Tuesday, December 05, 2006

It's All My Fault

Today a particular event triggered a memory regarding a former graduate student of mine. This student wasn't doing well with his research, but he was such a nice guy that many of us worked hard to keep him going for as long as possible. That was a mistake, as it dragged out an experience that became increasingly stressful for everyone. It's always hard to know when to call it quits with a student, though -- except in extreme cases, I am always optimistic that things will work out and that if we can just find the right level of structure, encouragement, and experience, things will work out. In his case, nothing worked.

He blamed me for his failure. That is rather classic behavior, I suppose, but his explanation for why I was to blame shocked me. He had an M.S. degree from another university, and he told me that one reason he did well there was because his advisor [a single, childless male] would go out for beers with him, and they'd chat about stuff, and this was very helpful to him overall in motivating him to work on his thesis project. But now he had an advisor [me] who was always rushing off to pick up her daughter from child-care and who never hung out with the grad students in the pub in the evenings. Needless to say, once he expressed this sentiment, it was the end of our advisor-advisee relationship. I asked him if he really meant what he'd said (he also wrote it in an email message), he said yes, and I cut my losses, which were considerable in terms of grant $$ and time. He tried to find another advisor. No one would take him, and that was that.

His M.S. was from a small regional university, his former advisor has no research profile whatsoever, and yet he felt that his success there and his lack of success here at this major R1 university must be because I am a mom.

You would think that these guys would self-select out of having a female advisor if they feel that way, yet I've had other male students who couldn't deal with having a woman as an advisor, though not recently. It gets easier now that I'm much older than my graduate students. In my first tenure-track job, I was the same age or younger than some of my grad students. One male student kept saying to me "We're the same age, so why do you think you know so much more than I do?". Maybe it was because he was a first year M.S. student and I had completed grad school, a postdoc, a visiting professorship, and was a professor at a research university? Somehow I had acquired knowledge in that process despite my gender. What a mystery. That guy didn't last long as my student. He told me that he'd be more "comfortable" with an advisor who was "more similar" to him. (stupid and sexist? no no no, I thought that, but did not say that). The weird thing is I didn't force him to be my student. He sought me out as an advisor. I guess he didn't realize how humiliating it would be to have a knowledgeable female advisor.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post (once again), a bit scary though.... (These are students! Young people, not dinosaurs!)

If a student thinks that an advisor's capacity for beer is more important than his/her research, he's not going to succeed anyway.

"Maybe it was because he was a first year M.S. student and I completed grad school, ... and was a professor at a research university?" No, can't be: You just got the degree and the jobs because you're a woman. Women always have it easier nowadays, didn't you know?

The advisor "more similar" to him is a good one as well, because we usually get told that having no women faculty (at all!) isn't (or shouldn't be) a problem for female students.

Unknown said...

One tidbit in here is that personal rapport is important but difficult to establish, especially when roles are not well defined because they are rare. This is all the more reason that a diverse faculty is important.

Having said that, the tendency to blame ones own failings on others has been known to enhance the ability of coping with failure. I would hope that, after a while, people wake up to the reality even if they initially can't face it but maybe thats just me being optimistic...

Dr. Brazen Hussy said...

Wow. It never ends, does it??

Anonymous said...

Another lesson you didn't mention (though Anonymous just touched on it): I can believe that for some kinds of students, hanging out and shooting the breeze having a few beers really does make a difference. So what does that tell us about the situation of female graduate students?

Anonymous said...

I guess he didn't realize how humiliating it would be to have a knowledgeable female advisor.

I would guess that this is almost certainly the case, and that maybe that he didn't even realize that it was due to your gender. It's hard to express how humbling it is for a competent, competitive guy to be mentored by a woman who knows more than him, particularly in a technical field.

Speaking from my experience, the first time I had a female colleague who was just obviously better at our job than I was (computer programming), it was a tough pill to swallow, and it took some time before I realized that my, for lack of a better word, irritation, with her was basically due to my own sexism.

Once that connection was made, I was able to simply accept her as a really competent colleague, but it took a not insignificant amount of introspection and humility to even realize, "crap, I'm being a sexist ass!" And abstractly, I'm not someone who people would peg as likely to be sexist.

Jenny F. Scientist said...

Errr. Alarming, yet not surprising; condescensing sexism ('You couldn't possibly know more than me') is definitely still alive and kicking.

Do you have any thoughts on when it is legitimate to lay blame on one's advisor in part for research not progressing? In addition to blaming one's self for listening to said advisor, of course.

dot said...

I am male assitant prof, I had a female advisor, I was working in cafes with her, and went hiking with her and her kids (which I liked a lot). An advisor is a bit like an "academic parent", and I am glad of my "academic mother": I am not sure if an "academic father" would have been different, but it could not have been much better :)

Anonymous said...

I commented yesterday about my thesis advisor's mediocre letters.

What I didn't add yesterday was that he is very much the go-out-for-beers type. I honestly think he did show preference towards male students who went out for beers on Fridays with him, his buddies. I'm just not a beer or a bar kind of person (and I'm a woman).

So yes, James, the situation of female grad students is less than motivating - from both points of view. I think he was less motivated towards me, and I wasn't all that motivated to please him by drinking beer.

Liberal Arts Chemist said...

Not that I would question your analysis of the specific situation but is it possible that the social dynamic was less of a gender issue and more of a familiarity issue? I have had graduate students that were like myself and tended to be bookish and reserved. I have had rather more difficult relationships with my graduate students that were more "social". This might have more to say about how some people (gender neutral) develop student - mentor relationships.

Yes, I am a male faculty member but what smoked me out of lurking was a male graduate student of mine (that had to "settle" for a Masters degree) said exactly the same thing to me about the social dynamic that he needed for learning. It's a thought.

Female Science Professor said...

Maybe, but I don't think so. I get along well both professionally and socially with most of my students -- male or female -- even though most of them are very unlike me in personality. A couple of my current students are the main leaders of grad beer nights, and we get along great (though I do not attend grad beer night and would be surprised if they wanted me to). I think that in the case I described, the student was feeling miserable, looking for someone to blame, and it was easy for him to pick on my lack of social availability, as if my being a mom made me less of an advisor to him because I had other priorities outside of work.

Anonymous said...

It is suprising how often this can occur. We had a male student in our lab who was constantly making inappropriate remarks about woman, even though our PI is a woman. He eventually left and our lab dynamic improved immediately. I guess looking back I should of said something to my PI, as he obviously did not voice this opinion in front of her, but I was a lowly undergrad, afraid of rocking the boat.

Anonymous said...

My advisor is so against doing anything mildly social at all with his grad students. So much so, that we talk in English to each other when we're alone (only sometimes talking in our native language during conferences or a rare department party to which he will come). Which actually strangely makes it more social since English doesn't have polite pronouns and I can call him 'you' instead of 'thou'.

I think it's easier to focus on research and have success this way... Unless your research doesn't work out of course.

Mike said...

Interesting. Besides all the discussion about your ex-student’s audacity, gs' statement made me contemplate graduate studies in general. Honestly, I never thought about it the way that the supervisor is going to fund my work. I always thought the university does ... and "they" are the "bad-ones" anyway, aren't they?

Regards from a humble undergrad, hoping to start a PhD soon.

Field Notes said...

I agree with liberal chemist; it is possible this was a rapport issue. It sounds like this student had great rapport previously and probably thought he'd find that again in his PhD advisor. From personal experience, it can be very disappointing when that rapport fails to develop. It keeps an advisor from being a mentor. I did not have a very social advisor. I tried early and often to get to know her socially by asking questions. She preferred to keep private & was all business. I was very jealous of fellow students who actually had mentors in their advisors. I eventually found a mentor to compensate but would have preferred my advisor to be that for me. It doesn't always work out.

Anonymous said...

I'm the last anonymous. I'm perfectly fine with not having a 'mentor', whatever that means. If the advisor is all business, does that mean that they are not a 'mentor'? It helps to know where you stand and what you're supposed to do each step of the way during your degree getting process, but that information can be garnered from peers or from a well designed departmental website. Also, I think that this formality is the way things are done normally back in the old country.

Besides, if I turn out like Alcibiades, I can always blame my mentor for poor mentorship and the university can hemlock him.

Anonymous said...

"If the advisor is all business, does that mean that they are not a 'mentor'?"

Absolutely not! I spend a substantial amount of time every day interacting with my trainees, teaching them how to reason like scientists, how to plan a research program on short and long time scales, how to read and write science, how to plan a career, how to obtain funding, how to give talks, etc. This is mentoring.

Do I socialize with my trainees? No. We have a small number of planned lab social events every year, such as an annual holiday luncheon, but I do not socialize informally with them.

In my opinion, it is not realistic, except in very special circumstances, to expect to be able to be both a good friend and a good mentor to a trainee. Since I consider it my responsibility as a PI to mentor my trainees, I do not attempt to befriend them.

Of course, we engage in random snippets of small talk and other social interactions, but I do not go out with them for beers, meals, hiking trips, etc.