Monday, June 6, 2011

Are You Your Advisor?

I write a lot about advising students and postdocs. But, whenever I write about a topic that touches mentoring, I invariably get some comments in which I am perceived as some sort of tyrannical monster who despises her underlings.
I don't think this is true in the least. I care deeply about the success of my students and postdocs. However, I write most about the mentorship aspects that I find puzzling or irritating -- blogging is conducive to venting, and I for one loooove complaining and ranting, so I write disproportionately more about the negatives than the positives. I also don't delude myself that I have all the answers; I am a much better advisor now than when I first started and am presumably significantly less effective than I will be 20 years from now. Most people, me included, try to do their best at the given point in time and with the experience and resources they have. One of the many similarities between advising and parenting is that the harshest critics are those people who are not parents themselves -- many (most?) of us who have kids thought we'd do everything so much better once it's our turn, only to find out that things are so much harder than we anticipated and many of other people's parenting choices that we so vehemently criticized start to completely make sense. The same with advising -- things look much different once you actually have to do it yourself.

I am sure much of what we do as advisors reflects how we ourselves were advised. But, I am also sure there are many differences, as we perhaps try to correct the things we didn't like when we were students or postdocs. Sometimes -- perhaps often? -- things that made us furious as trainees start to make a lot of sense once we are on the other side. Sort of how you develop newfound appreciation for your own parents once you become a parent yourself. And then there are undeniable differences in style we bring with respect to our advisors, simply because we are indeed different people or we may be at drastically different stages in our careers or at different types of institutions or we simply envision a different work-life balance for ourselves. So here are a few vignettes from my grad school life, which I think influenced how I advise students now.

1) I got a faculty position right after grad school, so my PhD advisor is the advisor who had the greatest influence on my career in every aspect. (In other fields, perhaps a postdoc advisor had a dominant influence.) My advisor was very well known and awe-inspiring. He also had a reputation for having a really bad temper and being extremely bellicose with colleagues, which hurt his recognition in the long run and did not help his advisees. He did not like being wrong or challenged in an environment where he perceived he would lose face; you could see his blood boiling and him becoming increasingly agitated and very unpleasant when it was becoming clear that he was losing an argument. I learned that the best way to go about is to drop the issue that we argued about and let him cool down, and then follow up with an email exchange. He was at the end of the day always in the pursuit of the truth and would always acknowledge when I was right in the end; the key was to finalize the exchange so that everyone has had the time to process it. I think this little bit of workaround around his temper was key in the two of us getting along very well for many years, and much better than he got along with many other students.But, it is also important that every single time the original idea or argument was always much improved after having talked/emailed with him -- just the process of hashing it out was extremely stimulating and useful.
-- What's the moral of this story? One is that advisors are people, with all that entails: they are not infallible or stoic; they get tired and pissed and defensive and everything else that other people get, so consider this aspect in your interactions. Second, when I have a disagreement with a student/postdoc, this experience taught me not to get defensive or aggressive (I am not 100% successful in this aspect, I admit) but to persevere in the discussion for everyone's benefit. Even when you as an advisor are wrong, you typically have a lot to bring to the discussion because you have much more experience in various aspects of the scientific process, so the idea is always much better and cleaner after the discussion than before it.

2) My advisor had a number of non-negotiable rules. For instance, I was trying for years to convince him to use Latex for text processing, and he would never budge. It was MS Word exclusively for all text, Power Point for all presentations, and one specific programming language and one image processing software for all programming and image processing needs. Nobody was allowed to use anything else for anything research-related. At the time, I honestly thought he was just a petty tyrant for insisting on such uniformity and failing to see the benefits of Latex; now I see the benefit of uniformity within the group to streamline everything from training new members, to software licence renewal, debugging and trouble shooting, sharing codes and other files. As soon as I was on my own, I went back to using Latex for most text processing; when he heard of it, my advisor told me somewhat sadly that I had switched over to the dark side. Now my group uses Latex for research papers and theses while we use MS Word for shorter texts and because virtually all our collaborators use only MS Word. We all use PPT for presentations and one programming language and one image processing software, as uniformly so as my old group did.
-- This story teaches us a couple of things too: (1) While you work in someone's group, it's going to be their way, whether you like it or not. Once you are on your own and lead your own group, you can do things any way you like. (2) Some rules are there for a good reason, which may not be obvious until you are in your advisor's shoes. Try to give them the benefit of the doubt that they actually may know what they are doing.

3) On the other hand, my advisor was very hands off in other aspects of mentoring students. For instance, we had weekly group meetings, but not during my entire time in grad school. He would rarely seek a student out and would generally expect you to come to him if you had problems; when you asked to see him, he'd accommodate you pretty promptly within a day or two, even though he was very busy. I was happy with this style and I think it works well for people who are independent. But I knew there were my group mates who really would just do nothing for weeks or would go off on unproductive tangents for way too long, and then once they got together with the advisor after a long time and presented what was, shall we say -- suboptimal output -- unbelievable wrath was unleashed upon them. Which only made them even less likely to seek meetings in the future and the vicious cycle continued. In my own group, we have weekly group meetings as well as weekly 1-on-1 meetings: my best students would likely be fine to be left alone, but for most students, especially when they are new, weekly 1-on-1 meetings keep them out of trouble/away from being stuck for long and the feedback offers them reassurance.
-- What's the moral of this story? Don't assume independence in all your students. Actually, assume that most will not be as driven or as independent as you may like them to be, at least initially, and ensure they have enough structure (or, if you will, hand holding or micromanaging) to maximize their own potential and make good progress in good time. This is critical especially in the initial stages of a research project. Brilliant students do well almost irrespective of the advisor. I think a successful advisor is one who can get a decent quality research output from a student who is not entirely independent or obviously brilliant from the start -- for many such students picking out a good topic and seeing them through their initial struggles can actually reveal a great hidden potential once they gain some confidence, and that's where structure and regular feedback is key.

4) When I was a grad student I was quite productive, wrote many papers and went to a lot of conferences. My advisor even threw a couple of his invited talks my way. I traveled more than his average student, to probably 5-6 conferences per year in my last few years. When I became faculty, I thought that's what I needed to do -- send my students to as many conferences as possible and have them present all the work.
But there was one significant difference between my advisor and me. When I was a graduate student, he was in his 60's, well known and well funded. He needed neither exposure nor funding, and could send me wherever and whenever. I, on the other hand, was a newbie faculty -- I neither had his funding resources, nor the name recognition or clout that he commanded. I had to balance sending students to conferences against ensuring that I myself got enough exposure, and doing it all on what were initially
relatively modest funds. I only realized this after several senior faculty colleagues kept insisting that I myself needed to travel and get exposure in order to get tenure, and that delegating everything to students at the beginning of my career would be devastating. So my students initially went to 2, occasionally 3 conferences per year. I also did not start delegating my invited talks (which were initially quite few and far between) to group members until I was near the end of my tenure track; invited talks mean a lot on the CV in my discipline, and count for a lot at tenure review time. Was this selfish? Perhaps. But had I not received tenure, I would not have ended up being of much use to anyone, including my students in their subsequent careers.

5) When I was a graduate student, I subbed for my advisor a lot. A LOT. One semester, I actually ended up teaching more classes than him (it's not like I was a TA or anything like that. He would just tell me that he'd be going out of town for 2 weeks and that I needed to cover these chapters from the book in class). I don't know why he did it -- initially it looked like he distributed the subbing load among students, but at some point it became only me. My guess is that he knew I wanted to be faculty and figured I could use some practice. I think I ended up subbing for him in about 5 different courses during my grad school. I actually enjoyed it but it was often a lot of time to prep.
-- What I do differently is that I ask my students if anyone wants to substitute. I think that for some of them it would be a good idea considering that they either want to teach or simply need practice talking in front of an audience, and I try to nudge them to do it and explain my reasons for thinking they should do it, but if nobody wants to (which is usually the case), I don't make them do it. I consider teaching classes to be my obligation; it is a situation in which the learning outcomes of the class, especially with undergrads, do depend strongly on the quality of teaching, and if I have to twist arms to get someone to cover, it's not going to be a fun experience for anyone. So then I ultimately reschedule.

If you are a faculty/PI or a scientist out of academia, do you think your professional self resembles your advisor? What are the differences and similarities? If you are a student/postdoc, what are your advisor's characteristic that you might like to emulate in your career and which ones would you hate displaying yourself?


Alex said...

I don't know to what extent my mentoring style matches my PhD advisor, but I have definitely adopted a few of his quirkier physical mannerisms, unintentionally. This disturbs me.

Professor Zero said...

Mine in most ways isn't who I try to emulate in all respects - other people were much more admirable, humane, professional, and so on. I did take on a couple of her mannerisms, though, like Alex, and I think I should quit.

Namnezia said...

I only insist in uniformity in the data collection software/data format. After that they are free to choose the best method (although I have preferences) for analysis. For writing we use Word, but that's because it's mutli-platform and easy to collaborate. Plus who the hell wants to program while you write as you have to do in LaTex?

GMP said...

Plus who the hell wants to program while you write as you have to do in LaTex?

:-) You sound just like my husband!

Latex makes a lot of sense for large documents with lots of equations, and it favored by many math and physics folks (theorists in particular). Also, it is very easy to refer to anything the text (figures, equations, tables, one equation out of many, sections and subsections, individual paragraphs, page on which something appears, etc) by your own labels and then just call them whenever needed, you never ever have to think about renumbering anything yourself (some of these capabilities exist in Word to a certain extent, but are limited and much more of a pain in the ass; I had to do my dissertation in Word and it was excruciating -- if you have 250 equations and need to reformat them, you have to click on every goddamn one; plus they don't look as pretty as in Latex. Word is not meant to treat massive amounts of formulas, period.)
The formatting capabilities of Latex are really awesome -- the whole text, however large, can be thoroughly reformatted by changing a few of lines in the preamble, and absolutely everything is automatically renumerated and cross-linked. The society journals I submit to have very good Latex templates -- they offer an easy way to estimate the manuscript length, plus it's easy for the publishers to use the source files directly in the publication process.

But I agree that for short documents and/or documents with few equations Word is probably a better choice. 95% of my collaborators use only Word (they are all experimentalists), so I use Word a lot too, and I agree it's a good way to share documents in collaborations.

Alex said...

The true mark of a theorist is that the theorist thinks it's even more fun to program as you write, because programming is far more logical than English spelling and grammar.

The only thing that could come close to the logic of LaTeX is a Romance language--as long as the language isn't French--because the grammar is so intricate yet logical.

GMP said...

The only thing that could come close to the logic of LaTeX is a Romance language--as long as the language isn't French--because the grammar is so intricate yet logical.

That's how I feel about German grammar -- it's very beautiful and has a very mathematical structure.

pika said...

Here's how I solve the Latex/Word problem:
I write in Word, because that's easier for collaborations and group work. But I produce all my equations in Latex, compile them into separate pdfs, which I export as images. Finally I import these images into my Word document. This way I don't have to bother with Word equation editor nor do I have to try to convince my collaborators to use Latex, but I still get the nice Latex look for any kind of maths. :-)

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say thanks for this post. It is very helpful for me, a newbie faculty.

Anonymous said...

I am the anonymous who triggered this post. I used to work for this Eastern European boss, who would insist on doing everything the other way. I did vector line drawings, he wanted it bitmap just because "you don't need to bother". I did Word 2007, he would try to hold on to Word 2003. (Good luck to that.) I would do Powerpoint for simple drawings, he would still want Illustrator. He would pay for every damned piece of software in the lab to be downgraded to the version he used in grad school. One day, I just enough. Since then, I heard he downgraded the Linux file server.

Principle Investigator said...

I was mentored by two very different individuals for my PhD and postdoc. My graduate mentor was super hands-on, particularly in the beginning when the lab was still relatively small - and believed in any measures that would increase efficiency, such as multiple lab members collaborating on one project and 60-80 hour work weeks. The advantage was that we were super efficient and productive; the downside was that I had very little room to develop my own ideas, "waste" time learning to troubleshoot, etc. In contrast, my postdoc advisor practiced something that could be (charitably) described as benign neglect. I am currently trying to write up a manuscript with him from afar, and it is a huge PITA.

In my position at a research-intensive SLAC, I try to find a middle road between the two, but given the inexperience of my students, it makes much more sense to emulate my graduate advisor... as long as I don't get bent out of shape when we totally fail to approximate that level of efficiency ;).

Clarissa said...

One of my most ardent hopes is that, come what may, I will never ever ever turn into my advisor. I don't want to end up driving my grad students into depression, nightmares and thoughts of suicide. I don't want to brag that my grad students always leave my office in tears because, otherwise, I don't feel like I'm doing my job. I don't want to end up telling my students that everything they have ever written is shit and garbage. I don't want to tell them that a parent dying young from cancer is no big deal.

Sorry for the rant. I still feel traumatized by the experience. But, at least, it taught me what kind of advisor I don't want to become.