Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Try Try Try to Understand

First, let me say that I hate myself for using lyrics from a song by Heart(?) in the title of this post, but it's what came to mind when I was mulling over the topic-of-the-day.

If this blog has any mission or goals, and it may not, one of them might be to demystify some of the experiences of Graduate School, and in particular the often fraught grad-adviser relationship. Some of my student readers seem very bitter about their graduate experiences. I know well that there are situations of extreme unfairness, but perhaps in some cases the anger stems from a lack of understanding of a system that is not always as transparent as it could or should be. In other cases, a bad situation may persist because a student doesn't know what the options are for resolution of the problem.

In saying this, my intention is not to 'blame the victim'. I want to be very clear that I abhor evil advisers, and that I think advisers (evil or not, and myself included) should work harder to explain what we do and why we do it. And I think that students can do more to ask constructive questions to try to get the information they want and need. Grad students vary in more ways than I ever imagined before I became an adviser, and I therefore appreciate it when students take the initiative to ask for the information they want and need.

When I was a student, I was often incredulous at the behavior, decisions, and overall philosophy towards students displayed by my adviser and other professors (though I never asked them about any of this), and was quite sure that I would do things in a very different way if ever I got the chance to advise students.

Well, of course it's not so simple. I provide more feedback and funding to my students than my adviser gave to me, although that is setting the bar rather low for improving adviser-grad interactions. Nevertheless, until you manage a research group yourself, you may not understand the decisions that go into how funding and publications and research responsibilities are prioritized and allocated. Some decisions or policies that seem unfair or inconsistent might actually be the actions of a well-intentioned adviser. And you shouldn't be too critical of how your adviser spends his/her time or research funds until know what it's like to be in a position of managing a research group, teaching, and having many service responsibilities, all at the same time.

That last point is in response to student comments and e-mails along the lines of "I do all the work and my adviser does nothing." I am deeply skeptical of such comments unless a student has an adviser who has no grants and has not provided the student with any research support or ideas, and who does not teach any classes nor do any service work for the institution or profession. Managing a research group is far from "nothing".

You can and should be critical, however, if your adviser doesn't provide you with timely feedback on your research progress, proposals, manuscripts, or other documents, despite specific and reasonable requests. And you certainly should be upset if all you get is criticism, with no suggestions for how to do things "right". These seem to be common complaints.

I think that in some (many?) cases of advisers who don't give timely feedback is that the adviser has so many things to do that it's not possible to do them all in a reasonable time frame, although in some cases it could be that the student's needs are lower in priority than they should be. That is a major problem for some, and it would be a significant improvement to the Grad Experience for many if we could all find a way to solve it. Perhaps we can use the collective wisdom of the FSP reading community to come up with some possible solutions.

As an adviser, I am pretty good about getting comments back to students on manuscripts and other documents, but I certainly have trouble getting co-authors to read, edit, or at least sign-off on manuscripts. These situations are different of course because I can remove a dysfunctional colleague from a project or send them an e-mail saying "If I don't hear from you by DATE, I will assume that you approve of the manuscript in its current form and will submit it with you as co-author." Students don't typically have that option, although I am curious if anyone has tried something like that with an adviser who sat on a manuscript for an unacceptably long period of time.

It is important to be clear about what amount of time is reasonable vs. unacceptable. If someone gives me a long document to edit just before a proposal deadline or conference or some other major time consuming activity, my response time might be slower. It is important to communicate about these things and, if possible, to work out an agreement about what would be a reasonable time frame for all concerned. That advice assumes that all parties involves are semi-reasonable people, perhaps a flawed assumption in some cases.

All of us who have advised students for many years can think of examples in which the adviser-grad interaction was very tense or somehow dysfunctional, not because the adviser was (necessarily) evil, but for a wide range of reasons involving misunderstanding, miscommunication, or widely divergent personalities and priorities. This is normal in any system involving interpersonal relationship, and may be particularly common when you add in the stress and power differential of adviser-student relationships.

Just because it is normal, however, doesn't mean we shouldn't try to fix problems that can be fixed. My overall message to grad students in apparently dysfunctional adviser-student situations is to first and foremost do whatever you can to try to understand the situation and make things work for yourself. Is your adviser really being evil and unfair? Maybe, maybe not. Be as proactive as is reasonable in your situation, and seek out allies in senior students, postdocs, and/or other faculty.

There are some extreme situations in which nothing you can do will work, and perhaps these situations can only be solved at the departmental or institutional level (if the will and means to do so exists), but my hope is that many misunderstandings can be resolved before they get magnified into major problems, and that advisers and students can develop highly functioning and respectful interactions through enhanced understanding on both sides.

45 comments:

madscientistintraining said...

One of the harder issues for me to sort through as a new grad student is how to address my questions and concerns to my adviser/thesis committee concerning a wide range of issues from the bench to scheduling my committee meetings to managing my stress. I take initiative for my own project and I just go ahead and ask (after attempting to look up neccessary info first), but I have a constant fear of being judged by the questions I ask, and I am definitely not the only one. I know that I am capable, I am just scared that others won't think so based on my interactions. I think this definitely contributes to why many grad students switch labs or have a miserable experience in grad school. I am tackling this head on as early as possible but I definitely anticipate challenges no matter what.

Anonymous said...

I'm a new advisor and definitely find it hard to get manuscripts back to students quickly, even though I make it a priority. I now tell all my students, repeatedly, if I haven't got back to you in 1 week, email me. It isn't that I don't like you/your research, I'm just busy. Having a deadline helps me, and I hope it helps them not feel ignored.

Anonymous said...

" "If I don't hear from you by DATE, I will assume that you approve of the manuscript in its current form and will submit it with you as co-author." Students don't typically have that option, although I am curious if anyone has tried something like that with an adviser"

Has been done (although not by myself) in a case of no response from adviser to several requests of commenting a manuscript draft. The grad student in question went ahead to submit the manuscript by himself (with adviser included as author) and it was accepted after some revision. I have to say though that the grad student already had experience from writing several other manuscripts and the adviser did participate in the design of the experiment, only not in the writing.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

APOLOGIST FOR THE OPPRESSORS!

Anonymous said...

If this blog has any mission or goals, and it may not, one of them might be to demystify some of the experiences of Graduate School, and in particular the often fraught grad-adviser relationship.

And you do a great job of it. That is a major reason why I (a fourth-year science graduate student) read this blog, although I get other things out of it too. Thank you. :)

Alyssa said...

...I am curious if anyone has tried something like that with an adviser who sat on a manuscript for an unacceptably long period of time.

For one of his papers from his PhD, my husband had waited 1.5 years for his PI to make comments on one of his papers. He would remind him about it about once per month, the PI said he would get back to him, and never did.

Eventually (after 1.5 years), my husband told him if he didn't hear from him by DATE, that he would submit the paper. The PI never did read the paper, but gave permission to submit.

I guess this situation is a little different, because my husband had finished his PhD by this time.

Anonymous said...

I never understood when grad students complained of "not enough feedback" from advisors. I always liked it when my advisor did not interfere with my stuff, I took it as a sign of her confidence in my abilities. To become an independent scientist, I have to think like one first.

And I believe the best way to learn is to take a headlong plunge into the deep end of the pool. Now as a postdoc, I hardly even see my mentor though we have a very cordial relationship. I also mention here that my advisor was the ONE thing I absolutely LOVED about grad school and probably the only thing. I will say pretty much the same about my postdoc mentor. Not bothering these people with inane little details serves to make me independent and saves their time. I get to do my work without interference and they get to see the sweet results and not the sweat and thus their opinion of me keeps improving. I will add that my former grad advisor keeps writing to me now and then suggesting further career development and has almost become a close personal friend. Everyone wins.

I think the key here, to somewhat paraphrase FSP, for grad students (I am qualified to give some advice to grad students at least :) ) is to realise that the advisor is not made of different material than the grad students. The advisor is also a scientist and entitled to his/her own selfish interests as much as you are. Respecting the self interest of others goes a long way.

Anonymous said...

I sent a manuscript to my postdoc advisor shortly after leaving his lab for my job. Eight and a half months later I still didn't have any comments back from him (and yes, I did periodically contact him and request feedback). Finally, I wrote and told him that in two weeks it would be the nine-month anniversary of me sending him the ms and if I didn't hear back I was going to assume he had no comments to make and I would submit it for publication. A few days later I heard from him - he had no comments. He had finally read the ms and was pleasantly surprised to see that it was in really good shape and he didn't think it needed any changes. It flew into publication...

katie mae said...

I was very recently a grad student (defended one month ago, hooray!) and I have given co-authors and advisors concrete deadlines, after which I submitted manuscripts/applications/whatever with or without their comments. I only did this after a long time without comments, or in the case of a real deadline.

Without fail, every time I did this, someone would give me edits the day after I submitted.

Anonymous said...

I (and many people in my field) have or have had significant conflicts with the Prof. who was technically my advisor. I finished my PhD 15 years ago and I can now laugh it off, especially as I'm doing very well in my field. The way I survived was to assemble a group of 'shadow advisors' both within my department and at one or two other institutions. The best advice I received from one of these 'shadow advisors' was: "The most important thing to get out of graduate school is yourself."

Anonymous said...

As you state, until one becomes a faculty advisor, one cannot really know how busy it is. So can you please demystify it even further? Your explanations in your post are mostly vague generalities.

Here is a breakdown of how I spent my time in my final couple years of graduate school (although I did indeed have fewer responsibilities in earlier years):

Research: I work in a theoretical field where direct financial support for the research is not necessary since there are no materials or equipment. I had 15 publications at the time I graduated. Of these, my advisor was a co-author on 4 and on 2 of those contributed very little (no theorem-proving, no writing, no proofreading). The other 11 papers my advisor had nothing to do with. I also organized a research seminar.
Teaching: I taught (not TA) one course per semester for which I was solely responsible (not just lecturing but doing everything one must do to manage a course: managing TAs, writing homeworks and exams, dealing with cheaters, etc.). Size of the class was up to 160 students.
Service: I reviewed about one dozen papers in the last year of graduate school (average 8 hours per paper). Some of these I was directly asked to review by members of the community, and others I was asked by my advisor. I am pretty sure that my current postdoc advisor gives all papers to students/postdocs to review.

Here is my understanding of the additional major responsibilities of faculty members, not included in the list above:

Research: Apply for grants. The level of effort involved is about that of writing a paper about research results that are already obtained; i.e., a few days' committment. 3-4 grant applications per year is the norm, and students help (I helped my advisor). One must advise students, but 1) one can choose how many students to take on, and 2) it is an investment that if done correctly eventually results in less work for the advisor once the student is productive.
Teaching: The standard in my field is 1+2. My Ph.D. advisor taught 1+2 for a while, then 1+1 for the last few years, and always smaller upper-level courses (< 25 students). My postdoc advisor teaches 1+0, always small upper-level courses. Since I usually taught in the summer but most faculty don't, let's call this no extra work compared to the above list.
Service: Departmental faculty meeting (once a month for up to 4 hours at some departments, perhaps more often at others), plus serve on department committees. Committment is a couple hours a week for "easy" committees (such as curriculum committee during a year in which the curriculum is not changing), and perhaps 6-12 hours a week for others such as faculty search committee (but in a short burst of perhaps 1-2 months' period of high activity, not the whole year). Also, one must serve on program committees for conferences, which means doing reviewing for dozens of papers at once for a period of 1-3 months, although usually this is farmed out to sub-referees so the bulk of the work is concentrated in a 2-3-day period of intense discussion about which papers to accept after the referee reports are in.

I'll bet that if I could somehow freely reschedule the entire latter list, then it could all fit into Mondays and Tuesdays. Of course, in graduate school I had 7 days per week to deal with the former list, so reducing it to 5 days per week would definitely reduce my productivity. But not that much.

So I see two possiblities to explain faculty who can't keep their heads above water: 1) some big timesink was left off of the latter list (please be specific if so), or 2) some faculty simply have poor time-management abilities, and these problems were not as evident in graduate school when time was more structured for them, but are unable to handle the responsibility of being almost completely free to choose how to spend one's time.

balanced instability said...

Great post. It is pretty easy (and popular) as a grad student/postdoc to complain about your advisor and how miserable you are. If more folks took the initiative to talk to their advisor more openly I bet at least some of the problems could be resolved. I think most people - including me - want to be good advisors. But really, we all have to act like grown-ups and try to be reasonable.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting on this topic. I couldn't agree with you more.

I am currently the only postdoc in a group with five graduate students that are constantly complaining about the (perceived) shortcomings of our advisor. As much as I do understand what it feels like to be a grad student and can therefore sympathize, at the same time I *can not* convince my labmates that our advisor is actually a very good advisor. In fact, I struggle with this on a daily basis and the extreme negativity of students has unfortunately decreased my excitement for working with them. (But that is another story...)

To any graduate student who is feeling frustrated, I would like to reiterate that being faculty is not an easy job. I first realized this as I was simultaneously writing my thesis and assisting a junior graduate student with his experiments. I was happy to help, but at the same time, thesis writing was not the most enjoyable task for me. The student would come to me with questions, requests for help or proofreading, advice on life, etc etc, and at times I was tempted to say, "I know you are capable and intelligent, can't you look this up in the manual/figure this out yourself (rather than have me spoon feed it to you)?" or "I don't care that you can't complete X task today because your toilet overflowed and then your cat took a bath in it and you spent all morning on your hands and knees with your brand new toothbrush because the sponge grew legs and walked away." I was frustrated that he was relying on me so heavily at a time when I could not be more stressed and busy. BUT I was doing the same to my advisor by requesting that he proofread each of my chapters every time I moved a comma. The experience was very eye opening for me, and it was precisely then that I realized that advisors have a tough job and stopped complaining that mine *must* hate me because he didn't notice and/or care where I put my commas.

As a postdoc, I frequently find myself changing my mind and/or forgetting what I say without immediately realizing it. Meaning, I'll tell a student on Monday that X, Y, and Z steps are the most appropriate to obtain a certain data point, but by Friday I've forgotten that discussion and I'm asking them why they haven't tried the obvious path of A, B, and C. I think because I am a postdoc (and not faculty) they are more comfortable pointing out my inconsistencies, but when they do, I remember those times when my PhD advisor contradicted himself and I just wanted to (figuratively) strangle him and tell him to make up his damn mind already.

And finally, if you ever tried to give a talk on work that you did not actually carry out with your own two hands, you will understand that this is no trivial task. After standing in for a graduate student with a schedule conflict, I now forgive my advisors for doing inexcusable injustices to my life's work by stating that I used a bias of 1 V when in reality the voltage was 0.96084506 V. It is virtually impossible to keep track of all of the details of five different experiments.

So, faculty, thank you for doing the best you can at being faculty, and students, please give your advisors a break from time to time.

Anonymous said...

It has always been shocking to me how little management training (read "zero") faculty actually get in the course of their careers. Additionally, new graduate students are not given even the most rudimentary training in professional behavior. When you come out of undergrad and start work at a company, there is usually at least a week of training including some basics in ethical behavior, professional communication, company structure and policies, who to talk to when you have issues/questions, how the company functions, etc. Some simplified version of this could easily be given to first year grad students and then again at the point of choosing advisors. And perhaps first year faculty should have the opportunity to take some kind of management training session.

I am not advocating for the formalism of business, but sometimes it seems that academics have gone too far towards the "sink or swim" grad student education. A little bit of framework about the academic hierarchy and process would probably go a long way.

All that being said, I have the impression that newer generations of grad students are, on average, feeling more entitled to hand-holding in a way that is not fruitful for a self-directed research career. Is this impression just me getting older? Or does anyone else feel the same?

Psycgirl said...

That person whose husband's advisor took 1.5 years to provide feedback. Yeah, that's me. Regularly, my manuscripts sit untouched for 9-12 months. I mean UNTOUCHED, not even downloaded from the emails in which they were sent. And I ask about those papers AT EVERY MEETING WITH MY ADVISOR.

I've never submitted without his approval, but once I get my Ph.D. and he becomes a colleague, all bets are off - 8-12 weeks with no feedback, and the paper is getting submitted anyway. I am ridiculously giddy about doing this.

(based on this, I could have 3 more first author papers than I currently do....Which frankly likely would have made a difference in my job search)

steph said...

I understand that in general PI's are coming from a different place with different priorities than grads and that most of their behaviors are probably just misunderstood. My problem with the system is that there is really no way to address advisers who ARE behaving unprofessionally to their grads/postdocs. I had friends who tried and the U. doesn't really care. There is no recourse for the powerless/tenureless. So, the continued and thriving existence of these evil advisers who sour people out of science is what bothers me. AND, in my limited experience, this behavior seems to disproportionately turn-off women to science, so, if this is a general theme, I would think you would be concerned FSP. Most PI's are just trying to get their job done, but a few do it in a very unprofessional way and should not continue to have power over students or should at least somehow be helped to change, but they don't and won't. That is what is unacceptable to me in this community. Unfortunately, you can't change the system unless you insert yourself into it, and I know that I can't stay in this environment and become a happy person again. Yes, there are bosses like that in all jobs, but in a job you can leave after a few years and not necessarily ruin your whole career.

Cloud said...

anonymous- no company I've ever worked at has more than a day of formal training at the start of employment, and it rarely covers the truly important stuff like how to actually get things done in a corporate environment. That is learned from mentors along the way- or from painful experience.

That said, I think some management training for PIs would be a good thing. I've always benefited from management training when I've taken it.

Ms.PhD said...

FSP, I like this post because it shows how you try to be understanding even while being completely sheltered from just how common the Evil Adviser species really is.

It's probably going on all around, and you don't even know it. Grad students talk to each other, and to postdocs about these things. They're usually aware that talking to other faculty can be risky (faculty tend to take the side of other faculty by default).

I've written extensively about troubles with publishing and difficult advisers. I'll try to summarize here and maybe put a list on my blog with links to relevant posts for those who are interested in reading more horror stories.

In short, yes, I have done the ultimatum thing. In my case, my thesis advisor was the worst possible combination of hands-off (ABSENT) and control-freak (furious that I wanted to send it by DATE with or without approval despite multiple polite requests, followed by warnings, followed by threats).

On one occasion it did get me the response I wanted = feedback.

When I was forced to try it again, however, it got me labeled "difficult bitch" - like it's unreasonable to want to publish a manuscript that everyone else thought was good.

It's lose-lose. I can't send it without you, or you get mad, but I can't send it with you or even make any progress on it because you won't get back to me even just to say "this draft is terrible." WTF??

In what I think of as the ultimate example, one of my close friends has been locked in a struggle with her advisor for YEARS. This evil advisor has a reputation for calling an editor to pull a manuscript after it was already in review, because the grad student sent it without receiving the PI's approval (after multiple fair warnings, deadlines, and threats dragging on for months).

At some point, it doesn't matter how hard you try to understand where your advisers are coming from. If they're insane, no amount of communication is going to help you. This is NOT understandable.

As for solutions, I've proposed on multiple occasions that having smaller labs would help. One of the main reasons I see for PIs being overwhelmed is that they take on too much, and there's no oversight stopping them from biting off more than they can chew. They're not reviewed based on *grad student* and *postdoc* publications alone. But maybe they should be!

I'm also in favor of completely overhauling the scientific publishing system. The Glamour Magz have wayyyy too much power, and reputation based on pedigree and old boyz club membership counts for much more than science these days.

Kevin said...

"Additionally, new graduate students are not given even the most rudimentary training in professional behavior."

In our department, each incoming class has about 20 hours of training in a course informally referred to as "how to be a graduate student". It covers research ethics, lab safety, document preparation, advising about courses and lab rotations, feedback on oral presentations, TA training, ... .

It is obviously not complete training (students are expected to get a lot more training and practice in writing and oral presentation through other classes and requirements), but it does go a long way toward setting up reasonable expectations.

Female post-doc said...

As a recent grad who tried really really hard to have an open relationship with her advisor, there are still those out there who just do not transition into becoming more of a colleague with their graduate students. At least this is how I interpreted my advisor's behavior in order to deal with it an move on. Sometimes I wonder if youngish female professors can potentially feel intimidated (unconsciously) by motivated, intelligent female grad students?

I once asked my advisor IF she had had time to think about when she anticipated having time to give me feedback, or what her goal was for reading this final manuscript. She totally shut me down. She could have just said 'No, but I will think about that in the next couple of days and get back to you' and I wouldn't have had an anxiety attack. (This was not the only instance like this clearly.)

I started reading your blog when I was finishing up. It did not make me see any new perspective I did not already consider, rather it showed me that there are more reasonable PIs out there who will have a conversation with their students about mutual expectations. Thanks for that and for writing (what I find) objective presentation of situations that arise in grad school with your own perspective/subjectivity thrown in there.

Sally said...

@Anonymous 8:59 AM:

I just started my faculty position and I have many more responsibilities than I ever did as a grad or a postdoc. Here are some specifics that weren't included in your list:

Advising: My grad student and I have a weekly meeting plus extras as needed. I conceived his project idea, chose appropriate research facilities, and helped him write a proposal for said facilities. I wrote letters of recommendation and edited his fellowship proposals. Now I tutor him in statistics, troubleshoot his data analysis, and help him prioritize tasks. His qualifying exam is in one month, so lately advising has been time-intensive.

I also supervise two undergraduates. Lately I have written letters of recommendation for summer internships, personally set up their user accounts on our network and installed custom software. I do basic tutoring in Unix commands and text-editing. I taught them our data analysis procedures and I keep reviewing them. I check their work very carefully to make sure they follow our procedures.

Recruiting: I dedicated many hours of my time to recruiting new graduate students this past month. I met with them individually, attended the "meet the department" session, and went out to dinner with them in the evenings.

Lining up speakers: I'm in charge of the colloquium schedule, so I choose people to invite (with some input from my colleagues), contact them, negotiate dates, and then reschedule when they have to cancel (which is often).

Entertaining: I have to organize a dinner for each colloquium speaker with ~8-10 faculty and students. This happens once a week. While it's not absolutely necessary that I go to every dinner, I almost always attend. Usually I end up giving multiple students rides home after the dinner.

We can of course add effort reporting, performance evaluations of staff, requesting supercomputer and equipment time and organizing a research group seminar to the list, but I don't have time to go into more detail.

I'm prepared to believe that some grad students have more responsibilities than some faculty, but I think it's almost always the other way around.

I am pretty sure that my current postdoc advisor gives all papers to students/postdocs to review.

Manuscripts under review are confidential and it's unethical to share them. If your advisor is doing this, s/he should stop immediately.

Psycgirl said...

Okay, I'm actually back with a shameless self-plug. People in your comments are starting to discuss sharing anger and frustration with advisors, and that's exactly what I've blogged about recently, in response to conversations I had with graduate students via blogs and in person.
I'm interested to hear people's thoughts on that topic too...

Anonymous said...

Relationships with a huge power differential can never be fair all the time. And when unfairness inevitably occurs it is usually always in favor of the more powerful party.

Anonymous said...

I’m glad to hear that students with absentee advisors (or worse!) manage to survive through “shadow advisors” or the like. But these coping mechanisms do nothing to address the underlying problem, in the sense that they do not reduce or eliminate the chances of the next student finding themselves in an unworkable situation. Until interceding on behalf of a struggling student becomes the rule rather than the exception, the horror stories will continue.

I’d like to know how tenured faculty justify to themselves not acting in cases where the advisor is the problem. You are the only ones with any kind of power to affect this situation. If your colleague showed up drunk and was unable to teach her class, there would be consequences, no? What are the consequences for falling down on the job of advising grad students?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Manuscripts under review are confidential and it's unethical to share them. If your advisor is doing this, s/he should stop immediately.

BZZZZZZTTTTTT!!!!!!!! Wrong.

It is perfectly appropriate--and an important part of scientific training--for trainees to participate in the peer review of manuscripts, so long as this fact (and their names) are communicated to the editorial staff of the journal.

Anonymous said...

I would say estimating 3-4 days per proposal, as anonymous@8:59AM said, is a gross understatement of the time I spend per proposal. It's hard to know exactly how much time I spend since the planning starts months (or more) in advance, with literature searches, and - well, frankly, doing almost all the research (I am a theorist). Don't forget about putting together all the other gunk that goes into a grant, like doing the budget, mentoring statements, struggling with the universities computer systems, arguing with the grants office who's job seems to be to prevent us from writing proposals, redoing the budget. Since there is a 10-15% yield on proposals, this happens many, many times per year.

This might be university-dependent but I spend a surprisingly long time on paperwork. That is, filling out forms so my students can go to conferences, then filling them out again to reimburse them (or me) for money spent. Plus committees generate memos and memos take time to write. Plus committee meetings take a long time, and there are way too many of them.

Also, and this is very very important - students make research go *slower*. Maybe this is only in my field, which is theoretical, but every student I've taken has reduced my productivity. I'm still untenured so it hasn't been that long. Maybe someday, when they are senior students, it will be different - but then it will be time to send them off as postdocs to produce for someone else. Postdocs are more productive but not as much as I thought they would be. It's hard to see how I will even break even in terms of productivity compared to doing it myself. Why is it slower? Because, ultimately, I will have to do everything myself anyway. But I will only do it after the student has wasted a few months or more of time.

The only thing that makes this job worth it is the opportunity to do science, and the rare student who really does teach you something.

Anonymous said...

As a ambitious second year grad student, I gave my then adviser an ultimatum on reading a manuscript. This was after 3 months of no response and regular emails reminding, and we were about to get scooped. The email was along the lines of "Dear Hopeless Adviser, As you may understand, submission of my manuscript to PrettyGoodJournal requires me, as first author, to guarantee that all co-authors have read the manuscript and agree with the contents. Your lack of response is currently preventing the publication of this work, so if I havn't heard from you by the end of the week, I will have to assume that you will be removed from the author list."


I got a response within 24 hours, but unfortunately it was completely useless. Lets just say he wasn't my adviser for much longer!

amy said...

Thanks to Sally for the response to 8:59. I suspected that person was grossly underestimating the time involved in being a graduate faculty member, but I only teach undergrads so I wasn't sure.

I agree with steph that the problem here is not just that there are some bad advisers, but that there's so little recourse for grad students. In any relationship that involves this much power differential, there should be institutionalized protections, such as ombudspersons who are truly neutral and who have some actual power, and grad student advocates of some kind. Even if the vast majority of faculty are responsible and well-intentioned, that's not enough to ensure a fair and supportive working environment. The problem is that universities really don't have a lot of incentive to take grad students seriously. The faculty are the ones bringing in the grants and the huge overheads that universities need so badly these days, and the grad students may well be seen as expendable from the university's point of view.

I remember when UC grad students were trying to unionize in the late 90's, and there was huge blowback from the faculty, which surprised and disappointed me at the time. They kept trying to push the old line that we're really just "family" and they would never try to act against our well-being, so there was no need to unionize. They also strongly implied that it was unseemly for us to be requesting that profs keep to official limits on work hours (20 hours a week for a TA, etc.). If we were *really* dedicated, we would have been willing to work limitless hours on anything they asked us to do. Yeah, the same old corporate line that's always fed to employees when they try to unionize. But it was disappointing because it was coming from supposed liberals and radicals.

Anonymous said...

As a postdoc, I had a (generally nightmarish) advisor who took several months to read a paper I wrote. When he did read it, he suggested revisions and told me the paper was 90% ready to publish. I revised in the next few weeks and gave it back, but when I left his group five months after that, he had still not read the revised draft. Over the next eight months, I emailed every two weeks and sent a few revised drafts (not necessarily revised a lot, but just tweaked in the hopes he would read it if it was brand-new) but got zero response - not even any reply to my emails. At a conference after these eight months, he told me he hadn't read the paper but wanted me to totally rewrite it, develop a new theory to incorporate some semi-related ideas he had had in the interim, and then give it back to him. Of course neither I nor the advisor whose group I had moved on to thought I should be spending so much time on the project anymore. I sent him an email tactfully explaining this about a month after the conference, along with yet another new draft addressing the ideas of his that I could easily include. He ignored that email and several others, until finally - a year after I had left his group - I sent him a series of emails mentioning that the paper was "almost ready to submit" and asking for "final comments" as if he had been commenting all along. Finally I gave him a deadline and, still receiving no response, submitted the paper.

The story has a happy ending - the paper was accepted without revision and the former advisor thanked me (I have no idea if sincerely) for "taking the lead" on getting the paper published. And I learned that I could probably have benefited from standing up to this nightmare advisor years earlier.

Anonymous said...

For the person who thinks that writing a grant requires only a couple of days of work..sure if you don't plan on getting any of them funded. Perhaps the writing may require a few days (although usually the writing for NSF type grants usually takes me a week or so with edits,etc) However there is a lot more that goes into a grant than just putting pen to paper. If you are able to write a successful large grant in 2-3 days then more power to you but I would say this is not true for a majority of researchers.

That said, many faculty members are horrible at time management and there is usually no excuse for sitting on a manuscript for more than a week or so.

Anonymous said...

I am quite good at time management, but my faculty responsibilities take far more time than my grad student responsibilities ever did. Anonymous@8:59 is vastly underestimating the amount of time spent in meetings and the amount of time it takes to advise a typical Ph.D. student (turns out most of them are not all that independent!).

these problems were not as evident in graduate school when time was more structured for them, but are unable to handle the responsibility of being almost completely free to choose how to spend one's time.

Sorry, but this is just laughable. My time as a faculty member is far more structured than my schedule as a grad student, largely because of those aforementioned meetings. Check out Paul Graham's essay on the "manager schedule" versus the "maker schedule"---it's written from the perspective of a computer programmer, but is pretty applicable to faculty (management) vs grad students (makers) IME.

Anonymous said...

I am pretty sure one of my former students thinks I am a nightmare advisor. In her view, she graduated 18 months ago; I took a few months to send out her last paper as communication; it got rejected, with the advice of sending as full paper. So she bugged me recently reg not having done it yet.
My version: this student could not think. Her draft (and thesis) were merely a list of facts, with no deep thinking at all. I had to do that (and of course the writing) for her. In the middle of other papers that were easier to edit, a review that I wrote by myself, five grant proposals etc, this has been a low priority for me. There's also the fact that we do not have a great explanation for what she observed; since she left, I had an other student try a few things to get at this. Understandably, this is a side project for him... hence more delay.
There's more to this story of course, the student insisted on graduating because she had a job lined up ; I meekly went along (by then she was completely unproductive, anyways, spending all her time interning where she thought she had a job) because, let's face it, I wanted to graduate an other PhD student before submitting my tenure package. Unfortunately the job prospect evaporated in the crisis, and the student had a long unemployment before finally getting a postdoc. Further, the student who's picking up the pieces will now be first author, by virtue of having come up with a decent explanation and experiments to back it up.
My advice to students: do not force your advisor's hand to graduate before you have a complete story, and the papers are at least submitted. And don't think that the advisor is evil-- she might be just as frustrated as you are...

Incidentally, my advisor sat on several of my papers too when I was a grad student. In one case, the Big Cheese collaborator had approved my manuscript, but my advisor was sitting on it. I knew he had a complicated personal situation at the time, still i needed the paper... The paper was on using a new technique to study molecules that I had made in the advisor's lab, but i had worked with the collaborator exclusively for the paper. In my frustration I vented to a friend, at the time an assistant prof. He explained to me that probably my advisor was unfamiliar with the technique and uncomfortable with the manuscript, and at the same time too much of a proud control-freak to ever admit it. That completely changed my perspective; I stepped out emotionally. I ended up taking the advisor out for coffee, and having a pretty in-depth conversation/tutorial, not on the paper but on the technique, pro and cons and so on. Paper went out in a week. Sometimes advisors need to be tamed....

John V said...

Missing from this conversation is the implicit judgment by the advisor of the worth of the paper he/she is not getting around to reading.

When I don't get comments from co-authors or colleagues about my manuscripts, I generally assume it is because the topic was not sufficiently interesting.

While it is preferable for the advisor to simply say some work doesn't warrant a high priority for action, by human nature we often use the white lie that we'll get to it soon.

Grad students, like everyone else in the world, should keep non-verbal cues and well as explicit communications in mind as they seek to publish their research results.

Also, many papers people are on the brink of finishing (done except for that last 10% of the work that takes half the time) are better left to acquire dust in the corner. I'd estimate 90% of those papers left over to finish after handing in the thesis should be abandoned. Just getting the paper count up to have a longer CV in job applicants is a waste of everyone's time. Personally I count the worth of a poorly cited paper in a CV as less than zero unless I like the results and they are not published elsewhere.

mylifeinscience said...

>Manuscripts under review are confidential and it's unethical to share them. If your advisor is doing this, s/he should stop immediately.

Wrong. I've reviewed 3 as a postdoc and more as a grad student (considering I've been a postdoc for less time then I was a grad student, I expect to do more.)

In fact, my mentor put it in my F32 that I review manuscripts with her (except for grants, of course).

Anonymous said...

When I was doing my undergraduate research, I was doing it under not a professor, person who worked underneath a professor, at the time he had a master's degree, and is currently working on his Ph.D. He was more than qualified to supervise my undergraduate research. The deadlines were tight, the entire paper was expected to be made from start to finish over the course of a summer. I worked very hard to get him papers a week or more before the deadline. One instance in particular, I got him the paper more than a week before the deadline, and received no feedback. About two days before the deadline, I sent him an email saying if I do not hear from him, I will submit the paper as is. He replied with several comments, which took days to fix, and we both missed the deadline. Was not the best situation for either, but it worked.

Kevin said...

"I would say estimating 3-4 days per proposal, as anonymous@8:59AM said, is a gross understatement of the time I spend per proposal."

Agreed. There are some faculty in my department who, under extreme pressure, can whip out a proposal in 2 weeks. Most of us take months. Proposal writing has become one of the biggest drags on scientific productivity.


"students make research go *slower*."

That depends on the student. I've had occasional students who were highly productive and sped up work, but for the most part I can write a program in half the time it takes me to explain the problem to an average grad student, and about 1/10th the time it takes them to do the work. I also get stuck co-advising some of the students who no one wants to work with, so I don't even get credit for the work I do with them if they do eventually graduate.

"remember when UC grad students were trying to unionize in the late 90's, and there was huge blowback from the faculty, which surprised and disappointed me at the time."

Which UC? At least some of the campuses were very supportive of the TA union. (Hint: which UC campuses have a faculty union.)

Kevin said...

"My time as a faculty member is far more structured than my schedule as a grad student"

Very true, and it becomes even more structured as you become full professor and get tapped for more admistrivia.

I didn't need a calendar as a grad student---I barely needed a watch. Now I can't keep track of my dozens of scheduled meetings a week without paper or computer assistance. I don't use the campus calendar system, because staff feel that they can schedule all your time for you then without checking. At least people have to ask me when I'm free before scheduling meetings for me now.

amy said...

Kevin: it was Irvine. And I should say that some of the faculty were pretty supportive. But a lot of humanities faculty, some of whom had published "radical critiques of the hegemony of capitalist institutions" were resistant. They were used to using grad students as cheap labor.

Jason said...

I have to say that the time that it takes me to read a paper is inversely proportional to its quality. When a student plops a totally rough first draft that hasn't been spellchecked I just can't bring myself to waste my time on it. It just looks like such an overwhelming chore. Do I devote a week to trying to edit it? I could just write it myself in that amount of time!

The advisor should just not be the first person to read your paper. Give it to your friends, your fellow grad school buddies, your Mom. Anybody can make sure that the sentences make sense, that you've labelled the axes on your plots, and that things are spelled right.

Never show your advisor half-finished crap. When you put it on their desk, it should be as good as you can make it. Then they can try to show you how to make it better.

If you do drop half-finished crap on their desk, then I'm not surprised that they don't read it for a year and a half! ;)

Ace said...

I am a 1st yeas asst prof and I still remember what it was like to be a grad student and postdoc. For the 1st time in my life, I feel scared about getting my work done. You cannot imagine the kinds of things that take up time and energy. I basicallu had to manage my own lab renovation because it's not getting done otherwise.. I mean meeting with electricians, contractors and all that kind of thing that has nothing to do with science... Just this Friday I spent 3 hours waiting for campus security to come and remove a scarily sparking/popping power supply and check the others. The week b4 I had to deal with campus beurocracy for about 4 hours because of bees. (yes, bees. Someone left a window open and bees got in my lab). The usual papers, grants, teaching, service, all on top... It was completely opaque to me that suddenly EVERYTHING would become my responsibility. Sure I have a dept chair and dept staff. But at the end of the day, I have no boss and if something is not getting done, it's my job to do it or delegate it or ignore at my own peril.
That said, advisors should prioritize papers. If your advisor is not giving you feedback after repeated attempts the "I'll submit by DATE" is a good approach. Although you may get a frantic "I'm halfway through!". 30 min to DATE like my advisor did. Deal with it... You need the papers & you need to get out...

Psycgirl said...

I'm slightly annoyed by the several comments about "dumping crap" on an advisor and then expecting a very quick turnaround.

I want to clarify in my own personal situation, I'm talking about manuscripts that were outlined together with my advisor and have gone through minor drafts and are now (according to my advisor) practically ready to submit.

That being said - who is a graduate student supposed to learn how to write an academic paper from, if his/her mentors can't be bothered to help them with their writing?

I don't know what kind of undergraduates go into everyone's fields, but these days in psychology, some undergraduates can finish their BA/BSc and never written more than 1-2 papers at all.

Does not having an innate ability to write make them a poor candidate for graduate school? I don't know the answer to that - but I do know a lot of graduate students are very awful writers and need some help from someone. If not their mentors, then who?

Ace said...

Psycgirl, yes ideally you should get feedback on writing from your advisor. But lets say you're not, even after asking for it. Find other faculty, friends, colleagues. Best is if they are coauthors but sometimes you have to ask non-coauthors read your work. yes it does feel like you're imposing but you may have to do it... Approach someone you trust and give them loads of time. If they help you, return the favor or bring chocolate!
Also, have you seen this book: http://books.google.com/books?id=Bis8p2ejEqIC

Kevin said...

"I do know a lot of graduate students are very awful writers and need some help from someone. If not their mentors, then who?"

One of the best strategies is for groups of 2-4 grad students to form writing groups, where they get together and read each others' drafts. The audience is much closer to the real one than writing to a professor, and the feedback is less painful.

Heath said...

I will be starting grad school this coming fall. I really appreciate the explanations that you provide. Just reading your posts has demystified what I am heading into and let me be more excited and less nervous. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I'm a Ph.D. student. I fell into the new advisors lab when the old one retired. Truthfully her research has very little to do with mine. But hey that's how the cookie crumbles. I understand and am mindful that she is a wife and a mother. However she has two bad habits.

The first is unresponsiveness. As of this writing, I have been waiting for feedback for 8 months. Not on a dissertation but on two papers.

This may be okay without her second bad habit, which is that if I pressure her for feedback she looks at me like a starving child in Africa and says something like, maybe this isn't the program for you. If I don't ask impertinent questions I get A's and B's.