Thursday, November 19, 2009

More Co-Advice

Yesterday I attempted to cover a few topics relevant to being co-advised and being a co-adviser. Today's continuation of the general topic of co-advising explores some of these topics further from the point of view of the co-adviser. As science and engineering -- and perhaps other fields of which I know little -- become more inter-multi-transdisciplinary and co-advising becomes more common, it is important for faculty to be aware of the benefits and risks of co-advising with certain people.

Therefore, in an attempt to further evaluate factors involved in a decision about whether to co-advise, I asked the FSP Editorial Board:

Would you co-advise with [insert name of 'difficult' colleagues]?

Answer: No.

But: In one case, an attempt at co-advising with a Very Difficult Colleague was made and, perhaps not surprisingly, was very difficult. In this case, however, being co-advised helped the student a lot because at least one adviser was a reasonable, nice person. The functional co-adviser was glad to have helped the student, a smart and hard-working person, and so paused a bit before answering my question.

Hence my follow-up question:

Would you co-advise with [difficult colleague] if the student was really really really great and you were fairly sure that he/she was well informed about the likely challenges of working with Difficult Colleague?

Answer: Still no.

With this additional question I was trying to assess whether it was ever worth it to co-advise with a rather difficult colleague. It seems that it may not be worth it, ever.

I feel the same way as my colleagues, and would not knowingly agree to co-advise with someone who was known for being impossible. As described yesterday in the post and in the comments, co-advising can be a burden rather than a positive experience if the advisers aren't compatible, especially if the student gets caught in the middle of conflicts.

If at all possible, it's best if everyone involved has some information about the others so as to make an informed choice. I once ignored such common-sense advice and agreed to co-advise a student in an engineering department. I hardly knew the professor with whom I agreed to co-advise, but he seemed quite pleasant, his research was fascinating to me, we had a great project, and I had the funding.

I was lucky in that the other co-adviser and I turned out to work very well together. The student, however, was rather passive and seemed to prefer a low level of research activity, and soon flamed out, blaming both of us advisers for not providing enough advising structure and attention. I thought that the weekly meetings the three of us had together might be considered as providing structure and attention, along with our many individual conversations and meetings, but alas, it was deemed insufficient.

This brings me to the topic of co-advising failures and how to (try to) prevent them. I think in some cases, such as the one I just described, students who are not particularly (pro)active about their research will struggle whether they are co- or mono-advised.

The most problematic cases directly related to the co-advising situation can be classified as:

(1) co-adviser-caused problems: co-advisers who loathe each other or are competitive with each other, who don't communicate with each other, or who have vastly different expectations (which they may or may not communicate) and/or degree of accessibility or interest in the project; or co-advisers who each expect the others to provide funding for the student, resulting in a fundless student.

(2) co-advised-caused problems: students who wait for their various advisers to take the initiative and help them; students who play co-advisers off against each other, thus annoying their advisers and, in extreme cases, losing the trust and respect of their advisers.

I mention here some of the perils and pitfalls, but I have found that co-advising has no more (and perhaps fewer) problems than mono-advising and, if the co-advisers are collegial, the advising adventure becomes very interesting for everyone involved.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

I would never co-mentor a student or post-doc with a douchebag. It's not worth the hassle.

blaming both of us advisers for not providing enough advising structure and attention. I thought that the weekly meetings

Weekly motherfucking meetings with a motherfucking grad student!?!?!?!? And that wasn't enough!?!?!?!?


Anonymous said...

I am a little suspicious of these interdisciplinary stuff. Don't get me wrong, some of the most extraordinary scientists I know are very interdisciplinary. Indeed, my very "suspicion" comes from this notion: It takes a truly exceptional mind to produce work that is meaningful in two fields at the same time. So when I run into an average Joe/Jane scientist (like me!!!) who claims to be "interdisciplinary", I roll my eyes. I take it as code for "I couldn't be bothered to learn either field properly".

Anonymous said...

You can roll your eyes, but it's easier to just stick to one field than to be brave enough to adventure into new fields. In today's world flexibility is rewarded, getting stuck in one outdated field will not bring you much. Unless you are lucky and get stuck into a field that has funding. Then yeah, you can afford it. And you can roll your eyes all you want, of course, it's on your own money lol.

Anonymous said...

I'm interdisciplinary and have had been ever since final year of undergrad. For me it is actually harder to stay in one field as what I am doing is so complex that without the understanding of either fields you can't go any further...yeah, it drives me nuts at times with so much to learn but that is why we need co-advisors, so that we are not drifting into useless territories because we don't quite know what we are doing.

Comrade Physioprof said...

It takes a truly exceptional mind to produce work that is meaningful in two fields at the same time.

This comment reflects gross ignorance of the nature of interdisciplinary research.

yolio said...

The problem I have with the "exceptional mind" premise (aside from it being simply wrong, as CPP points out) is this: how does one diagnose an exceptional mind? It seems to me that this is just an excuse not to pay attention or listen to people who you have deemed not "exceptional" enough.

Anonymous said...

I am genuinely curious as to CPP's and Yolio's disdain for anonymous's concern about the need for (to tone down the comments a bit) very thoughtful people to do meaningful interdisciplinary work. As someone who has worked in an interdisciplinary field for the past ~15 years, I see tons of people who claim to be doing outstanding multidisciplinary work, but in fact they are just relying on the fact that each community is ignorant of basic ideas from the other community to pawn off very basic results as world-shaking (or perhaps they themselves are ignorant of basic facts, and so are re-proving well established ideas?? (which they may in fact get away with if the original ideas were published prior to searchable literature...) Not always clear). Anyway, I'm actually quite pleased to know that more people are capable of thinking deeply about several fields at once than I am accustomed to!? Please expand.

Kevin said...

A lot of good interdisciplinary work comes from recognizing that a common tool in one field has applicability in another field. This sort of work does not require genius, but does require knowing the problems and tools of multiple fields to find the pairing that works.

There is a need for narrow specialists who can advance a field by pushing hard on one point. There is also a need for broad generalists who can take the work of specialists and broaden it from a single point of application to wide range of problems. Very few people are good at both (and they are highly prized).

Of course, in any field and in any style of research there are a lot of people doing not-very-good, not-very-interesting, been-done-before work. I don't think that interdisciplinary work is any more or less infested with these parasites than traditional specialties are.

Anonymous said...

to the Anon who rolls their eyes at interdisciplinary research, you may find that your career lacks 'resilience' in today's changing face of science (according to this very recent article in Naturejobs):

Anonymous said...

Wow... as the Anon with the now famous rolling eyes.... I have to say I didn't expect this much attention. Come on guys, CPP has done so much more to grab our attention by licking his vocabulary right off the street and you guys waste your time with me :)

All I wanted to say was that sometimes "fashionable" things tend to take over true science. The "Interdisciplinary" label is, more often than not, used as an excuse to shine up an otherwise superficial effort.

I know interdisciplinary is a buzzword and that is exactly why I am suspicious.

Anonymous said...

From my experience, being the first interdisciplinary post-grad across two departments, the main problems are the lack of trust between my 2 supervisors or me (as I am actuallly from a third in effect it is spanning three fields). This lack of trust do put a limit on what I am able to do as apart from pushing the research forward, there is the added problem of mediating and at the moment I have already pushed to the limit on what they are willing to let me know which is very different to what they are allowing the other supervisor to know. So, when you mention mediocre interdisciplinary research there are often a lot of reasons why as we are the middleman, so to speak, and generally not liked but needed in one sense. Of course there are those who are just wasting time because this niche needed filling but there were no alternative.

Anonymous said...

I have a similar situation- I'm a junior tenure-track PI, hands full with my own lab, + I still do experiments. A senior colleague whom I respect asked me to co-mentor a student (who, it turns out, knows less than nothing). It turns out this kid will be working with me the whole time, and I will have to train him. In retrospect, it's clearly a no-brainer- ie, a bad idea. Comments on best way to deal with it gracefully?