Yesterday I attempted to cover a few topics relevant to being co-advised and being a co-adviser. Today's continuation of the general topic of co-advising explores some of these topics further from the point of view of the co-adviser. As science and engineering -- and perhaps other fields of which I know little -- become more inter-multi-transdisciplinary and co-advising becomes more common, it is important for faculty to be aware of the benefits and risks of co-advising with certain people.
Therefore, in an attempt to further evaluate factors involved in a decision about whether to co-advise, I asked the FSP Editorial Board:
Would you co-advise with [insert name of 'difficult' colleagues]?
But: In one case, an attempt at co-advising with a Very Difficult Colleague was made and, perhaps not surprisingly, was very difficult. In this case, however, being co-advised helped the student a lot because at least one adviser was a reasonable, nice person. The functional co-adviser was glad to have helped the student, a smart and hard-working person, and so paused a bit before answering my question.
Hence my follow-up question:
Would you co-advise with [difficult colleague] if the student was really really really great and you were fairly sure that he/she was well informed about the likely challenges of working with Difficult Colleague?
Answer: Still no.
With this additional question I was trying to assess whether it was ever worth it to co-advise with a rather difficult colleague. It seems that it may not be worth it, ever.
I feel the same way as my colleagues, and would not knowingly agree to co-advise with someone who was known for being impossible. As described yesterday in the post and in the comments, co-advising can be a burden rather than a positive experience if the advisers aren't compatible, especially if the student gets caught in the middle of conflicts.
If at all possible, it's best if everyone involved has some information about the others so as to make an informed choice. I once ignored such common-sense advice and agreed to co-advise a student in an engineering department. I hardly knew the professor with whom I agreed to co-advise, but he seemed quite pleasant, his research was fascinating to me, we had a great project, and I had the funding.
I was lucky in that the other co-adviser and I turned out to work very well together. The student, however, was rather passive and seemed to prefer a low level of research activity, and soon flamed out, blaming both of us advisers for not providing enough advising structure and attention. I thought that the weekly meetings the three of us had together might be considered as providing structure and attention, along with our many individual conversations and meetings, but alas, it was deemed insufficient.
This brings me to the topic of co-advising failures and how to (try to) prevent them. I think in some cases, such as the one I just described, students who are not particularly (pro)active about their research will struggle whether they are co- or mono-advised.
The most problematic cases directly related to the co-advising situation can be classified as:
(1) co-adviser-caused problems: co-advisers who loathe each other or are competitive with each other, who don't communicate with each other, or who have vastly different expectations (which they may or may not communicate) and/or degree of accessibility or interest in the project; or co-advisers who each expect the others to provide funding for the student, resulting in a fundless student.
(2) co-advised-caused problems: students who wait for their various advisers to take the initiative and help them; students who play co-advisers off against each other, thus annoying their advisers and, in extreme cases, losing the trust and respect of their advisers.
I mention here some of the perils and pitfalls, but I have found that co-advising has no more (and perhaps fewer) problems than mono-advising and, if the co-advisers are collegial, the advising adventure becomes very interesting for everyone involved.
7 months ago