Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Fire Away

Perhaps it is time to discuss again the topic of "firing". I have previously discussed the topic of students (essentially) firing their adviser (in most cases by moving on to another adviser) and have also touched on topics involving the termination of postdocs and grad students by advisers.

Today's specific topic stems from some comments on yesterday's post, including interesting comments involving firing trends over time.

I know that "firing" is a touchy topic for some because of the what-if-that-were-me-being-fired anxiety it can generate (unless the subject of the firing is clearly someone else), but termination of advising/supervising relationships is a fact of academic life, it occurs for a wide variety of reasons (some good, some not), and is something many of us grapple with in our research groups, departments, and beyond.

In particular, it's interesting to consider whether advisers are more or less likely to "fire" advisees before tenure vs. after. I would guess that the general trend would be one of greater reluctance to fire during early career stages, when it is essential to demonstrate an ability to be a successful adviser and to minimize disruptions of a research project.

But perhaps we have to separate "willingness" to fire from what really happens. For example, I think I was less willing to fire advisees early in my career, but in reality I terminated more advising relationships early in my career. To the extent that I can conclude anything from a small dataset, hypotheses to explain this trend in my advising career include:

- before I established my reputation in my field, the students I recruited were not as good as the ones I was able to recruit later in my career;

- bad luck;

- poor advising by me.

I think it was a combination of all those things, although I hasten to add, in my own defense, that I don't think that more advising experience could have helped some of the students and postdocs who arrived in my research group with severe emotional and/or substance abuse problems. Nevertheless, I was left wondering for a long time whether I drove my advisees crazy or whether I was somehow a magnet for troubled people.

Owing to complexities like these, career/firing trend data might be difficult to interpret. We can try, though, or at least make things up that sound interesting.

So: for those of you who have advised for more than a few years,

- Are you more or less willing to terminate advising relationships now than you were at an earlier stage of your career?

- Have you in fact terminated more or fewer advising relationships at a later stage of your career compared to an earlier stage?

And do you have any explanation for your person firing trend, if one exists?


Anonymous said...

I am definitely more willing to "fire" someone than I would have been earlier in my career and less likely to take it personally. I've only ever had to fire one person and that was at a major career transition (not the best time) but it was necessary and unavoidable given the severe psychological problems of the student involved and his/her unwillingness to get help or discuss the problem.

AnonFullProf said...

I have to admit I've never fired any of my students, so I guess that puts me at approximately equally at this stage of my career as when I was a junior faculty member.

However, I have had some students where through mutual agreement they decided to take a Master's and leave (without a PhD). It was amicable.

I have also had two graduate students where I told them we would have a 6-month try-out period, and at the end it was clear it wasn't working. I did ask them to look elsewhere. I do view it as an exceptional case (if I enter a try-out period, my mindset is that the expected outcome is that I'll be willing to advise them, even though I don't quite say that to the students). I don't think of that as firing, though it's in the close vicinity. In both cases, I felt strongly that it was not in the student's best interests for me to advise them: the student's research interests were not aligned with my own interests.

I think the biggest difference is that I have a higher bar today for accepting a student as an advisee. I'm more cautious/reluctant, and turn more people away up front.

Curt F. said...

I am interested how firing students and/or post-docs as it relates to lab safety. FSP's research area may not involve explosive chemicals, lasers, radioactive materials, toxins (or all of the above!), but I am sure she and blog readers are familiar with labs that do deal with these hazards.

A recent safety incident and reading various chemistry-related blogs have led me to wonder about how PIs deal with reckless researchers. If PIs know that someone is being reckless (a big if, I know), what do you think is the most common response? What do you think is the most approppriate response?

Would decisions about firing students for lack of safety violations necessarily involve the university EHS department, or do PIs have unilateral authority to revoke an RAship or permission to work in her lab?

GMP said...

When I was new on TT, I was definitely was not great at recruiting students and not great at advising them. So I ended up firing some people that I now think probably could have completed PhD's with a little more patience and closer guidance from me. But the TT track is a very anxious time and I was not very patient by any stretch.

I am now much more likely to take my time, go through several formal notices, and work with the student on improving, before I decide to pull the plug. When I do fire, I have fewer regrets now as I take my time to evaluate and address problems, but I only have the time because I have made tenure and have sufficient funding, none of which I had much of when I started.

I think you can spot problems pretty early on, after a few months. It's key to let the student know right away if things don't look good, so you can either work on improving ASAP or he/she should look elsewhere.

So I'd say I fire at a lower rate now than when I was on TT, largely because I am better at recruiting and more flexible in advising. But I still fire, and when I do I give plenty of notices and lead time and usually the student leaves with an MS and even a paper.

James Annan said...

Not sure it is useful to blur the distinction between terminating a specific working relationship and terminating employment. People changing research group within a larger organisation is pretty commonplace and does not have anything like the same implications (nor requires the same procedures, at least in civilised countries) as actually being sacked.

Anonymous said...

I am amazed by how cavalier some in the "fire him camp" (from the comments to the previous post) are, esp. those who equate all sorts of sexist or other "ist" behavior to each other with no reference to degree. A single offhand sexist remark is not equal to rape, right? If not, isn't it a serious and difficult question where in the huge space in between those two we draw the line and fire someone?

I am a tenured faculty member 10 years in the job, have employed quite a few students and postdocs. I can't imagine anyone who has been in the position of having to supervise others being so quick to fire anyone as some of the commenters seem to imply they would be (apart from the specifics of this particular postdoc's case), at least not if they (the supervisor) are a decent human being.

To answer the question of the day, I still haven't really fired any students or postdocs, but I did also (like FSP) seem to attract troubled students early in my career. A couple left after MS for various reasons, a few have managed to get their PhD's eventually (but will never be very successful scientists, if they stay in science at all, and one failed to write up his thesis and dropped out after I supported him for 6 years. I put a huge amount of time, effort and money into all of them and felt very little rewarded for it. But indeed I felt compelled to stick with them, maybe partly because of junior faculty reasons FSP gives (investment, show success at advising etc.) but also because I started to care about them, in a parental sort of way.

But some years of this made me feel burned out and led me to cut down on the number of students I took and take more postdocs instead. For whatever reason at postdoc level I seem to get much better people. I am taking a couple more students now but trying to be picky and I like to think that if they start showing signs of serious dysfunction I will be quicker to dump them, though we'll see if I can really do it. I think that would have been the right thing to do with some of my previous students, looking back on it. I have gotten better at failing students on their qualifying exams so maybe that's a good sign.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the fewer vs. less conundrum in red. I always tell my students 'if you can count them use fewer.' I have fewer pencils on my desk, and hence it has less clutter than yours.

cherishthescientist.net said...

You forgot one obvious reason on your list of causes for bad advising experiences: students are probably going to take you less seriously and expect more latitutde as a female advisor than a male advisor.

While TAing in physics and later engineering, I had a reputation for getting all the crazy students while the male TAs never had problems with their students. I've seen this trend continue over time.

I would expect that this would carry over to advising.

another young FSP said...

While I am still early in the process, I do think there is a trend. Very early on I was less able to distinguish between good advisees and poor advisees based on initial impressions (or more willing to try to overlook a negative impression to give them a chance). And perhaps a little more susceptible to professor peer pressure. For instance, willingness to help a senior colleague by allowing a student to move from one of their projects to one of mine. As I have gained more experience, I am much more cautious about this.

Rosie Redfield said...

PhD students at my institution are very well protected by the rules and reg. It's almost impossible to 'fire' them unless they fail both attempts at their comprehensive exams. So it usually comes down to persuading them that it's in their interests to find another supervisor or another career plan.

Postdocs are even more strongly protected....

Anonymous said...

I am more willing to terminate a relationship with a student than I was at the beginning. As an asst professor, it seemed like an awful mark of failure to 'fire' a student. However, I came to realize that it is often in the best interest of the student to help them move on to some research group, field, training or job that is better suited to their particular talents/interests.
As an aside, I am incredibly opposed to the language of 'firing'. Students are not our employees, they are our mentees and the mentor/mentee relationship carries with it distinct responsibilities.

Anonymous said...

I fired a graduate student (i.e. asked him to find a different advisor) during my first year, and I'm glad I did because he was very disruptive of the otherwise pleasant lab dynamics and there was not hope of getting him to produce anything useful. I see other more senior colleagues that can afford to be more patient with difficult students because 1) they have enough techs, postdocs, or other more senior personnel to put up with the daily issues and 2) they can afford to have a minor project moving slowly.
As a new assistant professor you have to move quick in all fronts and cannot deal with overly troubled people, so if a student has no hope of working in your lab you need to get rid of him/her before it's too late.

Having said that, I was obviously worried about what my senior colleagues would think of my lack of mentoring skills, so I involved a senior professor in a few discussions with the student so I had a witness of how hopeless he was. It ended up working very well, and I was actually praised for handling the situation well.

Anonymous said...

As a junior prof currently on TT, I have had 3 students leave my group with a MS. Two were through mutual decision, and one was at my request. I agree with many commenters, I seem to get a higher percentage of students with various issues - maybe because I'm new and not yet established and maybe because I'm not yet good at identifying the best matches for my lab. I do feel pressured to not let anyone else go until after tenure, because I want to demonstrate that I can advise students through to PhD. Also, in response to Curt F., I think flagrant disregard for safety regulations (i.e., still making bad choices after being reminded and given warnings) warrants letting a student go. It's not worth risking the safety of my other students.

Anonymous said...

I am in my last TT year. I did not fire any student. In our department, it is very hard or impossible to fire students. So far, I had eight graduate students total and one postdoc. Two left with Masters. One came with the idea to just do a Masters and so he did. He wasn't very good at all and we had some conflicts, so I think we were both happy to leave it that way. The other one obviously chose my lab because he couldn't find a spot in the lab he really wanted. Once a spot opened up there, he moved. As a result, he had a bad attitudide from the beginning, not wanting to do much in my lab, but wasted a significant chunk of my start-up. Also, I found that in our department I have very little choice in selecting students. Most of the time I am presented with the student I am assigned and I have to either take him/her or leave him/her. If I don't take them and I have a project that needs someone to work on, that results in problems with the funding agency, so it is a difficult call to make. Otherwise, some students were better than others, but can't fire the ones that are not good.

Anonymous said...

I've only had to fire one student so far, but I definitely am more willing to do so than I was as a junior faculty member. In addition to the "can she mentor" issue, I was far more idealistic. I really believed that I could help any student who wanted to complete a Ph.D. get there. Now I realize how naive I was, especially about who really "wants" to complete a Ph.D. I still believe I can help any student, but I really look more carefully for evidence of true motivation.