Thursday, May 01, 2008

Helicopter Advisor

Not so long ago, I mused about the so-called helicopter parent phenomenon, at least from the point of view of one professor at a large research university. This started me thinking about whether it is possible to be a helicopter advisor.

Parents never stop being parents, even when their kids have left home for college. We don't call parents of adult children ex-parents or former parents, but advisors typically become ex-advisors or former advisors once their academic children graduate and leave their academic homes to start their own careers. Certainly, advisors need to play some role in the lives of their former or soon-to-be-former students by writing letters of recommendation, but, ideally, our former students will become our colleagues and peers, even if we continue to provide some advice or other support as needed.

While pondering the concept of helicopter advisors, I thought of some possible scenarios based on real examples, all of which relate to Ph.D. students who are/were about to graduate or who have/had recently graduated. This is a time when the ground starts to shift, and the advisor-student relationship is (or should be?) different from when the Ph.D. project is incipient or in mid-stream.

Example 1: What if a near-completion Ph.D. student isn't being as assertive or proactive about seeking career opportunities as he/she 'should' be? Can/should the advisor step in, make some calls, and/or do some aggressive prodding of the student in order to help them get a postdoc or faculty position (or whatever their career goal is)? Or should the advisor step back? I am not talking about withholding advice or other support; I am talking about whether an advisor should take extraordinary measures to try to help a student find career opportunities. Does this situation call for some helicopter advising or is it time for a sink-or-swim advising mode?

Pro helicopter: Advisors care about their students, and have a lot of time and money invested in them. Why not continue to help the students in whatever way possible to get them started on an independent career? Some students may be hesitant to be aggressive about applications and schmoozing owing to a lack of confidence, fear of rejection, or other insecurity, rather than to a lack of initiative or knowledge of what it takes to get a job. Why not help them?

Con helicopter: Enough is enough. You provide years (and years) of graduate training for someone, and if they can't even send out their own applications and enquiries, that's their problem.

Example 2: A recent Ph.D. wants his/her advisor to help with something that the advisor readily assisted with when the (former) student was still a student. It would be easy for the advisor to continue to provide this assistance, but should she/he? The answer will of course depend on the situation, but in one recent case with which I am familiar, the (ex)-advisor refused to help a former student specifically because providing such help would perpetuate the ex-student's dependence on the advisor rather than promoting the ex-student's efforts to establish an independent reputation and career.

Pro helicopter: Maybe the ex-student isn't ready. His asking for help may indicate that more than anything else (laziness, insecurity). Just because the advisor navigated this same research activity just fine as an assistant professor starting a research program, doesn't mean it wouldn't have been nice to get a bit of help. Assistant professors have a lot to deal with as it is. Is the advisor's refusal to help like kicking a kitten off a life raft and expecting the kitten to swim to shore in a raging torrent?

Con helicopter: The ex-student will feel good about his capabilities and independence once he does this research activity all on his own. The advisor did the ex-student a service, especially since the refusal to help was accompanied by a "I know you can do this" show of confidence and some friendly advice. Some cats, and even kittens, do swim. (Google 'swimming cats' if you need visuals for this point).

My opinion: In these and other situations, advisors need to try to find ways to be supportive without turning into the advisorial equivalent of a helicopter parent. That's not to say that we can't continue to be a source of advice and support in some ways, including continuing to help/nudge the less-than-confident, but once our academic children leave home (or are about to move out), it's time for them to do their own laundry, develop their own working relationships (even if we don't approve of their partners), and get their own credit cards.


Anonymous said...

If you read many grad student/post-doc blogs, you will find that the complaint is never that the PI mentor is doing too much to guide, help, and ensure the success of the trainee, and refuses to say "fly, be free" to the trainee. In fact, I am chuckling to myself at the thought of some particular excellent trainee sciencebloggers ever saying something that.

The complaints are always that the mentor doesn't do jack shit, and is just, at best, a parasite on the talent and hard work of trainees. Of course, those trainees who blog are surely not a representative sampling of trainees in general.

I guess, I would say that this "helicopter mentor" problem seems exactly analogous to the "voter fraud" problem that the US Supreme Court just leveraged off of to affirm imposition of an unconstitutional poll tax in Indiana. These things sound like in principle they could be real problems, but there is no real evidence that they exist at all.

Anonymous said...

One thing I see that makes the case a bit different for advisors and parents is that advisors are sometimes evaluated on where their advisees end up. Sure, people will think slightly differently of a parent if their little Bobby became a gas station attendant compared to if he became a Pulitzer-winning journalist. But there's much higher sensitivity in academia: exactly how good was that postdoc, or that university, or [fill in the blank]? As a grad student I know I'd be more likely to want to work for the professor who has a more consistent record of advisees getting better placements after graduation, and I'm sure I'm not the only one that has ever used that metric in rating the qualities of a professor. I'm not saying it's necessarily good or necessarily bad for advisors to push their students along to help their reputation like this - just that I can imagine that a professor who knows that a soon-to-graduate student would be a good fit for a recently-available position at Prestigious University X might have other reasons than kindness and generosity to help out.

Anonymous said...

I definitely appreciate how I still have a working relationship with my former advisor. I do think it's a matter of perspective. If a student needs help again doing something that he or she only started the last 6 months of the PhD, then I feel like the student is being reasonable. Also, a freshly minted PhD may have more questions for a time as they try to build labs of their own. Perhaps it's not so much akin to the helicopter parent but the grandparent of the newly born?

Anonymous said...

As an about-to-graduate PhD student, this is something I've been thinking about a fair amount. My advisor did help with my job search. He came from a well-known group in our field, so he has contacts from his old group at all of the places I hoped to interview. Because so many postdocs aren't formally advertised, he called his former colleagues to introduce me and inquire about whether they had potential positions. If they said yes, I made contact and went from there independently. I think that was the best-case scenario. I greatly appreciate his introductions, but I also know that I got offers due to my own effort.

I've been wondering more about what will/should happen to the latest project I've been working on. We'd both like to continue it together, but I do wonder if my advisor will be able to transfer from an advisor-student relationship to a colleague-colleague relationship. I'm hopeful.

Anonymous said...

Do these helicopter mentors exist at all?
All the professors I know NEVER actively search positions for their graduates (do they have to?).
If some email with job offers comes - well, they can forward it to all group. If phone rings - they may recommend someone. Or may not.
Worce than that, sometimes people get bad recommendation just for not working 60 hours per week, "as required".

Ms.PhD said...

physioprof is right, except that many of us have deliberately avoided the helicopter advisors. But we don't get ANY feedback. There doesn't seem to be a middle.

I personally do not like to see mentors who babysit their grad students.

But I really hate grad students who need coddling. To me, they're exactly the ones who shouldn't have been admitted in the first place and should be kicked out at the first opportunity.

I've seen helicopter advisors, it does happen. But as physioprof points out, it happens much more often with grad students than postdocs, and these are not the ones who are likely to be blogging!

On the other hand, I've said repeatedly that I think it wastes everyone's time to define grad school "time spent reinventing the wheel" where wheel = PhD.

This is a key issue in mentoring. At what point do you stop helping?

For me this is easy. My tolerance is low so I will help so long as I'm needed and/or I am contributing to forward motion in an independence-building way.

If I can tell I'm not needed but that some confidence boost is, I tell them that. "You're ready!" I say. "You don't need me! You can do this!" And they can. And they do.

At some point, you have to take your hand off the back of the bicycle. As long as they keep pedaling, they won't fall down.

All of that said, I sometimes daydream about what it must have been like in the 'good old days' when well-connected advisors supposedly called all their friends asking about faculty position openings for their postdocs.

I couldn't even get my advisors to give me a list of places to consider applying for postdoc positions (and nevermind faculty positions!).

Yes, those good old days are LONG gone. So much for that idea...

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I think cutting a recent grad off not only does a disservice to the student but also to the PI: it's in the best interest of the PI (and research group) for former students to go out into the (semi) real science world and excel.

HP advisors don't exist here at LargeU, but there are a few PIs that display HP-like behavior. For example, there are plenty of sucky students that end up graduating when they probably shouldn't, thanks to a PI holding their hand (or sometimes completely carrying the student along) to get through a preliminary exam or other hoop.

Anonymous said...

physioprof is right, except that many of us have deliberately avoided the helicopter advisors. But we don't get ANY feedback. There doesn't seem to be a middle.

While MsPhD may not have observed it, there absolutely is a middle, and there are plenty of mentors who reside in this appropriate middle ground of effective, hands-on, careful, but not over-bearing or over-protective mentoring. At some point, trainees need to take responsibility for ensuring that they are getting the mentoring they need. And if they are in a laboratory that is not providing the particular sort of mentoring that they require, they should get the fuck out. Bitching and moaning and generalizing about how "all PIs suck ass" is useless and propagates a falsehood to the detriment of other trainees.

Plenty of good PI mentors exist!

Psych Post Doc said...

I haven't heard of the type of HP-advisor you describe, but I have seen advisors who are helicopterish (love making up new words) in terms of demanding their students only apply for certain types of jobs, or when offers come in demanding that students take one job over another.

I don't consider my advisors (Masters and PhD level) ex-advisors. Although our relationships have changed and it's much more about being colleagues than advisor-advisee, I think they'll always be the one who I turn to for advise.

ScienceGirl said...

I have not seen helicopter advisors, but I have seen a few helicopterish advisors PsychPostDoc describes.