Friday, November 11, 2011

That's Stupid

If you are (or were) a graduate student and your advisor suggests that you do something that you think is incorrect or stupid, what do you say? (or what did you say?) I am not talking about unethical or immoral suggestions, but research-related suggestions/ideas that you think are in error, ill-advised, impossible, and/or idiotic. I am curious as to how many people feel (or felt) comfortable disagreeing with their advisor.

Do/did you:

1. Say nothing and do the stupid thing suggested because it's somehow easier/better to do what you're told.

2. Say nothing and do the stupid thing suggested because you are probably wrong and your advisor is probably right and the reason you think the idea is stupid is probably because you don't understand it.

3. Say nothing but find a way to avoid doing the stupid thing suggested (because you are convinced it really is stupid).

4. Ask some questions to make sure you really understand the suggestion, and, once you are convinced it really is stupid, tentatively suggest that maybe that isn't a good idea (maybe even suggest a better idea), or some other response that involves a bit of thinking, exploring, discussing.

5. Say "That's stupid" (or a more polite equivalent) and explain why you think so. If you say something like this, I am also curious as to whether this is an easy thing to say to your advisor (who perhaps enjoys debates about ideas and doesn't mind being corrected) or whether it is extremely difficult (because your advisor might have a bad temper, hate criticism etc.).

I can think of other possibilities, and I am sure there are many more I have not thought of, but mostly I am just curious about the range of responses.

Does anyone think there are trends by academic discipline or are the results likely to be completely scattered because all fields have a wide variety of personalities?

The reason I was thinking about this aspect of grad-advisor interactions is because I was remembering an incident in which a grad student misunderstood an advisor's suggestion. The actual suggestion was very reasonable (says the advisor, who is not me, by the way) but what the student thought the advisor said was bizarre. The student did it anyway, without question. That's a somewhat different case, but is a variant of option #2 above. In this case, the advisor in question doesn't think there was any lack of confidence involved by the student; the student just didn't think and did what s/he (thought s/he) was told.

When I was a student, I used to do something approximating #4, but sometimes it would be a multi-stage process. My advisor would make a suggestion (in fact, he rarely gave me any suggestions or directions, but it did happen on occasion) and, if I didn't understand it, I would ask a few questions, but then I would go away and try to figure the rest out myself. If I figured out what he was saying/asking, fine; if I still didn't, or if I convinced myself he was wrong, I'd go talk to him again. I think that approach is quite common.

Is the direct approach of #5 (even the polite variant) the most rare? As an advisor, I have found it to be somewhat rare, but I think that as long as there is a healthy dose of the #4 approach (questioning, but in a more tentative way), some good discussions can take place and stupid ideas can be discarded and replaced with better ones.


57 comments:

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Personally, I'd much rather have a student say "That's stupid!" and explain why. I make mistakes and I'm often throwing out off-the-cuff ideas in discussions with students. Some of the ideas are good and some are stupid, and it really helps if we can weed out the stupid ones before wasting too much time on them.

Sometimes the criticism and defense of stupid idea causes it to be modified into a good idea, which is where we really want to get to.

I don't know how many of my students were comfortable telling me when one of my ideas was bad. I think they all got to that point eventually, but I don't know how long it took.

Pharm Sci Grad said...

I was more a #4 when I started grad school. I'm pretty much a #5 now, as I'm finishing.

I am willing to have a civil discussion about ideas and experiments. I tend to listen and ask questions as much as possible if I'm not sure why PI has suggested I do something. Once I'm sure I understand what PI is suggesting, I have a policy of #5.

Two reasons for this: 1. There are certain experimental situations (the nuances of) which I understand better than PI because of our different backgrounds and 2. PI tends to be less awesome at thinking on hir feet than ze is with more time to consider things - and knows this about hirself, thus is very accepting of critique as part of a discussion regarding things PI wants me to do. We have a very good working relationship, although we have very different (complementary?) perspectives on our work, and we both respect each other greatly.

Honestly, I think I'm going to miss this most about PI when I graduate. It's given me more confidence and taught me to appreciate the give and take that goes into a good interdisciplinary/collaborative effort. I'm afraid this sort of interaction with my superiors may never happen again. =/

Heather said...

#5, definitely. I actually think my PI sometimes threw out stupid ideas on purpose just to see if we would argue. He encouraged us to defend our reasoning for doing or not doing an experiment. Of course I did this politely and did not call his ideas stupid. I consider the ability to defend my point of view to a person of authority to be one of the most important skills I learned in grad school.

muddled grad student said...

I went from #1/#2 to #4/#5 from start to finish of my grad school. Initially there was some reluctance to contradict my supervisor as I was not sure of myself and also he has a bad temper/doesn't like being contradicted so it was easier to avoid the confrontation. Though as I learnt more things and was sure of what I was doing, this was highly counter productive and probably unhealthy so I would say why I though something should not be done but always with an alternative or why not etc.

mOOm said...

I would have said: "I don't think that makes sense because..." or "I don't think we should do that because..." or something like that.

Arno said...

My choice is a combination of 4 and 5. I'd basically say: "This idea seems stupid to me because of x, y, z. What am I missing?"

Respect for your advisor should never keep you from questioning hir, but it seems sensible to question yourself, too.

Bobikis said...

I was a #4 for the first few years but my advisor soon made it clear that there would be no questioning words coming from on high. Advisor now tolerates #5 so long as I also do #2.

Anonymous said...

Isn't number 4 just the polite variant of number 5.
They are the same except in 4 you start from the assumption that you misunderstood the advisor, and in number 5 you start with the assumption that your advisor is wrong.
In the following discussion, you will find out which of those two is the case, no matter where you start.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Combination of #4 and #5. Question until you're sure you understand, then poke holes in it and suggest alternatives. That's the culture in my field. We enjoy feisty arguments where we poke holes and then fill them up.

Every time I get a new RA I have to train them to not be afraid to ask questions and find mistakes. At the beginning of the semester I'll often give them something where I've identified that either I or a previous RA made a mistake as part of the new RA's training.

Anonymous said...

I'm a solid 4. I would never come out and call something stupid, because (a) that's sort of an attack on the person (advisor or not), which is not cool, and (b) it probably isn't stupid- either I don't understand or there is some subtlety my advisor doesn't understand, neither of which makes the idea stupid, s/he just has incomplete information. So I ask questions to understand why they are suggesting I do this task, and if I think it's neglecting some important effect, then I say something along the lines of "But what about X? Wouldn't that affect Y like yadda yadda yadda" etc.

Talleyrand said...

I always do #3 after once trying to do #5. Pushback was greeted with incredulity and then a change of subject. I figured it was better to maintain the relationship with my advisor but to rely on my own understanding for my work. I tell people this and when they ask how this can possibly work, I then tell them that my advisor doesn't remember much of what they tell me so it has never been a problem.

Jamie said...

I started out as a #2 and tried to become a #4, but my advisor was often convinced that her way was the only way, especially with statistical analysis. Eventually I learned to ignore her if she asked me to do something once, think about doing it if she asked twice, and if she asked a third time, do it and then show her the results to verify that she was incorrect in the first place.

FSGrad said...

I go for 4 at first (if I don't really know the answer complete with citation and detailed reasoning), but if I don't make headway I do a literature search and ask around to back up my point before I try again. If it turns out that I seem to be right, I try a polite 5, with references. A polite 5 is where I start if I already know the topic really well.

Like other commenters, this has definitely changed as I have matured as a student. Even two years ago I never would never have thought I actually knew what I was doing enough to even be a 4.

Anonymous said...

Haha... I totally argue with my advisor. I try not to be a big jerk about it and I'd say I'm a combination of #4/#5, because my statements are less along the lines of "That's stupid" and more like "I really don't get this. Why the heck would you want me to do that?!" because I'm well aware that sometimes the things he's saying are great ideas but I just don't get it! (But sometimes they really are silly ideas.) It seems to work well. I would never want to just meekly do something and not understand why I was doing it! (for the record, I'm a 5th-semester MS student about to defend, in the hard sciences)

"Does anyone think there are trends by academic discipline or are the results likely to be completely scattered because all fields have a wide variety of personalities?"

I'm curious about this question... I could see it going either way.

Anonymous said...

I definitely did #5, even from near the beginning of grad school. My advisor was wonderfully willing to have open, logical discussion, and to accept when he was occasionally wrong. Now that I am a PI, I expect #5 from my students, and am very frustrated when I don't get it. Especially when they do #3. That is the worst, because nobody learns anything!

Anonymous said...

I am humbled to admit that I was between #1 and #2. I wish I had asked more questions when I was a doctoral student, but my advisor was somewhat inaccessible and scary and a control-freak. I did a lot of experiments that I innovated that I am proud of, but I also had to do a bunch of stuff that I was "told" to do. I didn't understand fully why I was doing those things, but I didn't have the confidence to figure out that it wasn't my fault. Looking back, these experiments were stupid and add virtually nothing to our understanding of what I was studying. Plus, they were a b***h to write up. I learned some extremely valuable lessons about how to do research from that whole experience. Today, I work with undergraduates, and I think that they are mostly at the #2 level. I am responsible for not giving them stupid things to do and I spend a lot of time helping them to see why the work is important.

Anonymous said...

#4 but with the follow on that eventually you may just have to do as suggested.

As a more senior scientist, although I am not in the lab as much as I used to be, I do have years of experience from which to draw upon so sometimes I will see an experiment in a different way and may a suggestion on how to do things. There are times when these suggestions are greeted with "that's just stupid" response. I enjoy and welcome the scientific discussion to air each viewpoint but in the end if I believe in my suggestion I have had to resort to "I am the boss so just do it." More often than not (but not always), my suggestion turned out to be correct. After which I will mention "that idea turned out not to be so stupid after all". The counterpoint is that the times when the idea does turn out to be stupid, I own up to it and apologize for the time wasted.

DRo said...

As an advisor, I would hope my students would do #4.

Kathe said...

I'm a grad student and I'd like to think #5 but I'm probably somewhere between #4-5. I will generally follow up with "Yes I'll do it but..".

If senior person is still insistent on Stupid Idea I will suck it up and execute to the best of my ability. In the end they are my boss and have more experience then I do, so I'm willing to trust they know best.

Anonymous said...

#4 or #5 depending on the suggestion. From my experience, advisors often throw out ideas without necessarily thinking them through. However, it was also common for my ex-advisor to insist that I do the thing anyway, in which case I (and most of my fellow grad students) resorted to #3. Sometimes the suggestion came up again; sometimes it didn't. If it came up about three times, we might finally attempt to go through with it. It was certainly not unusual for the advisor to give the OPPOSITE suggestion the next week, or to take credit for the student's idea, etc. (are all advisors this crazy?)

I know having grad students not follow their suggestions can be frustrating to the advisors, and grad students have motivations ranging from legitimately thinking it's at stupid idea (even after the third request) to simply thinking it's too much work for what it's worth despite being an okay idea (while advisors tend to forget that their students do not, in fact, have infinite time to do every experiment they can think of AND everything else that needs to get down (write papers, attend seminars, teach classes, maintain instruments, write their thesis, etc.) So... I'm sure both parties are in the right/wrong on different occasions.

Anonymous said...

#5, with enthusiasm! Neither of my co-advisors is conflict-adverse, and I enjoy a good intellectual discussion as much as they do. (I would never select an advisor who wasn't up for an argument.) What I've discovered is that too many people are intimidated by one of my big-name advisors and don't push back when they disagree with him, even if they have good points. But there's no reason to be intimidated; he's just a person like every one else after all.

When I have done a #5 with an advisor one of several things happens:
1) it turns out my advisor didn't explain himself well and/or I didn't understand. We resolve the confusion quickly and end up agreeing.
2) my advisor points out some things about my objection that I hadn't thought of and he convinces me that it isn't so stupid after all.
3) I point out some things my advisor hadn't thought of and I convince him that it's not worth pursuing.
4) very occasionally, we end up not agreeing. Most recently after 10 minutes of heated back-and-forth, we realized neither was going to change the other's mind. But it's OK! We're working together on a project about which we disagree which analytical approach is going to work. So we'll try both. No big deal.

In all cases things end up fine. More communication make for better science and, in the end, better relationships. Eventually you want your advisor to view you as a peer and be able to write recommendation letters saying that you act professionally. So it's worth it to begin now, in my opinion.

(FWIW, my advisor has described me as "lively" to others.)

Anne said...

I started as a 1 with my MA advisor, progressed to a 3/4, am a 4 now in general, but a 5 with my MA advisor (I am now a PhD at a different school but still work with MA advisor) because he doesn't actually regard practical considerations as a thing that is real to him. It's better to be up front (though I don't say things are stupid, just unreasonable, impractical, etc) and firm with him and make a sort of joke to make it more palatable.

Now that I think of it I have to be a 5 with PhD advisor because he tries to trick me by saying ridiculous things, and he wants to see if I'll catch them. Maybe by the end of this I'll just a be a straight up 5...

Anonymous said...

I think there is a maturation curve involved in the response. I firmly believe that my advisor decided it was time for me to graduate on the day I did a #5 on him. (Just to be really below-the-belt, I also pointed out how much money would be spent if I did his stupid experiment). He had to get me out of there because I might be a bad influence on the younger students if I stayed around.

Anonymous said...

Whose advisor has NOT told them to do something stupid (and who has not advised their students to do something stupid)? The PI's job is to generate ideas, and not all of them will be gems.

In grad school, our rule of thumb was that if our advisor asked us to do something stupid once, we could safely ignore it. But if he asked us to do the same thing twice, it was time to take the request seriously.

I'm sure my advisees now have a similar rule of thumb, and, as others have said, I'd rather have them ignore me and come up with a better experiment or question me and work out a better approach together than waste time doing something that is genuinely stupid. However, I think that sometimes you can learn a lot from an experiment that looks stupid on the surface.

Dr. O said...

Generally I use a variant of #4, and if the idea seems odd, I try to make sure I understand what's being asked. If I'm sure I get it but just don't agree, I say something like "That's an interesting idea, but I'm wondering if we should be focusing our attention on this versus that." If adviser continues to push, I just suck it up and do both this and that. Sometimes I'm wrong, sometimes I'm right.

Even as I venture into TT land, seemingly *stupid* suggestions continue to come up - at seminars, conferences, etc. I've continued using a similar approach to what I've always used with my mentors. And still - sometimes I'm wrong, sometimes I'm right.

Genetics Grad Student said...

I do a combination of 4 and 5. First, I try understand why he thinks it would be a good idea, and if I still don't think it is, I will tell him so. First of all, I don't want to do any experiments I don't understand, and second of all, I don't want to waste time doing experiments that might have a fatal flaw.

Anonymous said...

The first few times, I did #1. The next few, #3. And when someone with some knowledge did #5 on my behalf and it was obvious this was a regular pattern, I decided it was time to find a new advisor.

jandore said...

I started out my graduate career with option number two and regretted it three months later when, sure enough, the project went nowhere interesting. As I got more senior, it became a combination of four and five–I had a very good collaborative relationship with my advisor by the time I graduated.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

I generally said something like "Maybe I don't get it..."

I didn't keep any statistics, but I think that it was mostly I had misunderstood, occasionally that I was ignorant of a important fact, and just a few times the suggestion really was silly.

But I'm in experimental particle physics and by the time a experiment is well advance it is the grad students and post-docs who have the most "boots on the ground" understanding of the machine, so the PIs are acustomed to have to deal with students on a equal basis about some things. And vice versa, I guess.

AScienceUndergrad said...

I tend to say "Hmmm, maybe-- but what about (x), (y), (z)? It seems like we could get the same result if we did Other Thing and that has the advantages (1), (2), and (3)."

And then she'll either agree with me or explain/diagram how I'm wrong, and science marches on.

If I don't understand a suggestion, I'll maybe ask clarifying questions, but usually just go try it and then report back if it's not working. Then again, my thesis is numeric, and so there's no expensive equipment to break by doing it wrong.

Anonymous said...

My personal rule was that any idea put forth by my advisor was not to be acted upon until he repeated it three times.

He was a really creative guy, who constantly spewed forth a whirlwind tornado of ideas. 90% of those ideas were ridiculous and 10% were brilliant. If he mentioned something three times, you could be pretty sure it was in the 10% and worth doing.

Anonymous said...

Umm... usually I do 4. Even if it's a good idea, I still want to make sure it's the best idea.

And if I still think it's stupid I'll generally make my feelings obvious (nonverbally). :p ...But I'll do it anyway, in addition to whatever I would have done instead.

And about ~70% of the time (though significantly not 100%) my adviser turns out to have been correct and its his stupid idea that ends up working. Hahaha...

queenrandom said...

I do a combo of 4 and 5. I've never found it difficult to say that I think an experiment won't work and why. If it's diplomatically phrased, it usually doesn't cause problems. I once did a stupid experiment after much debate just so I could prove to the PI that it wouldn't/didn't work (it was a relatively quick experiment).

Anonymous said...

That depends on what the advisor said, doesn't it? 2, 4 and 5 are all reasonable responses depending on the situation. It's possible that you don't think you understand things and so you do 2) until you do understand it (in that sense it sort of overlaps with 4). 4 is probably the most common response for me - basically to clarify/argue it out over time. And occasionally, if you are really quite certain that the advisor said something stupid, you go with 5. That's rarely happened to me, but there were a few cases. For some of them, I was even right, shockingly enough hehe.

sarcozona said...

One of my undergrad research advisors was a major idea generator and was always giving me recommendations that I thought were crazy. I usually dealt with that by saying something along the lines of "I'm not sure how that will accomplish ... because ... " And then he'd either agree or explain what I didn't understand.

But it took me two years working with him to become confident enough to do this because that approach meant I was either saying he was wrong (or unrealistic) or demonstrating that I didn't understand something.

MamaRox said...

#3, lots of #3. some #4.

My advisor suggested bizarre things all the time and some former advisees warned me not to be led astray. That said, some of this PI's is somewhat notorious for very strange ideas that get funded...

makita said...

I was faced with something similar with respect to a statistical analysis. I protested (weakly) that the methodology suggested was old and obsolete, and had some major issues. I did it the way my adviser wanted, and my own way, and when they came out with the same conclusion, I went with my adviser's suggestions for the dissertation. He signed off on it, I graduated.

Christopher Parsons said...

In my case it depends on the area that is under discussion at the time. My supervisor recognizes that on a series of topics I'm far more knowledgeable that he, and vice versa. We (mutually) alternate between 4 and 5 depending on the suggestion that either one of us has proposed, with the full recognition that 5 isn't meant to be insulting but simply a direct and frank response. We have a good, working, professional relationship and treat it as such: he wouldn't be much of a supervisor if he didn't take criticism himself, and I wouldn't be a decent student if I wasn't willing to either take criticism or offer up my own positions.

Math postdoc said...

Hopefully you have enough intellectual respect for your advisor to assume at least at first that you misunderstood something (or it's being poorly or incorrectly explained) and that's why you think it's stupid. That was certainly my feeling as a student, and still is even now that I've graduated. I come from Eastern Europe though, so it's probably also related to being brought up with a lot of respect for elders. Also my research area is very technically complicated, so experience and accumulated knowledge are especially important.

Of course sometimes the idea does turn out to be stupid, and it's better to say so (as bluntly as possible) unless the senior person in question is too sensitive to take criticism. Ideally everyone would have such high intellectual standards that they would be happy to have the truth come to light even if it makes them feel a little foolish, but people are not perfect and when you are the junior person you have to tread carefully...

Personally, I'm not sure I feel comfortable enough with any of the senior people around me to be so blunt. I would ask questions to fully understand the idea, and then if I thought it was stupid I would discard it as politely and discreetly as possible.

Anonymous said...

#5 for the postdoctoral PI, who likes discussions and does not mind to be corrected. It is easy to contradict him.
#4 for the PhD PI, who does not like discussions. It was not easy to disagree even in polite way. He reacted in very unpleasant way.

Anonymous said...

All of the above, except #2. I don't have a problem arguing if I think there's a problem with an idea of my adviser's. He _claims_ he loves being challenged and discussing. However, there are small problems.

So first, we both present our ideas. After some discussion, _he_ decides who's right, often admitting that he based the decision on gut feeling or something someone said in passing at a conference or some other not-very-scientific reasoning. The burden of proof is always on me - I have to substantiate everything I say, while for what he claims it's sufficient that it just kind of sounds like it might make sense. Also, his willingness to listen to students depends very strongly on how busy and/or cranky he is at the moment. On the other hand, whatever one of his peers says is true by definition.

One alternative approach I've used a lot is to go through collaborators whom I know to value arguments based on their contents regardless of who the arguments came from.

I'm sorry I strayed off topic, this all just pisses me off to no end.

Anonymous said...

I typically did number 3 or 4. As a post-doc, I still do number 4, with some polite nudges.

I did, once, as a grad student, give my advisor a variant of number 5. He made a suggestion. I looked at him, blinked, and said, "No." I got away with it because I was months away from graduating. I also did something bizarre once when I was a very junior grad student because I totally misunderstood my advisor. It ended up getting a very nice result, but his immediate reaction was "You did WHAT??!!" I think the only reason he didn't strangle me was because 1) my reasoning was sound and 2) it worked splendidly.

Anonymous said...

I usually did something along #5 but in a polite/funny way. My advisor (who was great by the way) often came up with funny ideas (often he was just thinking loud) and I often had to say 'no' to his suggestions. Depending on his (and my) mood I would do this using a joke ('yeah right, I'll do that right after I finish that perpetuu mobile I've started last week') or simply by giving him a couple of scientific reasons not to do it.

Anonymous said...

Mix of #4 and #5. Not so tentative as in #4, but not so blatantly rude as in #5. I would ask why. And assuming I really thought it was a stupid idea I would provide arguments as to why it would we better to something else.

And then I would run to my lab mates and tell them what a stupid thing advisor requested...

Anonymous said...

I have a pretty well documented problem with authority when I think that authority hasn't been adequately earned. This has been more or less a constant in my life, and as such I think that the more telling part that I can share is how my interaction with the advisor has gone.

One summer interning for a company as an undergraduate my boss wanted me to do a measurement that I knew was stupid and wouldn't work. I knew it right away and asked him why he thought it would work. He gave his reasons, I gave the reasons I disagreed with him and warned him that it would be a massive waste of the short time I had with the company to do this measurement. He said, essentially, "I'm the boss, you have to do what I say. Just shut up and do it." And so I spent 3 weeks convincing him that viscous fluids do in fact flow into the pores of sponges. It was a massive waste of time and equipment, and told me a lot about his style.

My current advisor (I'm now in graduate school) has a very different style. His suggestions are very rarely stupid, though they are occasionally very impractical (and he usually realizes this before he says it). When stupid suggestions happen, I make sure that he's suggesting what I think he's suggesting (since dumb ideas are rare) and then tell him directly that I think what he's proposing would never work. We debate back and forth about merits and he winds up agreeing with me.

The more interesting case are the ideas that aren't great but also aren't terrible. I'm a very busy and very productive grad student, and so my boss respects my time. If an idea isn't great, usually he'll say something along the lines of "Well, I don't know if you should rush to do this right away, and I trust you to prioritize your time." Also interesting is when he has good ideas. "You should make this your top priority." "So...which of my 8 top priorities do you think I should work on first?" "I trust you to structure your time well."

I'm gong to go ahead and put this on record: My advisor rocks.

Michelle said...

Combo of the above: Ask questions to figure out why they don't think it's a stupid idea, suggest my own non-stupid idea, get vetoed so swallow my pride & follow through with their stupidity, and spend extra hours in the lab each night pursuing my own non-stupid.

Tell them why they're stupid once I've crunched the data (can't argue with a graph ;)) and provide my own non-stupid results alongside. Sweet victory. Suggest they buy me a coffee for all my effort.

Anonymous said...

Try 4 or 5, but it you are going to go for 5 you better think carefully what s/he is suggesting.

I mean, if your supervisor is extemporizing, there is a high chance that said statement is wrong and go for 5.

But if s/he's speaking about his/her area of expertise you should consider the possibility that the statement is rather deep and you are just missing it. In that case it might be best to start with leading questions,as Michelle suggests. Ask things like "but wouldn't hypothesis X be a problem?" or "how would we overcome Y?".

If after all that you still believe your supervisor is wrong go for 5.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I demand of the trainees in my lab that they employ #5 with me and with each other. We have neither the time nor the resources to waste on ideas and experiments that are stupid, and misguided "politeness" increases the likelihood of such waste.

Anonymous said...

Combo of #4/#3 - once you're sure of what is meant by the stupid experiment, ignore it until it comes up repeatedly. Usually it never comes up again. The usual outcome of a #1/#2 in our lab is that a few weeks later when you present the results at lab meeting you get a "Why would you ever do this stupid experiment?" from the PI who has forgotten it was her idea in the first place.

And what about the reverse situation - where you have an idea you are convinced is great, but are told by your PI no matter how well you back it up that it is stupid and you can't do it? This has happened more than once in the lab I'm in and at least a couple of times what's happened is that the student ignores the PI, does the experiment anyways, and gets a great result.

AerialGeologist said...

I'm a second year geology grad student and I've seen almost all of these options occur amongst my fellow students and their advisors. I would say my approach is that of #4. I'm from the school of thought that getting a graduate degree should involve a fairly high level of responsibility for your project, so questioning suggestions shouldn't be looked down upon. If the graduate student feels like a suggestion is stupid to me that means either the student doesn't fully understand the situation or they know something the advisor doesn't (since each thesis should be unique it shouldn't be a surprise that at some point the student should know a little more about what is going on than the advisor).

The "do what I'm told" scenario seems very prevalent amongst my fellow grad students with RA's. Some people consider this the perfect opportunity, basically writing their thesis as a job without having to plan it themselves. Unfortunately I knew a few RA students that didn't like to "do stupid things" and would question their advisor too much and ended up leaving.

Personally, having an RA and just doing what I was told would have been academic torture. I helped plan my research topic with my advisors from scratch. This involved a lot of questioning in both directions. Sometimes, it paid off and my advisors would acknowledge some "good catch"'s I had. Sometimes I thought I knew better and this ended up blowing a day's worth of work, which I then had to redo, but accepted it as my responsibility.

Another fellow student is trying to do the same thing, build a project from scratch, but had a highly directed and structured undergraduate research project. In this case, they aren't questioning stupid suggestions enough, and this is causing the project to drag behind, and the advisor to lose confidence in their ability to complete a thesis.

So I would say each scenario can work, it really depends on the motivations of the student and the advisor. But this is just what I've seen.

HFM said...

I've moved from a #4 to a #5. The problem with #4 is, if you don't shoot the stupid idea down immediately and go off to think about it instead, the boss may go off to think about it too, and convince themselves it's the best idea ever. This makes the eventual #5 much more difficult, and more likely to end in a grudging #1 and wasted effort.

I'm not rude about it, though. My PI is not stupid, and he's been doing this since I was in diapers; he knows some things that I do not. However, I'm not stupid either, and I know stuff that he doesn't. If I think something is stupid, I will state my objection(s)...in most cases, I'll either learn something or I'll get out of doing the stupid. Since neither of us are wallowing in vats of time and money, the efficiency is appreciated.

(Yes, I chose this PI partly for #5-compatibility. I have a "lively" streak, and my brain-to-mouth filter is not quite up to spec...I can pull a #3 if cornered, but if someone needs a #1-2, it's in everyone's best interest if we don't work together.)

There are times when the PI/boss needs to pull rank and insist that something be tried. I worked in a company once that had a great mechanism for this; you had to do the experiment if your boss was willing to make a (small) wager on the outcome. There was a TurboTech there who had a "trophy wall" of dollar bills taped over her bench...from poor fools who had failed to respect her authoritah. (None of them were mine. I knew better than to argue with her.) My boss and I were pretty close to even, but it still had the desired outcome - more experiments, less complaining.

Anne said...

I tend towards "other." Most of the "stupid" ideas my advisor comes up with are random, off-the-wall ideas that she will completely forget about approximately 5 minutes later. I don't explicitly promise to do whatever harebrained idea she proposed then. I wait until she brings it up at least once more, if not twice more before I'll actually considering doing it.

If it's clear that she actually seriously thinks I should do experiment x and I think that's ridiculous she's ok with a polite version of #5.

Most of the disconnect comes from the fact that it's been so long since she's done lab work herself, and the area of research I'm in got going in the group (and in general) long after she was no longer in the lab. Not that she would ever admit that. Sometimes her ideas about feasibility, time or resources required, or ease are way off base. Not that she would ever admit this.

Materialist said...

Trying without questioning has only had bad results for me.
In one particular situation, I located a professor on campus (in another department) who was better qualified to evaluate the research idea.
Ultimately, this was a success. The other-department prof enjoyed coming in and chatting with us, we all learned something, and the suspect research was shelved.

Anonymous said...

Students should keep in mind what is more likely when they see an obvious "flaw": that their supervisor saw this and a way past it or that s/he missed this obvious objection.

The answer depends on the nature of the objection, the supervisor style, even the relative understanding of the subject. For example, maybe the student is the expert and has already tried and shown the approach to work, or maybe the supervisor is the world freaking expert on subject X and it stands to reason that he would have seen the obvious objection.

Making the right choice between #4 and #5 has nothing to do with politeness or time efficiency. It's about directing the discussion towards its more fruitful outcome.

Anonymous said...

in addition to often using approaches 4/5, I also

- give in on things I think aren't that important and won't cost too much time

- sometimes my two advisors disagree, then we all sit down together and usually in these situations I get what I wanted in the first place

- on disagreements about wording of manuscripts (which happen a lot), I often give in (which usually means using stronger "overselling" language than I am comfortable with) ... and usually, the reviewers complain and then I get to fix it and do things the way I wanted to in the first place

nanoalchemist said...

Usually it went like this:

Year 1
Advisor: "Do ridiculous task X"
Me: "Yes SIR!"

Year 2
Advisor: "Do ridiculous task Y"
Me: "Are you sure? I don't think it will work, and here is why..."

Year 3
Advisor: "Do ridiculous task Z"
Me: "I already did that as an extension to task Y, knowing you'd ask"

Year 4
Advisor: "Do ridiculous ta...."
Me: "These are not the droid you're looking for..."

Really though, we had a pretty good relationship on that front. The guy came up with stuff that was really crazy, or stuff that looked good on PAPER, but when you wrote the timing out for the 15 steps it would have taken way to long to be practical. But he was a good informed guesser and about 1/2 of the crazy stuff worked.

A/P said...

#4 but with the inclusion of economic scrutiny: how much money, how much labor, and how long. Unless you are in a slapstick environment, I'm not certain frequent #5's would pass as appropriate.