Thursday, January 6, 2011

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

On vacation a few years ago, I was watching "Malcolm in the Middle" reruns on Nickelodeon. In the episode "Cheerleader" (for those who care: Season 1, Episode 12) Francis (a trouble-maker who was sent to a military academy) spends a whole day with Commandant Spangler (who is usually scary and aloof and giving the cadets a hard time) discussing Francis' and Spangler's childhood and mommy issues. At the end of the day, Francis says something like "It's good to know I can always come talk to you whenever I need something" and Spangler just shuts the door in Francis' face with the words "Familiarity breeds contempt, cadet". That's obviously the end of personal sharing for them.

I was reminded of this episode after reading today's FSP's excellent post and comments. The post was about how to get feedback from your research group and, more broadly, should you run your research group as a factory where student sink or swim or should you try to personalize the research approach and ensure each student is happy. It seems most PI's agree that too much personal involvement with students leads to dysfunctional groups. CPP says that "In my experience, the most dysfunctional labs are those in which the PI behaves like a cheerleader/friend/confessor hybrid, and the most functional labs are those in which the PI behaves like an NFL head coach."

I am not sure what an NFL coach's job entails, but I bet they can get away with way more yelling than I can with my students. Nevertheless, it is certainly possible to err on the side of too much personal involvement and allow for students who eventually won't work out to linger on for way too long. In my experience, it has happened only once that a student who initially had problems adjusting to the requirements in my group had a change of pace and attitude after a serious conversation and is now productive (albeit he’s nowhere near being the star of the group). In all the other cases (more than 10) a student who needed a lot of hand holding or required too much involvement in their personal life turned out simply not to be PhD material. The statistics that I can draw from my experience says that the signs are there right away — it becomes obvious pretty early on who will work out and who won’t, and additional hand holding and extra accommodation for all sorts of personal requirements don’t do anything but just drain your energy and financial resources.

I have a weekly group meeting and weekly 1-on-1 meetings. Additional face time as needed. I will do everything in my power to ensure that a smart, motivated, and hard working student gets the techical help when needed, gets all the funds and equipment needed, is visible at conferences and through high-profile publications. I think these are my duties to the good students and this is the domain of happiness/ satisfaction of a grad student that I should be concerned about. However, it is NOT a faculty's duty to help a graduate student find the motivation they never really had or to instill the work habits in them (which should have been done in grade school) or to teach them about time management or, worse yet, about managing their personal lives. Being a grownup should be a prerequisite for graduate school.

I think a good professional relationship between advisors and students is similar to the one between colleagues — the vast majority of my faculty colleagues know nothing about my personal life. My close collaborators probably know my kid count and perhaps their approximate ages, but we never talk about personal issues and we chit-chat only minimally. For instance, a colleague of mine has fraternal twins; I am quite curious if they were conceived on fertility treatments, but I assure you I will never ask, because a question like this would drastically breech the boundaries of our relationship.

PI's can be accommodating of the lives of students without too much personal involvement. Student is having a child? Congratulations and let's see what can be done with the funding and how much time off you can get and how it will influence your progress towards your degree. Isn't that what you would expect your advisor to be focused on – your professional well-being? I know for instance that one of my students just got married, because his marriage was coupled with a long trip home, which he needed to inform me about, plus he wanted to explore the possibility of long-distance telecommuting to continue the work. Some sharing of facts from personal life is necessary as they directly pertain to professional life.

One comment over at FSP's emphasized that PI's are probably worse offenders at oversharing than students, and that students know more about their PI's than the other way around.

There is a difference between small talk and too much personal information. For instance, a student mentioning she is going to see her parents for Christmas falls under small talk. Talking at length about the relationship problems with boyfriend is too much information. The advisor mentioning a tree house for daughter falls under small talk; discussing own marital problems or parents' illnesses with students is too much. Some people enjoy small talk more than others, I don't, but I have some collaborators who do it with students at the beginning of every meeting to make the atmosphere more relaxed.

There can certainly be oversharing on both sides, but I think it is a particularly bad idea for a PI to open themselves personally to trainees. Yes, we are human, but being a leader requires that those you lead believe in you, which means they cannot be intimately familiar with every fear and doubt you have. I erred quite a bit in this respect in my early TT years, much less so now. Familiarity does breed contempt and diminishes your authority: you cannot befriend trainees and also expect them to obey you. For instance, when a group member graduates, I take the group out to a restaurant; many of my colleagues host graduation celebrations or group barbecue parties at their homes, I have never had students over to my house because that's my personal space and it's off limits. I think a certain distance and a lot of tact in communicating opinions are necessary for any successful long-term professional relationship.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

In all the other cases (more than 10) a student who needed a lot of hand holding or required too much involvement in their personal life turned out simply not to be PhD material.

You've had more than *ten* motherfucken grad students enter your lab and then flame out without a motherfucken PhD!?!?!?!? What kind of fucked uppe institution would even allow someone with that horrific mentoring track record anywhere *near* a fucken grad student ever again??!?!?!?!? Jeezus fucken christ!!!!

Meadow said...

Ahh I love GMP and CPP ;)

GMP, very good point on oversharing. Through trial and error I learned it is best to put a firm boundary between work and personal stuff.

Anonymous said...

I know it is a waste to respond to CPPs comment but...

I don't know how long GMP has been doing this, but more than 10 flameouts is not surprising at all to me. My experience, also as a theorist, is that, unless you are at Harvard, all students are more trouble than they are worth and that very few students have the work ethic to get a Ph.D. Either they leave or the advisor just writes their thesis. I found this last bit to be extremely disillusioning - much more so than students who don't work out.

GMP said...

CPP, as always, here to point out that I couldn't possibly know how to do my job. *eyeroll*

Some of those students were with me only over the summer or a semester, some stayed till they got an MS (approximately 1.5 to 2 years); some decided they wanted to work for another prof and then did OK, some changed advisors and then flamed out anyway. I have never kept on a student for more than 2 years without them continuing for a PhD. Moreover, just because someone gets a PhD doesn't mean squat; I have several colleagues who advise and graduate students whom I would never take on; these kids get PhD's with virtually nonexistent publication records on projects of virtually no significance. It all boils down to what you look for in a student and what your group's requirements for a PhD are.

Besides, I am afraid your snobbery is showing. My department is in top 20, so we don't get the cream of the crop. Maybe at the elite NYC university where you are the students are uniformly excellent so fewer flame out; I assure you that the candidates we have are not (on average) of the same quality as those at top 5 institutions in my field. I have found that the average student at my institution typically does not have the background or motivation that I look for; identifying and attracting excellent students to come here takes significant effort and a fair bit of luck; some do come, but they are much, much rarer here than at a top 5 place.

Meadow, thanks for the comment!

Anon at 10:31, your comment arrived while I was composing this -- I agree with you 100%. I would further emphasize that the percentage of students who want to do theory is also much smaller than those who want to do experiment, and then of those who want to do theory there is an even smaller percentage (unless you are at a very good school, as you said) who really have what it takes to make nontrivial individual contributions and obtain a meaningful theory PhD. said...

GMP, I'm wondering if you have difficulty keeping this professional being a woman. My observation at work is that while I don't mind talking about family stuff now and again with co-workers, some of my male colleagues feel like they can bring up my personal life whenever the whim hits them, but I see that they do this far less with male colleagues. Do you find that it's hard to put and keep those boundaries there?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Pointing out that I properly mentor PhD students instead of "flaming out" more than ten of them over the course of a career is not "snobbery". I am surprised that someone who has demonstrated this kind of gross incompetence is still allowed to take on graduate students.

Anonymous said...

"Pointing out that I properly mentor PhD not snobbery"

Did you even *read* your first comment?! All you do is assume the worst based on limited info and berate people using profanity like you are the paragon of PI'dom.

Alex said...

the percentage of students who want to do theory is also much smaller than those who want to do experiment

Wait, what? Are you in a physics department or a materials science department? Or are you talking about AFTER the first year courses?

Because before the first year courses, lots of physics students usually want to do theory. The first year of physics grad school starts with a whole bunch of aspiring particle theorists and ends with a whole bunch of aspiring condensed matter experimentalists.

I'm guessing that materials science programs, though, probably have far more students leaning toward experiment rather than theory.

Also, my guess is that the statistics in GMP's group look so appalling to CPP because most physical science programs don't have the rotation system for first years the way that most biomedical programs do. She talks about students leaving the group after a summer or semester or so. That would be roughly equivalent to doing a rotation and moving on. And if she's in a materials science or other applied program (as opposed to a standard physics department) then leaving with an MS isn't necessarily a sign of failure, since an MS in an applied field can have some weight in industry.

GMP said...

Anon and Alex nicely responded to CPP -- thank you!

Cherish, I know what you mean, and it does have to do with being a woman among men. I think these random embarrassing outbursts from some male colleagues often stem from the guy's discomfort around women (he literally doesn't know how to talk to women/is uncomfortable so he blurts stuff out). Since I spend all of my time around men, I have become very tight-lipped about personal life and only answer questions when asked, I don't volunteer much information. I guess it's adaptation...

Hermitage said...

I think overshare is certainly defined differently depending on gender. Male assistant professors who spend all their time talking about their new genetic minions, put their pictures on the conclusion slides of their talks, and leave promptly to go have playtime are admired, engaged, and revered. Female assistant professors who have the audacity to get pregnant more than once are chastised behind closed doors. I can't imagine what people would say if they actually discussed their children in a work settings, the horror!

CPP, I <3 you, but srsly not every department at every school in the whole wide world works the same way your widdle one does, kk?

a. b. said...

TMI also runs the risk of your students/workers/PhDs losing respect for you. If you've got a cruddy personal life, you've got the advantage of having a work life, too, that you can do differently. I try my best not to talk about personal stuff with my work-study employees, and always feel a tinge of embarrassment if I've stepped over that line.

inBetween said...

Thanks for posting on my blog -- great to "meet" you! I really appreciate your thoughts on when to go back to work -- thank you. It makes me feel better.

I look forward to reading more of your posts.

I completely agree with you on the mentoring philosophy. My grad advisor mentored both ways with his students. For some, he was way into their personal lives. And for others, including me, it was always about professional stuff and rarely ever acknowledged events in my (and/or his) personal life aside from the polite. From what I can see, those of us who fell into the latter category seem to have done better professionally than those in the former category. As such, I've always tried to follow this approach. Although, it is a little weird when I hear my grad students making plans to go out together and I'm not invited. But in all honesty, I wouldn't have it any other way. It would just be so weird if I tried to be buddy-buddy with them.

David said...


What is it with your cursing? You it so badly and with so little poetry that it strikes me that you are new to it. Perhaps being an upper echelon ivory tower inhabitant you want to seem more real whatever that means for you (as inclination suggested also by your moniker). Please stop cursing or please learn how to do it better so that I don't immediately thing of a some angsty teenager.

The quality of the post (and the of FSP's) was outstanding. I am about to begin a TT at an R1 so I am glad for these insights. Both are outstanding teachers who take patience and thought to share enormous experience.

David said...

ok, I don't type so well. Perhaps I am new to that?

If you stop cursing I will proof read. How's that?