised by an early career professor. My advisor is very much interested in training scientists not mindless worker bees (as some late career advisors might prefer). He is excited and energetic about the research, which is fresh and novel. Perhaps more importantly, he is extremely productive and, because he is working toward tenure, is motivated to get publications out and to include his grad students as authors on those pubs.

Anonymous said...

I believe the advantages/disatvantages all depend on the particular advisor we're talking about more than on the new/old choice. The biggest danger of the new Assistant Prof. would be that the advisor doesn't get tenure indeed. And they don't have too many connections to help you after graduation, so you are pretty much on your own. However, no matter who you work for, older or younger, if the two of you cannot collaborate well, it's going to be Hell. If the adviser is lazy, crazy, pushes you too hard, doesn't get funding, things are bad. The same problems can happen to younger or older profs. Plus, some older professor wouldn't let you publish because, well, "I'm not interested in getting papers, I have enough", so they only want to publish in Nature, while you kinda need some papers, even in journals less than Nature. Older profs. don't automatically do anything to help you find jobs either. Some do, some don't. And some, young or old, are simply jerks. First and formost, try to avoid the jerks and you'll be fine.

Anonymous said...

I am one of the first students for my advisor, and I love it. He still remembers what it was like to be a grad student, so he's very supportive, very good at being an advocate on my behalf, and we joke and get along great. Luckily in my particular science field there is no "lab-building" to speak of, so I don't get stuck with that time suck at all. He does push me pretty hard, but honestly, I like that because it sets me up for success later on, and he's not a total slave driver... when shit needs to get done by a certain deadline, we both work late, and I think that's quite fair.

I do know other first students of pre-tenure professors at a slightly more prestigious U where attaining tenure is *highly* competitive, and those advisors are slave drivers. The students have all either learned to cope, are the lab's "Golden Boy" and can do wrong, or have changed advisors.

If it's a new professor, I recommend trying to talk to people who knew the professor in his post-doc/gradstudent days. They'll likely either tell you your potential advisor is awesome, in which case it's a safe bet, or awesome and some qualifying statement like a work-a-holic, which we all may be to some degree, but the necessity of the qualifying statement is likely a bad omen... at least in my admittedly limited experience.

Anonymous said...

CPP - as a new prof, there is NO WAY I'll be able to recruit a good post-doc in my field. Ludicrous suggestion. Why should I waste my start up money on the mediocre quality I'll get. Good post-docs want to work for senior bigwigs.

I did my PhD for a newer advisor and post-doc as the gazillionth person. Totally different experience, but I think working in a new lab better prepared me for the stress/needs of setting up my own lab.

Anonymous said...

I'm by now a senior professor, but I have to say I don't think my first two students suffered from that. My letter of recommendations did have less weight back then, but on the other hand I was able to dedicate massive amounts of time to them since I had teaching relief and no other students to tend to. Students later on did not get half as much time from me as those first two. So I'd say that to them in the end it was a wash.

Anonymous said...

One shouldn't assume that a new assistant professor doesn't have connections or a network of other scientists. If the PhD and post-doc advisers are well known and sent the new prof. to lots of conferences during their academic career, that assistant professor may already have a pretty good network.

Kevin said...

"My rotations were long--about 10 weeks each. "

Ten weeks is a long rotation???
We require 3 10-week lab rotations of all our PhD students, and the general feeling (among students and faculty) is that 10 weeks is a very short time indeed.

L said...

I was also among my adviser's fist students. Didn't think much about it before I made my decision, because he was the only one doing research that I was interested in. I guess I was lucky, because he turned out to be a really nice guy, very supportive, the kind that sincerely wants to help students succeed. Also fortunately he has connections and network, that he actually found my current job for me. :)

The advantages were like all those mentioned above. He's energetic and inspiring, and the fact that there were only a few students in the lab meant that we each had substantial amount of time working directly with him. We did bench-work together, discussed research frequently, which was a big help when I just started as a fresh PhD student.

Of course disadvantages did exist. We had grant reviewers picking on his "inexperience as a PI". I remember some time during my second year a grant he put a lot of effort in didn't get funded. He was really upset. All of us could feel the tension in the air, everyone was so stressed-out during that time. Also a student left our group after a year, which also made him depressed for a while. But later on I noticed, that although there were still up and downs, he learned to not let his frustration get to the students. It probably also has something to do with our department having a good mentor system, pairing up senior professors and new faculty members to help them with their career start. But I think the main credit belongs to he himself, that he tried very hard to become a better adviser. I agree with the post above, that sometimes it's more of an "individual" thing rather than "new" or "old" professor.

Yet here's still one good aspect of having a new professor as adviser: You grow up together.

On our commencement day our adviser admitted to us that he was not very sure where he was going at the beginning. He said he appreciated that we took the risk, and walked the path with him. In my opinion, during my PhD study I not only established my own research abilities, but also closely witnessed how a brilliant young man matured into an outstanding professor. Should I choose to become a professor myself one day, this experience will definitely help me facing some of the bumps I might encounter.

p.s. my adviser got tenure earlier this year, a few months after my graduation. Congratulations to him!

Hope said...

Apologies to all of the new profs that I’m about to piss off … but being someone’s first student is a total crapshoot. In addition to the tenure question, the main disadvantage, it seems to me, is that you have no previous and/or current students to interview, and no way of knowing whether this person’s expectations for graduation are even remotely reasonable. (You’re not going to believe everything you hear during your initial meeting with them, are you?) Isn’t this what people are always advising prospective grad students to do, to talk to current/past students? If you are going to throw this advice out the window, you’d better have a damn good reason. At least take a class with them first, so you have more than one meeting to go on (although some people are very different in the lab vs the classroom).

Anonymous said...

One negative the students in my young lab report is that they are constantly compared by my colleagues to what I was like as a student and post-doc. I suppose that is somewhat like being compared to your older sibling who, especially in a historic light, was a super-star at something. People (my colleagues in this can) can be so insensitive sometimes!

Anonymous said...

As the first student of a new professor, I agree with the previous comments that it's a total crapshoot. As FSP noted, maybe the new prof. will be highly involved and interested in helping launch your career, or maybe the new prof. will expect you to be highly involved and interested in helping launch his/her career. And either way, the new prof may or may not be good at doing the right things to help you, and in the 2nd case, may or may not realize that helping you actually helps himself/herself.

I experienced the 2nd case, a new prof. very interesting in me helping him, who's not very good at running a lab and doesn't recognize that many things that would help me would also help him. It sucks.

The ideal situation is choosing an established professor with an excellent reputation in research, advising, and trainee support. Obviously. But I do understand the importance of seeing what it's like to build up and run a new lab. Maybe be good friends with a new prof, and students and postdocs who work for a new prof. Then you can see what works and what doesn't without being "burned" by it yourself.

Anonymous said...

Well, I am about to come up for tenure, and I can tell you that my students will not have it so easy anymore once I get it. My first student was good, but also very lucky. I was desperate to graduate a Ph.D., as it is a requirement for tenure and I held her/his hand all the time, bending myself backwards to make sure she/he graduates. I almost wrote everything for her/him, articles, abstracts, exam documents, you name it! Now I'm writing the thesis lol My Ph.D. adviser would comment on my manuscripts "rewrite this paragraph" without actually explaining much, so it took my one year of writing and rewriting over and over again. I don't do that, I see something wrong (I see A LOT wrong), I rewrite it, summarizing the general points that need to be addressed in the future, and that's it, because I don't have YEARS available. In the future, I'm not bending backwards that much, I promise. The standards will definitley be higher.

Anonymous said...

Slight "pancake singeing" aside, I have had an overall excellent experience being the first grad student of a new faculty member. However, as CPP suggested my adviser did "preheat the trainee pan" with postdocs and techs before I joined so that probably helped.

I have noticed the same phenomenon as k8lh, however! The newer students definitely seem to have it a bit easier when it comes to certain aspects of the adviser/advisee process. However, they also get a lot less time with him than I did, so I don't let it bother me too much. The most important things are that 1) he actually cares about the success of his students 2) he is an excellent manager/motivator.

Hope said...

Anonymous 11/06/2009 02:25:00 PM: If your student was “good,” you would not have had to write “almost everything” for them. That you had a hand in their exam documents is surely unethical. But I know that you don’t give a shit – all you care about is getting tenure. Whether your student has developed the skills they need to succeed is, at best, of secondary importance. I hope there aren’t too many like you out there. But thanks for serving as a cautionary tale for others.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

CPP - as a new prof, there is NO WAY I'll be able to recruit a good post-doc in my field. Ludicrous suggestion.

This is ridiculous, unless you have an unrealistic view of what "good" means. Part of your job as a new faculty member is to enable people of a range of talents and capacities to fulfill all of their potential for success. If you sit around waiting for a "good" post-doc to show up--where "good" means "good like me"--you are gonna fuck yourself up big time.

Of course, you can't hire idiots or malfeasants, but when you start your lab, you need to adjust your expectations accordingly. Once you prove through publications and grants that you know what you are doing, you will then find that the second wave of post-docs who approach you for positions are much better quality than the first wave. But you need to figure out how to enable first-wave quality post-docs to succeed, or you're fucked.

Anonymous said...

Being first student of new professor is fine, you will learn a lot, but I would not suggest anyone to join as a post-doc of new professor as suggested by CPP. Maybe it worked out well for CPP, but in general you have more chance of sinking than swimming with a new professor if you are amongst of first post-doc. You need those big heavy-weight people to actually land some real position. So if you want to be in academia after your post-doc, choose someone who has track recording of launching people.

female Science Professor said...

Hope, you are too hard on that Anon. There are many advisers who care a lot about their students but who end up having to do quite a lot of the student's writing (or other work) for various well-intentioned reasons. Should a hard-working assistant professor have their tenure chances harmed because of one or more struggling students (if the problems are beyond the help and control of the adviser)? I don't think that is fair to the adviser. Some students are not identified as having major problems until quite late, others develop problems late in their graduate program. Do we kick the student out after years of work by them and their adviser or do we drag them over the finish line? Which is more ethical? These are complicated situations that are difficult for everyone.

scatterplot said...

Thank you for your endorsement of newbie advisors, FSP. As a first-semester assistant professor and brand-new phd, I am anxious about being able to attract students with potential.

Anybody have any tips for new profs on how to attract good, useful, productive students or how to weed out students who won't be worth the effort?

Anonymous said...

I was the first postdoc of a new advisor and it was a nightmare. He was only a couple years older than me, very ambitious and eager to become famous. he stole my work and took all credit for it, refused to let me be first author on papers that were my idea and where I did the bulk of the work independently. Oh, and I also set up his lab for him too. He was new and felt pressure to 'become famous" within X number of months so he saw me as his ticket to fame and glory but of course had to keep me in the shadows at the same time so he could hog the spotlight. He went on to achieve his goal, while I had to go on to another postdoc position where I would be allowed to publish my work so my CV wouldn't look like I was just being a lab tech for 2 years.

I would advise grad students and postdocs to steer clear of brand new advisors. They may be perfectly fine, or they may be psychopaths. You won't know if you're the first. Let them sort out their career angst and get advising experience on some other poor soul, just not you. An advisor can "experiment" with many trainees at the same time in parallel so if one trainee turns out 'bad' it is not usually a total disaster for the advisor. Each trainee however, can only try out one advisor at a time so a bad advisor can really screw up your life or set you back by years.

Hope said...

Sorry, FSP, but I really don’t think that the situation is that complicated: (1) Start by removing the requirement that you need to graduate at least one student before getting tenure. (2) If a student just can’t cut it, even after years of effort on the part of said student and the advisor, it is indeed a very sad situation; but I don’t see how you can justify letting them graduate. A PhD is not supposed to be a consolation prize. (3) And how on earth can you justify helping a student with exam documents?! I mean, an article, even the thesis … but exam documents? I don’t know of any schools where profs are permitted to help students complete their quals (or other exams).

This Anon doesn’t strike me as a very caring advisor. He came on here and cavalierly announced that after he gets what he wants (tenure), his students better watch out!

You, FSP, are essentially saying that it’s OK to give someone a PhD that hasn’t earned it if it means a worthy prof will get tenure. I would think that as someone with tenure, you’d be trying to change the system so that a truly good prof and advisor, saddled with a problematic student, doesn’t have to cheat in order to get tenure.

Anonymous said...

I am the Anon. that supposedly doesn't care about students' skills, I was sure my post was outrageous:). It's not actually as bad as it sounded :) , I was a little frustrated reading the student's thesis when I wrote the previous post. The student is indeed very good in the lab, I made sure they have very good experimental skills, but they're not at the same level in the writing part and part of it it's that they are from Asia. The student passed the exams on their own with no problems. I may have exagerated that "I wrote" the documents for them, I didn't exactly "write" them, I just sped up the process by editing paragraphs directly and summarizing my comments and suggestions for improvment in a commentary, instead of going through 7 versions of the same document, which actually was a little frustrating. In the future, I intend to go through 7 versions though, starting with the second student. So I repent:) I do care about getting tenure though, especially in this economy [:D]

But let's discuss this a little further. May I suggest, maybe we shouldn't put "graduating a Ph.D." as a "requirement" for tenure if we want only perfect Ph.D.s with awesome experimental, presentation and writing skills. My student would have graduated anyway, only a bit later because they would have had to write 7 versions of the same documents. Ah, and another consequence would have been that I wouldn't have had as many papers either if this student had to write them all. What do you suggest a young faculty does if they don't get that wonderful student, because the wonderfullest awesomest students go to experienced, wise, well published, well funded PIs? But they are "required" to graduate a Ph.D.? Let's say they start their career with one Masters and one Ph.D. student. I am telling you, the Ph.D. student MUST graduate in five years and you have to make that happen no matter what the blogosphere says about it. If the students are dumb to start with and cannot graduate, I am not sure how the adviser is expected to transform them into geniuses and why it is considered to be their fault if the student, let's say fails exams? Don't you think this requirement shouldn't be so important because it is not so much up to the advisor whether the first student is any good? Going further, another consequence of this would be let's eliminate numbers of publications as requirements for tenure if the students must all write the articles. I haven't met many advisers who don't write the articles themselves actually. Very few grad students are good enough to do it and I didn't find one yet. My conclusion is, there is not only black and white but also different shades of grey in this picture and one thing triggers another. Well, I guess is better to work for an established professor afterall.

female Science Professor said...

I wouldn't write an exam for a student, but I would do (and have done) the type of 'major editing' described by Anon. If a student has spent years doing a research project (having ideas, getting data) but doesn't write well and is about to be out of funding (and, in many cases -- but not all -- is a non-native English speaker), in those cases I am going to intervene.

rachel said...

wowzers. maybe i'm not as dreadful of a grad student as i thought.

Anonymous said...

I certainly didn't write the exams! However, when I included exams into the expression "I almost wrote everything", I was actually referring to something else I did in the exam stage, which I think tremendously contributed to the student passing the exam faster. I did that because the student was too stressed to work and I am sorry, I am not sure I'll do it for all students, I can't promise that. What I did, I had two hour/day sessions during which the student wrote the document IN MY OFFICE with no intervention from me whatsoever, but in my presence, because they couldn't focus on their work due to psychological problems. Having me in the room and breathing in the back of their head forced them to actually fully work for 2h/day. I don't know anybody that did that so I said "I wrote" bc/ I think that was a major push and I can be identified by this info:) And one knows is dangereous to write on blogs before tenure, so yet another requirement: don't run your mouth on blogs. I guess I should stop doing it:)

Comrade PhysioProf said...

You need those big heavy-weight people to actually land some real position. So if you want to be in academia after your post-doc, choose someone who has track recording of launching people.

Bullshit. Some of the most attractive tenure-track faculty candidates are those who come from non-heavyweight labs, but still manage to publish high-impact work in top journals.

Anonymous said...

"However, when I included exams into the expression "I almost wrote everything", I was actually referring to something else I did in the exam stage, which I think tremendously contributed to the student passing the exam faster. I did that because the student was too stressed to work and I am sorry, I am not sure I'll do it for all students, I can't promise that. "

Something is very wrong here. You basically helped your student to cheat because it would benefit you. If a student cannot perform due to psychological problems (which is no fault of their own) then they need to get professional medical help so that they can become functional enough to do the job on their own in an honest way, not for their advisor to make exceptions only when it would benefit him/herself. You have now set a precedent that is going to be very difficult to go backwards on, with future students.

Anonymous said...

I was my professor's first student! And she (yes SHE!) proved a great advisor ...though she had tenure by the time I came. My advisor gave me a lot of freedom to do my thing and cared about me getting a job... there were some people who told me... "she's unproven...not a good idea" but I persisted. Eventually, I dareay that my advisor was the only thing I liked about graduate school.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

I thought I should mention this, I am currently on 3x 10 weeks rotations and I am seriously short on time. I'm interdisciplinary between 2 departments and so everything is planned 1 to 2 weeks in advance as I need to coordinate between the work carried out in both my labs. However, even though it is still uncertain whether I will stay in these two labs I already had sabotage by current students and advisor issues...2 equal weight advisors showing dominance over my project, not fun when they are both men and I'm female...so, 10 weeks is not as long as what some people think. Though I will admit that it is long enough to have obtained some sort of result and get to know your potential supervisor(s) a lot better.

Regardless of all the hard work, I do recommend future students to do this as you can try out different labs and advisors as well as the lab environment, which is sometimes more important than the advisors themselves. Of course, the advisors can choose you too, so you need to work harder than you would normally.

I do, however, wonder what advisors' views on this project rotations are though. I know that some find it irritating to have advisees for the short term but what are the general impression?

Interdisciplinary Introspective said...

I wrote a post about this same subject (from the point of view of the student) a few months back: http://interdisciplinaryintrospective.blogspot.com/2009/08/on-working-for-new-professors.html

I think an advisee's experience with a new professor really depends on the personality of the professor. FemalePhysioProf made the blanket statement that "Being the first student means that you will learn techniques from the advisor directly. If you are the kind of person who learns by watching and doing (as opposed to reading and studying), this is an opportunity not to be missed." Unfortunately, this was not my experience working with a new advisor. Although he did teach me a few techniques, he's not a particularly good instructor, and in most cases he merely introduced me to the concepts and set me to work to figure it out on my own. So, beware of generalizations; every prof. will be different.

I'm also surprised by the number of people commenting that new profs have more time to devote to their students than tenured profs. My experience has again been very different. Between teaching classes (one class) for the first time, frantically writing grant proposals, and starting a family, I had to fight for even an hour of my advisor's time each week. I don't mean to paint a horrible picture of my advisor. I actually think we've worked well together, but, I just want to point out again that every experience is different.

OverEngineered said...

I'm one of the first advisees for my advisor, and I love it! I have had enough advisors before to recognize a good one, so I actually left a very experienced advisor to work for an inexperienced one. I get a lot of attention and also the chance to see what it's like to set up a lab in my field.

John V said...

Lots of good comments already, just a couple more thoughts.

While dread of junior faculty being denied tenure is a problem, most faculty get tenure, so the problem is more the pressure than the denial. Much more common is young faculty leaving to move to a better job, stranding grad students in mid-thesis or dragging them around the country. No way to avoid this risk unless the faculty member is already at the top place (and not even then).

For top students, it is clearly best to join an active group. Better still, an active group in a department full of active groups. This diversifies the risks - most problems can be worked around.

Being a first student of a particular faculty member is a huge risk. Being a first student in a department where there are only limited options to change advisors is foolhardy.

I liked working across groups - why not mine the expertise more widely than can be done with just one group? This also dilutes the influence of any one advisor.

As an astute reader probably infers, my problem is lack of focus rather than lack of options, which is why I'm writing this rather than churning through Matlab as I should be.

Kevin said...

"Much more common is young faculty leaving to move to a better job, stranding grad students in mid-thesis or dragging them around the country. No way to avoid this risk unless the faculty member is already at the top place (and not even then)."

I'm at probably the best department in my field, but we lost a junior faculty member a few years ago to industry (she wanted to live with her partner in another city and have only 40-hour weeks).

I ended up inheriting two of her students, because I was the closest subject match of the faculty. While I might not have picked either student for my lab and neither one might have picked me as an adviser, they both have finished decent theses and gotten postdocs in top-tier labs. As a training experience, I think the transfer worked very well.

Unfortunately, neither was doing work that was directly useful to me (though close enough to my grant that I did not feel guilty about using grant funds to pay them). As a result, my research went slower than it might have if I'd had students working on the problems I was interested in. This may be contributing to my difficulty in getting the funding renewed or in getting new funding. The students who are suffering are the ones currently in my lab, for whom I have no funding---they have been TAing and spending a lot of time writing grant proposals to try to fund their research. (If they get the funding, it will be see as great training experience. In the more likely case that we fail to get funding, I'm worried about massive depression and burnout---theirs and mine.)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, so writing in the advisor's office is now cheating?? I don't see how. As advisors, we are teachers, actors, writers and yes, psychologists. Students have many crying sessions behind the doors of our offices. I consider this part of the nurturing, part of the job and some call it cheating and tell us to just send a suffering student to get medical help and get out of our face with their psychological problems. I couldn't disagree more.

Anonymous said...

"Very interesting, so writing in the advisor's office is now cheating?? "

No, writing in the advisor's office per se is not what I considered cheating (I'm the one who wrote post you are referring to). it's because the professor said that he/she would not go to the same lengths for the students once tenure is no longer at stake, which is the cheating part. If you would willingly spend 2 hours per day with all of your students and let them all use your office, that's fine. But that's not the case here since that professor has openly said that he/she would not do the same for other students, and the students won't have it so good anymore after he/she gets tenure. this is basically a double-standard - which students get over-and-above help or "nurturing" and which don't, based on when it benefits the advisor.

And what about the student who - without the advisor's intervention - would not have worked 2 hours per day due to a medical (psychological) problem? I'm sorry but not being able to work two hours per day unless your advisor is literally forcing you, is close to being dysfunctional and unfit for a job. This student needs professional help! (what is wrong with seeking professional help?? A professor is a thesis advisor not a trained psychiatrist!!) Or a vacation, leave of absence, whatever it takes to get him healthy enough that working two hours a day is not an extraordinary effort. Is it doing them any favors to pass them onto the next stage even when they are presently still unfit? Isn't it setting up the student to suffer even more in the future since they are not actually ready?

Anonymous said...

As the first student of my adviser, I agree with most of the benefits that people have already mentioned. Financially, if the startup package is good and the adviser is good at getting early-career grants, a new group can be more secure than an established but over-stretched one. And in my PhD program, I will probably graduate before the issue of tenure comes up. I agree with others that it's important to have well-established committee members (or the equivalent) for later on. And I definitely intend to postdoc in an established lab.

For me the major disadvantage has been the lack of experienced people working around me. In my field, it's certainly very difficult for new professors to attract good postdocs. While my adviser is obviously a great resource she's very busy and I can't bother her all the time with trivial questions. If I hadn't come to grad school with several years of research experience in this field I think it would be very difficult to progress.

So far the research has been the best part--it's very exciting to work on completely new ideas and start a project/lab from the ground up. Unfortunately I think seeing so much of the whole process of starting a lab/being an assistant professor has probably discouraged me from going into academia. (Perhaps professors are like sausages; it's better not to see how they're made.)

another anonymous said...

I agree with John V, moving advisors are a real problem. Having a new advisor can be very good but it also involves a higher risk. If you can't check the advisors track record, check how the department has dealed with advisor problems before, and get a good co-advisor who you could switch to if necessary. In my country PhD-students always have the right to switch advisor.

franglais said...

I am talking about 25 years ago, so things have changed, but... there is a definite advantage, in my view, to grad students pairing up with junior professors under the right conditions. This was my case as I was the first Masters student of a young and ambitious advisor who is now recognized as being on top of his field in one of the top 5 research institions in the world. He was not known then, but I enjoyed his energy, hard work, and professionalism (he was behaving as if he had been in the business forever..). I learned from him to think outside the box, to question the established, and to seek collaboration with experts worldwide. For my PhD, I landed in the group of a very well known professor with whom I spent very little time. But the meager interaction I had with him (perhaps once a year) taught me the principles by which I built my own career. This is what an experienced advisor will do to you: let you grow independent, yet offer excellent advice and insight at critical points in your grad career.

Before I knew it, I was on the other side of the fence, but the fence did not really exist for me at that time. I was offered an assistant professor position and was rapidly inundated by advising responsibilities. Students did not flock to me: I was almost totally unknown in the U.S. and had published only a couple of papers, the others from my PhD were still in press. But students came to this department because it was (still is) an excellent department in which to be a grad student, AND there was a new assistant professor as a bonus. I had the benefit of a senior faculty in a closely related field, so in my tenure years, I ended up advising or co-advising half a dozen students.

So, from my various experiences, I would say that grad students in any case have to pay attention not just to the individual advisor, but to the graduate program they consider joining. Without belittling the role of the individual advisor, I certainly tell prospective students that what is most important is the strength and variety of the graduate program they will pick. In a strong graduate program, do not hesitate to choose a rooky as an advisor. There will be many senior professors to help advise or mentor, your advisor will be very present and interactive, and you will learn mainly from your peers anyway. What you don't want to do, whether you end up being advised by a junior or a senior professor, is to find yourself isolated and limited by the size and/or quality of the overall research program. This is the most important decision you will make in your career, and it's OK, even recommended, to take risks and choose a very junior advisor if the boundary conditions are right.

Anonymous said...

I was one of the first PhD students for my Adviser. The advantages are great energy and productivity. It was a win-win situation to produce more papers for his tenure and my graduation.

I was lucky to have two senior professors in the faculty in the same field. They were just great with advise about nuts and bolts or long-term view.

The disadvantages were that I wasn't "allowed" to network at all. I don't know if it is the case of my Adviser building his own network or being jealous of letting out the new ideas. Also, I had to do twice as much to graduate. (I wrote 5 first-author journal papers while others in dept. graduated with 1 or 2).

Also, the personality thing was a risk. His early students (me and another one) suffered for his frustrations with managing his teaching load/defending our work/being aware of admin side of things.

Anonymous said...

Everyone I knew who was a student or postdoc of a new advisor, had a bad experience. My own advisor was established and I am thankful for that after seeing what the students of new professors had to go through. New advisors often are clueless and don't have their sh!t together and make a lot of mistakes in terms of funding, project management and lab management and also their own time management. Yes they did tend to have more creativity and energy than old professors but hey the grad studetns and postdocs themselves are also young and creative and full of energy so it's not that necessary for the advisor to have those qualities I think it's more important for the advisor to be a good and stable provider of resources so that the students can reach their potential without having to suffer from the new advisor's costly mistakes.

my advice to students would be to try for the well-established professors with good track records first. If you can't get a position with such an advisor, then and only then go with a new advisor. The exception would be if the new advisor is very obviously a superstar - already has lots of recognition and funding.

Anonymous said...

new advisors often are clueless and don't have their sh!t together and make a lot of mistakes in terms of funding, project management and lab management and also their own time management.

Maybe you are at a place where funding is too tight? around here any half-decent new professor has enough startup funds that you don't have to worry about that. A grant soon follows. Moreover we have a vetting process for new profs and only allow them to supervise if they seem to have settled down already (usually within two years of joining).

Anonymous said...

Seems to me the most important thing to avoid is the "pyramid-style" of advising most often associated with extremely senior/"productive" Primary Investigators. That is, where the PI is essentially MIA and you are advised 99% of the time by one of many postdocs or senior grad students.

The main downside is that you will for practical purposes have an even more inexperienced person as an adviser (the postdoc), AND they don't have as much interest in you succeeding as a young faculty adviser would.

Another downside is that you will usually have to publish your papers with at least 5 co-authors - if you are the first trainee you have a much better chance of having being the first of only a few authors (ideally you and your adviser; more often you, a collaborator or two, and your adviser). And until you're THE senior grad student, you'll be middlest author on these publications.

However, this situation isn't the case for ALL senior PI's, and some fairly junior PI's already have monster labs by their 3rd or 4th year.

Anonymous said...

Another possibility is being the first student of an established researcher. My advisor spent a decade at a research lab before coming to a university. He's still a research scientist (not faculty), but he can have students. My experience has been phenomenal!! A few reasons...
- he is great at grant writing and paper publishing because he's worked on research scientist mode for so long
- he's not distracted by classes/TAs
- because I'm his first, I think he is more engaged in my success
- he's very well-established and respected in the field

When it comes to advisors, though, I think the most important part is the person, not their "data points".

Anonymous said...

As a new FSP, I very much appreciate your comments on new students. I don't have any yet, but am actively searching!

ME said...

One advantage is that your advisor's success is intimately tied to your success as the first graduate student of a new asst prof. So they are likely to be more involved and interested in your project than say someone with a lab of 30. There failure of one person in nothing to the advisor. However, they may be a little too involved at times or a little too micromanagement oriented. (I know I was!)

First Student said...

Does anyone know of any blogs by First Students? I am thinking of starting one. My experience has been very challenging.