When I was a graduate student, I wrote a few papers that only involved other graduate students; no faculty were involved in these papers, and therefore only students were authors and co-authors. We came up with the research ideas by talking with each other, did the work, wrote the manuscripts, revised them, and eventually saw them published.
Our various advisers were pleased that we did so, and some of us benefited from these adviserless publications in our job searches. In fact, one of my co-authors was specifically told by a professor at another university that these publications sans professors were impressive because they clearly demonstrated independence and initiative. And I was told during one job interview that these and other papers without my adviser showed that I had my own ideas.
In some fields and in some sub-disciplines, adviserless papers may be impossible or at least extremely rare. They are not so common in my field, actually, but my fellow grads and I were fortunate to have advisers who liked the fact that we pursued and published our own work. I was never supported by a grant from my adviser anyway, and I came up with my own idea for a PhD project, so I was rather unconstrained in terms of what I worked on.
At the time, I didn't think about whether these adviserless papers were unusual. Whether or not they were at the time, I think they are (even?) more rare now. I discussed this recently with one of these collaborators with whom I wrote a paper when we were both grad students. He thought it might be more rare today, and wondered why it might be more rare, if it even is. Our two main hypotheses are:
1. Science, even at the level of graduate research, has become more interdisciplinary and involves larger groups. Our grad collaboration groups were somewhat interdisciplinary (i.e., we all had different advisers), but not extremely so (i.e., we were working in related fields). Perhaps it is much less likely that a group of grad students can reasonably organize and conduct research as it is done today.
2. The culture of graduate programs has changed. Just comparing grad programs with which my colleague and I are most familiar today with our old grad department, it is clear that there is a lot more active advising today. By active advising, I mean that many advisers are more closely involved in all stages of the research and therefore likely to have contributed ideas, writing, maybe even data (!) to a paper, and therefore will be a co-author. In my old grad department, it was a rather extreme example of sink-or-swim, live-or-die. We were pretty much just set loose, and those who survived were very independent (or learned to be). It was not a great system, but perhaps one outcome was that we produced some original work that did not involve our advisers.
Do I really have to say that I am not basing a major analysis of academic cultural trends on these anecdotes. Experience shows that I need to make this point, or some readers will be shocked shocked shocked at my unscientific musings. But that is merely what they are: musings.
And lest anyone think that we did these adviserless projects because we had no lives outside graduate school and therefore never left our labs and computers and had lots of time: that was only true for some of us. Others in these grad collaborations had families, hobbies, and other outside interests. My first grad collaboration was with an outstandingly smart, kind, and thoughtful older grad student who was married, worked 8-5, and was very into sports of all kinds. Although we had little in common other than our mutual scientific interests, we found ourselves frequently hanging out at lunchtime or in the afternoon, talking about Science, and eventually the ideas we kicked around turned into a paper in a high impact journal within our field.
There is one aspect of that anecdote that might be illuminating in terms of the general issue of whether/how grad collaborations occur, and it is related to the topic of (undergrad) student lounges discussed last week: we grad students had a place to hang out. We had abysmal office space, but there was a central area with a couch and a table and some chairs and a scary refrigerator, and a lot of Science was discussed in that place. There was also a subset of us who regularly went out for coffee and cookies together in the afternoon (in fact, I have published a paper with my most frequent afternoon cookie companion from grad school) or to a local pub (I have published with my pub companions as well, so you I guess you can say that I have pub pubs, and hence the strange title of this post). Because we had these other occasions at which Science was discussed at length, I don't think our grad lounge area was the key factor in nucleating grad collaborations. It was nevertheless a factor.
I would be happy if grad students in my department collaborated with each other and wrote papers. Some do, but it is rare. As an adviser paying a student from a grant, I would want to be aware of such independent student collaborations in case I needed to give any general advice about priorities or time in relation to the grant that was funding them, but overall I think that these grad collaborations should be encouraged. They are difficult things to foster because of course the whole point is that advisers not be involved, but perhaps we advisers who value such experiences can at least be supportive when such collaborations spontaneously generate.
8 years ago