Wednesday, February 18, 2009


In various posts over the years, I have discussed the concept of a Research Group and how it is important that all members (students, postdocs, faculty) be productive.

There are many topics to discuss, e.g.: What are the roles and responsibilities of being the advisor (manager) of a Research Group? What are the roles and responsibilities of being a postdoc? A graduate student? An undergraduate? And let's not forget the technicians, who are essential to the successful functioning of many research groups.

I don't know if I'll cover all of these topics (and certainly won't in this post). Today I am going to focus on graduate student research assistants because sometimes I feel like I emphasize too much (in this blog) the fact that students and other group members are workers who are doing specific tasks, and I've been meaning to give a more complete view of the subject.

My point of view is of course very much influenced by the norms of my field of the physical sciences, the size of my research group, and the specific type of research we do, but some things may be relevant to other situations.

Regarding graduate student research assistants -- that is, graduate students being paid a salary, benefits, and in some cases tuition by a grant -- I have two coexisting and perhaps apparently contradictory beliefs:

1 - Students paid on a grant must do the work they are paid to do.

2 - Students are students who are learning how to do research and who should be given the freedom to do some independent thinking and discovering.

The reason these statements are not entirely contradictory is that the phrase "the work they are paid to do" is actually not as well defined as it may seem.

For some projects, there are certain tasks that need to be accomplished. If a student is being paid to do these tasks, the student should do these tasks, even if they are boring, with assistance as required. Even if there are these specified tasks (and for some projects there are not), the student still has the time and resources to explore other ideas. I wouldn't mind at all if a student ended up doing something different from what the grant proposal described -- maybe the student will find a more interesting aspect in the general topic of the project. In fact, I would be thrilled if a student did some independent research, even while paid on a RA to do something else, and came up with something interesting.

But whatever the student does, there has to be a tangible product in a reasonable amount of time, ideally in time for the annual reports we have to write to our funding agencies, and certainly by the time of the final report. This is not some unfair requirement foisted on oppressed students. This is something we all have to do as people fortunate enough to be given money to do Science, and it is a reasonable expectation to show results from our research.

The student isn't the only one responsible for research progress. I also do research as part of grant-funded projects, and I take the lead in writing some conference abstracts and papers. Even so, I believe very strongly that, barring unforeseen and unavoidable obstacles to research progress, students should be getting results and writing abstracts and manuscripts, with lots of help at first, and then less and less as they get more experience.

Part of being in a research group is recognizing that it is a little community, with all that implies about doing one's share but also benefiting from the activities and support of others.

I have high (but, I think, reasonable and clearly articulated) expectations for how much 'work' graduate RAs should do. And by 'work', I don't count time spent physically in the department but not doing anything. And I don't actually care when the work is done as long as I see the student once in a while so that we can discuss things and interact to some extent.

In many cases my expectations are met, but it is amazing how many times they are not. For example, I have spent what I consider to be an inordinate amount of time advising students (male and female) whose research progress as RAs was essentially shut down for months while they planned their weddings.

And I once had a student who informed me that, because he had spent 6-7 years working in industry before returning to grad school for his Ph.D., he was not going to do any work that was of the level that he used to have underlings do. He wanted me to pay an undergrad to be his assistant so that he didn't have to do anything he considered beneath his dignity. At one point, it was urgent to accomplish a certain thing and he clearly wasn't going to do it. It had to be done, so I did it, and a visiting colleague kept me company while the grad student sat and did nothing nearby. I said to my colleague "What would you do if this were your student?". My colleague replied, very calmly "I would kill him." [This student did not remain my student for much longer but as far as I know he yet lives, albeit PhD-less]

Most advisors of graduate students can trade stories like this for hours. We also like to talk about our successful students, but in many cases it seems like the successful students were going to succeed anyway. It's also easier to take the failures and difficult cases personally, so maybe we talk about them more to try to convince ourselves that it wasn't (all) our fault. And the failures may be more interesting as stories.

Whatever the case, there are going to be successes and failures and everything in between. No matter how many years I've been an advisor, I'm amazed at the immense number of ways that things can go wrong, and the limited number of paths to success. Perhaps that is a failure of the academic system, but I can't say that there have been any student-failure incidents in my personal experience in which I've sighed and said "If only the system could be more accommodating of people who wanted to be paid for 3 months to do no work except plan their wedding" or "Wouldn't it be nice if that student could have a personal assistant to do all his work for him, thus freeing him to have big ideas?".

That doesn't mean the system shouldn't and can't change in other ways and for other reasons, but I still keep coming back to the numbered points above, which I will restate here as: (1) Students paid to do research should do the research; and (2) It doesn't matter what the results are, as long as there's been a good effort that ideally involves some creative wondering and thinking and writing.


Anonymous said...

I liked this posting a lot and you remind me of a debate we are having in my lab (of around 10 grad students): so long as person is productive, should they actually be required to show up to the lab? People in our lab do a lot of computer work so it is not vital to be sitting in the lab. But, some people have literally not been seen for months and people start to suspect they have other jobs/are in Hawaii on the beach. Your comment about students spending months arranging weddings reminded me of this as we have had that happen for several students :) Even so, I noticed that our "working from home" grad students are at least as productive as the others in terms of papers, probably because they aren't delayed by helping anyone else! One thing these isolated people miss out on is that they do not help other people in our group at all, miss out on good interactions that can lead to new projects, and act all put out if they are asked to come in (e.g. to meet a guest speaker/for a group meeting). I am curious if you or any of the folks who read your blog have this issue - grad students who are never seen (for months) but are still productive paper-wise. Should they be forced to come in and work with their lab-mates?

Alyssa said...

...whose research progress as RAs was essentially shut down for months while they planned their weddings.

...or are taking a class, or preparing to run a marathon, or are planning a trip, or need to check Facebook...

I just find some people can come up with any excuse in the book. Is it that they truly can't multitask, or that they just want to get out of doing their work?

It's frustrating, especially being a grad student that can (and does) multitask - and yet we end up getting the same degree in the end.

Tom said...

This student did not remain my student for much longer ...

As it should have been. I would never have been able, as a student, to sit by and do nothing other than to watch my advisor do work that was essential to a project. I'd have been mortified beyond belief.

Since he remains without a Ph.D. I imagine he hasn't learned a lesson out of all of this yet. Besides, what was he planning on doing once he obtained a position all of his own (if he had ever managed to obtain his Ph.D. and a position somewhere) ... was he going to put his own projects on hold until he was able to wrangle up some students to start his projects because he didn't want his hands to get dirty? So much for the concept of "hitting the ground running", eh?

daisy mae said...

i agree - as a grad student on an RA. my PI has made it clear that even though i'm taking 12 credits of classes, he doesn't expect my productivity to wan in the least. so we've worked it out where i spend the bulk of the week prepping experiments, and push out results on the weekend. he's happy, i'm happy. although his philosophy is that he would rather have me in the lab doing homework than at home....

this post does remind me of a fellow grad student. she's actually obtaining her PhD from another school in germany, but working here in the states. her pay code is that of a technician - her PI is under insane stress to get some data for an R01 - and yet she refuses to work weekends.

her main complaint is that her boss treats her like a tech - but until she stops acting like one, i don't see it changing.

John Vidale said...

Another post on target.

I think some posters miss the point of the soon-to-be-ex-grad student not getting his hands dirty.

I'd guess he had seen managers in his previous corporate job, and planned to return to a similar structure in a more exalted position after getting a PhD. He may have just misunderstood how research works at universities and/or overestimated his own abilities.

Perhaps he already understood this at the time of his transgression and been on the way out the door, which is why he was not more engaged. Perhaps he didn't even need the degree to get back to management - I'm curious where is he now?

[I just mailed out a recommendation for this web site and the Academeology book to all the grad students in my dept and gotten positive feedback.]

MGS said...

I have been a technician in labs where everyone writes a weekly status update to the group or to the PI alone, depending on the collaborative nature of the lab. In my current lab there is a lot of work out of the office, and many of us try to work from home one day a week. The lab-wide weekly status updates have been great for keeping aware of what is going on in the lab. We typically don't have a problem with people working from home because we all tend to get more done from home when we're not in lab and able to chat with each other, and the weekly reports keep us focused on our tasks.

As an RA in grad school, I plan on sending my advisor weekly updates on my progress so that my advisor can catch any "wrong paths" early in the process and can be assured that results are progressing.

The weekly reports also provide a good feedback for the technician/RA. If you notice that a few reports in a row are lacking, you'll realize you either need to change your tack or step it up to get more done.

Ms.PhD said...

Great post. At first I was a little turned off by the word "must." But then I saw where you were going, and I think I agree with everything you said.

I totally agree with your colleague, btw. I would never have put up with that kind of crap from a student.

I have never had an undergrad who was paid to help me, but I have had several volunteers who were willing to do anything that needed to be done.

I hope we'll continue to have this kind of free help in the lab when I'm a PI, but if I had a student like that, I'd insist that s/he recruit an undergrad if they didn't want to do their own s--twork. I can kind of see where he was coming from, but the arrogance-! Amazing to think you can go back to school for a PhD and expect to get special treatment!

But I gotta say, your doing it for him, that looks bad, too. I hope no one else in your lab was around to see that.

And the wedding thing, oh dear, that is one of my worst fears. Students and postdocs who want to have real lives but can't manage their time or attention just scare the crap out of me as potential lab members.

I think if I were the PI and I caught someone in my lab planning wedding stuff at work I'd probably forbid them from doing any of it during work hours. I'd rather have them take a month off to do the planning if that's so important to them.

Tom said...

I think some posters miss the point of the soon-to-be-ex-grad student not getting his hands dirty.

Which I suppose means me, since I'm really the only one who mentioned it, eh?

And no, I don't think I missed the point. You can speculate on his intentions all you'd like, but the fact of the matter is ... the perception he gave was that he was above such things. Frankly, perception is all that matters. If I act like I don't give a rats ass, and then I see my boss getting their hands dirty doing what I just refused to do, and I still sit there on my ass looking like I don't give a rats ass ... you can damn well suspect that I don't give a rats ass. Anything else is just making excuses for the fellow, who didn't give a rats ass.

Average Professor said...

...whose research progress as RAs was essentially shut down for months while they planned their weddings.

What about (female) students that have a baby? This seems like it should be a different kind of situation than the ones you describe, but from the standpoint of managing research timelines and budgets, it isn't. My university has zero policy or accomodation for this, but it can put both student and advisor in a major time and financial pinch.

John Vidale said...

Regarding the aloof guy, very few people would act the way he did in front of a visitor if they were intending to stay with the program.

So I don't interpret this anecdote as representative of his typical behavior when he was trying, and don't think it logically leads to him misunderstanding his actions nor failing at "hitting the ground running".

FSP herself adds "This student did not remain my student for much longer".

Just my guess, but I've seen a few graduate students.

Anonymous said...

I like your final summary of expectations of students. It sounds fair and appropriate. A balance of both thinking and doing is required.

As a postdoc, if I want to get my research done, I still have to physically do it myself in most instances. Recently I needed some data that a technician could collect for me while doing something else. I ended up cleaning all the required equipment. She was busy , so it made sense for me to help get the job in a timely manner. Everything goes much more smoothly.

What I find more problematic is attending the fortnightly meeting of our research group. This is run by my mentor. There are about 8 people with very diverse research interests, and the meeting consists of going round in a circle with her saying - so what problems are you having and what can I do to help (she is unavailable at almost all other times). Unfortunately, this turns into a 2 way conversation that seems to consist of details about tweaking methods that no-one else present is using. How can I help to make this meeting more productive so people don't want to constantly dodge? Any ideas welcome.

Tom said...

I guess we can go back and forth on this all day, but it seems a pretty cut and dry point to me, so I'll have my final say on this and if you want, John, you can have the last word.

John: So I don't interpret this anecdote as representative of his typical behavior ...

Yet, FSP clearly said: And I once had a student who informed me that, because he had spent 6-7 years working in industry before returning to grad school for his Ph.D., he was not going to do any work that was of the level that he used to have underlings do. He wanted me to pay an undergrad to be his assistant so that he didn't have to do anything he considered beneath his dignity.

So, what do I surmise from this? Well clearly that if this fellow had ever managed to finagle a Ph.D. out of some department -- which would have catered to his sorry ass -- that he would have had a very hard time "hitting the ground running" as it were, come time to take a faculty position. If such an individual was applying for a position in any department I was working in, and I knew about this episode, I would DEFINITELY ask to have his application rejected.

If he refused to do things that he felt were beneath him (which includes most mundane but essential lab functions) AS A STUDENT what was he going to do AS A FACULTY MEMBER? Well, other than sit on his ass in his office waiting for the department which hired him to hire a technician ... or wait until he was able to wrangle up some student help?

John Vidale said...


You may well be right, depending on details I haven't yet heard.

I'm just not ready to completely write off his "sorry ass" and reject his job applications without some knowledge about his intelligence, skills nor accomplishments.

Dropping out of a mismatching graduate program is not necessarily a scarlet letter for the rest of one's career, sometimes it is a good idea.

Anonymous said...

A very good post. What you say here is very important. A lot of people from industry do not understand that working in a research lab means doing a variety of tasks some defined beforehand but most are those that spring depending on the situation.
there is one thing though: I do hope htat PIs will be more tolerant of lab workers having a normal private life instead of expecting everyone to pretend as if the lab work was their sole motivation to live. If you think that students should not be doing private work in the lab, then you must let them go home at 6PM! If you think that they should put in that extra effort to stay back to finish something or work on a weekend, you should be able to tolerate people planning weddings during working hours! If you insist that only hyper dedicated people should do PhD at the detriment of their private life, you might not motivate the most capable but only the most uninteresting. Like priests that are not allowed to marry...

Anonymous said...

I agree with Revathi!

Anonymous said...

Seems like I keep on posting links. I'd mail directly, but it's hard to mail directly to an anonymous commenter...

Anonymous @ 2:26PM: I've read about this way of running a research group:

The idea is to have short (< 30 mins) status meetings three times a week and to schedule longer meetings on demand based on the shorter meetings. I've never tried it, since I have a total of 1 student at the moment, but it seems like an interesting idea. I've often found large research group meetings to be less than useful as well.