Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Drawing the Line

A reader asks:

How long do you typically give 1st or 2nd year grad students to "pull things together" when they struggle in the beginning? Where is the line is drawn and what factors affect the judgments professors will make about their students?

I will consider only PhD students in this discussion.

I should say right away that I do not have a foolproof way of deciding when or where to draw the line on struggling students. I tend to err on the side of delusional optimism, hoping that some solution involving change in project (topics, methods), degree of supervision (more structure, specific goal-setting), or approach to writing will pull us all through the problems. Only in hindsight has it been obvious when this was a bad plan, resulting in prolonged suffering and expense. In other cases, it has worked; by "worked" I mean that the student got their PhD and therefore any difficulties were worth it, I think.

That said, when and where I draw the line depends on the specific things with which the student is struggling and how (or whether) they are making an effort to communicate about and/or deal with the problem(s).

Is the problem motivation? If a student is unproductive owing to a severe lack of interest or motivation in any reasonable research project they can do with me as adviser, that is something that should be quite clear in the second year, if not the first. (though I have had students who started out very energetic in the first year but whose motivation was completely extinguished in the second by the reality of what research and/or working with me involves)

Is the problem that the student lacks the information or skills necessary to do the research? That can be fixed in many cases, and should be dealt with by the end of the second year. The student should be as proactive as possible about learning what they need to know to do their research.

Is the problem the adviser? Is this something that could be fixed by discussing the situation or is it something that can't be changed? If the latter, the student has a decision to make about whether to continue with that adviser. Although it is possible that, with time, the student may understand better what seems like irrational or unkind behavior, it is likely that the adviser won't become more sane or nice with time.

Is the problem beyond the student's control? Examples: Access to facilities? A complex and difficult research project that may proceed in a non-linear way? Lack of clear direction? Research that takes a long time to produce interpretable results? I am impressed by students who find ways to deal with obstacles like these.

In fact, a student who feels like they are struggling, perhaps because they are too critical when comparing themselves with others, may not be struggling in the eyes of the adviser and other faculty.

Other problems, such as those involving finishing a project or writing, may not manifest themselves until later (after the first two years).

In the first two years, it is not too late to change course in a possibly dramatic way, including deciding that there is no point in continuing in the graduate program. There have been a few cases in which I decided in the first or second year that there was no point in advising a student for a PhD; these students got an MS instead. There has to be an obvious, major reason for going this route, though -- e.g., failed classes or lack of productivity owing to extreme lack of effort.

Will a student who has a slow (but not catastrophic) first year or two be at a permanent disadvantage? I suppose this depends on the adviser, but in my opinion, a student who struggles with something in the first year or two, but who eventually surmounts the obstacles and succeeds, should not be at a disadvantage later. In fact, few arrive in graduate school perfectly prepared to leap into the perfect project that goes perfectly from Day One.

If you had asked any of my graduate advisers or committee members what they thought of me in my first or second years of graduate school, the responses would have ranged from a derisive snort to a polite but sympathetic chuckle at my likely future career as a cat sitter. That changed a few years later once I started getting results and writing papers, and my slow start didn't harm my career.

If you (mostly) like what you are doing, and at times possibly even love what you are doing, and you want to keep going with your research, despite initial problems, my advice, summarized, is: Stay focused, know what your goals are (short-range, intermediate-range, long-range), communicate with your adviser and others, if you feel stuck at least make some progress step-by-step (even if the steps seem small), and don't worry so much.


Anonymous said...

I am changing my views on this after 18 years as an advisor. Now having seen a number of students, including a couple of my own, continue to struggle in years 5 and worse 6, I am starting to think its better to make a clear decision about whether you want to continue working with a student by the beginning of their third year. This allows the possibility of an exit with a Masters without an inordinate amount of time spent, or , in some cases, the transfer to a different lab that might be a better fit for the student.

I also tend toward delusional optomism that things can/will change, but recent experience is finally starting to sink in.

That having been said, I also had a very slow start, spent 6.5 years in grad school, and am glad my advisor did not give up or pull the plug. I think its important to differentiate between motivation or intellectual ability issues (these do not usually resolve, based on watching dozens of students) versus ineptitude in the lab due to the usual factors (these issues often do solve themselves)

Mark P

Anonymous said...

If you had asked any of my graduate advisers...what they thought of me in my first...years of graduate school, the responses would have ranged from a derisive snort to a polite but sympathetic chuckle...

This made me laugh quite a bit - a former professor of mine actually derided me to her own grad student early on in my grad career...yet here I am, a fairly successful postdoc looking for faculty positions.

If you (mostly) like what you are doing, and at times possibly even love what you are advice... Stay focused, know what your goals are...communicate with your adviser and others...and don't worry so much.

Couldn't agree with this statement more! Research takes patience, and it always will.

Anonymous said...

Would love to see a future post with tips on selecting students (as well as hiring postdocs and techs). I'm beginning the search for a TT position next fall. At my current institution (fancy name MRU) I've seen that inefficient and unmotivated staff are usually tolerated and almost never asked to leave. But I suspect that making poor decisions in hiring at a smaller institution (and in a new lab) could be catastrophic.
I'm referring to people who barely show up or have no motivation to work-- not those who struggle with the usual challenges of lab research.

barbara said...

I have nothing to add, except I'm recommending this to all my grad students.

Anonymous said...

You mention motivation, but what about procrastination and its companions anxiety and lack of structuring and time management skills - IME the biggest obstacle? Or do you consider procrastination as fundamentally a motivation issue?

Kevin said...

Even harder than the adviser's job is the grad director's job, who may have to kick people out of the program entirely. What do you do with a student who hasn't managed to convince any adviser that they are worth the risk after 2 years? For students who have also been failing courses, it is easy, but what about the students who pass their courses but can't seem to get started on a research project?

At the other end of the spectrum, what about those who start many good projects but don't finish any? One of the best researchers I know never finished his PhD, though he had enough "class" projects that were novel enough to be PhD theses---he never wrote them up. I myself did not have an adviser until my 8th year of grad school (the second fellowship was ending, so I had to get someone to take my latest project as a PhD thesis).

Anonymous said...

When do you ultimately "fire" a student and how? I have a student who left my group for another advisor, was "fired" by that advisor and switched back to me, and now has made zero progress in a full year and communicates perhaps 2-3 times per semester (always with excuses). Is it time for her to go?

Female Science Professor said...


Anonymous said...

@Anon at 11:26:00 AM: Sure, procrastination and lack of time management are common issues. But they can typically be overcome if the person has the motivation to change.

Sarah Cobey said...

Mark P, I'm afraid I might be one of those people with "intellectual ability issues." Are the telltale signs nonobvious? How do you know? I came close to flunking a course outside my department as a grad student. (I'm now in my first year of a postdoc. I completed my PhD in five years, but my publication record is lousy and research feel constantly quite hard... though enjoyable in a vacuum.) During my 'exit meeting' with my PhD adviser, I obliquely expressed concern about the competitiveness of academia and whether I could cut it. She's incredibly successful, but she reiterated that the stats on funding and employment should dismay anyone. She then said it was unhelpful to worry and that I should just focus on doing the research. Gah. Easier said than done. I've a higher pain tolerance than most--should it still be this hard, or should I drawn the line myself?

Anonymous said...

The issue with giving a MS for students after 2 years, what about students who came into the PhD program with a MS degree already.

And what do you mean "firing"
There are those students on the payroll and those that are not on the adviser's payroll. How should adviser treat students who are working for you for free, they are working as TAs, do you they get more time because you are not paying them from a research grant???

Anonymous said...

Ultimately a Ph.D. student needs to take control of their own project, both on a day-to-day level and ultimately at the big picture level. When a good student finishes, they are the world expert on their area, and are in the drivers seat of the project.

I was hesitant to use the phrase "intellectual ability" because I think there are very few if any students entering Ph.D. programs who don't have a lot of ability. It's not all about grades, even in grad classes, though a consistent history of barely making it should be taken seriously. The question comes down to whether you have that set of talents that will allow you to succeed and enjoy a career in science.

When we are evaluating students after 2-3 years in the program, that's what we're trying to predict. If you are not starting to make the transition described above, then its time to think about whether your talents might serve you better in a different field. That doesn't mean that a good student or even a great student doesn't have moments of doubt or crises of confidence--I still have those moments myself.

In answer to Sarah, If you are already in a postdoc and not making any progress, then it is time to be thinking about other options. I have former students and postdocs using their Ph D's in a remarkable variety of ways, many of them quite happy.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mark P.,

Faculty can do a disservice to students by letting them coast for years and years when they are not making progress. I've seen a number of students stay in school for years and years and never (or barley) eek out a PhD. They are unhappy & unproductive & can make others in their lab unhappy too. In many (but not all) of these cases it was obvious early on that they were not making progress, but their advisors just let them coast along.

I think setting up clear expectations for students (and advisors) can help everyone keep tabs on progress and happiness. There are many things you can do with (and without) a PhD in science that don't involve becoming a faculty member or PI.

I used to think I could mentor all the students in my lab to be great scientists -- I've come to realize that was a silly goal. My job is to mentor them to become whatever it is that makes them happy -- and sometimes that requires them to stop a degree program (and this, I know, is a painful process).

Anonymous said...

I think it's important for advisors to give early and continuous feedback to the students and be clear from the outset what the standard for performance is. As in the working world, having quarterly performance reviews is helpful with grad students too since in the sciences grad students are also employees of the advisor. It's important that the students understand that they are employees too and that unlike in their undergraduate years their graduate education and progress or lack thereof is not solely their own business because their success or failure in their thesis research will impact their advisor as well to some degree thus the advisor has a right to demand a minumum level of performance. Similarly the student has a right to know if their advisor is thinking badly of them, well in advance so that they can change or improve. Sometimes it comes down to just different working or communication styles and not so much to the student's intelligence or competence. The worst is when the student doesn't know that the advisor thinks badly of them until the advisor fires them. I've seen this happen many times.

Anonymous said...

I just defended my dissertation (after almost 6 years) and I feel like I finally hit my stride in years 4-6. A lot of the trouble I had did not have much to do with motivation or intellectual ability (although some extra math ability wouldn't hurt) but with learning how to manage my adviser. She has a tendency to heap numerous, often random projects and tasks on anyone without the selfishness, fortitude, and or wisdom to say no. I had never imagined that learning how to deliberately get out of work would be essential to finishing my degree, but it was actually one of the most useful skills I developed. So I would advise advisers to look at things from the struggling student's perspective: What does the student believe is expected of them? Is it possible? Is it compatible with having a life outside of your work? In my experience, sometimes high expectations, especially if they have to do more with quantity than quality, can do more harm than good.

Anonymous said...

I know how the last poster feels. My advisor was throwing 18 different things at me all at once. Then he'd get upset at my lack of progress. I finally started to ignore him and focus on one issue until I am satisfied, then move to the next. Seems like I am able to accomplish more this way, and my advisor seems (marginally) more happy. I guess it's not good to assume your advisor is the most effective manager.

Anonymous said...

I am a recent Ph.D. graduate who had little to no advising done by my advisor. He was never around and didn't care about me. I secured my own funding through an NIH training grant for 4 years and did two research rotations in other labs/groups where I was well liked and worked hard. I had a number of uninteresting projects and still worked at them even when they were going next to nowhere. I passed my orals and cumulative exams with little trouble and research was going all right but rather slow. I came from a background completely different than the field I got my Ph.D, in and I struggled throughout (I had to take a lot of pre-requisite courses and was taking classes until the end of my fourth year). It was not a good situation and in hindsight I should have moved to another group where mentoring was a priority.

I'm now in a postdoc, which I secured myself with little to no help from my advisor. The work is not all that exciting and/or creative. However, I like my new boss infinitely better because he cares and he is interested in my work and in actually trying to help me succeed. Things are going slowly, but they are moving forward (I've been here nearly 6 months and have completed 1/3 of my project which is likely going to last 2 years). Any advice?