Tuesday, July 20, 2010

All in the Family

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?


GMP said...

I don't rely on official recommendation letters alone. If I am considering a candidate seriously, especially for a postdoc, I always follow up with each reference and ask that we talk on the phone or that they write me a more informal email regarding the candidate. Most people will actually honestly share their impressions and especially doubts in these informal exchanges, which I find priceless.

Regarding holding a grudge towards a colleague for highly recommending someone who bombed: if it were a close friend/colleague, I'd be more disappointed with them for an inaccurate evaluation than if it were a person I didn't know. I would start being negatively disposed towards a colleague only if he or she repeatedly sends me poor students or postdocs highly recommended (which means the colleague is really trying to mess with me, has no regard for correlating letter to merit, or has ideas of merit drastically different than mine). Luckily, I cannot say this has ever happened. Usually, people do write (and email) what they honestly think. Sometimes you must read a bit between the lines though...

FleaTamer said...

"does the performance of this advisee affect your relationship with your colleague?"

It all depends on your relationship with said colleague, which of course will only get worse (from whatever starting point) the more often such incidents like this happen. One can always forgive a person who you get on well with.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Not yet, but as grad director, I end up having to deal with the problem cases.

It isn't so much the students sent from other labs---we haven't had that many directed to us by our former students, because we've only had a couple dozen students finish our PhD program so far, and only 8 have faculty positions (others are in postdocs or industry).

Our problem cases tend more to be students we accepted who turn out to be unable to do research---who after 2 years and 6 lab rotations still haven't found a faculty member willing to accept them as advisees. We currently have 2 such students. In both cases we have attempted to find positions for them in labs of other departments, hoping that a more applied project would spark their interests and be within their skills. I have tried to warn faculty in advance that these students may be problematic, but in at least one case I failed to do so (the student arranged the outside lab connection on his own, and I didn't know about it until later).

So far we haven't burned any bridges: the lab that got burned by one of the students (without adequate warning) simultaneously had another of our students who was doing quite well. Since our department depends heavily on collaboration with 4 or 5 other departments, we try to be careful not to oversell our students' ability.

Anonymous said...

I have kind of the opposite position. I took a post doc on the advise of my PhD advisor and one of my two faculty "advisors" is verbally abusive. The work environment is toxic and until I rebelled, I was treated like the abusive advisor's personal assistant. I almost left science - anything to end the situation. I now accept that my advisor had good intentions, but I haven't completely forgiven him. Before I trusted his advice and really respected his opinion and now I just can't. Good intentions aren't enough.

I get advice from multiple sources, and I am skeptical of all of it. Now I am also really pessimistic about the field, the future of the field, and my future in the field.

A professor can usually weather a bad student or post doc, but it's much harder for a student or post doc to weather a bad professor.

Nell said...

Aren't there legal issues related to writing references? I would also be wary of giving informal information about a candidate. It falls under the same legal requirements as a formal reference. My rule of thumb is to tell the candidate if I can't give a positive reference. If they insist, then I send them a copy of the negative reference so that they can decide whether it is passed on or not. This way I don't have to worry about sending out potentially misleading references. N

AnonEngineeringProf said...

I don't think I've ever had my relationship with a close colleague damaged because the colleague sent/recommended a student who didn't work out well. (I've had the reverse, though: I know of a few colleagues who have sent some awesome students, and who I respect very highly as mentors for developing great students, and you better bet I try to keep in good touch with them.)

If I have to go over in my head the incidents that have damaged my relationships with colleagues, here are the main types I can think of:
1. Disappointment regarding a collaboration, where I felt that I or one of my students was not treated in the way I felt was appropriate.
2. Disappointment regarding competition over funds in a zero-sum-game situation, where I felt a colleague played the game in a way that I found offensive.

josie bracken said...

I think it also depends on how your group dynamics compare to that of the recommender. I've seen students who are very good at research but awkward socially thrive in one group and turned out to be absolute disasters in another. Which is why it's absolutely necessary to call the recommender regardless of how their previous ones perform in your group. Hopefully, the call will give you an inkling of any misgivings associated with the student.

Reo said...

As sensitive as a personal feeling is, the relationship between advisor and advisee is also the same.

Let me share my situation here. I previously worked under my undergrad institution's professor lab (PI 1). Because of his high recommendation, I'm able to land into his former collaborator's lab (PI 2). I had my intention of doing PhD under new collaborator's lab (PI 2). After working for 4 months, I found the environment in the lab is not healthy, my opinion, which might be diametrically opposite to PI 2.

What did I find? I found the laboratory is stuffed with many research assistants: this situation could have both intrinsic good and bad environment. Whenever I tried to bring my perspective, aged-old RA are not willing to accept and they're more comfortable with the things as they were or as they are. The worst case scenario is when the RA told in front of everybody "It's the operator's fault" which later proved the otherwise, the PI 2 never corrected that RA attitude (which I can understand correcting personal attitude is beyond the purview of any supervising advisor), rather PI 2 biased treat me like an outsider. Comparing to RA who never had an intention of reading papers, and generate ideas (but they will do only when they are asked), I found it difficult to have a healthy discussion rather than "It's your project" kind of attitude. I'm not asking around for help, but just happened to have a brief discussion. After some time, I tried to talk less as I wanted to avoid confrontation. All these led me into staying distance in the lab. One of the advantage of having RA in the lab is (1) they are familiar with laboratory protocol, (2) familiar with environment, (3) knows where reagents, stock are kept. Unless their attitude is flexible, it would be a hard time for potential grad student to survive in the lab. Above all, some RA have, no offense, a**-kissing power of working hard when PI is present, once PI takes leave, they assume it's their official holidays while grad students are trying to finish their thesis, or develop ideas. That's the basic difference.

Of course, this is one of the millions of laboratory experience. But I guess this is from the potential grad perspective.