Friday, November 02, 2007

Terminal Advising

There are some interesting issues related to the professional relationships of advisors and advisees at or soon after the end of the latter's graduate or postdoctoral programs. There are several aspects of this I want to explore in the near future. Today I will write about issues related to an advisee's job search efforts.

Some graduate students and postdocs show me their application materials when they apply for academic jobs, and I am happy to give general advice and assistance based on my experience reading many such applications. Application materials should be an accurate reflection of the applicant’s ideas and abilities, but I think it is entirely reasonable for an applicant to discuss and get input about general issues of content, tone, type and amount of information, and balance between research and teaching statements.

Some advisees prefer not to show me their application materials. At this stage, some advisees want to be more independent, and that is fine with me.

In an effort to help my advisees with the job search process, I am giving a series of informal Applying for Academic Jobs 101 talks to my research group this fall. There are also formal courses on this topic given by the university, so students and postdocs have many options for getting advice and information. Other resources are available for those interested in non-academic jobs.

Of those who show me some or all of their application materials, some show me their application materials before sending them and some show these to me after submitting them, in the latter case just as a FYI kind of thing to help me “focus” my reference letter (as one recent applicant phrased it when he sent me the cover letter for a submitted application). Either way is fine with me; it is up to the applicant to make this decision.

The conundrum: what to do if application materials have major problems.

Example: This fall, I was given a copy of an already-sent cover letter, and the letter was filled with glaring writing errors of a non-trivial sort: e.g., sentences that made no sense, missing punctuation and words, typos.

The issue is not the content of my reference letters. The difficult questions for me are: (1) if a flawed application is not yet submitted, how much help with the writing should be given? and (2) if the flawed application has been submitted, should the applicant be told about the problems?

The general issue is the extent to which someone should get assistance with job application materials in terms of writing and other technical aspects. It would be wrong for me to rewrite or provide major editing of an applicant's letter or statement, but just saying “This writing is bad” seems insufficient.

I am trying to figure out the best way to help applicants fix their applications, but without crossing a line between providing an unethical level of assistance. Ideally, I would also be able to do this without causing great anxiety at a time that is already anxious owing to the usual uncertainty of a job search process, but somehow I don't think that is possible. I can imagine how I would feel if my advisor told me that all the job applications I just sent off are deeply flawed. I would want to know that before I sent off more, but it would still be a mortifying experience.

Yes, it is possible that someone can be a brilliant and creative scientist but a poor writer, and that is the kind of thing an advisor can deal with in a reference letter. Most situations are less clear-cut, however, resulting in yet another psycho-socio-ethical dilemma for us hapless professors to confront.


Anonymous said...

Your university probably has a writing center where students can go to get help with these issues. I think I would tell the student about the problems, as gently as possible, and direct him or her to the writing center. I would try hard to convey to the student that these problems don't reflect any personal shortcomings, and that seeking help with writing issues is not something to be embarrassed about, but rather is a smart career move that will pay off down the road.

You could think about suggesting to all students, as part of your general advice, that they pay a visit to the writing center (or at least have a friend or relative proofread their writing) before sending off their first application. It's a good idea for anyone, and might help prevent some of these situations from occurring in the first place.

Field Notes said...

Interesting. I'll have to think about this. As a recent grad I would love input before and after applying, and as a faculty member I would feel I wouldn't be doing the student a favor if I rewrote the letter or statements for them. Some general statements about what areas need to be fixed and why - that's what I'd find helpful.

Anonymous said...

I guess the problem might be different if the advisee is not a native English speaker, don't you think so?

Anonymous said...

I helped my postdoc with the structure and tone of his job proposal. The ideas were and remained all his, but it is important be honest about the fact that they have no training to write in the amped up, hyperventillated style that seems to be required of proposals. I offered guidance--like "do you really want to include a 2-paragraph section on experimental details that will mean nothing to anyone but someone directly in our field (which they probably don't have or they wouldn't consider you)?" His proposal remained entirely his own work and it was much better. He also enlisted the help of one of my grad students who is a literary marksman, able to dispatch useless words with precision. I also involve my whole group in many of the proposals I write. The rest of the errors, as they say, are all mine.

That said, he has no interviews yet...

Anonymous said...

What do you do when dissertation submission time comes? Do you read and correct grammatical errors plus content? or just content? If you do not correct grammar mistakes there then you should not correct them in their application materials, but if you do, then I think you should at least make clear that the advisee knows about it and knows your opinion even if you do not make changes for him.

Some students don't get enough writing training during their studies and it seems unfair that at the end they are left on their on. Now, considering that many grad students are international and english is not their first language, I think help not only is needed it is necessary.

In science you do not get trained to write properly and I think a well-rounded advisor should worry about it by either teaching his/her students to write during their studies or by correcting their applications at the end. Students get pushed to do work, why not push them to learn how to write?

Female Science Professor said...

Some of the worst writers I've had as advisees have been native English speakers.

Anonymous said...

In my group of faculty & students, we (the faculty) have tried to make it clear that the students should not be sending out work that hasn't been vetted. I think we all would be likely to mark their first drafts up pretty heavily, as well. I guess I don't think about this as being dishonest (in that the final version is better than what they would have written working entirely on their own) - rather, I think about this as part of their apprenticeship. They need to learn how to write, and making them do a series of re-writes where they can look at what sections we would revise and see our suggestions for how to revise them is an important way for them to realize - in a very concrete way - how their writing could improve. I had some very nit-picky professors in graduate school, and believe me when I write up results, it's much clearer because I've internalized the lessons.

I'm not saying that a professor should actually do the writing for the student (unless, of course, you are a co-author, in which case whoever is the best writer should have final editing privileges). But I just don't see how a student learns how to structure papers (or research statements, letters, grants, etc.) without some significant guidance. If I saw a very poorly-constructed cover letter, to be honest I would think twice not only about the candidate, but also about his or her advisors.

Sorry for such a long post - I guess this latest comment really has me pondering at what point a faculty member 'crosses the line' when editing a student's work.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Are there other students in your group who could help? I'm currently applying for academic positions, and so I had several of my coworkers read through my philosophy and letter to catch any mistakes. I don't feel like there was an ethical conflict there. After I was happy with it, I sent it to The Boss (my PI) to assist with the letter of reference.

A Listener said...

Thank you. Keep up your good work.

Anonymous said...

As stated two messages above, none of us is born knowing how to write. It's a long learning process that no one ever completes. Now, 25 years into my scientific career, I would NEVER consider sending off a paper or a grant proposal without getting comments from several colleagues. I ask students, postdocs and faculty colleagues to read my work, and I return the favor. I consider myself a good writer, and my history of invited reviews suggests that this is not entirely off base. However, I still get back drafts covered with red ink from my "best" readers. Critiquing someone elses work is much easier than correcting one's own writing. I usually have two round of readers. It's painful to get that much criticism. I just submitted an NIH renewal and one of my former postdocs had many fairly harsh critiques of the first draft. However, he was, unfortunately, right on target. After steeling myself, I made his suggested changes and the grant was much better for it. Often reviewers comments, while painful, also point out issues one has not explained well.

A second issue is that I view my students and postdocs as team members. Their work, whether a manuscript or a job application, reflects on the whole team. I work long and hard to help them craft the best talk, the best research proposal and the best cover letter. Most of them are writing in a format they have never before used (cover letters are an art form) and they need advice on how to write one. From my lab, cover letters and proposals come back with lots of red ink, and I have no compunctions about that. One of my very best former postdocs (the one of the harsh critique above) learned nothing about being an experimental scientist from me--he was terrific when he got here. But he did learn a lot about turning a pile of gorgeous data into an exciting story, both in paper form and as a job talk.

Mark P

Ms.PhD said...

susan b. is right, but I am concerned that this person is graduating with such poor writing skills, and from your lab no less! I find that surprising.

What's going on there?

Was this a fluke (mixed up an earlier draft with a final one)? If not, it's a bit late in the game to be going to a writing center, but better late than never.

I personally think if they want your advice, they should have asked for it before they sent the application. If they don't ask, what does that say about you as an advisor? Do you seem too busy so they don't want to bother you? You usually sound like you have generally good interactions with your lab members... or do you?

I've gotten some hints when I've asked for feedback from my advisor, but more helpful perspective from people 'outside' who are more current on search committees and more willing to spend the time. And actually where my advisors over the years have encouraged me to apply for jobs, outside people are now telling me it's premature. Who's advice should I take?

But you're on search committees, so, presumably whatever advice you have to give would be good. I applaud your Job Search 101 efforts.

But in general I'm with the anonymi who view editing/critiquing as a critical part of the apprenticeship model. This worrying about 'going over the line' makes it sound like these people need so much help that mere editing won't do the job, in which case the writing center is more appropriate and they should have gone there sooner!

Female Science Professor said...

I think that some students think they should be beyond asking for advice on writing at the point of nearly graduating -- including those who don't have very good writing skills (for whatever reason) even after lots of technical editing/advice over the years

Carrie said...

There have been questions raised in the comments about how could a student still have such poor writing skills and be finishing up. Here's my story. I was 3 months post-partum with my first child and writing/sending cover letters and applications. Three months later, I reviewed them for another job and was APPALLED at the grammar and typos in those documents. New baby sleep deprivation does not a good application package make. In hindsight, I so wish someone had read them and told me how horribly written they were. The content was fine, but the message was lost in the trappings -- there's no way I would have hired me based on those documents!