Sometimes, as graduate advisers, we work with students or postdocs who previously worked with friends and colleagues of ours or who came from the same academic institutions we attended in our younger days. Sometimes, as teachers and advisers of undergraduate and graduate students, we are the ones whose students go off to work with our friends and colleagues.
In my field, there is no avoiding this, even if we wanted to. By the time we professors get to the mid-career stage, we have many connections with other faculty and institutions in the US and far beyond.
Of course such 'networking' can be taken to an unhealthy extreme; for example, if an adviser only accepts to work with student who come from one of a few institutions or research groups and assumes that anyone else is unqualified or not worth the risk.
My topic today, though, is not about the existence of such networks and whether they are good or bad. I am interested today in an issue that is related to this type of networking:
If one of your own former advisers or a close colleague or a friend 'sends' you a student or postdoc, does the performance of this advisee affect your relationship with your colleague?
Perhaps it doesn't if you oversee a large lab with a large number of personnel who pass through with limited close interaction with you. But what if your advising situation is a bit more personal, and the performance of an advisee has a noticeable impact on your research environment and progress (not to mention your mental health and that of others in your research group)?
I was thinking about this recently when I visited one of my former advisers. Every time I see him, he apologizes profusely for one particular student he recommended to work with me. This student was a minor disaster. He is clearly embarrassed about it, many years later. I always remind him that he later sent an awesome student my way. If there were some cosmic equation that accounted for the goodness and badness of students, the awesome student more than made up for the minor-disaster student.
Nevertheless, he still feels bad about the bad student. Perhaps he worries that it will negatively affect my opinion of him and his reference letters for other students.
In this case, I don't hold the disaster student against him because he recommended this student in good faith. Even if he hadn't recommended a subsequent awesome student to work with me, I would have forgiven him the disaster student because the problems could not have been foreseen based on the nature and extent of his interactions with this student.
Other cases are more complicated. For example, a colleague who once highly recommended a different dysfunctional student subsequently told me that he had a feeling that this student would be a disaster. I don't know if (1) he really did have a sense of foreboding but gave the student a strong recommendation anyway, or (2) he actually didn't know but didn't want me to question his judgment. What a choice: to lie or have someone think you have poor judgment.
As I said, this type of situation in general is complicated, and my response depends on various factors:
- Is the colleague in question a perpetually optimistic person, willing to give someone a chance even if they have shown no obvious skills for research? If so, perhaps they weren't lying (by omission or otherwise) but were truly unable to see the problems that would arise. This is unfortunate, but it's hard to get angry at someone for this.
- Is this colleague trying to pass along a problematic person so that that person will be someone else's problem? Colleagues who do this don't necessarily intend to cause problems for someone else. Perhaps, in another example of delusional optimism, they hope that a new place, new people, new program will be just the ticket for solving the pre-existing conditions displayed by these problematic people. Or perhaps they really do just want to send them along so that they are someone else's problem, and aren't concerned about what happens, as long as it isn't their problem. In this case, their credibility is shot with me.
- Perhaps, as in the first anecdote, the colleague didn't have sufficient information to predict a problem. As long as the letter of recommendation is clear about what the extent and nature of the interaction was, I harbor no ill will towards these colleagues.
- Is the advisee's problem specific to interacting with me? I am not necessarily an easy person to work with. Perhaps the advisee did well with a different research environment, structure, adviser etc. but is having major problems working with me and/or my research group. I am not necessarily the best judge of this, but there may be some clues. If this is the case, the letters writers are of course not at fault.
Whenever we accept a student or postdoc as an advisee, there are risks involved for both advisee and adviser. Will it work out or not? Some situations will and some will not, despite our good intentions and best efforts.
Even so, a scenario that might negatively affect my interaction with a colleague is the one in which they knowingly send me an advissee for whom they have ample evidence of dysfunction. It can be difficult to determine when this is, in fact, the case; in my decades of advising, there are perhaps only 2 colleagues whose credibility is shot with me in terms of their recommendation letters.
Important note: Prospective grads/postdocs need not panic about these situations because applications typically involve multiple letters of recommendation (as well as all the other application materials) so it highly unlikely that your opportunities would be harmed by having one non-credible letter writer.
What is the experience of others? Has anyone had their working relationship with a colleague affected by the dysfunction of a former student/advisee of that colleague?
8 years ago