Tell me what you want (what you really really want)

.. if you are gonna be my student… OK, let’s leave it at that…

Establishing a good professional and personal relationship with one’s supervising faculty is inarguably one of the key aspects of a smooth, successful completion of a doctoral degree. It could be argued that such a relationship is one of the most important in the lives of both, as it normally extends beyond the student’s graduation, sometimes lasting a lifetime. Conversely, it is precisely when the dialogue between the two deteriorates, when impatience, frustration, mistrust or resentment build on either side, that things become difficult, mostly for the student. I would be surprised if the vast majority of cases of graduate students abandoning their doctoral studies after completing their course requirements, were not directly or indirectly attributable to a falling out with their major professors.

How does that happen ? Well, me, I am lucky. I have enjoyed excellent working relationships with most of my graduate students, both at my previous and current institution. I am in touch with four of five who completed graduate degrees under my supervision thus far, including one who is not in physics anymore. However, on a couple instances things did turn sour at the end — in both cases students did complete their graduate degree, but not with me as a supervisor.
I talk to a lot of graduate students, read blogs written by them, and in general I try to make an effort to listen to what they say. Based on my experience and observation, it is my impression that, at the origin of disaccord between a graduate student and a supervising faculty, there are almost always misplaced expectations on either side.
On the one hand there are professors, who think that their advisees are not making “sufficient progress”, are not working hard enough, or do not display the proper enthusiasm and dedication to the cause — on the other, students who genuinely believe that they are doing what they are told and do not see what else is expected of them, and feel the victims of advisors who simply have set the bar unreasonably high [0].

But what should advisors realistically expect of their students ? What are their responsibilities toward them, in terms of setting clear, reasonable goals, achievable in realistic timelines ? And what about the students ? Should they just make sure to put in that many hours a week, and follow their advisor’s directions ? Or, is there more than that to their graduate education and training ?
And, what constitutes “satisfactory progress” ? After all, if a student can be facing termination from his/her graduate program for “insufficient progress”, would it not be fair that “insufficient progress” be clearly defined somewhere ?
Alas, the answer to virtually all of the above questions varies from professor to professor, as well as from student to student. Not only do personalities differ, but individual philosophies about what constitutes graduate education come into play. My sense is that, while we would probably all agree on a small fraction of “obvious” cases of students simply not performing [1], in the vast majority of contentious situations involving a graduate student and a major professor both would have valid points [2].
I honestly do not think that there is a single “recipe” that would work for everyone, so I thought I would write down what my personal expectations are, what I appreciate of my graduate students, and what instead disappoints and upsets me [3].

It is not how many hours you put in.
Time and again I hear graduate students complaining about being asked to “work XX hours a week”, lamenting their advisor’s apparent refusal to make allowance for personal life. Granted, there exist unreasonable people in all walks of life, and there are also situations that require constant human presence (e.g., laboratories needing to be manned at all times, in case of possible equipment failure — in these cases, however, postdocs and faculty are often on the same boat as students). At the end of the day, however, progress is measured in terms of insight, not of hours of work. My impression is that, after 8 hours of actual work, we all get tired.
And, how would anyone measure how much time is spent working anyway ? We do not have time sheets, but even if we did, what would they mean, really ? How does time spent at work correlate with scientific progress ? While discipline and constant application are necessary, sitting at a desk with palms on one’s temples is not equivalent to doing work, as we all know. And this is research, i.e., it is quite possible, and in fact the norm, to spend weeks without getting anywhere — it would not be called “research” otherwise [4].
So, assuming that you are not one of those exceedingly rare cases of students who just do not do the work, any work, here is what I really want from you, prospective or current graduate student:

Please, be enthusiastic.

This basically sums it up for me. Really. Everything else just comes as a consequence. If I am confident that you are enthusiastic and dedicated to your research, the month taken off for family reasons, the occasional setback, the fact that you spend most of your time working from home (I have written about this subject here), none of that will matter to me, much less to you.

Please, do not act like you are doing me a favor by being around.
Graduate education is a privilege. There is no point in being in graduate school, if you are not enthusiastic about the discipline and/or do not enjoy doing research. If it becomes a chore, if you are not having fun, if you do not get excited thinking of the next experiment, or of going to your first conference, if you never find yourself looking forward to trying out a new idea to overcome that seemingly insurmountable hurdle, that has prevented your code from delivering the numbers that you expect, if you are not eager to tell everyone that the apparatus that you have spent one year building is finally producing results, if you start your day looking forward not to have to think of this crap anymore… well, I feel sorry for you, because graduate school must be a real crucible to you. You are like the kid who is forced by parents to spend his afternoons taking piano lessons, when he would much rather be playing football.

Believe me, your lack of enthusiasm shows, and in the eyes of many of us is what undermines your productivity and effectiveness as a researcher. In my opinion, that is what many advisors really mean when they say “work harder” — which is of course silly because it is not a matter of working “harder”, but of motivation, which no one other than yourself can give you.
It is that lack of passion that makes you think of your project as “your advisor’s project” until the end, that causes you to make the same mistakes over and over again, that prevents you from using your imagination to make the original contribution that you have the potential to make (imagination that you would use, if the problem were of interest to you), that makes you skip seminars, or dread your monthly meeting with your advisor.
It is not the fact that you have not gotten anywhere for a month that bothers me, or that you are still stuck on that hurdle that has stalled you for months — it is the fact that you are not showing any initiative, that you are not spending any time thinking of the problem on your own, or trying out your own ideas, that you are not going through the literature to see if anyone else has found a workaround, that you keep expecting to be spoon fed, that you are not interested in becoming knowledgeable of your own field, in putting anything of yourself into this.

This is what I personally call “lack of progress”, not the failure to achieve any arbitrarily set goal, such as the completion of yet another paper, and I really do not care how many “hours of work you have logged”. I admit it, it boils down to a judgment call on my part, but I am sorry, with the wrong type of mentality you ought not stay in research, especially if you make no bones about your desire of wanting an academic job of your own.
It is almost always your lack of passion, that eventually makes me sit with you and say, you know, you might want to reconsider if this is the right path for you — very seldom will I say something like that because I think that you do not have the ability.

Very different a scenario, instead, is for you to come to my office and tell me, OK, listen, I am worried, as this does not seem to be going anywhere. I have tried what you told me, and these are the results — in my opinion, unsatisfactory. I have also tried on my own a couple alternatives, and this is what I have obtained — still, no good. I think it is time you and I rethink of this project, for, unless you can suggest something radically different, I would like for the two of us to think of another problem for me to work on. In fact, these are some ideas that I have… what do you think ?
I have nothing but respect for students who tell me something like that, stating their case factually and precisely. I will never refer to this situation as “lack of progress” on their part. Obviously I may disagree with them, I may think that they have not yet tried one thing that might work, and encourage them to do just that. I might think that they are overlooking something in the data, direct them to some aspect that should be examined more carefully — but at that point it is my responsibility to a) argue my case if I think that there are still good reasons to insist with that project, reassure them that the final outcome will be positive anyway [5], or b) come up with a different project, or re-focus the current one to allow at least to move away from that uncomfortable impasse.

It is also my responsibility to remind them that I am happy with their work and remain very confident in their future as a researcher. It is my responsibility to understand that you have much more at stake than me, to do whatever I can help you as a senior colleague, to see your project as my project, your problem as my problem.
If you do show the kind of enthusiasm and motivation that I expect, call me naive but I think that everything else, results, publications and a decent shot at the career you aim for, will ensue.

[0] So deep can mistrust grow, that advisors may at some point come to believe that their students regard graduate school as a place to “park themselves”, in order to avoid taking a real job. Students, by contrast, may come to believe that their advisors do not really have the student’s education in mind, but rather are unscrupulously exploiting graduate students to foster their own careers. Bad communication or lack thereof certainly exacerbates the problem.

[1] In my case, I had a M.S. student who simply would not write his thesis. He had all the data, but could not get himself to write anything. During the course of a year, every couple months the same scene would take place in my office, described by the following flow chart:
A) “I was wondering if there is still a chance that I may be able to finish my degree… ?”.
“Sure, all you have to do is write down your Master’s thesis, as required by our graduate program”.
B) “Well, I am working full time, I have obtained the data, this seems really excessive.”
“Well, hey, if the Dean of Graduate Studies can sign a waiver for you, I am quite all right with you not writing a thesis — I cannot write a thesis for you, as you surely understand.“.
C) “Oh, all right… I see… Wow… geeze… Oh-kay then… see you later..”.
D) Two months go by.
E) Go to A

[2] This is what makes writing down detailed guidelines so difficult. Indeed, the very ambiguity of the expression “making satisfactory progress”, the fact that a judgment call is needed in most cases, is what prompts departments to assign to every graduate student a supervisory committee including other faculty besides the student’s major advisor. Such a committee should ideally hold regular meetings with the student, during the entire duration of his/her studies.

[3] I need to make one thing clear: graduate students are grown-ups, and as such should be treated. Patronizing them, humiliating them in front of others, yelling at them, treating them like they are kids, are all things that a good academic should never do. It is hard for me to keep my respect for colleagues whom I see act like that. There are more professional, respectful and ultimately effective ways to show one’s discontent with someone else’s work.

[4] Do not get me wrong, I do believe in trying to get something done every day, and I see value to sitting at a desk thinking of the same problem, over an extended period of time. As beautifully and effectively argued by Bertrand Russell in The conquest of happiness, our brain has a way of processing things on its own, that requires methodic, disciplined reinforcement. The very habit of rehashing every day, even if just for a few minutes, the status of your project, the main results that you have accomplished, and what the next goal is, is beneficial in my opinion. I do think it is a useful exercise to reproduce known results, to check against someone else’s data collected in a different way, keeping up with the literature — all of this can become a daily habit. But honestly, I think the vast majority of us do all of that without the need to be reminded, with the exception of very few “slackers”.

[5] There are some advisors who are fond of saying nonsense such as “graduation cannot occur until research is finished”, or “novel results have been published”. My recommendation to any student who hears that from his/her own current or prospective advisor: run like the wind. Research is never finished, and “novel” is almost always subjective. Conversely, there is no such thing as “no results”. Even trying out a new method and finding that it does not work is a useful thing to communicate to the community.

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8 Responses to “Tell me what you want (what you really really want)”

  1. Schlupp Says:

    Excellent post!

    If the relationship between a student and an advisor is not the kind that lasts for a life time, but falls off rapidly after graduation (hm, or even before), this may be a bit sad, but both sides can survive it. Or so I’m told; not that I’d know anything about this first hand.

    One thing that may be hard is distinguishing a temporary lack of passion, which can occur for whatever reason and which will pass, from a more permanent problem. This is what I worry about.

  2. joshuca Says:

    Great post. As a graduate student in my last semester. I can attest to the stress that can be placed on the student/advisor relationship. My advisor and I have our differences, but we get along well enough that it isn’t too bad. There are times when I feel as though he is expecting too much out of me. I’m still in the lab, when I should be writing full time. Life goes on…

  3. aurora Says:

    As the previous two commenters said — great post.

  4. Cherish Says:

    Thanks for writing this. It’s given me some things to chew on.

  5. Hope Says:

    I pretty much agree with your views on this. But I am wondering: any advice on how to re-engage an advisor that seems to have lost interest in mentoring you?

    I had the conversation you describe under “Very different scenario” – complete with me suggesting a couple of different research directions. My advisor nodded along … but now he is just completely uninterested in the work. I am stuck, I need his help, but whenever we meet—which is no longer biweekly, as it used to be—it’s clear that he has not given me or my problem one iota of thought. This has been going on for almost a year now. I’ve tried saying things like “I could really use your help on this,” and “I’m really stuck,” but then he just throws out a few half-baked ideas at me and … see you next time! He doesn’t nag me for results (I have my own funding), and I suppose if push comes to shove, I’ll just manage without him (somehow!). But it’s really too bad, because I think he’s a decent fellow and very intelligent, too, so I’d like to salvage the relationship, if possible.

  6. transientreporter Says:

    Tell me what you want, what you really really want…

    If you wanna be my PI, you gotta get with my project/
    Don’t make it last forever, a PhD always ends…

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