The boss is out to lunch

The two basic criteria to establish whether someone is your boss are:
— Can they fire you ?
— Can they give you a raise ?
Unless the answer to both questions is yes, then they are not your boss.

(can’t recall who said that to me… my dad, maybe ? Nah, it’s impossible, that would make him right…)

My impression, upon reading the ongoing discussion at GMP’s blog, is that the crux of the matter may be how we see the relationship between an academic advisee (whether that be an undergraduate or graduate student, or a postdoc) and the advisor, typically a faculty.
Is that relationship “hierarchical” in nature, as suggested by GMP in her follow-up post ? Is an advisee “lower on the totem pole” than her advisor, and therefore always required to jump through one more hoop, for example by providing a detailed, believable and cogent reason for being unable to attend a meeting called by the advisor, even on a short notice — something that an “equal” (e.g., another faculty) would not be necessarily expected (much less “required”) to do [0] ?

There are strong opinions out there on this subject — just read the comments to GMP’s post. Indeed, I have a strong opinion of my own, but to some extent I think that differences of opinions may also reflect differences in cultures and way in which research groups operate in the various disciplines and settings.

Different cultures ?
I have written about this aspect in part on a previous post, but I am always happy to recycle old stuff. When I discuss advising, on my blog or with colleagues, I do so based largely on my own experience (this is what a blog is for, is it not ?). And my own experience consists of running and/or being part of small groups, in which the interactions are typically very informal. I never needed to schedule a meeting with my own PhD advisor, I would just show up to his office door. If he was busy, he would tell me to come back later. With my own students and postdocs it is very much the same thing.
But, I understand that there are fields in which groups tend to be very large. In those settings, interactions necessarily take on a different style, perhaps similar to that which one would observe in the corporate sector. I am sure that it must be difficult, for those who manage large research grants, to find the time to meet with everyone all the time, and resorting to semi-rigid scheduling of meetings may well become a necessity. And of course, while showing up on time at a meeting is never “optional”, it becomes a requirement in a situation in which the next meeting may be no sooner than in a month.

Still, I think that there is a limit to how far one can take the adoption of a “corporate-like” mentality in academia, especially when talking about graduate education or postdoctoral mentoring.

Boss my eyeball [1] !
As I wrote above, I do have a strong opinion as to whether language including expressions such as “totem pole”, “hierarchy” and “equal” belongs in academia. One of the most important reasons why I picked the academic route to begin with, and stuck with it even when it seemed to be going nowhere, was precisely my personal distaste for hierarchy. I have never wanted to have bosses, nor have I ever felt any desire to be one.
There are no bosses in academia. Period.
A professor is not the “student’s boss”, nor is anyone doing anyone else a “favour” by supervising or being supervised. The simple fact is, the very meaning and existence of academia hinge on the presence of both students and faculty.
This is one of the very first things that I tell my graduate students and postdocs:
I am not your boss — you are your own boss. I have neither the power to fire you, nor to give you a raise. I am simply a person with whom you may elect to collaborate, who is putting at your disposal some funds for you to pursue your own research, and who will be in the future in the position of expressing a (likely influential) opinion over your ability as a researcher.

Common courtesy is no more a requirement between student and professor than it is among two “equals” (e.g., collaborators), or any other two individuals. A student need not give me a reason for not being able to come and meet me in my office, or for cancelling a meeting, any more than I need to give her one for the same reason. Yes, normally both of us will explain why we cannot make it, especially if we are talking a student whom I have supervised for some time — but normally both will interrupt the other saying “Oh, it’s OK, don’t worry about it — it’s not like you need to explain. We shall meet some other time”.
If the relationship is none other than that between two serious and dedicated individuals, both in good faith, each clearly aware of their long-term goals and responsibilities, as well as of those of the other party, misunderstandings simply never arise.
Conversely, a collaborator (an “equal”, to use GMP’s parlance, possibly a colleague at a different institution) will get no more leeway from me than a postdoc or a graduate student, when it comes to doing their part timely and professionally. Being a professor is no excuse for dropping the ball on me halfway through the completion of a project, taking months to write a response to a referee, cancelling at the last moment a visit planned for months [2]. Curiously, in my experience I seem to be getting peeved at “equals” way more often than graduate students or postdocs.

Now, that does not mean that…
Of course, the fact that a student need not give me a reason for not being able to come to a seminar, or to attend a conference, or for not having had any time to work on her project over the past month, does not mean that it’s all good, that all of that is fine with me [3].
If there is a clear pattern, if one or more (or all) of these things tend to happen frequently, consistentlythat is what ultimately determines my overall satisfaction with the advisee, which of course will be reflected in my letter of recommendation.
But it is neither the individual occurrence, nor the reason [4] that the student should offer, the cause of my displeasure. Advisees have to be evaluated based on their performance over the course of months or years, not one single episode (or even a few thereof); and, they have to be evaluated based on the “big picture”, on their ideas, initiative, productivity, not on whether they show the proper appreciation for hierarchy [5].

If at some point I, the advisor, start harbouring doubts over the student’s motivation and seriousness; if I hardly ever see her, or she seems consistently distracted, uninterested, lazy; if I become convinced that she will simply not measure up to the competition, when the day comes to move on to the next stage; at that point, the way to proceed is to have a frank talk with the advisee, simply stating what we all know to be true:
Look, I am worried about the current state of affairs. I do not see you making progress the way that I would like to see you make it. Based on my experience, and awareness of the standards upon which you will be evaluated (not by me, but by the community), I do not see much of a future for you in this line of work.
You may have excellent reasons for not having been able to get further than where you are, and I am not here to judge you — in fact, much of this is likely my own fault. Unfortunately, that is immaterial. Your record will speak for itself, and very, very seldom will society go the extra mile and investigate your own individual situation in detail. What is going to happen is, someone will say “she does not seem to have accomplished much”, and that will be the end — there is not much you, or I or anyone else can do, at that point. As your advisor, it is my duty to share this concern with you, and start out a discussion on what to do next, because I see no point continuing on this path.

That’s it.
Turning into a policeman; micromanaging students; establishing a climate of suspicion, or a “reign of terror”; constantly being on the person’s case; demanding a valid explanation (one that I shall evaluate in its merit, and possibly reject) each time a student fails to meet a deadline or to show up for a seminar; intruding into a person’s private space; questioning the wisdom of someone else’s personal choices, from spending time with family to shopping for vegetables on the day of the group meeting; the only thing that all of that is going to accomplish, is making me look like a sociopath.
My opinion only, eh ?

Notes

[0] If my reading of GMP is correct, then an implied hierarchy also exists among people who are in principle “equal”, e.g., faculty, the moment one of them acquires a status that places that person (at least temporarily) higher on the “totem pole” (e.g., program director, I suppose) — in that case, the protocol governing interaction with that person should automatically change, with subalterns acting with the proper deference.

[1] I learned this from my wife — she never mentions that other part of the body…

[2] Oh, and if on top of that I am also given a (never solicited) “reason” such as “I am busy”, then I really get furious. Why ? Because I resent the underlying implications, which could be several (none good).

[3] At the same time, the notion that advisors constantly attempting to micromanage their students, nagging them, treating them like minions, setting standards for advisees to which they themselves would not abide, are “simply advisors who care”, is both lame and disingenuous.

[4] If any — frankly, I would rather not hear any reason than one that insults my intelligence.

[5] Do not get me wrong. I would be disingenuous if I did not admit that there are behaviours that do “raise a red flag” with me early on, and make me suspicious of someone even before I have had a chance of evaluating them based on their actual performance. And yes, often times these “red flags” are powerful, surprisingly accurate predictors of future trouble. Problem is, we cannot act on red flags, can we ?

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16 Responses to “The boss is out to lunch”

  1. GMP Says:

    Aaah, so many good nuggets to comment on in this post. What to choose?

    How about this (in line with your footnote [1]): the boss/employee relationship is not the only relationship that’s asymmetric. Whenever you have persons A and B, where A needs something from B while B does not need a comparable thing from A, you have a disbalance in power and a hierarchy is established. I need money from the program manager, he does not from me; so he’s not my boss but has some power over some of my actions as I may have to defer to him in order to remain in his good graces. The student needs advisor’s time, expertise, money, recommendation; the converse is not true, so the relationship is asymmetric.
    Also, collaborators are “equals” in the sense that they typically need each other comparably (although there are certainly situations where this can be very asymmetric too and a source of all sorts of frustration, as you noted above).

    they have to be evaluated based on the “big picture”, on their ideas, initiative, productivity, not on whether they show the proper appreciation for hierarchy

    I cannot think of any subsequent job for a student where “appreciation for hierarchy” is unimportant. Even faculty, consultants, freelance writers, and small business owners need stuff from other people at one time or another and may have to show deference. Or they have to be someone’s superior in order to get stuff done.

  2. Massimo Says:

    The student needs advisor’s time, expertise, money, recommendation; the converse is not true, so the relationship is asymmetric.

    What can I say, I thought we were paid by the University to provide mentoring to students. I thought that we were evaluated for promotion and tenure, as well as for subsequent salary raises, also based on our student mentoring effectiveness. Is it not true ?
    Or, do you just not enjoy it ?

    I mean, I genuinely find your argument, all of it, absurd (no offence meant, just a genuine difference of opinions). By the same token, i could argue that a patient needs a doctor’s time, expertise, recommendation, and therefore the relationship is asymmetric. Does that entitle the doctor to be verbally abusive toward the patient ? Is a doctor doing a patient a favour by taking care of him ? Or, is the doctor simply doing what he signed up for ?

    As for appreciation of hierarchy: I really cannot think of a single situation in which it is important. One should always act respectfully toward everyone, not just the higher-ups.
    That includes the Program Managers, who are not handing out their own money but that of taxpayers, and therefore should stay clear of anything that might be construed as abuse of power.

    I am sorry but I have never believed in the value of kissing up to anyone. My home country has been brought to almost complete disaster by that ancestral habit.

    • GMP Says:

      As for appreciation of hierarchy: I really cannot think of a single situation in which it is important. One should always act respectfully toward everyone, not just the higher-ups

      Hierarchy does not mean kissing up. But it does mean that the relationship is not symmetric and that one side may have to defer when more than 50% of the time.

      • Massimo Says:

        What does it mean in practical terms ? That the Program Manager can cancel without giving a reason, but if you do not show up you have to give one, because the Program manager has the money ?
        I say, let’s agree to disagree on that one. I surely do not teach my students anything like that.

    • NonUS FSP Says:

      There is an unequal relation here because student wants GMP as an advisor, while GMP does not want him as a student (or barely).
      Also, in my university (and perhaps also in hers), a good advisor is harder to find than a good student.

      So GMP’s time and constraints are more valuable than this student’s, at this point when *she* is making a choice whether to continue the relationship or not.

      Sure, as faculty members, we have to advise students.But if you are a good advisor at a good university, you would have your pick of students. I am very dedicated to my graduate students, even years after they graduate. In return, I am very picky about who I take as a graduate student, and see it as my privilege to turn down a student if I even remotely suspect they are not committed to their science (“snowflakes” in the US jargon).

      • Massimo Says:

        All true, but irrelevant to the subject of my post. Please let us try not to deliberately confuse things.
        Of course GMP, like most of us, can “pick and choose”. I have never stated otherwise. Of course no faculty has the moral duty of taking on under her supervision any student who requests it, and I think I have also made it clear in my post that an advisor is perfectly entitled to discontinue the collaboration with an advisee, if she feels that such a collaboration is no (longer) fruitful — the student is equally entitled to do the same, naturally.

        What I was discussing in my post is the notion of “hierarchy”, of whether the professor is doing the students a “favour” by taking them on as advisees, and whether, as a result of that, students are at least morally bound to a specific code of conduct in their interaction with the advisor, reflecting that implied hierarchy (and that includes providing acceptable reasons whenever they cannot meet at a specific time picked by the advisor with arbitrarily short notice). This is the point that GMP has made in both her two posts — “I am the advisor everyone wants, and so when I say ‘jump !’, your reply better be ‘how high ?’ “.
        To me, that is sheer nonsense, and the fact that there are professors out there feeling that way is, in my opinion, detrimental to how my category is seen by the rest of society. It contributes to fuel the resentment of many out there who, lest we forget, pay our salary, who see us as a privileged bunch, with big egos and a huge sense of entitlement.

        Again, imagine we were talking medical doctors, a category about which the very same remarks made by GMP apply, even more cogently. We desperately need them, they do not need us. There are the bad ones, whom no one wants to see, and there are the good ones, with whom you need to wait months just to schedule a visit. Do we become their “underlings”, the moment they take us on as patients, or actually even before they make that decision ? Are the respect and politeness that we grant everyone else insufficient with them ? Should we be extra nice and polite and respectful, since they are doing us the big favour of treating our illness (never mind that it is actually their job)… Can they, on the other hand, treat us like second class citizens, and we have to put up and shut up, since we are sick and need them ? After all, they would be perfectly entitled to let us die, right ?

        This is just plain crazy. Sorry, I am done even discussing it.

  3. Another Anon Says:

    Thanks for writing this, Massimo. I’m certain that my PhD advisor shared your philosophy, though he and I never explicitly discussed it – and he was not Italian! ;-) But I think it’s telling that people in our group usually said, “we work *with* X,” instead of “we work *for* X.” He was immensely popular and successful.

    Unfortunately, I think there is not an insignificant number of GMP’s out there, ready to “teach” students all about deference and to punish them when they err. In industry, there are laws designed to protect employees from bosses like this. But in academia … students mostly have to fend for themselves, I think.

    Sadly, this is not the first time that I’ve read one of GMP’s posts and thought, “I hope she dumps that student, ‘cause I think they would be better off with someone else.”

  4. NonUS FSP Says:

    I can’t reply to your reply to me, but your example of medical doctors, in fact, support my argument:

    If I am keen to see a particular medical doctor and they tell me to show up at 6am (or 11pm) at their far away office—-I will definitely do so. (And have done so in the past.)

    All we (GMP and others) were saying was that the response, given the background, was a red flag (until further explanation is provided).

    I have been more hurt by taking on “bad” students than by missing on good students. So, I am quite picky until I commit (and then I am very dedicated).

    • Massimo Says:

      If I am keen to see a particular medical doctor and they tell me to show up at 6am (or 11pm) at their far away office—-I will definitely do so

      Sure, I have done that too, of course — except when I could not. And sometimes I could not, even though I really needed to see that very doctor. Should that doctor have taken that inability of mine to show up as a “red flag”, as an indication that I am not really serious about wanting to get better ? By the way, the doctor did not take offence, nor did he ask me “why are you not able to show up ?”. I think he did not because he figured that if I was not going to be able to make it, I surely had to have good reasons, since I clearly needed to see him. Maybe he thought “my patients have to wait months to see me; the likelihood that they will definitely be able to make it as soon as an opening shows up, no matter how short the notice, may not be quite 100%”.

      All we (GMP and others) were saying was that the response, given the background, was a red flag (until further explanation is provided).

      My post is a comment on the implied hierarchy, on whether the student “owes” explanations on account of the professor’s higher standing on some imaginary totem pole, a point that GMP has made in both her posts (and in her comments here).
      Indeed, my one and only comment to her original post was simply pointing out that for her to be all up in arms about a student not being able to see her, after candidly admitting to have “blown him off” for months, read a bit funny.

      Oh, and once again: Being picky in the choice of advisees has truly nothing to do with any of this. If GMP had said “I don’t know, can’t explain it but there is something about this guy that just makes me uncomfortable… I keep getting bad vibes and I trust my instinct”, I do not believe a single person would have found that objectionable.

      • GMP Says:

        “I don’t know, can’t explain it but there is something about this guy that just makes me uncomfortable… I keep getting bad vibes and I trust my instinct”. I do not believe a single person would have found that objectionable.

        Actually, I bet there would be people showing up to tell me I am crazy in that case too.

  5. Transient Reporter Says:

    I read through GMP’s posts. Hmmm… I think she’s sending mixed messages here. First, she lets the student bully her into taking him on, and then is upset when he doesn’t recognize the asymmetry in their relationship. Second, she blows off her research group and stays home, and wonders why he isn’t committed to her research.

    But regardless of whether GMP is the best person to be making the argument, the fact is that power asymmetries do exist in academia. Massimo, your argument is that power asymmetries OUGHT not to exist. But asymmetries don’t disappear simply because you – Prof. Massimo B, head of research group – choose not to exercise it.

    No-one can seriously argue that power asymmetries don’t exist. Someone pays someone else, someone signs off on someone else’s thesis. Someone writes someone else’s recommendation. I would argue that power asymmetries are greater in academia than in the corporate world.

    I think, however, what is implicit in your argument is that you choose not to exploit power asymmetries in a research setting because it has a corrosive effect on lab culture and leads to BAD SCIENCE. Is GMP not worried about this? If the PI thinks it rude when a student blows off a meeting for lunch, will the PI also think it rude when the student says, “Your favored model – Model A – is shit. I think Model B better fits the data”…?

    • Massimo Says:

      I agree that some people go on power trips. Should they be allowed to ? No. It is wrong.

      Someone pays someone else

      Sure, someone uses grant money that is earmarked for student support, and was initially sought based on the need to support a student, to support a student. Is this “doing the student a favour” ? Try applying for grant money, state in the budget justification that you are going to support graduate students, then do not support a single one for the duration of the award. Good luck with the renewal.

      someone signs off on someone else’s thesis

      Are they doing the student a favour by signing ? Or, are they simply doing what they initially agreed to do, after the student has achieved the desired results ? If they refused to sign for the sole reason of wanting to exercise power, without being able to motivate their refusal on any academic or scientific ground, should the student simply accept that as the inevitable expression of the existing hierarchy ? At Alberta and at SDSU I can tell you, as an advisor you would get in serious trouble if you tried that.

      Someone writes someone else’s recommendation

      Do you think that the scenario of an advisor badmouthing an advisee whose record on paper is excellent is realistic ? I think an advisor doing that only stands to lose credibility. In my experience, the exact opposite occurs much more often.

    • GMP Says:

      Second, she blows off her research group and stays home,

      What? I’m on sabbatical plus on maternity leave.

    • Transient Reporter Says:

      …sigh…
      GMP, that’s exactly my point.

      Student: My PI goofs around at home and doesn’t show up to work.
      GMP: Goofs around? What are you talking about? I’m on sabbatical, and on maternity leave. I work my ass off at home writing grants and papers. Dear student, who the hell are you to judge me when you have no idea of the context of my absence?

      GMP: My lazy student blows off a meeting with me so he can have lunch instead.
      Student: ??????????????????????????????

      Maybe it was a school- or program-organized lunch where participation was mandatory. Perhaps he was meeting his immigration officer. Perhaps he was meeting with another PI with the idea of changing labs. Perhaps he was interviewing for a job. Whatever. Context. You get my drift.

      Someone – a fellow prof, I forget who – once told me he never accepted late assignments from students. Why? Because when they give you an excuse, you don’t know the context. “I handed my work in late because I spent all night talking on the phone to a friend.” Unacceptable? What if the friend was suicidal, and the student was trying to talk her off a ledge?

      I think its wiser – as Massimo suggests – to forget about trying to figure out the context, and base decisions on your own experience – i.e. performance in the lab or research group.

      Context. That’s all I’m saying.

  6. Schlupp Says:

    Still better than if the boss were out *of* lunch. That’d make one cranky boss…..

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