Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Levels of Work

One of my colleagues is currently immersed in a discussion with his graduate students about how much they should work on their research. This is of course a complex subject that dissatisfied faculty and tired students could discuss endlessly and unpleasantly.

I want to mention today just one aspect of the issue: ignoring for now all the other complexities of this topic, can/should a grad student scale their efforts depending on their career goal?

For example: One of my colleague's Ph.D. students maintains that he doesn't have to work as hard as some other students because his career goal is to get a faculty position at a small liberal arts college, not a research-intensive job at a university.

My colleague would be satisfied if this student worked a 40 hour week (i.e. much less than that of students with an intense research focus, but a reasonable amount) if the student used that time well; at present, the student works < size="3">. Note that specifying the number of hours worked is actually kind of meaningless. I've had students who were physically present in the department/lab for >> 40 hours/week and got nothing done, and other students who were extremely efficient and made excellent progress on their research during weekday daytime hours.

I mention this detail so that no one assumes that my colleagues is expecting this student to work every night and weekend (though he'd probably be fine with that). In this specific incident, the issue is that the student wants to work at a very leisurely pace because he thinks that is in line with his personal career goals, and, absent any specific agreement with the advisor that this schedule is acceptable owing to family/health/etc. considerations, I hope we can all agree that this is not OK.

My colleague is supporting the student on a grant. This doesn't mean that the student has to work 24/7 just because his salary, tuition, and benefits are being paid by his advisor's grant, but aside from the general issues about doing the work you are paid to do, there are additional questions and concerns that arise when a grant-funded student decides, one year into a project, to work at a leisurely pace (using this particular case as an example):

1. The grant would cover the academic career of a student working an efficient 40-hour workweek for several years but that will run out before a student working an inefficient and/or < 40-hour workweek completes the dissertation research. It's not as simple as saying "OK, well too bad for you" when the support runs out because presumably the research project has specific goals that should be accomplished if at all possible in the time frame of the grant. The student seems to think that the major factor controlling how much and how hard he works is his personal career goal, but he is funded to do a project that has a finite time frame. And hence point 2:

2. The leisure-track student is part of a research group. Each student and research scientist works on their own project, but as in many research groups, the projects are somewhat interconnected and the progress and success of each person and project affects the others. Unusually slow progress (by choice, not owing to an unpredicted and unavoidable obstacle) on a grant-funded project may negatively impact others.

Of course research is not so predictable that as long as you clock in your hours each week, you will get from point A to point B and write your papers and be done. It is not so simple (or boring), but in general, if you do work hard and think about what you are doing, you will get a result, even if it's not what you expected. Some people and projects need more time than others, and, within certain limits (i.e. the grant duration +/- a year or two), that's fine.

I think the particular student in question, if he ever finishes his Ph.D. and is fortunate enough to get the job he most desires, will be in for a shock when he finds out how hard professors at teaching-focused institutions work. This issue has been raised with him, but he went to a small college and thinks he knows well what his professors' jobs were like. Cushy! Summers off! Smart and adoring students!

There are differences in the experiences and lifestyles of professors at different types of educational institutions, but we all get our Ph.D.'s at research institutions and there are not separate degrees for those whose passion is for teaching and for those who want a significant research component in their job as a professor at a 4-year college or university. One can argue about whether that is a good thing or not, but I'm not going to today.

This is not to say that everyone has to work 80 hour weeks in grad school no matter what their personal situation and career goals, but when supported on a grant in the current system, you are committed to maintaining a certain level of productivity (loosely defined to include time spent thinking, pondering, wondering, and being constructively confused, not just cranking out data and papers) no matter what your post-Ph.D. career goal.

Position statement: I think that grad students can to some extent scale their efforts to their career goals if they so desire, but that being in a Ph.D. program and being paid by a grant to work a certain amount obligates one to put in a certain amount of effort and to make progress at a reasonable rate. Ideally, the definition of 'reasonable' can be mutually agreed upon by advisor and student (and this is why my colleague is currently having discussions with his student, to reach just such an agreement).

This post was of course written from the point of view of a PI on grants in the current system. In tomorrow's post: musings about the challenges of making the academic science/research culture (including aspects involving grants) more life-friendly (for lack of a better term).


Anonymous said...

I have had trainees in my lab who were present in the lab 80 hours a week and never got jack shit useful done. And I have had trainees in my lab who were present in the lab only 35 hours a week who were extremely productive. I have stopped paying attention to people's hours in the lab, because it only correlates very poorly with actual scientific productivity.

Unknown said...

There are times I wish there was a button you could push that would eject students like this from graduate programs (or not let them in to begin with)... it takes dedicated hard-working professors to teach at any level, whether that means putting in long hours on grant proposals, papers, and prepping 1 or 2 classes; or putting that same effort into teaching 3 or 4 classes. Don't forget your service requirements, either. (And nevermind those of us out here trying to jam proposals and papers into a 3-4 course load semester...)

There's no room anymore for the "teaching is easy, you just show up and lecture.. and you get your summers off." mentality.

Anonymous said...

If that student thinks that he doesn't need to get any research done to get hired, I invite him to look at the 100+ applications submitted for every job opening at an undergraduate institution. There are so many people competing for so few openings that an undergraduate school is able to demand the total package: Teaching experience AND some good publications.

And while the research expectation can vary greatly once hired, at many schools the expectation is quite significant. Even at schools with a lighter research expectation, you still need to get something done, and if you have a heavy teaching load you'll never get that research done without being efficient.

However, I do wonder if this student is simply going through a dry spell. My level of work waxed and waned in school, and during dry spells with nothing going on it wasn't such a bad thing to not be there more than 40 hours. It's not like those extra hours would get me anywhere. Indeed, some of the time spent at home reading books actually gave me ideas that got me out of dry spells.....

Boris Legradic said...

Oh, interesting post - here is my perspective as a PhD-student from Switzerland:

In Switzerland there is a 42-hour work week, and it is rare that I am at the university much longer than that. Of course, I have been at the lab during the weekend sometimes (usually when deadlines approach), running illegal experiments (we are not covered by insurance then), but this happens maybe three, four times a year.

I am largely paid by the industry, and both they and my professor seem to be happy with my progress (knocking on wood here). I do worry that I am maybe too lazy for a career in science (I'd love to do a post-doc in Paris afterwards, and eventually find a permanent position at an university in Europe somewhere), but when I force myself to work more, the quality of the work seems to suffer.

I don't know how much work is required of PhD-students in the States (guessing as to your location here) - do they generally work much longer than the mentioned 40-ish hours/week?

Phagenista said...

Everything FSP says is correct: he's violating his contract with his PI and the (taxpayer-funded?) granting agency, he's potentially harming his labmates and he's got incorrect assumptions about what life is like at SLACs.

Moreover, this student isn't getting the full experience that having a PhD implies. He's not going to be as good at managing his time, bringing large projects to completion, working in a team, etc as a student in the same lab who was more attentive and dedicated.

There are ways a student can alter the focus of his/her education to get better preparation for different careers. For instance, a student interested in a teaching careers can choose a graduate program that emphasizes teaching (not just that most students are supported by TAships, but professors lead seminars/classes in teaching methods and effectiveness; they can join a program with an NSF K-12 education grant). Or they can adjunct at a community college to gain experience once they have their Master's degree. A student who is interested in science writing can apply for an AAAS mass media fellowship, and can volunteer to write on scientific topics for the college paper/magazine or for the local press. One of my labmates received a masters in Statistics almost incidentally while she was doing a Microbiology PhD, and now she is employed primarily with that qualification as a statistician at a pharmaceutical company. All of these activities are done in addition to the research project that will become the student's dissertation research -- all involve more work than just getting the research done.

I think PIs should be understanding of the different career goals mentees may have, and encourage the reasonable pursuit of non-thesis qualifications... but that requires students to fulfill their obligations to the thesis research as well.

Julia said...

This is a really nice post, especially because I think it reveals one of the major problems, as I see it, with the graduate student system. I totally agree with you that this grad student is maybe at the wrong place, and that his attitude is not correct.

Still, I can see his point. I will try to sketch a model how I think that system is supposed to work, to show why it is outdated nowadays:

Graduate students are, in general, expected to be motivated by themselves and work for their achievements, not for a living. Hence the term: student. This implies the idea that these students try to finish their projects as fast as they can. In this model, the student works mainly for herself, not for a PI or boss or companies' goals. They get scholarships (where I live, mostly the student has to write and apply by herself for these) to pay basic costs of living or work next to their studies. The PI and the University provide the environment to work in. In return, the department puts its name and address on whatever that student eventually publishes.

However, nowadays with University and Department rankings, impact-factors and personal citation scores, a PhD student is expected to publish and produce not only for herself, but also for the advancement of the PI/ReseachGroup/Departement/University. An unproductive student in terms of publications is a bad student, independent whether she achieved her personal goals or not.
Thus, if a PI/University expects a PhD-student to finish timely and to be productive, in my opinion, this is more close to an employer-employee relationship than a mentor-mentee relationship. And, if such expectations are indeed there (and, I do believe that is in nearly every field the case), I do believe that a proper contract, which includes a statement of working hours, expected goals, and teaching load, but that also states amount of supervision to receive, social benefits ect. would be preferable over a scholarship. If you want people to work for you at your terms, make a fair contract, and pay them properly (this is not aimed at you personally, but rather at the system that exploits grad students). If you want some assistance with your research for cheap money, get a grad student and get her TA positions or crappy scholarships, but don't expect that you can treat her like she works for you.

Given the current pressure to poop out publications in no time, and given that there is no money available to change that system, I think, the only thing a PI can do is to be very selective when choosing grad students.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your position statement.

Anonymous said...

Great post! This is an issue I've thought about a lot. I worked ~50 hours a week in grad school, I had a family and took my weekends for family time. But when I was in the lab I worked my butt off...

Anyway, I think there are three aspects of this issue the grad student is missing: 1. the PI has some sway over when he/she gets a PhD, 2. the PI's opinion is going to be formalized in letters for that cherished teaching job, and 3. the grad student is going to be judged based on his/her performance relative to his/her peers. This is not to say that the PI should use this as leverage to force the student to work harder, but just that the PI's honest opinion of a grad student is certainly going to be affected by an explicitly stated attitude of "I don't want to work any harder than I absolutely have to." So, while the grad student does not need to be the last one out and the first one in, he/she would be well-advised to work hard enough to not seem a complete slacker when compared to others in the lab.

Finally, the grad student needs to realize that the job market is competitive, they don't just hand out positions to eager grad students or even postdocs. The grad student will likely be competing for that coveted SLAC position with other applicants who can demonstrate both teaching and research chops. In short, getting any job means being as competitive as possible, and letting up on the research may wind up costing you the job you want.

Phys Student said...

I don't know that particular student, but the norm is that grad students get paid for 20hrs/week, however, their PIs think/assume/hope the students will work for 40+.

Professors argue that the long hours are for the better good of the student, and I am not sure I agree. I do think that whatever you do during your PhD will determine to a large extend what job you get afterwards, but I am not sure if long (as in 14+ a day, every day) matter much, in terms of results, if one is effective. The PI will probably write a better letter for that person that was always "working" in the lab than for the one that worked less (at least in the PI eyes), even if they both have the same number and quality of publications and at the end the long worker will probably get a better position, but in that case it is a perception issue, not necessarily a productivity difference.

I am not saying 20hrs/week are enough to do a good PhD project (for a Masters degree 20hrs could actually be enough though), but I've always thought it is unfair to pay them little and expect a lot from students. I don't know if it is standard, but at my univ professors can decide how much they pay (typically ~1500 +/- 300 a month plus some/all tuition). Why do they always keep it that low?

Anonymous said...

As a 3rd year Ph.D. candidate in a big lab group, I agree with your assessment that unusually slow progress can affect the morale of others in the group. I think there is no excuse for this if the students has been given clear expectations from the advisor. The problem in my lab is that the PI has lots of grants, but provides few clear expectations for how to progress in a Ph.D., instead relying on trickle down effect of information from lab manager to researcher to postdoc to student. However, it sounds like in the situation you describe, the student has been given clear expectations about what is expected to work on the grant.

Additionally, the student is getting his Ph.D. to become a scholar in a specific field, and the only way (as far as I know) to do this is to work your butt off. For me, that means making clear goals of what I want to get done every day in the lab (I generally work 9-6pm), then several hours in the evening, and at least half the day on weekends. And of course I spend every spare minute thinking about my research (don't we all?).

The students in my lab have a variety of goals for what they want to do have graduation. For instance, I want to get a tenure-track job at a research university, another 4th year Ph.D. candidate wants to go into industry, and one 1st year student wants to teach at a small liberal arts college. The first year student, while busy this year with classes and TA-ing, has mentioned that he doesn't like lab-based research and "just" wanted to teach at an SLAC, where he wouldn't have to work "as hard" as our advisor. After he said that, I explained to him that I was sure that SLAC profs worked just as "hard" as R1 profs, but just focused on different things -- teaching, instead of writing grants and papers. I think that hopefully the student in your colleague's lab group will grow out of his naivete about the requirements of SLAC profs. It would be a good idea if you colleague encouraged him to a enroll in a Preparing Future Faculty program (if one exists at your university as it does at mine). I am a 1st year student in the program and it has *really* opened my eyes to the insane work load of all profs, regardless of the type of institution.

Alyssa said...

Great topic - having many other graduate students around me makes me realize that there is a huge gradient of the amount of work students do, and how efficient they do it.

In my husband's previous lab, there was a student who was pulling 14 hour days, but she was on Facebook, MSN, Lavalife, etc. for most of the day. She started at the same time as DH, and while he defended a year ago, the end of her PhD is nowhere in sight.

I, on the other hand, freely admit that I work maybe 40 hours a week on my research. BUT I'm an efficient worker and will finish my PhD within 4 years. So, to me, time spent at work does not equal progress.

In our department, supervisors are only required to pay their students for 2 years (for masters) or 4 years (for PhD) - after that they can choose to discontinue the funding.

Another point is that PhD projects vary widely in amount of work and complexity. It amazes me sometimes what passes for a PhD-level project, and wonder how that will affect that student's chances in the job market.

Professor in Training said...

Regardless of his/her career goals, the student needs a swift kick up the ass. Dragging the chain isn't acceptable, particularly when the tuition and stipend is being paid out of a grant.

Anonymous said...

I wish this student luck in even finding such a job - they are still incredibly competitive, particularly if he isn't show the extra initiative to teach/mentor undergraduates which might explain slower research project but more directly benefit his career goals.

AsstFemaleProf said...

While I was interviewing for jobs, one professor (who was having a really bad day considering they said this during an interview) commented: "Not every student deserves to get a PhD." As I started my own research group, I have thought about this comment A LOT. And I have used in making some of the tough decisions I have come up against.

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

I can't imagine thinking that my mentor's opinion of my work output (regardless of actual hours) was unimportant. Does this student think he's going to get a job with a recommendation that reads, "Student X was not the type to push very hard"?

Anonymous said...

This post will take up where FSP leaves off - on the viability of such a student on the job market.

I tend to agree with FSP in this case, but have some sympathy for the contractual view R puts forth - most grad programs claim to pay students for 20 hrs/wk of work.

The key problem, in my mind, is that far too many grad students simply do not have a good idea what it takes to be successful at any type of academic institution. And this is where students, advisers, and programs fall down (in my mind).

As a new(ish) faculty member at a good but not elite small liberal arts college, I know that there is a lot of pressure for "scholarship" (read "research"). This translates into a search that focuses on the research productivity of students in graduate school and during their postdocs (a student lacking a postdoc would not be very competitive here).

In the end, programs should really bring in speakers from both liberal arts and research institutions to talk to graduate students about career options and what it takes to be successful.

A final note: while I would love to say that every search here attracts 100s of well qualified candidates, that is simply not true.

Physics: ~ 125 candidates, maybe 20 qualified (significant research, knowledge of liberal arts institutions)

Chemistry: ~ 40 candidates, maybe 5-10 qualified.

Biology: ~ 150 candidates, maybe 25 qualified.

John Vidale said...

I think this separates into tough problems:

1. Is the student working hard enough to achieve his career goals, if he eventually writes a marginally satisfactory thesis? If not, he should change course.

2. Is the student satisfying his advisor? If not, the advisor should make the student find another research group or just move on.

Without knowing all the facts, I'd guess the answers are yes and no. Effectively my entire cohort in grad school (Caltech) found jobs the student might like, no matter how thin their efforts or accomplishments.

This leaves the decisive decision to the advisor, and a tough one.

Female Science Professor said...

Some contracts are for 20 hours/week, but students who are entirely on research funds and not taking classes are expected to work 'full time' on research (hence my reference to 40 hours/week).

daisy mae said...

the first thing i did when joining my present lab was to sit down with my PI and clearly outline what was expected me in terms of hours in the lab and progress rate. i also found that printing out a schedule of where i will be during the week (i need a schedule or else i don't get much done) eased all of the tensions about "where is the grad student" and "is she being productive". my PI understands that most of my assays can only be prepped during the week, as they require 8-10 uninterrupted hours - impossible with classes. but that i push out results for 3-5 different experiments on the weekend.

Anonymous said...

"R"--grad students are paid for only 20 hours a week because they are usually also taking between 6-15 credit hours. When those credit hours are for courses, you are usually expected to work less on research. However, when those credit hours are for "research", then you should be putting 40 hours/wk (productive hours) towards research. Some of your research is paid, while some of it counts toward degree credits. Get it?

Melissa said...

This is an on-going discussion in my area and at my institution as well. I don't think there is a 100% right-on answer here because sometimes it is about what the student sees as their final goal. The student that wants that prime R1 position is going to have to work harder and differently than the student who doesn't have an R1 goal. At least that's how we do it and it seems to work out fairly well.

Female Science Professor said...

I am glad I didn't scale my grad research efforts to my career goal at the time. I've written about this before, but I had no plans whatsoever to end up at an R1 and didn't think I would like such a job or be any good at it, but an R1 turned out to be the perfect place for me.

Alyssa said...

I like Fia's point about graduate school being about just that: school, learning, being mentored. Sometimes I think supervisors just treat their students as employees and forget that it's *part* of their job to help them along the way - and not just with their project, but with general issues that arise in academia (choosing a career, dealing with politics, learning how to apply for grants, etc. etc.).

Alyssa said...

FSP said "I am glad I didn't scale my grad research efforts to my career goal at the time...."

That's exactly right. I started off "knowing" that I wanted to be a TT prof, but now I'm not so sure. Career plans change, so working less because you *think* you want a certain career isn't the best way to go about things.

Sounds to me like the student is a bit of a slacker and they're just trying to justify it.

Anonymous said...

Some contracts are for 20 hours/week, but students who are entirely on research funds and not taking classes are expected to work 'full time' on research (hence my reference to 40 hours/week).

I see what you are saying but then these 'expectations' should be explained if not understood by the student. I'm a grad student getting paid for 20hrs/week for research, I'm done with my classes but of course I know I'm supposed to put in 40+ hours. So hopefully the meeting w/ the supervisor explaining what is expected will help solve the problem.

Andrew said...

We pay our students for "20 hrs/wk" even after they are done taking classes, but of course, everyone knows that you have to work more than that to get things done. I have found that, for me (expt. condensed matter), 20 hours a week is around my break even point in a lab. If I work at that level or less, I literally make zero progress, as external factors (drift in experimental parameters, health of shared equipment, etc) tend to change on that timescale. Productivity increases roughly linear in time over twenty hours.

That said, you don't have to work the 80 hour week, if you work efficiently. Mere presence in lab does not magically generate progress if you are goofing off.

Anonymous said...

Two points.

1) This student is clearly lacking in some essential qualities that are required for success as a scholar or anywhere else in the work world. Whatever their career goals are, academia has an obvious culture that values hard work. It is just politically foolish to allow your colleagues and superiors to conclude that you unwilling to work hard, even if it is true.

To me, the question is what is the mechanism for "weeding" these sorts of students. Should they be permitted to receive a PhD, or is allowing this a failure of the system. Or is it the job market that should be the filter? Some of these students are gonna get in to grad school. What is the successful outcome for them?

2) The balance between employee status and student status of grad students is very complicated. I think more attention should be given to clarifying this business. I think Fia's point is really valid. If you want to expect professional outcomes, maybe you should hire a professional rather than a trainee.

Anonymous said...

It strikes the that the PI is also at fault in this situation. In general, it takes both a ineffective manager and a undedicated worker for work not to get done. But the problem here seems to be the insistence on hours rather than "product". To be fair, this is an endemic problem in training grad students (and running research groups in general). The PI obviously has some expectations of what the student will produce (a plot of new data every 2 weeks or whatever), but he is only telling the student that he wants him to work more. The student seems clearly not to care much about his research, but in this situation I think that either the PI needs to cut his losses or change his approach. I think concrete expectations are a lot more effective than vague admonitions about working harder. While the exact expectations might not be so concrete, there are organic ways to frame the discussion. Ultimately, if the student doesn't respond, I think the PI is within his right to let the student go. But I think many PI's fail to recognize that they have fairly specific expectation of their students that they don't communicate. The many, many comments complaining about the students working 80+ without accomplishing anything seem to support this. It seems to me that both the PI's and students would benefit if the relationship was recognized as a managerial one and if expectations were communicated accordingly. This can even be accomplished in a laboratory setting where goals are less well-defined.

Unknown said...

What bothers me is that the grad student can't see his own place within the ecosystem of the lab and the research, himself.

That kind of myopia will be a serious liability in whatever he chooses.

It's not about SLAC vs R1, and as others have pointed out, jobs are just.plain.hard. to get anywhere. This grad student will have trouble no matter where he ends up, even at Starbucks.

Anonymous said...

Somebody mentioned the level of pay being forgot to mention that many times if you are paying a student 1500 a month that will qualify them for half-time (what is called at my instituion) and a tuition waiver from the university..

Anonymous said...

It sounds like this student may just be rather lazy. But there are other students whose goals are jobs at SLACs who I think have some legitimate complaints about the graduate school system.

In particular: it does not prepare them particularly well for what they want to do.

Honestly, for how many of us has dissertation research truly informed or improved our teaching? I don't think mine has at all. Taking classes for the masters did, but the last few years of working on a very narrow topic have been pretty much useless. Furthermore, that topic was largely defined by the grant my advisor received soon after I started, not by my interests, so I have been bored.

Now yes, in the SLAC job that I have recently accepted, I will be doing some research. So it is necessary for even grad students with SLAC goals to learn about research. However, I don't think the last 3 years really taught me any more about that than the first 2 did.

And grad school often includes zero preparation for teaching. Basically what I'm saying here is that the system is set up to train for R1, and it is not a good fit for SLAC. That's no excuse for people like me to be lazy, but it shouldn't be a big surprise if we're unhappy (and therefore less efficient and effective) in grad school.

Anonymous said...

What if the PhD graduate student TAs (teaches 1-2 classes/semester)for his stipend and not rely on his/her professor's grant/money.

Are the expectations diff.?

Like Social science and History graduate students who must TA for a living?

And how do you expect grad. students to TA and do 100% Research in the same semester. Teaching takes a lot of time.

Anonymous said...

This student just doesn't sound passionate enough. I'd be worrying if s/he was my student.
I have no problem with students working short hours, if that is the way they personally are most productive. However, it seems that most students go through a period where long hours seem to be necessary in order to finish.

I also know that some students can't do long hours because they have other commitments, but I notice that when they are present they generally don't muck around. Often these students also spend alot of time away from work thinking about problems.

For me, passion is the key to productivity.

Anonymous said...

I think that if you're lazy, you're lazy, and you'll continue to be lazy, no matter what your position/profession in the future. Look out there how hard it is to get any kind of job! You cannot afford to argue and bargain with advisors about how you shouldn't work too hard. I can't believe it!
Another point that I want to make is that training in graduate school includes gaining the understanding that life is tough, how to deal with bosses in the future, how to manage a high work load, how to be competitive on the market, not just lectures and hand holding. Encouraging laziness would not help the students in any way. I was not happy with my advisor at the time of my Ph.D., for different reasons, but actually, right or wrong at that time, because he/she made my life difficult, it also prepared me for the life out there, so I came to be grateful later.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the more awkward position of being at a large, public university where an MS degree is the highest offered. We have no university funding to pay students (i.e., *if* they get paid a salary, it's off a grant and there are no tuition waivers...well, they can teach a lab section for a measly $2,200 a semester but there aren't enough of those to go around). How am I supposed to lay down the law with my students if I can't hold their salary over their heads? I've explained my expectations for their research but ultimately it's their career on the line. I have one particularly (I think) lazy student who I wouldn't spend a dime on now that I know how lazy he is (and I've just had a large grant funded).

FYI, even given the conditions at my university, my Dean still expects us to hire "superstars". There is no way FSP's student is going to turn out to be a superstar at this rate. And I doubt he (and probably many graduate students) realizes how much work a faculty position really is...even at a small liberal arts college.

Female Science Professor said...

That's a great point. I have colleagues in your difficult situation at similar institutions. They tell me that working with smart and motivated undergrads (for pay or academic credit) is far more rewarding (intellectually and otherwise) than advising MS students who are just there because they didn't know what else to do after graduating from their undergrad institutions.

Of course, some MS students at MS-only institutions are as smart, motivated and hard-working as grad students anywhere, but it is difficult (and maybe impossible, at least for me) to predict in advance who is going to work out and who is not.

Anonymous said...

As a current PhD student, I experience on a daily basis a huge problem that Anon 8:11 alluded to: slacking grad students bringing down the morale of the rest.

In my Masters lab (I'm in an area where it's really commom to do your MS and PhD at different schools), I had quite a few fellow students who didn't hit it too hard. Now at my PhD institution, even as the only student of my advisor, I feel like I can't escape the slacking, lazy, or generally unfocused students. Not only do they often make me wonder why I work so hard, but they also distract us with their playing around and asking for help.

That's not even getting into the time they take away from our advisors, who like you describe, try to keep them going. Or our classes, TAing responsibilites, etc. where their lack of focus makes us have to pull their weight too.

And I haven't even mentioned research.

FSP, how do you deal with this? How much do faculty members see this morale problem?

Anonymous said...

I don't really see the big deal -- why doesn't the professor tell the student what is expected, and that he will need to find a new advisor if he does not meet the expectations? This is pretty standard at most jobs ...

Anonymous said...

I also supervise undergraduate student research as part of senior theses but often their course workload precludes them from spending sufficient time on their research to make good progress. It is rewarding but ultimately I spend so much time advising students, I would be much better off doing the research and writing the papers myself. When it comes to tenure, I get very little credit for advising versus publishing and bringing in grant support.

Anonymous said...

"being constructively confused"

HA! I think these 3 words describe most of my graduate career so far! FSP you are brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Well, that student is clueless and the advisor is very forgiving. I don't know of any advisor in my department that wouldn't flip out after hearing that and institute some form of punishment (well, maybe a few wouldn't, but they would be very unhappy).

I think I'm one of the bad graduate students though. I'm very productive and I got more published than anyone in my year over my graduate career, but I work very little. I show up for 80 hours a week, but I really, really wish it was less. That's because I work in a spurt of activity that lasts three to four hours a day, and the rest of the time I get distracted and read popular science news, or news on the internet, and when I check the clock, four hours have disappeared! I really only work 30-40 hours a week. What the hell is wrong with me? I can't believe how lazy I am and I'm not sure whether I'll survive in the real world. And when I go home, I just watch TV instead of reading papers or writing. With these kinds of work ethics, I'm definitely not good enough for a faculty job, or any job in research at all.

It makes me angry because I used to be more effective at using my time in the lab just a couple of years ago. And there is no negative stuff to show for my laziness since I got the most done out of all the other students (but I know I could do twice as much if only I focused). I tried to set a goal for myself for writing one of my professor's grants and writing a few papers entirely by myself, but I just gave up at some point and spent that time watching TV. It just makes me frustrated and kind of sad.... I feel like just getting a job at Starbucks because that's what I really deserve even though I published a lot of papers on the surface and 'beat' everyone in my year in that department. I guess I was just really lucky in my research and it wasn't enough of a challenge and I'm too lazy to set my own goals. I have some ideas of what I would like to do if I ever got the chance to work on my own ideas (and I'm really excited about them), but with the way my life is right now, I think I'd be setting myself up for failure if I got a job as a professor.

Any advice?

EliRabett said...

I once had a student who did have a large family. His method was to accomplish (fully) one task each day. It worked, he didn't spend a lot of time on the web, etc.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to compare this post and the comments to your next post, as in some ways the ideas are contradictory. If all grad students need to be told that unless they work 60 to 80 hours per week to be a "real" grad students, they will never make it, you will surely discourage women with children, or thinking of having children, from going into academia.

When I was a grad student, early on I had a confrontation with my advisor about time in the lab, but he had never gone over expectations, and I was still taking classes etc. It really is up to the advisor to lay out his or her expectations at the start, and not to expect the grad students to automatically know their advisor will be angry if they don't spend their life in the lab.

Anonymous said...

hihi..nice blog

!=42 said...

Even though I am a grad student, I have to agree with this blogger.

Unknown said...

good blog, FSP. you make some very reasonable arguments. graduate research is not for everybody. there are many smart people out there who don't do grad study for several reasons. but if you choose this career, then you have to work hard. otherwise it would be unfair to those people who work so hard to earn the same PhD degree as one who lazes his/her time away.

Anonymous said...

John, I'm the anonymous grad student who doesn't work hard. You're wrong. I don't feel badly as if it's unfair to others that I don't work hard because it's the results that matter in science, not how many times you're willing to
bang your head against the wall. That's why I'm the most successful grad student in my year right now. If you're trained well, and know what the hell you are doing, you can get a lot done in 30 hours a week if all you're doing is experiments and occasional paper writing.

I just want to work as successfully for a longer period time than the 20-30 hours a week that I put in of 'real work time' so that I can get twice as many good results done.

However, it's too late now and I'm leaving for a postdoc at a really big and famous lab, so perhaps a change in scenery will and circumstances will make me work hard. If I have to prove myself over again, that could be the motivation necessary.

There is a difference about sitting around as a paperweight and getting your Ph.D., and working little and getting your Ph.D. because you're good at what you do. Until I'm surrounded by harder working people who have more and better publications, I won't feel like I'm letting them down by being lazy.

Anyways, even though no one gave me advice, over the past week I just realized (after thinking really hard about it for a few days) that I wasn't challenged enough in grad school and all the goals the program set for me were too low (and I didn't feel like setting them myself since I was lazy). Even the thesis writing part was fairly easy and I managed to slack off during that. I won't make the same mistake in my postdoc and if I stay in the lab 60 hours, it'll be 60 hours of real work.

It's not a martyrdom contest to see who can put in 80 hours a week just to 'show' others that they are tough. Rarely are those 80 hours spent working 'well'. Please see the next post for a discussion in a similar vein.

Anonymous said...

I agree with one of the Anonymi who said you are paid for 20 hours a week, but you are also taking "research" for credit, which accounts for the other 20 hours per week (or more). This is how I have always thought about my time as a grad student.

This makes your advisor about 50% boss - 50% professor who is grading you (even if it is pass/fail). So logically you should want to make them happy, and if you don't they can either fire you or fail you or both.

Of course the professor should make his/her expectations clear or they may not get what they want from even the most well-meaning students. That has been a problem for me in grad school. Sometimes I think my professor doesn't even know what she wants out of us...