From time to time, mostly in the summer, I advise students from small colleges in research projects. Most of these students do very well, but on occasion there are students who don't like the BigU environment. In particular, they don't like the fact that they are not the main focus of professorial attention. I spend a lot of time interacting with my undergrad researchers throughout their projects, but this time is surely less than what some of them are used to.
I like to think that my SLAC interns are getting a glimpse of what life might be like for them as graduate students at a BigU, for better or worse. So, in addition to getting a research experience, they are getting a cultural experience that might help them make informed decisions about their post-graduation plans.
Below, in abridged form, is correspondence between a SLAC intern and me, highlighting an example of differences in expectations and priorities between a small college student and a BigU professor:
FSI (former summer intern): I'm sending you a draft of an abstract I'd like to submit for the X meeting next year based on the work I did with you. I think it's pretty good and I worked really hard on it, so I hope you like it too! Please send me comments as soon as possible!
FSP: I can tell from your abstract that you have a good grasp of the motivation for the study, but the text doesn't contain any of the data or conclusions from your summer research. I know this is your first conference abstract, so maybe it would help if you looked at some examples of abstracts from recent conferences of this sort, to get a sense for content and style. In the meantime, I've written a few sentences to show you how the abstract might start, and I've listed topics and data items that could form the bulk of the abstract.
FSI: Thanks for the comments but the way that you sent them was not helpful to me at all. The sentences you wrote make things very difficult for me. Please do not write any actual text, just general suggestions. You write better than me so if you write some text I will never learn how to do that myself. I am working really really hard. I am going to work on the next draft between 1-2 pm today and then send it to you, so if you could be in your office then (taking into account the time zones), you can send comments back to me right away.
FSP: I am happy to help you with the abstract, but I am going to use my best judgment as to the most constructive way to do so: a combination of text + general suggestions. The research results are interesting, and I am sure you can come up with a good abstract with a bit more work. Alas, I cannot be in my office at the time you specified, but I will send further comments in plenty of time before the submission deadline.
FSI: OK, here is a new draft. I am going to sleep now but please send me more comments soon so I can work on this in the morning.
FSP: The new version you sent me is identical to the first version. I think you must have attached the wrong file.
FSI [next morning]: Sorry! Here is the new draft. Please send me comments SOON! Please do NOT rewrite the text for me. Just send me general comments!
FSP [afternoon]: This new draft if better, but it still needs quite a bit of work in terms of content and writing. I have provided both specific and general suggestions on the attached draft.
FSI [same afternoon]: Thanks, here is another draft. I took all of your suggestions and I wrote some new parts about the data and results.
FSP [that night]: In the latest version, you have not fixed any of the errors that I noted in my last set of comments. I am sorry that I do not have time to repeat these comments and to go over more drafts with you, so I have made the edits directly in the abstract. You can submit this version of the abstract. I think your summer research results will make a great conference presentation, and I look forward to seeing you again next year at the meeting.
FSI [next morning]: I really want there to be at least a few sentences in this abstract that are 100% my own and not ones that you have changed at all, so I have added some new sentences to the beginning and end. I am attaching a new draft.
FSP: I can appreciate that you want the abstract to be your own, but the sentences that you added contain incorrect or misleading information, as well as new typos. I do not think it is a good idea to cast doubt on decades of existing work unless there is a good reason to do so. It would not be a good idea to submit an abstract with these statements as-written.
FSI: OK, I will submit the version you want. I looked at the submission form and it says that I need your department address and office phone number. Do I really need these? If I do, can you please send them to me? I also need the addresses and phone numbers of the other coauthors. Can you send those as well? I really want to submit this soon so I hope you will send me this information. I may need your help with other things too. Can you be in your office at 2 pm today?
[FSP email not sent: Yes, No/Google, No/Google, No]
In discussing this with colleagues, opinions are divided as to whether I should have been more helpful with respect to the student's desire to be independent, even if it meant repeating the same editorial suggestions and going through even more than the 4 drafts I eventually read vs. whether I was too accommodating of the student's lack of organization, initiative, and demonstrated ability to work independently.
There is also the issue of whether I should have showed my annoyance with the student's demands about how and when I should provide comments.
Given my quality control freakiness, there was no way I was going to consent to submission of a highly flawed (and in one version, offensive) abstract, but I think I would have let things slide if the only problems were somewhat awkward sentences.
I don't know what happens to a student who needs so much help with so many things so continually and who wants to attend graduate school. There aren't such things as small liberal arts graduate schools in Science, as far as I know. I can, however, recommend to my former intern some smaller programs or less prickly advisors with small research groups, in the hopes that this will be a better environment for her than my somewhat-large research setting was.
12 years ago