Monday, July 01, 2013

Prospective Grad Student Fail

Earlier this summer I met an undergraduate from another institution. The meeting was arranged by one of the student's mentors, who wrote to me saying that this student would benefit from meeting people whose research topics are similar to what the student has been doing for an undergraduate research project. This student is at a small school and, as a Prospective Graduate Student (PGS), they would also benefit from talking to a professor at a research university. So we set up a meeting.

From the very beginning, the conversation was confusing for me. PGS informed me early in the conversation that "no one else" (but PGS) is working on the particular research topic that we apparently had in common. I said, "Are you being sarcastic?". Oops, PGS was serious. So I said, "You mean other than me and a few dozen other people?" I explained that this was a very active topic of research, worldwide. I gave some examples.

Then PGS told me that some equipment at PGS's undergrad institution was very important for the research, but very few other places have these. I said, "We have two." Most research universities do.

PGS explained that the TopTwo schools according to the US News rankings were of most interest for graduate school, but this led to a question for me: Should PGS apply to "lesser" schools like mine? (meaning: not TopTwo). Um, no. Actually, I said I couldn't answer that for PGS in particular, not knowing anything about PGS's record, but I gave some examples of various subfields in which both, one, or neither of the TopTwo was a good place for graduate research.

My overwhelming impression was that PGS was immature, had spent too much time talking only to the undergrad advisor and not enough time immersed in the literature relavent to their research project, and was not at all prepared to have a professional conversation. The meeting was set up by a professor, not the student. I am not sure I will agree to that particular arrangement again. If a student wants to meet me, they can contact me.

Whether PGS will succeed or fail in graduate school, if accepted, is anyone's guess. Chances are that PGS will figure things out eventually.

22 comments:

Alex said...

The attitude was clearly over the top, but how many people really knew the landscape of a field as undergrads? I think I was vaguely aware that there was a big world with lots of people working on the stuff I was interested in, but I certainly couldn't say "Oh, yeah, every research university has [instrument] and there are dozens of people in every tier working on [sub-sub-field]."

Even now, as a sort-of-established faculty member, I'm still sometimes (mostly pleasantly) surprised to find out that the circle of people interested in things related to my research is wider than I thought. I try to keep up, but it inevitably turns out that there's another community with a related interest but because they come from a different field or background or just because of historical accident they don't publish or hang out in the same venues that I do. So then I get to learn about a new field or approach.

Anonymous said...

Considering how competitive some undergraduate institutions are to attract the best students, I wonder if the student is simply repeating the PR/hyperbole from the student's advisor/department/university. One of the primarily-undergraduate universities in my region touts their "state-of-the-art, one-of-a-kind" equipment in their brochures (while true that this equipment would not generally be found at PUIs, it is standard at both of the major research universities in the area.) It can be easy to see how undergrads who don't know better would be enticed by the idea of uniqueness.

Erika said...

Sounds like the current advisor of this student had not done a very good job introducing him/her to the subject.

standrewslynx said...

I guess your colleague was right when they said: "This student could benefit from talking to you"!

Funny Researcher said...

Looks like the PGS didn't had a lot of exposure to research-area. Also seems to be misinformed about ranking prestige (could be a good candidate as a faculty search committee..sarcastic grin ;)

Anonymous said...

Did you consider talking to the student or the student's professor about this? Often enough, when people behave poorly it's because they don't know better. And students living in the undergraduate bubble don't necessarily have a good sense of the context in which scientific research takes place or how to talk to faculty in a reasonable way. I find it sad when scientifically talented students and postdocs don't get feedback that will allow them to change their obnoxious behavior. People don't like to give feedback that "isn't nice," but it seems to me that attempting to help someone by being honest preferable to complaining about them behind their back.

GMP said...

There are a number of smart, talented undergrads who have been told all their lives that they are smart and talented, so they act as if they are God's gift to science. Graduate school tends to cure that ailment quickly.

I remember one excellent undergrad researcher who worked with me and who, when applying to grad schools, wrote a very obnoxious, full-of-himself statement of purpose. He asked me for feedback and I told him what I thought, how it sounded, and he was really taken aback, he had no clue how arrogant and clueless he came across (I didn't use words "arrogant" or "clueless" when I talked to him, but I think I managed to get the message across).

We tend to over-coddle our undergrads in order not to shatter their fragile egos. I think that's a mistake and young'uns are actually not that fragile; most would probably appreciate honest and timely feedback.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:49, it sounds to me like the student was given good advice and information both directly and indirectly and should be able to connect the dots from the conversation, which was a polite version of: you are not the only doing this research so what you said was stupid, your school is not the only one that has that machine so what you said is stupid, it is not necessarily a good strategy to apply only to the top-2 schools in the US News rankings). It seems like there are some pretty big clues there.

I guess I also don't like the assumption that we all have to be perfect mentors to every student we ever meet, no matter how clueless and rude they are and no matter if we are already doing them a favor by taking time we probably don't have and giving them some friendly advice. We are supposed to do more? This student already got some useful information and can use it or not.

Historiann said...

"I guess I also don't like the assumption that we all have to be perfect mentors to every student we ever meet, no matter how clueless and rude they are and no matter if we are already doing them a favor by taking time we probably don't have and giving them some friendly advice. We are supposed to do more?"

This. Exactly. How many male science proffies take time out of their summers to meet with undergrad prospective students? FSP has already done this kid a big favor, whether or not ze appreciates it.

livingacademically said...

Like Anonymous at 10:49 I also wondered whether you thought about contacting that student's professor. Perhaps you could let them know that the student needs more preparation and information about talking to other professors about research.

I remember being a clueless undergrad. The lesson I take from this story is that it was probably good that I didn't talk to too many faculty outside of my institution and that I didn't go to grad school immediately. I used to be very quiet as an undergrad and as a new grad student to exactly avoid these kinds of fails.

Anonymous said...

I was definitely a clueless undergrad but for goodness sakes I knew enough to (at least mostly) keep it to myself! I'm sure I made some fumbles that I remain unaware of but being so thoroughly arrogant isn't about training as an undergrad, it's basic manners. My family made pretty sure I didn't act that way from oh say - kindergarten on...

I do think some students at PUIs are being fed so much bs. I went to one that (I think) was very good but my mentor always made a point of reminding us what a very small fishbowl we were. It made the transition to grad school much easier.

Anonymous said...

"I guess I also don't like the assumption that we all have to be perfect mentors to every student we ever meet, no matter how clueless and rude they are and no matter if we are already doing them a favor by taking time we probably don't have and giving them some friendly advice. We are supposed to do more?"

THIS. I don't believe we are morally responsible to take under our wing every clueless and rude student we ever encounter. Wouldn't FSP's time be better spent mentoring a brilliant grad student or postdoc who takes the initiative to seek out her mentorship him/herself, and who values and appreciates it?? Personally, I know many students who are extremely smart, kind and appreciative, and imho are an excellent use of my mentoring energy; I would not be inclined to spend what little time I have chasing down the undergrad advisor of a rude student (whom FSP has already worked to clue in during her meeting with him/her) while there is a smart graduate student I *am* responsible for that I could meet with. There are only so many hours in a day. It seems to me that FSP already has given this student some HUGE clues...

Anonymous said...

Some of the other comments do make me wonder: if the clueless student had had this meeting with a male professor at BigResearchU would we be impressed that he took the time to meet with this student or would we criticize him for not being a better mentor and say that he should even mentor the clueless student's mentor? I am in the camp of 'the student got some advice already if s(h)e is alert enough to realize it and if not, too bad for them'.

Anonymous said...

whether the PGS is at fault for being so full of himself (for the sake of brevity I will use "he" although I am aware this PGS could very well be female), or if it is the fault of the system that produced the PGS. Many kids these days have been over coddled, over-cheerleaded (cheerled?) and told they are brilliant and exceptional and have had all the adults in their lives revolve around them whether it is their parents or school teachers.

However, I wouldn't expect an undergrad to know that he should talk to other professors besides his advisor, or that he should immerse himself in the literature. Not all professors teach their undergrads to do this. Many professors hire undergrad students to be pretty much semi-skilled manual labor in the lab such as for cleaning beakers, doing machine shop work, etc. In such situations the undergrad is seen more as a junior technician who is there to work a job, to help out the researchers in the lab, rather than as a research protege to be nurtured and groomed for future success. I started out my research career as the former type of undergrad, for example. (Many years later by pure chance I became a colleague of my former undergrad advisor, who had no recollection of me as a student in his lab, which goes to show just how "low" on the totem pole I was as an undergrad!)

But what to me is inexcusable is the rude behavior of pretty much blatantly stating that he doesn't consider you and your department good enough! Based on this, I fully agree with your assessment of him being immature. Again, I wonder if it is due to a culture that has told him all his life that he is exceptional and is destined for greatness. I have, in recent years, had several undergrad students in my lab display this kind of attitude, thus I wonder if it is indeed a generational thing in terms of how the young people of today were raised. Even my postdocs and grad students were offended by some of these undergrad students.

I don't believe you're obligated to mentor every student you have contact with. In fact, by rejecting him you are teaching him the most valuable lesson that so far he hasn't learned: that the world doesn't revolve around him, and he is not that exceptional that he is exempt from common courtesy that other people have to abide by. Experience is often the best teacher.

you're not obligated to coach him on his social skills, anymore than you would be obligated to coach another PGS in high school algebra if he was sorely deficient in it yet ended up in college anyway. In other words, at this stage of his life - I am assuming he is between 18 and 22 years of age - it is perfectly reasonable to expect him to have a grasp on basic professional behavior and etiquette. And if he for some reason hasn't learned it, it's someone else's responsibility to teach that to him, as your time and energy would be more productively spent on mentoring other people who are ready to be mentored.

Anonymous said...

The very fact that a professor arranged the meeting for PSG is a red flag that there is something wrong with the “mentoring” process at the student’s university. So PSG’s lack of maturity and understanding of the research field is not surprising. I think most of the fault rests with PSG’s undergrad professors.

In my personal experience attending a small private university, then starting my Ph.D. at a large research university, I was completely unprepared and clueless (I literally had NO idea that the literature is the basis of everything in science – though I picked up on that pretty quickly!). Like several of the other commenters, I tend to be quiet when clueless, but nevertheless my cluelessness combined with my advisor’s lack of patience and outright verbal abuse (i.e. “you’ll never amount to anything”)led to me leave the program after a semester.

I believe it is the PUI professors’ responsibility to try to prepare students for grad school. They of all people should know just how different a private undergraduate institution is from a major research university. Not one of my professors even attempted to explain these differences to me, though all knew me personally by name and encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D.at a MRU that two of them had graduated from. It’s unfortunate that small elite schools like mine (and presumably PSG’s) provide an excellent education in terms of content, but seem negligent in the practical education. Unfortunately, it’s the MRU professors who have to deal with us clueless people. It must be frustrating.

So, FSP, I don’t think it’s your responsibility to do anything in this situation. I think it’s very kind of you to try to help PSG understand the bigger picture. I think your firm but gentle responses were good, but the student’s issues are more than you can address in a short meeting. And I agree, if PSG ends up attending grad school, he/she will eventually figure it out. I did. PSG, like me, is probably Ph.D. material; he just lacks perspective and understanding (and perhaps humility).

Alex said...

To commenter 15: If PUI faculty were going to focus on "practical education" they'd focus on preparing STEM students for industry...

I take my students to networking events with local industry folks. Some attend more frequently than others. The one who was most fastidious about this (networking since sophomore year, often telling me about times that she took managers to lunch just to pick their brains) had two companies fighting over her this June, when the rest of the graduating class in my department was still on the job hunt.

dolce vita said...

I think there's just too much coddling there by the UG advisor. I remember when I was applying to schools, I met with my PI and asked him about what programs he recommended, and then, as I got interviews (for most schools, I could select faculty), we talked about different faculty I might be interested in meeting with, but I set those meetings up myself and did all the contacting myself. Sure, he ADVISED me, but he didn't make a single decision or talk to people for me. I'm honestly surprised that students get the opposite impression...

myscientificlife said...

As a recent graduate of clueless undergraduatedom, I can totally understand why this student was saying some of those things. They spend more time in class than in a research environment. However, I'm surprised that when you corrected the student, they didn't seem to understand...

Nancy Norton said...

As someone who advises a lot of undergraduates, I find many are all hot to do "research" because they have been told that that is what will distinguish them from the pack, and also they have this image of having a close relationship with a mentor, but they don't understand what research is, how you work on projects, or the differences in how knowledge is produced, what is produced, and why in different disciplines. Its just all "research." I am not surprised by the general attitude of the student, its not uncommon in this generation of 18-22 year olds who have been told too often how great is every single thing they do, but I am surprised by the persistence of ignorance in the face of your statements. And I also wonder how much actual research is being done (its the new way to pad the resume, just like all those high school extracurriculars) or if any mentoring is really happening at all.

Anonymous said...

I agree with standrewslynx who simply said, 'I guess your colleague was right when they said: "This student could benefit from talking to you"!'

The colleague probably knows that the student has the tendency to build a very narrow model of reality. It sounds like the student is not merely naive, but somewhat close-minded and uninquiring.

cherishthescientist.net said...

Not that the entirety of the student's behaviors were justifiable, but doing research as an undergrad, in my experience, was a situation of, "Here, do this." I didn't really get into understanding the importance of literature and background searches until I was doing my MS. Undergrads do, in general, tend to be clueless about all the other things out there.

Lirael said...

There's a few "Kids these days, get off my lawn" type comments in this comment thread. I (a twentysomething) don't buy it. None of the kids I knew (once they were older than six or seven) thought that their participation trophies were meaningful, and those were the sort of spoiled coddled kids who you'd expect to be the most prone to that.

However, people who are used to thinking of themselves as the smartest person around, as some bright undergrads in small ponds are, can be extremely arrogant. And some people from all generations are arrogant and rude. PGS was arrogant and rude. I could excuse ignorance about how the field works, but not the attitude about rankings, for instance.