Monday, February 13, 2012

On the Importance of Liking

Professors who advise students: Do you feel that it is

(1) essential
(2) important to some extent
(3) nice if it happens but not that important, or
(4) completely irrelevant

that you like your advisees?

I am not writing about any of my own students, past or present. I am musing about a comment a colleague once made to the effect that it was really important that s/he liked her/his advisees.

In the case of undergraduate students, you may be in a position to pick and choose advisees after previous interaction in classes and beyond. In the case of graduate students, it is likely to be more hit-and-miss. I think many of us try to work with whatever comes along, in terms of grad personalities, just as we hope our students will also be a bit tolerant of some/all or our annoying characteristics.

But what about you? How important is liking to you?


plam said...

I think that, since we're not actually robots, there will be better outcomes when one likes one's advisees. But I don't think that one can (or should?) select for that trait, and I think it's desirable to consciously minimize the delta in outcomes. Doing so can help avoid the mini-me syndrome where we graduate students that are just like ourselves.

Unknown said...

i have a friend who gathers around herself people who are different to herself to maximise the synergy of the team. i like the idea, but dislike conflict. liking people is important for me, but accepting students from all over the world makes it a difficult characteristic to select for, so i have learned to choose to like people who are out of my comfort zone by appreciating our differences and minimizing our conflicts. it works. more or less!

Anonymous said...

Liking my students doesn't seem that important to me, but not disliking them certainly is.

Janice said...

It's nice but not necessary. I try to find something that builds a non-academic common ground with every advisee, so there's something besides just work, work, work to serve as a conversation starter.

It's important not to try too hard to be friends when you're acting as a supervisor. That's when too much friendship and socialization can be counter-productive!

Anonymous said...

Critically important. If you like someone, you are more likely to want to spend time with them, increasing mentoring. The becomes even more important if you have a large group, where favoritism could come into play.

Anonymous said...

It's important not to dislike your students.

dolce vita said...

I'm not a prof (haven't even entered that tunnel, haha), but I am a grad student. I don't mind having a cordial, professional relationship with my PI, but I certainly like him as a person and hope he likes me as an individual-I think the atmosphere in the lab is such.

Anonymous said...

3 - nice if it happens.
I think it is important not to actively dislike your advisees, but where they fall on the scale between neutral and like doesn't matter much.

Anonymous said...

What do you mean by "like"? Do not actively dislike? Capable of getting along with? Would actually be friends if they weren't your student?

I guess for me "like" in a professional context just means can have a conversation with the person outside of a work context, and the person does not constantly irritate/annoy/anger me. Obviously we all annoy each other from time to time, so that's not what I mean. I think given how closely we are expected to work with our advisees it's pretty important to like each other to that extent. I have a very difficult time doing productive work if I am actually angry.

Ann said...

You pose this as if "liking" is somehow unimportant.

I think is is important that my students are ethical people whom i can trust, respect, and work productively with. I guess that means i think it important that I "like" them. It is not important to me whether my advisees share my non science interests or political opinions though.

Lisa C. said...

i think it makes the job easier when you like them, but at the end of the day they are all humans so you treat them respectfully and the outcomes are positive

Anonymous said...

As a professor at a SLAC, my perspective is a bit different. I serve as an academic advisor for about a dozen undergraduates in the major, and it doesn't matter whether I like them or not (and in any case, I have no choice in the matter).

On the other hand, since advising undergraduates in my lab is basically one long training process requiring a lot of hands-on supervision and assistance with experiments, liking my students turns out to be pretty important. Otherwise it's just not worth the time and aggravation.

Anonymous said...

I think liking your advisees is definitely easier - it's hard to spend significant people that get your back up. I don't think it's the central criteria for a good productive relationship. For instance some students who are really bright and ambitious can also be kind of annoying (if they feel they always need to show everyone that they are bright and ambitious) but they can still be good and productive (and maybe over time they'll mellow and mature). So, I think liking them is of modest importance.

Anonymous said...

The point about mini me syndrome is important, I think. One lab in our department is full of female grad students/lab employees who are soft spoken, a bit timid, and overly accommodating - just like I can imagine their adviser probably was at their age. Together they form a vortex of awkwardness and passive behavior that gives me an eye twitch if I have to go in there for more than a minute. I wonder often if they would benefit professionally from having more of a variety of work styles and personalities in their lab. In our lab, our advisor forces us to rigorously defend our ideas and I think it leaves us better prepared to do so in public forums. It's also good for genuine, lasting confidence when your adviser, who you know disapproves of most work in general (both yours and in the field), finally actually says "good work." Whereas if things are a nicey nice love fest all the time maybe you don't develop as much of a spine.

Just some thoughts :)

Anonymous said...

"like" is a big word. Personally I think it's important to understand them, ie what makes them tick, and respect them. The nicest thing about having had in lab people very different from myself is that I got to know them, and developed some level of appreciation for who they are. Even *gasp* the hyperconservative religious one. I'm not sure it's even possible to genuinely like each other as the part of oneself that is exposed in an advisor-advisee relationship is so tiny.
I couldn't advise somebody I really disliked though, and when that happened, I've taken steps to terminate as soon as possible (but being the student an abusive, manipulating, unproductive individual it was very easy)

Unknown said...

It might be human nature to like some people more than others, but an advisor has so much power/control over the advisee's life that it seems morally necessary for the advisor to try to overcome how much they "like" them. After all, if the advisor is a white-male (upper-class, straight, Christian, etc...) they will be more likely to "like" advisees sharing these traits.

I know of advisors who clearly like some advisees more than others. This is known to everyone who works with this person. This advisor (male) effectively kicked out a student (female) very late in her PhD because she wasn't making good progress... because the advisor had started ignoring her 4 years earlier, because he didn't like her.

Anonymous said...

I hope "liking" isn't that important. My research group is full of dysfunctional personalities right now, ranging from "just not that bright" to "annoying" to "extremely introverted". I don't like any of them and I doubt they like each other. I don't know how to deal with this. I mean, I can advise them, but it's not really a pleasant environment to work in.

Anonymous said...

Liking advisees is essential though I make an extra effort to make sure that my like/dislike is not framed by any implicit bias. An easy way to do this is: imagine the same meeting with a student from another ethnicity/gender/other-groups and see if I would react any differently.

Anonymous said...

"I don't like any of them and I doubt they like each other. I don't know how to deal with this. "

I hope you do deal with it- there have been some conflicts in my lab, mainly another grad student (male) has been pretty abusive to me (female grad student) and my advisor seemed annoyed when I told him and he clearly expects me to handle it. I wonder how other advisors handle conflicts between lab members...

Anonymous said...

We tend to "like" people who are similar to ourselves because it's comfortable and familiar, but I've found in my experiences (multicultural labs, moving around often, research overseas, etc.) that you can "like" anyone who treats you with respect if you focus on what you have in common and not the differences. I have had coworkers who are so different from myself in culture, career goals, etc...but then we commiserate about some experiment we both happen to be doing and find common ground. Or we might find out we both happen to like some type of pastry at the coffee shop downstairs, and then we'll share coffee and a snack. We may never become the type of friends to hang out outside of work or share secrets to each other, but we enjoy each other's company at work, have fun get-togethers at work, etc. And I would say this relationship is more enjoyable/productive than a neutral one of pure respect and no "like."

This isn't something that comes naturally to everyone - see "mini-me" posts above. It's almost like an "active" liking, whereas you might "passively" like someone who is just so similar to yourself you can't help but like them. I'm lucky enough that it comes naturally to me because I happen to have an extremely extroverted personality (think off-the-charts Myers-Briggs test) and am very open to new experiences.

Whoosh said...

It can help a great deal for your own work and the grad students projects if you come along well with your students. Its not necessary that you go out with them for drinks , but you should have some kind of shared basis.
I think even more important is, that all the people in your group share some kind of positive basis and they all like to work with each other. Often "weird" people change their behaviour to sort of match the groups criteria and they become less weird with time.
In one of my former groups every group member - professor, postdocs, Phd students, technicians and assistants - was asked for their opinion before a new grad student/PostDoc/technician started and some applicants never started because the group decided that they didn't fit. That really helped to keep a good working environment but still the group is very diverse and international and not a bunch of mini-profs.

Anonymous said...

I'm also in the 3 - nice if it happens category.

I think one can be a good advisor whether or not one "likes" the student. Obviously this is easier with the more general "advising" scenario (ie undergraduate mentoring etc).

Over the years I have noticed that, in the lab setting, even if I "like" my students/group members, there are times when I find them annoying or even unbearable. Probably they feel the same towards me. In the end, I think (hope) I am still a good mentor to them & get them out with the skills they need to succeed.

Anonymous said...

"In one of my former groups every group member - professor, postdocs, Phd students, technicians and assistants - was asked for their opinion before a new grad student/PostDoc/technician started and some applicants never started because the group decided that they didn't fit."

This is what my adviser does, and I rather appreciate that my opinion is valued, but I think it can be kind of dangerous. I have two friends who are really lovely, friendly, and kind people and have gone on to do well, but they were rejected from joining a lab basically because they didn't drink and weren't big partiers - rather they were more retiring in their interests. The adviser liked them but said that the older grad students felt they didn't "fit" (ie their major goal in life wasn't getting drunk with labmates). This is absurd.

Anyway, when I answer questions about fit with my adviser I give my honest opinion but also try to temper it. It's unfair to reject someone just because I don't think I'd be friends with them. If the existing group is too tight-knit they might reject anyone not exactly like them, which is downright discriminatory.

Whoosh said...

"...but they were rejected from joining a lab basically because they didn't drink and weren't big partiers..."
Honestly, were your friends really sad about being rejected by this group if this was really the main reason? I would think, if they were accepted there, they would have had a very unpleasant time.
I guess at this point the advisor is responsible to not even get to the point where you have a group thats so narrow minded.
In our case it was always clear, that our professor just collected our opinions, but in the end he always made the final decision.

Anonymous said...

"Honestly, were your friends really sad about being rejected by this group if this was really the main reason? I would think, if they were accepted there, they would have had a very unpleasant time."

Well my friends wanted to join that group for a lot of good reasons (interesting science, great repore with prof, etc). The only reasons they didn't want to join was the same reason they were denied entry - because of harassment by specific senior graduate students. Of course I think what you are saying is that clearly the prof is completely awful at managing the lab, leading to these kinds of problems and others.

Which is basically my point. How well you "fit" with the lab is so subjective as to be almost useless... and can lead to discriminatory practices.

I think "is this person a malicious jerk" is a legit question, and profs should ask their current lab members about this. However, "do I want to be friends with this person" or "is this person sometimes annoying" are not.

Anonymous said...

I am a student and my professor has 4 other students he is guiding. I know that he gets annoyed with each of us in some way or the other. One is bossy, one is moody, one is too quiet, one wants to try everything but publish nothing, one wants to publish everything and work at nothing... i could go on forever.

From my point of view, we are a strange lot and definitely not very likeable most often. But, he kind of keeps us in control and over a few years we still work on good projects, spend days together in the lab and manage quite well.

I think he is a very tolerant and excellent professor. I do not think he has much to like in us and instead, got much to dislike but, he seems to use our skills for a goal and seems to combine our strengths and minimize our weaknesses.

One thing that i noticed is that he will not allow a conflict to continue using his sheer authority whereas, when a constructive discussion is in progress, he will be subtle and try and involve as many people as possible without disturbing the flow of the dialogue.

This seems to work well. So i would say, that... to my professor, he does not seem to have much to 'LIKE' us. But it is irrelevant due to his leadership skills.

Oh yeah, and did i mention that we all are amazed at how he can deal with us!