Thursday, March 3, 2011

Giving Up on Giving Advice

Much has been written about junior researchers, students and postdocs, not receiving enough advising about the different career prospects or not enough training in the aspects critical for their desired careers (e.g. teaching, grant writing, or mentoring for the academically inclined).

Today I want to write about giving up on giving advice to someone. Because sometimes people simply don't want your advice, even though it will likely be to their career's detriment. Even though you are actually their advisor so it is really your job to look out for them and, yes, give them advice.

I wrote about this particular student before. He is very talented, and I think I have made it clear that I consider him to be. Perhaps that is a problem and too much praise made him think himself infallible.

He wants to be a faculty member. I think he has the technical prowess and the intellectual capacity, but is lacking in a number of other skills and his CV does not still look as good as I would like it to look at this stage of his career. I have tried to speak with him several times about what he needs to do to improve his chances of becoming a faculty. A couple of days ago was the last time we spoke, and at that point I swore to myself that this was the last time I was offering him advice. It's like talking to a brick wall. For every suggestion I made he had a counter-argument. Apparently, he knows best.

1) The student spent significantly longer than usual taking classes because he wanted to also get an M.A. in another department (corresponding to a "purer" discipline); I was on board with that, and he has really enjoyed his classes. However, that did detract from research, and we are only now to submit his first first-author paper (a comprehensive piece of work); he also has a second-author paper and a book chapter from his work here. He wants to be done with his PhD by the end of the year (which will be the end of his 4th year with me), and I told him that he will not have the number of papers that my very good students typically have when they graduate (7-8 journal papers plus a number of conferences, and I try to have each also write either a book chapter or a review). The bare minimum I request, in order for a student to graduate with a PhD, is three journal papers, preferably first-author; but, I think he is very good and his CV should do his abilities and hard work justice. It would be a shame for him to graduate with the bare minimum of papers, when an additional 6 months or a year (putting him at 5 years on the PhD) may result in several more.

He said the following: he expects to go to a very specific person (a big fish in a small pond kind of guy) to do a postdoc and he will make up for deficient publications there. I asked: how does he know that person will even be having money/hiring a postdoc? How does he know this person wants to work with him, have they been in contact? (No.) If he needs to go elsewhere, he may need to switch topics completely, and may have a long ramp-up time before he can publish anything. He may not get along with the postdoc advisor. There is no guarantee that the postdoc cures all CV ailments.

2) I got a TT position right after my PhD and never saw a grant proposal until it was time to write one; I would have been grateful for a chance to see how they are written, and now that I am a faculty I make a point of having my students and postdocs with academic aspirations take part in the proposal writing and review process. A few months ago, I had the student read through a proposal and give comments. He did it grudgingly and was grumpy the whole time. I told him that, since he says he wants to be a faculty, he needs to see how proposals are written, but all he commented on was that this deterred from his real research and that he was way too busy with classes.

3) While his English is fine, his writing is pretty bad. I rarely read something so dry, dense, and conveying almost contempt towards the reader. Editing his recent, very comprehensive paper, has been killing me. I have told him several times that he needs to work on his writing and that he needs to tell a story first and foremost and not fuck the reader in the eyeballs (no, I didn't say that, but I wish I had). His response was that perhaps we didn't always have to write such long papers (?!) You write a paper when you have something important to say, and paper length and publication venue depend on what it is that you want to say. Every paper has to be good, but no, not every paper has to be long.

4) My favorite: interactions with people. I have become blue in the face on many occasions talking about how important it is to talk to people at conferences: go to talks, introduce yourself, talk about your work, listen to other people talk about theirs. That is how you get ideas for new work. He does not like to go to seminars, does not want to mentor junior students, has refused to TA to get teaching experience. When he goes to a conference, he doesn't talk to anyone, doesn't want to network. When he gives talks, he stares at his feet or the screen and speaks in monotone. When two of my students recently graduated and I took the group to dinner, he was the only one who didn't come. He does not like people.
And he told me that most people are like him (presumably introverted) and not like me (presumably extroverted; for the record, I find active networking uncomfortable, but I do it anyway; that's the only way to prosper). I asked whether he knew anyone younger than 50 who shuns people and happens to have a faculty position? He didn't have the answer to that one.

5) When I asked him a few days ago if he knew what faculty actually did, he said very firmly that he had a very good idea and that he was sure that he wanted to become faculty. And then he topped it off with a gratuitous slight that we didn't do research anyway, so apparently this is an easy job!

My husband says that I should not be surprised that the student is so unreceptive to my advice -- he is a guy, after all, and all guys hate being given unsolicited advice. That might be true, but I am his advisor and am expected to advise him about his career. A person who thinks they know best about the job they never held, better than someone actually doing the job, is not a particularly smart person.

I for one am done giving this student advice. I have talked to him time and time again, and I am officially done talking. He is free to screw up his career all on his own.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Just wow! I really admire your patience. In your position, I would have fired this student by now. No matter how talented he is! Talent is all very well, but this attitude will not get him anywhere, in any career. He needs to learn this sooner or later, and the sooner the better really.

I know only one such similar case, and it happened to a student in math. This student chose a particular problem, and her advisor advised her not to work on it because many famous mathematicians had worked on it for years and failed to get anywhere. Any math PhD student would be grateful for such guidance, but this foolish student thought that the advisor didn't have enough confidence in her because she is a woman! Needless to say, she didn't last in grad school very long. And btw this shows that attitude and cluelessness is not just the monopoly of men. :-)

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Didn't you aleady tell us that huge numbers of grad students that join your lab flame out and don't even finish their PhDs? Why not just throw this fucker on the fire with the rest of 'em? What's one more log when you've already got a massive funeral pyre going?

Anonymous said...

Give up on giving advice, but don't give up your standards for productivity. tell him you expect more than minimum from him. it is up to him to get it done in 6 months if that's when he wants to graduate. this way, it ain't about what you think he should do with his life (which he may perceive as none of your business), its about your standards in terms of productivity in the lab. the rest will be up to him to f-up.

Gears said...

Look on the bright side, this student will probably not make the cut anyway even if they got to the interview stage.

If a student can't talk objectively about their CV, accomplishments, and how they stack up to other students, they're not going to make it in academia anyway.

BTW, did you mention to this student that you expect him to TA and do proposal reviews and write 7-8 papers during his PhD? If not, don't you think that's a little misleading on your part? If so, why haven't you got on him sooner about not publishing, etc?

Alyssa said...

Wow, this student has a serious attitude problem and it will likely bite him in the ass at some point (though it sounds like it already has!). Being introverted is one thing - I'm an introvert and find it hard at conferences. BUT, if he wants to be a TT prof, he needs to find ways to deal with it. I agree that, at this point, just set out your expectations for him for his PhD, and leave it at that. Who knows? Maybe if you stop giving advice, he'll come to you later down the road.

Anonymous said...

7-8 papers before graduation! Wow. That is well above the standard in my field.

As for the student, let him find his own way. Many people, especially the stubborn, need to step on the rake and get thwacked in the face personally to learn the lesson. That is their choice.

chall said...

It sounds like he doesn't really comprehend the "faculty life". Although, it might be due to the fact that he is in the middle of the PhD... I'd probably sit down and give him one more shot at "the best chance of getting a faculty position is to have a stellar PhD record and learn lots there since once you are in the post doc gambit, things are going to be networking and working your butt off".

Then again, you can't change people, they can only change themselves so if he doesn't want suggestions; don't waste them.

Anonymous said...

I know this guy. Permit me to armchair "psychologise". He has gotten by doing things his way up to this point on the strength of being smart. He thinks things will continue this way indefinitely. He doesn't want to network, didn't want to TA, doesn't care that he gives bad talks, basically doesn't want to adjust to what you might call, the realities of the profession. He thinks he doesn't have to, because he is smart and will get what he wants because of that.

Alex said...

To me, this sounds like a guy who can get a PhD, just not on the schedule that he wants, and probably not with the sort of CV that he actually needs. So, you're making the right call: Save your sanity by not giving advice, and once he gets the minimum number of pubs let him leave with a PhD. He can learn everything else the hard way.

And, to CPP: If you are going to harp on the number of students who started with GMP but left, how many students have done rotations with you and then decided to do a PhD with somebody else or not do one at all?

GMP said...

Thanks everyone for the thoughtful comments! I agree, at this point it's live and let live. As Alyssa says, perhaps if I stop giving advice, he might actually ask for some.

CPP, as always, a fountain of collegial support. For the record, I have had 4 students leave with a Master's only (that's after 1.5 years in my group) and 6 more who left after having spent only a summer or a semester in my group (physical sciences departments typically don't do rotations). Every student who has been with me for 2 years or more has graduated with a PhD, so I don't plan on dropping this one after a little over 3 years in my group.

@Gears: BTW, did you mention to this student that you expect him to TA and do proposal reviews and write 7-8 papers during his PhD? If not, don't you think that's a little misleading on your part? If so, why haven't you got on him sooner about not publishing, etc?

Gears, I don't require the students to TA or do proposal review. I offer it to everyone and strongly recommend to those who want an academic career. Regarding the number of papers, the absolute minimum I require of a student in order to get a PhD is 3; very good students typically come out with 7-8 (that's in 4-5 years, so it's not like I hold on to them forever). I talk about these requirements pretty often in group meetings, so I think the students are aware of them. The student in question is very smart and works on some pretty challenging projects, and I think his CV should reflect his merit. I'd like him to graduate with more than the bare minimum of papers -- perhaps 4 or 5 very good ones. But, as Alex says, if the student insists, I will let him leave with a minimum and he can learn the rest the hard way.

falijn said...

That student is missing out on really great advice. I keep on wondering how you may reach him, but it sounds as if he is stuck in his own tunnel vision. If he hasn't picked up on your advice by now, he'll never will. Advice is given freely. Whatever the other person does with it, is entirely up to him. Doesn't seem he is ready for your message yet...

Namnezia said...

Meh. Just let him be, he's a grown-up.

academicgrinch said...

Hoo boy,

The student just seems smart, but quite lazy! I would not spend as much time on him really.

Hermitage said...

I'm sorry to be a party pooper, but he doesn't sound particularly talented to me. Who wants to work with someone who thinks they know everything, no matter how junior they are? If he doesn't start listening he's going to have a frustrating and embittering career, of course he will probably blame it on everyone else and never have any introspection. I say use your time mentoring someone who may not have the 'brain'/'hands' but would actually appreciate what you have to say.

Dr. Girlfriend said...

You can take the horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

Perhaps he is not thirsty? Perhaps he not has been totally honest about his career/life goals, making it impossible for you to tailor your advice to him. Or maybe he does not value your advice (although it seems perfectly sound to me)! Either way you have done your job and properly fulfilled your role. Just continue to give your advice freely, and not on the condition it be used. Frustrating as it undoubtedly is, your job to provide helpful advice – nothing more.

Meadow said...

Sounds like he isn't going to listen to you. I hear your frustration -- he would do well if he cooperated a bit more. But it doesn't sound like he will.

About #5 that sort of dig against is unacceptable in my view. We work our butts off and I would not tolerate any student telling me otherwise.

From what you said I'm inclined to agree with your husband.

prodigal academic said...

That really sucks. Save your sanity--leave him be and work with your students who actually listen to you.

Anonymous said...

Yes, best to let him learn the hard way. After all, he is an adult, and he is responsible for his own decisions. It is unfortunate that he chooses to waste his talent this way, but if that's what he chooses, then that's his choice. Your time is much better spent working with those students who actually listen to you and value your advice.

Massimo said...

OK, have you ever asked him the following question: "Hey, listen, just out of curiosity... WHY do you want to be a university professor ? What is it about this job that really does it for you ? I am curious because it seems that each time I try to involve you in some activity that I regard as an integral part of this profession, you express to me your lack interest.
You sound like the guy who claims to be wanting to be a soccer player but hates to wear shorts and cleats, does not enjoy running, hates to hit a ball with his head and is disgusted by body contact with others..."

S and O said...

I wish my graduate adviser would give advice like that! Unfortunately, your student just does not appreciate your guidance and knowledge. Sometimes, people are just stubborn, sometimes they can't acknowledge (b/c of their prejudices) that someone just knows better.

Like Dr. Girlfriend said -- you just can't force a horse to drink.

Becca said...

"If a student can't talk objectively about their CV, accomplishments, and how they stack up to other students, they're not going to make it in academia anyway."
I just heard on the Colbert report (from guest David Brooks) that 96%- ninety six f-ing percent- of college faculty in the US think their teaching is 'above average'. Lake Woebegon indeed. Clueless student should fit right in.
GMP- keep in mind, some students have to go through a teenager-like phase in terms of their interactions with their professors. They *have* to argue with all the advice and act like you're clueless. Some of it might be sinking in anyway. But if you're getting frustrated, that's a sign it might be time to cut him off. It's not worth stressing over.

Anonymous said...

I guess your husband advice to you is also right. We hear the one side of the story, told by you. As he wanted to be a faculty professor one day, you might have wanted to give him advice on how much he can further improve his CV on staying 6 more months or one more year.

First of all, I just wanted to shine one corner of the perspective on this discussion.

1. Since your university is also one of the TOP research university, and he is one of the graduates in your research group, I tentatively assume and boldly wrote my assumption here that he must have toiled in his undergrad study, considering passing the graduate admission committee and other achievements or talents which committee could have considered suitable for further graduate study.

2. It's my personal opinion rather than describing the generic perception of "independence". I feel that mysteries are sometimes better left undisclosed until someone in interest finish wondering and exploring the mystery. There is a fine line between a self-seeker/ self-motivator and support-seeker/ support-dependent-motivator. Some enjoy exploring themselves, getting frustrated with failure, delighted with their own achievement.

3. Some needs support, precisely speaking, fatherly and motherly support during their graduate study. In this case, the perception of "advice" would play a huge part in advising advisee who needs advice.

4. If he is reckless and vainglorious due to the fact that he has been fed with full of praise over the 4 years and living in his own realm of dubious talent, you then have no misgiving about giving up your advice.

D said...

Thank you for posting this. I am a newish pHd student, and I think, I irritated my previous advisor like the student you speak about. It eye-opening to see the other side of the story! For me, my response to my previous advisor was mostly due to not understanding that he/she was trying to help me. It always felt as if he/she was trying to torture me with even more work, and then lecturing me on how I should be living my life.

Since then I have moved to a different university, and changed my tune. So there is hope for us stubborn-begrudging-students. And in retrospect I see and appreciate the advice.

GMP said...

D, thanks for the comment. It's good to hear that advice does get appreciated eventually. Perhaps you could drop a note to your former advisor and say thanks. And good luck with the rest of your PhD studies!

Anonymous said...

does he have Asperger's syndrome, perhaps? I had several friends at college who were later diagnosed Asperger's (mostly mathematicians) -- they were brilliant, but very antisocial. Diagnosis from hearsay is always dangerous, of course.

GMP said...

Anon on April 12, that's a good point. I don't know that he has been diagnosed with Asperger's. He is definitely on the very lone-wolf part of the social spectrum.

Spencer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.