Friday, August 28, 2009

On Advising

A perennial topic, perhaps even semi-annual:

Some graduate students, even some postdocs, have no idea how much work goes into advising. Yes, I know there are bad advisers in every discipline, and I know that there are advisers with big labs filled with grad worker drones who toil for years at low pay to provide some data crumbs that feed the hotshot adviser's research machine, but in my > 20 year career, I have encountered very few of these. I am very sorry for those students who endure situations such as these, and hope that they can eventually put the bad experience behind them and have a rewarding career.

My sympathy is sincere, but nevertheless I am amazed when I read or hear general statements about how much advisers benefit from the labor of students relative to the efforts of the adviser. For the many advisers who devote much time and effort to advising, it is a disservice to focus on the extreme cases and blithely state that advisers benefit more from students than students do from advisers.

The vast majority of the advisers I know spend considerable time and effort advising students and giving them the support and opportunities they need to succeed in their graduate program and beyond. Some advisers are more nurturing/sociable/friendly than others, some provide a more structured research environment than others, and some are better at fostering a student's independent research than others, but it is a very rare situation in which the overall 'benefit' that an adviser receives from a graduate student's research exceeds the effort/funding put into advising the student. Yes, I have written/ranted about this before here and in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, but it keeps popping up as a topic in comments or in real life.

That isn't meant to be a controversial statement. It is a statement based on my experience and observations at this point in my career. This doesn't make things any easier for those students in difficult or abusive advising situations, but it is important to recognize what is a normal adviser-student relation and what is abnormal and wrong.

Determining whether an adviser 'benefits' from students relative to time/effort advising or is mostly a recipient of benefits is not straightforward, as it requires comparing advising activities of both tangible (money, writing) and intangible (time, ideas, advice) sorts with the end results of students' time, efforts, and creative input.

Nevertheless, I will state this: For some students, the results of their research ideas and activities far exceed the creative input (ideas, interpretation of results) and writing provided by the adviser, but this is not the case for many students. Such independent, productive students certainly exist, and I am very happy to have encountered some. Ideally, the adviser-student relationship allows for students to be creative and independent.

Many students, however, do well, are enjoyable to advise, and teach us things in the course of their research, but it would be inaccurate for even these students to say that their tangible benefit to their advisers (in terms of results or papers) exceed what the adviser contributed to the research.

And then there are students who are a huge amount of work to advise; they might be good (or even excellent) scientists and very smart people, but they can't focus, can't write, or have some other problem that involves much time and anxiety for all concerned. They have to be carried or dragged to the finish line.

Note: I admit that having a few of this last sort can skew an adviser's opinion about adviser-student cost-benefit ratios and swamp out some of the warm and fuzzy feelings we have about our more independent students.

My point of view about adviser/student efforts stems in part from the fact that I do not sit back and watch the papers roll out of my research group. I would be quite happy if some of my students took the lead on manuscripts and wrote up some of their own research/ideas with minimal or no involvement from me (and I would therefore not be a co-author), but it is a fact that most student-authored manuscripts require my time and effort -- some more, some less. The effort is in many cases quite fun, so these statements should not be interpreted as complaints, but time and effort it is, in some a cases considerable amount.

I am sure there are many points of view depending on personal experience, the culture of different disciplines and institutions, and other factors. I certainly don't claim to be objective, being firmly on the side of Advisers of the World, but I think it can be difficult for grad students to have an informed perspective on these issues.

That probably sound patronizing, but I will provide one example to explain in part how I came to that opinion:

A PhD student I know had great difficulty focusing, organizing results and thoughts, writing, and all sorts of other important things. After many attempts at finding ways to overcome some of these problems, the adviser would sometimes step in and do whatever needed doing, especially if a deadline was looming. Whenever the adviser did this, the student always said something like "Yeah, that's exactly how I would have done it" or "That's what I was thinking too". Perhaps these statements were a way of minimizing embarrassment about the situation, but from that point on, the student would refer to text, figures, or ideas provided by the adviser as things that he/she (the student) had done. I am convinced that by the time the student graduated, the adviser's contributions were considered to be minor technical assistance. If you asked this student who had 'benefited' more from his/her research, I am sure the answer would be very different from the adviser's answer to that question.

What does that prove? Perhaps only that we are each most aware of our own efforts, whether we are adviser or student.

As I've written before (somewhere..), if we advisers just wanted efficient workers who would get a job done right the first time and move on to the next task, we wouldn't be advising students. We would hire technicians.

We advise students because it is part of what many of us love about our jobs, despite the frustrations. We do it for the many times when it does work out (for student and adviser). If you factor in these intangibles, the adviser-student relationship makes more sense than if it's considered only in terms of who 'benefits' more.

[alert: Comment moderating will be sporadic this weekend, as my ability to internet will be severely limited, but I welcome any and all comments, however hostile, except for obscene non-CPP comments and those annoying attempts to get me to post an ad]


Ms.PhD said...

What? CPP is allowed to be profane, but the rest of us aren't? That's not fair.

Because this, dear FSP, is a topic that makes me want to spew profanity.

I have had good advising. And I have had very, very bad advising.

I have seen a LOT or really abusive adviser-student relationships, so I can honestly tell you that in my experience it is NOT the minority, especially since the evil advisers tend to have a lot of money and huge labs full of slave-labor. I think if you added up the number of students who came from happy labs vs. the number of students who came from abusive ones, abusive labs would win with sheer manpower (yes, I meant to say man).

I guess the main point I want to make, if I have to choose just one (to prove how focused I can be), is that... well okay maybe I'll just make two points.

One, you are not very patient when it comes to writing. You've said that before on this blog, and your anecdata seem to support this hypothesis. Much more patience is required with students learning how to write and/or afraid to write. It seems unfair to accuse them of being too slow compared to you- ye who writes a very polished blog post a day on the side! Jumping in and doing it yourself because you're getting impatient is NOT actually the same as advising.

Two, your story about "yeah that's how I would have done it" could just as easily be that's how I had it in the first place, you senile old goat which is what I dearly want to say to my adviser quite often.

I had this problem with my thesis adviser and I have it now. It's like my original draft got sucked into the Little Birdie zone, where it became someone else's idea. This is infuriating!! But I'm sure my adviser has no recollection whatsoever, so I get no credit AND I've had to waste time being polite!

It has also happened to me from your Adviser-like perspective, in the sense of advising students but not being put on their papers because they don't remember that the whole thing was my suggestion.

If I propose the project, advise them extensively, provide them with reagents, teach them methods, and edit their papers, but don't fund the work, does that still make me their Adviser?

Well does it? Because no one seems to know that I did all that. In some cases I haven't even been a co-author because the student was too chicken and/or the PI was too smarmy to include me in the list even when I asked. And some people believe I should do all that for the good will/karma factor, but in the end it's my CV (and job prospects) that suffer.

The whole system is really not set up to reward substantial advising contributions. But it should be.

Kea said...

The vast majority of the advisers I know spend considerable time and effort advising students and giving them the support and opportunities they need to succeed in their graduate program and beyond.

Really? Wow. I believe you, I really do. I have seen evidence of it. Never had the experience myself, though.

Alyssa said...

if we advisers just wanted efficient workers who would get a job done right the first time and move on to the next task, we wouldn't be advising students. We would hire technicians.

That is what I kept thinking throughout your post. Yes, graduate students are "cheap labor", but they are also inefficient workers for the most part.

I fully admit that I probably gained much more from my advisor than he did from me - at least for the first 3 years. But, I kind of feel like that's the way it's supposed to be. Afterall, I'm new to the research thing, and I saw it as his job to show me the ropes. Although, being his first PhD student, I do think we both learned a lot from the experience.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

That isn't meant to be a controversial statement.

AHAHAHAH! That's totally fucking hilarious!!

I have commented in detail on this topic in the past, and the bottom line is that trainees are invariably totally fucking delusional about the nature and degree of mentor involvement in their work:

Post-docs *always* overestimate their intellectual contributions to the work they do relative to the PI. And they *always* underestimate the importance of what the PI contributes, intellectually and otherwise....I did this when I was a post-doc, and I'm sure you did, too. ... Only once I became a PI did I become aware of this delusion.

qaz said...

FSP - Thank you for writing this. I always cringe when I hear complaints about bad advising, especially given how much work I know my advisors put into helping me and how much work I put into my helping my students.

Ms. PhD - I'm sorry that your experiences have been poor, but I remind you that the key to scientific conclusions is not to reason from anecdote. In my experience (and in most of my colleagues that I have talked to about it), good [even great] advising has predominated. If we really want to find out what the distribution is, we should do some scientific measures [well-designed surveys, here] before making blanket statements.

What I would say is that there is definitely good advising and definitely bad advising out there. Just knowing that can help you get out of a bad situation. One point I would make to make is that in many cases, what is called bad advising is really just a mismatch between personalities. If your advisor thinks that a PhD thesis is a major document that should have huge impact and you think it's just a hurdle to get past so you can go on to your postdoc, you'll have problems. Likewise if it's the other way round.

When I was a grad student, there were a couple of good documents on this. They're from a specific time and place and so have a lot of details about that, but they have a lot of generally good advice in them as well. A little web surfing found them. (Hooray for teh google!) See, particularly and

ND Citizen said...

"Perhaps only that we are each most aware of our own efforts, whether we are adviser or student."

I think this is a most important message from your post. It goes beyond even adviser/student efforts and could pertain to faculty colleagues, faculty/administration efforts, etc.

LMH said...

I agree with ND citizen. I think of it most when people are complaining. We all feel our own injustices, and our own contributions the most - and that nobody appreciates them.

Usually I hear it like this, after someone complains about something that happened to them: "that's not that bad, let me tell you about how hard MY life is."

Basically, we're all pretty self absorbed. Including our advisors.

Anonymous said...

One possible wrinkle is the following:

Terrible advisers are less likely to succeed (make tenure, etc). Likewise, their trainees are unlikely to succeed (graduate, publish).

Hence, there may be MANY students advised by MANY terrible asst. profs or profs that zoom from one university to the next - but these cases would be less visible or seen as a minority to established faculty such as yourself.

Anonymous said...

"We advise students because it is part of what many of us love about our jobs, despite the frustrations."

Part of your jobs? Hello, you work at a graduate school. Advising is your job. The fact that all of academia sees itself as a research machine which has the burden of advising those lazy, inefficient students on the side drives me nuts. NSF doesn't allow you to only hire technicians for a reason, and that reason is that you're getting the research money in order to train student scientists, which, big surprise, involves advising them.

If advising is such a burden, I wish those professors would go and be scientists at a research lab and leave the teaching to those who actually value it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you FSP. Your comments were right on the money. While I too have had grad student advisees who were a joy to mentor from start to finish, the more typical student follows an uneven trajectory (e.g. starts very slowly before blossoming) or in some cases, needs to be dragged kicking and screaming across the finish line. These students are exhausting to deal with, and it is a relief when they finally receive their degrees.

For PIs in the biomedical sciences, there often is no real incentive to train grad students, given the amount of hassle to the PI for relatively little benefit. Unlike NSF, which incorporates training mandates into their funding, NIH has no such system. Under NIH funding, a PI's best bet to achieve the highest level of work is to train no students, but instead to hire postdocs from overseas on work visas. Indeed, this is often what the biggest, most successful labs do, as the postdocs are under great pressure to produce. Most medical school departments don't even have their own Ph.D. programs any more, as they have gone to interdepartmental graduate programs. Thus, there is not even much departmental incentive to take on Ph.D. students.

So given this, why should a PI train students? One argument is that they are cheap labor. But even this is not true in some cases. If the PI's college or university does not waive tuition and fees so that the PI has to pay them, a grad student can end up costing as much as a postdoc. Another reason might be that the PI does not have a sufficient reputation to attract postdocs. However, considering that most PIs are bombarded with requests from overseas scientists looking for postdoc positions, this is not valid either. So what's left? The people I know who train a large number of students do so because they really like interacting with students. This does not necessarily make them good mentors, but it also does not make them evil slave-drivers who abuse their trainees at every turn. I do feel badly for students who end up with toxic advisors, but there is a simple remedy to this problem. . .change labs! I personally have trained several students who started in other groups, but left because of the bad environment.

L-Siz said...

Excellent point. If I wanted to work with people who came in knowing what they were doing, I would have gone into industry where most people have PhDs. I love advising students, I love working with undergrads. It pains me when a bright student just can't do what needs to be done for them to be successful.

That being said, I see too many people who probably shouldn't have PhDs getting PhDs because their advisor/committee wasn't involved enough to realize that their student probably shouldn't be in the program. 5 years have gone by, the research is minimal or poorly executed but as long as a thesis is written the student ends up getting a PhD because it's not fair to them to have gone for so long without being told that maybe a PhD wasn't for them.

I personally think that more PhD students should get kicked out early in their academic careers so as to not have wasted every ones time and end up getting a 'pity PhD'

L-Siz said...

To Ms. PhD and everyone else with a crappy adviser:

You have no one to blame for choosing a crappy adviser other than yourself. It was your choice. You probably had heard rumors about them before you started working for them. If big name/big school is important for you and you choose crappy adviser, you really can't complain.

I personally have had the fortune of working for wonderful people, who have advised, supported, mentored, became friends. From undergrad to post-doc. But I also made a conscious decision to choose someone I knew would have those attributes.

So yeah, there are sh!tty advisers out there. There are also wonderful advisers out there. No one made you work for them. You made the choice. Deal with it.

Anonymous said...

qaz - Perhaps most of your colleagues had a positive experience with their advisers because, without a positive advising experience, they would never have been able to become your colleagues.

bad advising = dropping out of science for the advisee

good advising = opportunity to actually make it in science for the advisee

amy said...

We're all prone to the cognitive bias known as egocentric bias, which "occurs when people claim more responsibility for themselves for the results of a joint action than an outside observer would credit them" (wikipedia). The source of the bias might be a tendency to be self-serving, but it's more likely just due to a very understandable phenomenon: we each see our own efforts much more than we see others', especially if those efforts involve internal things like thinking through problems.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if bad advising is more prevalent in large labs and bad advisee-ing more prevalent in small labs?

I was trained in a large lab and, although my advisor was well meaning, many of us (and our contributions) got overlooked. There were other benefits to being in a large lab, though, that made up for it.

Now I run a very small lab, and even though I'm totally ready to shower my students with some awesome advising, the students I attract are ... well ... not exactly inspiring.

Or maybe it just reflects my own biased awareness.

tentrillion said...

The ultimate reason for people complaining about their advisor, in my view, is the fact that advisors get to live in some weird middle ground between "advisor" and "boss".

In the corporate world, people understand their relationship with their boss. A boss has authority over you. It is a boss's responsibility to direct you. In general I think people are less likely to view themselves as an exploited slave laborer for their boss. They may not like their boss, but my impression is that fewer people see themselves as slaves to a lazy, non-contributing boss. Perhaps one reason is that employees are free to quit when things get too bad. It's WAY easier to find a new job and a new boss than it is to find a new thesis advisor.

If you work for a professor as an RA, your professor is your boss. It's their job to tell you what experiments they need done for their grant, and your job to do them. After all, they are signing your paycheck.

But your advisor isn't always your "boss", sometimes they're only your "advisor". This means they don't have to direct you if they don't have time. After all it's a Ph.D. program, and you have to figure things out on your own.

And, even though you spend five years working for your boss, at the end of it if your thesis committee thinks your results aren't good enough, the consequences are much worse for you than for your advisor. After all, it was your work. Your advisor was just helping out.

Advisors try to have it both ways sometimes, or at least it seems that way to students. Students who "know" that their advisor is their boss, but feel that their advisor tries to act like a mere "advisor", are bound to become frustrated.

mixlamalice said...

I was quite lucky with my advisors from MSc to post-doc. One was better than the others but all in all it all went pretty smoothly.

I also agree that when something goes wrong there are usually responsibilities from both sides: the advisor might be lazy or absent, but the student is also often letting things get worse till it is too late (or the other way around).
Some differences in the perception of how things should work can also lead to big clashes: the advisor thinks the student needs to be able to swim by himself, the student would like more help, etc.

And when you choose a bad advisor it is also usually partly your fault: if you hear one complaint about the advisor, ok, but if all or at least several people from the group or alumni tell you bad things, it is time to worry. Thinking that it won't be the same for you because you're smarter than all these guys won't probably work.
Going to work for a big name who has 50 grad students and 20 post-docs if you like to see your mentor on a regular basis is probably a bad idea and so on...

Yes you have to be picky (not too picky, one grad in my group has trouble finding a post-doc because he basically only wants to work for five guys in the world) to choose an advisor: and the advisor is probably more important than the research topic itself. If the advisor is good, it will usually turns out fine.

Kevin said...

Anonymous said "Part of your jobs? Hello, you work at a graduate school. Advising is your job."

Sorry, but it is only part of the job. We also have to teach classes, advise undergrads, do our own research, write papers, write grant proposals, review fellow faculty for promotion, review students for admission, recruit new faculty, sit through infinitely many faculty meetings, create and revise curricula, recruit new students, ... .

Advising is a big part of our jobs (I spend an hour a week with each grad student I advise, in addition to the 2 hour a week lab meeting/journal club and varying amounts of informal interaction), but it is hardly the whole thing.

yolio said...

It seems to me that there is an awful lot of people reasoning from anecdote here. Clearly there are good and bad advisors/advisees in the world. Clearly none of us actually know what the proportions are. Can't we leave it at that? Maybe call for a study?

But, I will say one thing, when an advisor/advisee relationship goes south, the adivsor can often overcome it, learn from their mistakes, do better next time. But generally, the advisee gets one shot at a PhD advisor, and if it doesn't work out then generally that is the end of their career in science. It seems pretty clear to me that luck-of-the-advisor-draw is a major factor in who does and does not succeed in science.

DrDoyenne said...

To those with bad advisers: if you are being truly abused, switch advisers. If you absolutely cannot switch, then develop a mentor relationship with someone else on your graduate committee or another professor (but don't bad-mouth your bad adviser; just say you are looking for new or additional viewpoints/expertise, etc.).

Consider a less-than ideal advising situation as training for the real world, where you will encounter a variety of people--some excellent at their jobs and supportive of subordinates, some uncaring or too busy to bother with you, some competitive and aggressive, and some downright nasty. You can develop some excellent strategies for dealing with negative situations that your counterparts with great advisers won't have when they start their first job.

Coincidentally, I've had the following quote on my blog this week:

"A smooth sea never made a skillful mariner. " ~Unknown

Anonymous said...


Wow, that's pidgeon-holing a complex problem into an extremely convenient dichotomy if I've ever seen it.

There are a lot of gradations between "obviously evil disgusting troll" and "angelic adviser", and what's more it's often very difficult to tell immediately who's who. Some grad programs in fact force you to choose your adviser immediately upon acceptance into the university (meaning you've met your future adviser and labmates only during interviews). Kind of hard to get a clear idea on what kind of person they are in that setting (wolf in sheep's clothing is a common issue)! Also, sometimes advisers and students are both good people but find one another distasteful on a personal level after the fact.

In either case, you may say the student should leave the lab as soon as they realize their advising situation is less than ideal. But often, there are no options to switch labs by the time one finds out because of one or more of:

1) the student is too far into their research program to start completely afresh (3rd year or beyond).
2) there are no labs that they could move to within the institution because their adviser is the only one working in the field the student knows (common in broad-focused academic depts.)
3) alternative advisers are even less savory than the current one (toxic dept. syndrome).
4) alternative advisers don't have the ability to support another trainee (it's often true in toxic depts. that the best advisers are full-up because of the fact that they are good advisers).

So, it's clear that students don't "only have themselves to blame" for making a "bad choice" in adviser. Sometimes students get caught in situations that it would be extremely difficult to get out of. I'm glad you were lucky enough to get a great adviser who ended up still being great after the first year, but many aren't so lucky.

Anonymous said...

I am a bit taken aback that you title a post about advising with a phrase that implies a casual sexual relationship. If a MSP used this phrase in, say, a faculty meeting, I would consider it highly inappropriate.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous@9:22 - what a bizarre comment. First, she said she loves advising---where in the world did you get that it's a "burden"? Second, it really is part of the job. Faculty have a lot of other responsibilities as well. For me and most of the faculty I know, advising students is our favorite part of the job, far from a burden, though it can certainly be frustrating at times.

Speaking for myself, if I were in industry (which is a route I seriously considered), I would be advising students anyway, through summer internships and collaborations with faculty.

Anonymous said...

Can we revisit why Grand Funded University Scientists don't hire technicians? Are technicians of the right quality unavailable, or unavailable at the expectation of permanency of grant funded research?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Ms. PhD, at least, where I am, there are a lot of bad/mean/slave driver advisers.

As for whether it is our fault (L-siz's comment) for ending up in those groups, I also disagree. I had no idea how terrible my group was going to be. I was a bright-eyed positive graduate student who had no idea that someone could be so two-faced. This guy seemed so nice and friendly, how could he end up being a jerk adviser? Sure, if I had been listening closely I would have heard keywords like "high expectations" from the other students/post-docs, but as I mentioned, I was naive. Now I am jaded, thanks to that experience.

If you are excited about the science, are getting results and have been in the group more than a year, it is very hard to switch groups. I switched groups late in the game, but it was easier for me because the experiments weren't working anyways. Now I'm getting results in my new group and will probably still graduate sooner, but the choice to leave the group was still very hard. Plus if you are miserable, it is hard to make a life altering decision like that and feel like you are thinking about it logically.

I'm not saying that my adviser didn't put time and effort into me, but it was wasted because of the way he went about it.

I hope you (FSP) are right and maybe my school is unusually filled with meanies. Maybe that would make me feel less jaded. From where I stand, I don't want to spend the rest of my life working with people like that, even if they are just in the lab next door. I just couldn't watch them mistreat students and turn them off to science. I would have to do something, but there's nothing to do, so I'll leave you to it.

DrL said...

L-Siz: Your judgement of Ms.PhD situation (or anyone else's with a bad advisor) is very unfair.

"You made the choice. Deal with it."

Your reasoning is a fallacy.

It is basically blaming the victims for the actions of the oppressors, like telling a girl she had been raped because she dressed provocatively.

I am also in a bad adviser situation, unfortunately I did not hear any gossip before choosing the place, nor had any information to know beforehand what I am getting myself into.

People with bad advisers are not responsible for their own misery. Deal with it.

Anonymous said...

In physics (where I work) I would venture to say the number of unhappy student/advisor relationships is really small. The advisors are all nuts in some way or the other and the students are invariably lazy when it comes to administrative things but the Case of the Evil Advisor is really rare.

Its probably because we operate in much smaller groups than the bio and chem people and do not have many real deadlines and such inanity.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps there's a difference in advising depending on where the professor is at in their career...

I've had the experience for working with advisors who were up for tenure, in both cases doing independent projects that were not very closely related to their own work... Both my masters' and current PhD advisor are both people that I have become friendly with...

But both are very hands-off, focused on their own work, and it has been incredibly difficult to get them to read my grants/manuscripts/etc. My master's professor took in a ridiculous amount of students, and gave minimal advising--only those that were very independent were able to succeed in her program.

My master's advisor has gotten tenure, and I've moved on to a different PhD program. I still remain friends with her, but like her much better as a friend than an advisor.

My PhD advisor is very stressed about being up for tenure, and thus has been focused on her own work, and has not been that helpful to me this year (my first year, she was much more helpful and encouraging). She won't read anything until RIGHT before a deadline (Even in some cases when she has had my drafts, and I've reminded her regularly, for MONTHS), and then a day or two before the deadline she will finally get back to me either wanting me to re-write the whole thing or tell me to wait on submitting because it's not ready. And this has happened several times, and is causing a major delay in my ability to apply for grants/begin my research.

I hope this will change once she (hopefully) has tenure, but right now, it's hard to get much support.

And from my observations, it seems that the hands-off approach seems to be pretty common in my field. I've seen it in a lot of students relationships with their advisors.

Anonymous said...

To L-Siz: although technically it is correct that if you are unhappy with your adviser then you made a bad choice, you are missing an important part of that equation: we make the best decision with the information we have at hand, but sometimes this information is not enough to keep us from making a bad decision. When someone is searching for a PhD adviser, they may not know all the questions they should be asking if no one ever explained to them what those questions are. For example, when I was an undergrad, my professors explained that it is important to join a lab with a professor in a decent funding situation, someone who is not a total slave-driver, the atmosphere of the lab should be collaborative rather than competitive, etc. They did not explain that other questions are important as well. For example, does this professor share my priorities in terms of work-life balance? How much emphasis is placed on productivity in terms of shear volume of publications rather than quality of publication and knowledge accrued in the process? Is this person going to provide any career mentoring, or is the future of their students irrelevant to them? Given the information that I had at hand, I thought I was making a good choice. I was wrong. Was that my fault? Partly, but it was also partly the fault of all the people who encouraged me to go to grad school without providing much input about how to pick the right one.

To qaz: good point about personality mismatch being a big contributing factor towards the experience of a bad adviser and a bad advisee. That's the primary issue between me (and several others in my group) and our adviser.

Expectations are key. If you expect to have your hand held throughout most of your PhD work and your adviser is more of a sink-or-swim type, you will be disappointed. You will perceive this as "bad advising", even though this style may work just fine for more independent advisees who would prefer to figure it out on their own. Likewise, your adviser will probably perceive you as a bad advisee.

FemaleAssistantProf said...


Interesting that in the adviser is always, exclusively, "he".

I know that at CMU CS the number of female students has, in the past(?), been better compared not to the number of male students, but to the number of students named 'Dave'... I also know that the document is almost 25 years old. Still I find it surprising that no one has edited that part (out) of it...

Anonymous said...

I always felt that my advisor thought he was "doing me a favor" to be my advisor, even though he was actually a very good advisor. He actually said as much, and that made me feel sort of angry. Of course I got more from him than he did from me, but as someone said in an earlier comment, that was part of his job. His NSF funding mandated training, and I was part of that program.

FSP's post discusses the short-term benefits/disadvantages of being an advisor. One thing to note is that when you have student, even one who is difficult, in the long run, if that student eventually succeeds, the advisor will continually get some credit for that success (particularly if the advisor has multiple successful students). However, if the student fails, it is unlikely that anyone will blame the advisor. So for a couple years of investment, there is the potential of a long period in which all the successes of the former student are at least partially credited to the advisor.

Candid Engineer said...

To Ms. PhD and everyone else with a crappy adviser: You have no one to blame for choosing a crappy adviser other than yourself. It was your choice... No one made you work for them. You made the choice. Deal with it.

L-Siz, your statement is pretty ignorant. Although I've never had to deal with a crappy advisor, I can thinking of two situations off the top of my head in which working for a shitty advisor is not a choice.

1. Sometimes students are not allowed to unilaterally select their advisor. In my graduate department, students didn't select an advisor until mid-way through the first year. Students would submit lists of their 'top 3' choices for advisor. Guess what- several students each year get stuck with an advisor they don't want because there isn't enough room in the 'desirable' labs.

2. A Ph.D. often takes 5-6 years to complete. I have witnessed more than one circumstance in which the behavior/situation of the advisor changes dramatically over the time to degree. The advisor the student selects might be perfectly wonderful in the beginning, but due to life circumstances/changes in tenure/promotion/traveling habits, said advisor might morph into something else entirely.

That being said, I have little sympathy for postdocs complaining about advisors. You should have done the research to know what you're getting into when you signed up, and no one is twisting your arm to do a postdoc in a particular lab.

Globalistgirl said...

L-Siz: Way to be helpful. I have a bad advisor. Here, bad==explicitly said that dealing with sexual harassment in his group is not his job. I had NO IDEA that he did not consider that part of his job. NO INKLING, NO RUMORS, NOTHING. By the time I found out the hard way, I was three years into a PhD program and about to take my prelims. I talked to the department head about switching groups, and I would have had to start all over. Obviously, I'm just a bleeding idiot who deserves all the sexual harassment anyone decides to give me for choosing to finish the research that I started instead of taking 8+ years to finish, thinking that the department and Office of Equal Opportunity and Access would improve things.

John Vidale said...

Around this blog I feel ever a contrarian, but I'll offer that students more than pull their weight. Senior ones help write proposals, even the juniors know Matlab and other technical tools better than I do. I mainly go to meetings and politic and chat on the phone with my friends, then rove the corridors encouraging the students to do the real work in my projects.

Considering their paupers' wages, they're a bargain. We scientists regularly ponder whether we should hire an already-trained post-doc or add another student with a grant, and most of the time the funds are spent on a student.

I wouldn't underestimate the downstream benefits of having a crew of one's own graduates out in academia, on panels and awards committees and in funding agencies.

Scientists who bemoan the work of training graduate students must be doing it wrong, in my experience.

Mad Chemist Chick said...

Am I the only one who saw the title on FSP's feed and thought "Advisor with benefits? Ewwwww!"

Really? I'm the only whose mind went straight to sex? Damn.

L-siz said...

People are responsible for their choices. You pick a bad advisor for whatever reason, as many of you mentioned, you're stuck with them because it's too difficult to change labs.

And no, i don't think I'm over simplifying it. It's your PhD/post-doc, take responsibility for it.

I've never had the bad misfortune to experience or observe an abusive/toxic advisor/advisee relationship. So I do think it is in the minority. Perhaps certain fields are more abusive to their graduate students than others, or maybe I've just been incredibly lucky, but I doubt that.

If you have a bad advisor and you're stuck in that situation, it's probably best to figure out how to make the best of the situation. Or leave.

Anonymous said...

L-siz. Instead of looking at this as emotionally abusive adviser/advisee relationship, let's take a different track using your text:


People are responsible for their choices. You wear revealing clothing for whatever reason, as many of you mentioned, you're stuck with the obvious consequences.

And no, i don't think I'm over simplifying it. It's your body, take responsibility for it.

I've never had the bad misfortune to experience sexual assault. So I do think it is in the minority. Perhaps certain men are more abusive to their partners than others, or maybe I've just been incredibly lucky, but I doubt that.

If you are in a sexually abusive relationship and you're stuck in that situation, it's probably best to figure out how to make the best of the situation. Or leave.


And no, I'm not saying that sexual abuse is exactly synonymous with adviser abuse. I'm just trying to get you to understand the inherent problem with this victim blaming you continue to pursue.

Anonymous said...

GlobalistGirl: It is your responsibility to make it your advisors responsibility that you not be sexually harassed. Document it, talk to people, pester people, go to the chair, go to the provost. Whomever is doing the sexual harassing should be removed from the working environment.

But this won't happen unless you do something about it.

People aren't perfect and lab dynamics can be really difficult to control. No one should expect their adviser to be able to control all the interactions in the lab.

Globalistgirl said...

Anonymous at 8/31/2009 10:02:00 AM:

And what do you think I've done? Sit on my ass, crying?

No one is removing him because my advisor has tenure, and my advisor thinks he's a good worker. That he's a sexual harasser is obviously irrelevant. The department head will protect me from getting kicked out, but he won't remove the harasser because it's my advisor's lab. All higher administrators defer to the department head.

And who's asking my advisor to control all interactions in lab? I'm asking him to take his legal and ethical responsibility for dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace, not to micromanage every single word exchange. He has said outright that interactions between group members are not his job in any shape or form. The department head, the Vice-Provost, and Dean of Professional and Graduate Education all disagree. That doesn't seem to matter.

I'm defending in less than two weeks, and I'm sick of hearing that I'm a whiny bitch that needs to suck it up and take my own responsibility for other people's actions yada yada yada. The assumption is clear incompetence and/or lack of initiative. I have a 50-page document with documentation of sexual harassment over five years, I have spoken with department heads, many deans, other faculty members, the Vice-Provost, the Office of Equal Opportunity and Access, the Women's Center, most of whom are crossing their fingers that I won't sue. I proactively built a support network of technicians, students at other schools, students in other groups, and faculty at other schools. I stopped an attempt from my advisor to kick me out for starting trouble. I tried speaking directly with the harasser, and I tried speaking with my advisor before going over his head. I found my own projects, I designed the experiments, I wrote up the results.

What I have left to do is to start a formal grievance procedure against my advisor. I'm sure you can see the risks to me. I'm taking my PhD and leaving. But don't join the 'helpful' chorus of people telling me it's my own fault because I'm not proactive enough.

Anonymous said...

As an advisor myself, I DO actually feel that the advisor in general benefits more from the students than the other way round.

I can now hear the cries of indignation from my fellow faculty.

Make no mistake I am constantly busy. I'm busy with teaching classes, doing service and committee work, trying to secure new funding, managing current funded projects, participating in professional societies, etc. etc. Oh, and also advising my grad students.

What I mean to point out is, while I don't think that most advisors sit around on their asses all day doing nothing while the students toil night and day, at the same time i do think that I benefit more directly from my student's toil than they do from mine even though both of us are toiling as many hours a week at our respective tasks. Most of what I do, doesn't benefit my grad students directly. For example, they dont' benefit from me teaching classes (unless they are taking the class too) or serving on department committees (again, unless it leads to something tangible that affects them positively and immediately). I suppose we can argue they do benefit indirectly from everything that we as faculty do - e.g. the more I participate in professional societies the more I *may* increase my professional standing which *may* lead to an easier time getting more grant funding to support my grad students' work. But let's not kid ourselves that our current grad students benefit from our 60-100+ hours of work that we do per week, compared to how much we benefit from THEM doing their 60-100+ hours of work per week.

Let me state another way: most of what my grad students do in the lab, benefits me directly in the form of publications that bear my name and add to my CV, to new equipment or procedures being developed in my lab for my future students to use, to new material for me to based grant proposals on. While I do spend time advising them directly, most of what I do as a faculty does not affect them directly, even though I'm not sitting on my ass all day either.

Kevin said...

Globalistgirl, you may have to sue. I know that our campus had a sexual harassment lawsuit about 20 years ago, which resulted in a lot of infrastructure getting created to make sure that sexual harassment was promptly addresses and corrected. There is now an annual report with counts of sexual harassment incidents and what was done about them (anonymous). The number and severity of incidents is quite low on our campus, in part due to the awareness and training that all grad students and faculty receive.

Anonymous said...

"To Ms. PhD and everyone else with a crappy adviser:

You have no one to blame for choosing a crappy adviser other than yourself. It was your choice. You probably had heard rumors about them before you started working for them. If big name/big school is important for you and you choose crappy adviser, you really can't complain.

I personally have had the fortune of working for wonderful people, who have advised, supported, mentored, became friends. From undergrad to post-doc."

wow you have lived a very sheltered professional life. No wonder it's so easy for you to take on this holier-than-thou, blame-the-victim attitude toward those who were not as fortunate.

(do you really think that every trainee who is in a bad advisor/lab situation is simply too dumb to realize that all they need to do is just leave and that will solve everything?)

Anonymous said...

I feel like a lot of this good advisor/bad advisor business could be partially sorted out with a common understanding of expectations on both sides. What if advisors had some sort of "industry standard," or "advising rubric" to go by? What if there were advising evaluation forms? Or, even better, formal training in managing a group as well as leadership (not the same thing)?

In my personal professional situation, my graduate adviser was phenomenal, in every possible sense (very fair & unbiased, benign support for all students, provided many opportunities for students to learn, including patience for writing papers, grants, presentations, and mentoring other students). He was very established and extremely successful, as were ~85% of the students coming out of his lab. (And, usually, the other 15% had other things going on in their lives, external to lab, that would explain an unsuccessful outcome). I feel like his model of advising would work for most people in most disciplines. But not everybody has had this experience. Some advisors may have been successful themselves due to extreme brilliance on their own part. How do these brilliant scientists, then, morph into great advisors?

My postdoc advisor, in contrast to my phd advisor, ran his lab in such a toxic way that the majority of his group will leave science, one by one. Those who continue on (myself included) barely muster up enough self-respect to even apply for their dream jobs, much less have the confidence (or experience in public speaking or grant writing) to get them. Now, if my postdoc adviser ("man of misery") were to be aware of some "industry standard", or perhaps take a class in "management 101" followed by "leadership 101", would things be different? Postdoc advisor is extremeley brilliant, and, in the absence of other factors, genuinely desires for student success. However, my assessment is that he feels that strongly negative motivating tactics are essential, and that's just not the way to educate and support long term academic success (as evidenced by his recent track record in losing great scientists).

Currently, I am faculty myself. I feel lucky to have had at least one fantastic advisor, and hope to model myself off of his high standards. I almost wish he would write an advisor "playbook" or something, so that there would be at least a starting point for discussion!

Minos said...

Overall, I found myself saying a lot of "Amen" in this post, and I think you've hit the substantitive points right on the head; there is one, though, I must take issue with.

I don't think it's remotely true that for most students they consume more resources than they produce. It's certainly true of the worst students. While it's technically possible that a handful of brilliant students end up carrying the weight of a large number of dullards, the fact that PhD programs continue, year after year to take in large numbers of grad students and output great science suggests that the output of most students is worth the cost in time and money.

The correct comparison, as some have noted, is to technicians. The fact that technician-bloated labs are almost never as successful as labs burgeoning with grad students (and, in fact, unusually post-doc heavy labs are not as productive as you might expect, given the greater experience of the lab hands) indicates that the output (in economic terms) ain't too shabby.

PhD programs aren't charity operations (it's also true they aren't cash cows), and most of the students are earning their (meager) daily bread most of the time, their Internet-surfing habits notwithstanding.

All that said, the main point is right. The advisor's contribution is enormous even in the case of rather poor advisors, and truly great advisors can be transformative for some students and projects.

Anonymous said...

Stay strong, Globalistgirl. Perhaps this blog post can help:

l-siz said...

Please, graduates students with bad advisers aren't victims.

Let's make a distinction between abusive (verbally physically) advisers and bad (uninterested, unsupporting etc)

Heather said...

Coming in late here, but I have always felt that advising was somewhat analogous to parenting, once the commitment was made on both sides.

The greatest parallel is that although as the senior, one feels that the junior should be appropriately grateful for one's contributions, often the junior doesn't realize the extent of these until many years have gone by. There is no reason to, either - the young one is the future, and we need to invest in the future.

Grad students are just a very long-term investment.

Like for teenagers, there is no way that grad students can imagine the behind-the-scenes contributions and the other claims on an advisor's time. Of course advisors will, at best, be taken for granted, or more often, resented, or occasionally, revered. I think that is par for the course.

Like for parents, there is no real manual in "how to be a great advisor". You play it by ear and find your own style, and probably there are advisors, like parents, who should never have taken on that role. I doubt such a judgement should be passed on most, though.