Thursday, November 17, 2011

Excuse My Excuse

Yesterday's post brought about the usual accusations that I was Crazy Advisor from Hell, Spawn of Satan, and Meddler Superior into the Lives of Students. But let me put away my pitchfork for a second and step away from the fire on which I am slowly roasting an unsuspecting grad student in order to focus on an interesting question that resurfaced in the comment thread.

There are posts of mine (e.g. here) where a student wants to do something for reasons I may not approve of or understand, or I want to do something for reasons someone else doesn't approve of (e.g. this post). Massimo has commented several times on several of my posts, very consistently, that the problem is always overexplaining. When you offer people a reason why you cannot do something, be ready to have it judged and/or dismissed. So it's best to just say "Sorry, I cannot make/do it" or something to that effect, and leave it at that. There are several other commenters who endorse this approach.

I think Massimo has a valid point, but in my opinion "Sorry, can't do it" is not universally acceptable. Its appropriateness depends strongly on the relationship that the people involved have. Sometimes, "Sorry, can't do it -- period" can do more harm than good as it may seem inappropriately dismissive.

For instance, if a relationship is that of equals, such as between two faculty colleagues, not disclosing details about why you can't meet is fine. But, when the two people have very different positions in a hierarchy and/or one has some power over the other or one is doing the other a favor, then it may not be a good idea for the person lower on the totem pole to appear dismissive, which saying "Sorry, can't do it" without giving a reason does.
Giving a reason indirectly shows that you are considering the proposal seriously and would not really dismiss it without something valid, and as a token of good will you share what it is that you consider important enough to turn down the proposal.

For instance, as in this post, I do not feel it is acceptable to blow off (i.e. stay at a required meeting less than ideal while offering no more than "Sorry, can't do") my program manager, a person I would like to continue to fund my work, without an explanation. I find it less acceptable and more disrespectful than offering an explanation and taking the risk of having its validity judged.

Similarly, I find it more disrespectful/ less acceptable if the student just says "Sorry, can't do" without an explanation to an advisor he'd pestered for months when said extremely-pressed-for-time advisor attempts to schedule a meeting, than it is to offer even a strange excuse.

So what do you say, blogosphere? Is "Sorry, can't do it - period" always acceptable, and, if not, when is it not?


Barefoot Doctoral said...

Personally, I don't want to be bothered with the excuses my students give for dropping a course, or taking the 1 late homework that the syllabus allows. If it is contractually there, take it, let me sign the paperwork, and move on with life.

If they are asking for something beyond contract, some explanation/discussion is warranted.

The closest experience I've had to advising is supervising summer interns. There my attitude is more along the lines of "I give you time/respect in proportion to what you give me". If that ever drops to disastrously low levels, we sit and talk about it. Again, I'm not really interested in reasons, unless there is some really extenuating circumstance, and even then, keep the details to a minimum. How a student prioritizes me is his/her business/funeral, especially if it isn't my grant money paying their salary.

On the other hand, I have had to have discussions with colleagues right after giving birth about how my time was tightly budgeted (I considered this an extenuating circumstance) and that I'd appreciate them not being consistently late to meetings.

JaneB said...

I agree with you - I think it's only polite in a newish relationship (where trust that 'can't do' means 'genuine issues' not 'can't be bothered' has been established) and especially where one is lower on the totem pole (and therefore wants the other person to take you seriously long term) to offer a brief excuse.

Now, detail is not necessary - family commitment or doctor's appointment is fine, details of your child's issue which necessitates meeting the school or your piles are inappropriate, in my view.

But I felt you did the right thing with the Programme Officer case, and that the student was right to give you a reason - and that reporting that the reason was bizarre, especially given the student's apparent desire to work with you, was also a perfectly legitimate use of your blog. But then, I am another satanic advisor... :-)

feMOMhist said...

I suppose it depends what you are "doing." If you "declined" to make a set deadline in my syllabus, you can "i'm sorry" with a reason all you want, but if you don't follow the procedures set by the school to document your "acceptable" reason for failing to meet the deadline, it will do you no good.

If you are my colleague and want me to take your class, and I can't I will probably explain why. Why? because I'd like to maintain credibility with you. That IMHO is the issue raised by PrevPost about the luncher.

HUSH was spot on.
1. This student is asking for a privilege to work with a prof (who cares if you aren't paying him, hello welcome to life in humanities people).
2. Having pushed until he got this, he then declined so he could eat. Hello again, as a student who worked to put myself through school sit down lunches were nonexistent. I grabbed something on the go. Turned out to be excellent training for life as a working parent.
3. The idea that lunch trumped meeting is a MASSIVE red flag for entitled student who will be PITA and may repeat behavior. Since you can obviously pick and choose your students WHY would you work with this person who has declined to think OMG PROF is finally going to meet with me, now I must WOW with my brilliance rather than DAMN now I won't be able to eat lunch.

Alyssa said...

My response depends more on the type of request than the requester. For example, I'd say "sorry, I can't do it" if someone wants to set up a meeting at the last minute or wants me to do something that isn't very important.

The more important something is the more likely I am to give a reason I cannot do it. For example, if I have to cancel/reschedule a meeting I will give a reason.

Anonymous said...

(who cares if you aren't paying him, hello welcome to life in humanities people).

So now we can start making justifications for whatever we do based on cultural practices in some random corner of the world?

Jenny said...

I think that "I have a commitment of a personal nature at that time" would be a sufficient excuse (that personal commitment = lunch but you wouldn't know and you couldn't pry). However, "personal commitment" is quite a stretch for lunch. If he is meeting somebody over lunch then "lunch commitment" is sufficient excuse. "I have to eat lunch" - insufficient excuse for more than 30 minutes.
"Can't make it" is also insufficient in a hierarchy. And yes, there is a hierarchy between a busy adviser and a student who hopes that he would be taken on into said adviser's team. Part of what students learn and are expected to show in a graduate degree is professional behavior, and the sort of nuances Alyssa describes are part of that professional behavior.

Anonymous said...

3. The idea that lunch trumped meeting is a MASSIVE red flag for entitled student who will be PITA and may repeat behavior. Since you can obviously pick and choose your students WHY would you work with this person who has declined to think OMG PROF is finally going to meet with me, now I must WOW with my brilliance rather than DAMN now I won't be able to eat lunch.

People who think you can "pick and choose" your students don't have a friggin' clue about how hard it it really is to get good students.

I'll let you in on another secret, after you act insane with a few students everyone will start avoiding because your acts of insanity will be broadcast to the student population. This might not affect GMP because presumably she directly hires applicants to the grad program, but in schools which provide a first-year fellowship or TA-ship to incoming grad students so that they can pick and choose an advisor, the "bad" ones are avoided like the plague.

GMP said...

It seems to me there are one or two anonymous commenters who have left multiple (fairly enraged) comments today and yesterday. It would be a good idea if they could give themselves some sort of a nickname so everyone could know if it's a returning commenter. It helps the conversation.

Grumpy Lurker said...

Anon at 8:05 AM, you have no fucking clue what an insane adviser actually is. Calling you at 8 am on Sunday morning to see if you are in the lab, scheduling group meetings at 1 am, demanding that you log in more than 60 hours per week in the lab (as in, have them recorded in the facility usage log). Boohoo -- GMP wants the student to meet her over lunch. Better call the ambulance, she's batshit crazy!

And don't get me started with the nice advisers. Several students had to be rescued from the super nice advisers who hold on to students for ages without the student making much progress on anything or even having a well-defined topic, but yeah it's important that everyone is feeling all warm and fuzzy the entire time while nothing is getting done.

DRo said...

It is definitely not universally acceptable to offer no explanation.

I think in cases where two people have some kind of existing relationship (such as a working relationship) then an explanation is always required. In cases where you are declining a request from a stranger--for example, a request to give a public talk or something, giving no explanation is fine.

On the larger debate going on in these posts: Successful research groups require collegiality. Everyone is busy but also everyone has a common goal of moving science forward and advancing their own careers. Thus everyone must be reasonable and flexible. Everyone must have a "can-do" attitude. If "sorry can't do it" is a response, then things aren't going to get done. Everyone must find a way to make things work.

The student's response to GMP's was completely unreasonable.

GMP: for the record I love your blog and think you are always spot on.

GMP said...

Thanks, DRo, I really appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

I think justifications are totally useless for a reason others have mentioned: who are we to judge what should and should not be a priority in someone else's life? Is everything in my life automatically less important because I've chosen not to have kids (yet... if ever)? Inaccurate judgments will distort our perceptions of others' effort.

A better approach instead is to follow any "no" with a counteroffer. Over some time period, both parties must be making a comparable effort to meet/work; the effort of the underling (if there is one) must generally be greater. How people spend their time in the interim is completely personal.

Anonymous said...

I'm Anon at 11:10 a.m. For the record, I'm not a moral relativist by a long shot. That said, I also don't think family-related obligations are inherently superior to obligations to see old friends, perform community service, pursue most hobbies, etc.

Alex said...

who are we to judge what should and should not be a priority in someone else's life?

Um, we're talking about a request to have a meeting during normal work hours, a request made by a person who IS responsible for judging the student. The advisor has to decide whether the student is worth funding (if her funding situation improves to the point where she has the funds to support the student), has to judge the student's work ethic when writing letters of recommendation, and (at least at some schools) has to assign a letter grade for directed research courses, etc.

She isn't judging him because he doesn't work late into the night, or because of the way he spends his free time. She's judging him for not making himself available for a lunch meeting during a 90 minute portion of a normal work day. And yes, the reason does matter, at least if you're in a working relationship where you need to maintain good faith with each other. I don't think any decent person would fault him if he couldn't make the meeting because of a medical problem, or an urgent situation with a relative or friend, or some other circumstance beyond his control. But people SHOULD be judged by how they handle circumstances that are within their control.

Anonymous said...

The naivete displayed by many commenters on yesterday's post is just astounding. Hello, you won't get far in *any* kind of job if you routinely disrespect your co-workers and don't pay attention to standard rules of professional behavior. I am a junior PI and if my department chair wants to meet with me, you better believe I don't tell him I have to go to lunch for an hour instead. If I'm hungry I'll have an apple first. Students need to learn how to behave professionally if they expect to succeed in academic science, or any other career. Personally I would be very put off if someone pursued working with me as long as GMP's student, then once I agreed to accept them, behaved as GMP describes.

GMP, I think you are right on.

structurefunction said...

The whole thing is kinda silly in this particular situation. Why not get lunch together and discuss science over food?

BugDoc said...

I agree with you, GMP. I would find the whole situation strange as well. There definitely should be some context to the "no, I can't make it" conversation. Lunch, not such a good reason. "Thanks for making time for me, but unfortunately I have a prior obligation. Is there another time we can meet?" would definitely work better.

Anonymous said...

I used to agree with you on this point, but after the past couple years, I'm in Massimo's camp.

People want an explanation because they feel entitled to pass judgement. People give explanations because they want a bit of understanding and perhaps sympathy. I don't think either of these dynamics has a place in a professional relationship.

I was once chewed out by a former advisor because after 8 solid hours of teaching, I didn't have the energy to go sit at a bar(!!) and listen to people banter about things that might be cursorily related to research. And I certainly wasn't getting paid for it. Hell, I barely had the energy to go home and pass out in bed. But I got read the riot act and told I should quit school if I didn't care about my research.

If I'm not able to do something, I will try to provide a reasonable alternative. However, I'm not going to give people reason to come up with reasons why I won't ever make a decent scientist because they happen to schedule things when I need to be doing something for work or be with my family or whatever else I'm doing that they probably disapprove of. I have my priorities, and no one else has the right to make judgement calls on them.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

If someone who is a grown adult says to me, "I'm sorry, but I can't do thing X at time Y, but I can do it at a different time", then I take it at face value and move on. I don't give a fucke why. If someone exhibits a pattern of avoiding doing things and fails to carry their weight, then I deal with that.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I am a junior PI and if my department chair wants to meet with me, you better believe I don't tell him I have to go to lunch for an hour instead.

This is an absurd scenario. We are talking about professionals in a professional environment, not hourly workers paid to be in a certain place for a certain period of time doing a certain thing every day.

feMOMhist said...

So now we can start making justifications for whatever we do based on cultural practices in some random corner of the world?

geez I mean I always sort of suspected you science types didn't care for us down the other end of campus (for the record I worked in a med school for 10+ years), but I"m pretty sure we aren't completely random.

Anonymous said...


I'm the enraged commentor. Sorry if I upset you, for the record I was to say that by and large, I do admire what you seem to have accomplished, but unfortunately you came off looking a bit extreme in this episode which triggered some unwise responses by me.

I've worked in both academic and corporate environments where there was very little hierarchy vs. those where there was a lot of hierarchy. The ones with hierarchy were significantly worse than their counterparts. On a personal level, I suffered when working in these environments. This might explain part of why I have strong feeling about this. (The other part is probably due to what appears to be racism.)

Generally, news about a bad environment gets around and then it becomes difficult to recruit good talent. This might be something for you think wrt to the divide between your expectations for and the performance of your students.

GMP said...

Anon at 8:45, thanks for the comment.
I am sure you understand that yesterday's post was about things I was thinking, nothing that actually hurt the student in any way.

Regarding the cultural/racial issues -- my group is pretty diverse (4 people from Asia, 1 from the US, 1 from the Middle East, 2 from continental Europe). Actually it is considerably more diverse than many of my colleagues' groups (there are quite a few who only have American students or only students from their home country). I have had several students from the same country as the 90-min-lunch student, and, as expected, they ranged from very bad to excellent; my first PhD student, who is therefore very special to me, was a stellar student from that same country.

I don't know how long you've been reading this blog, but I am an immigrant in the US. I am familiar with the US culture but there are a number of cultural peculiarities, in the US as a whole and in this region in particular, that I still discover and find puzzling. Whenever I encounter something that seems weird to me, I typically ask myself "Is it this person's idiosyncrasy, or is it another feature of their culture that I never encountered before?" Working with lots of people from all over the world and in a country that's not native to most of us can be challenging.

Regarding hierarchies: like everything else, they are neither inherently good nor bad. There are good and bad things about them. I suppose people differ in how they perceive and tolerate a hierarchical structure, and it also depends on how the structure is designed and how rigid it is. For instance, a junior student has a designated senior students as a first point of contact, who has a postdoc to talk to, and then there's me. Often, the group members resolve a research issue on their own before the problem ever reaches me. Students are always paired up like this so they always have someone in the trenches to ask for help on a short notice; it's an example of a hierarchy that I think is a good thing and fosters group cohesiveness. Also, I think it enables people to get more work done -- for instance, if a newbie student doesn't have to come to me for every minute roadblock they encounter, I can be more efficient when dealing with things that do require my input, such as writing grants and papers.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I did not comment on the previous post. I found the student's behavior slightly odd, but not suspiciously so. Scheduling meetings is always a difficult task in my department and usually ends up requiring someone to reschedule something. As a result, meetings are almost always a negotiated, not a dictated thing.

I would have told the student: I'm available at the following time(s) if you want to meet---otherwise we won't be able to meet until ...

If the student had made the unusual excuse that they had to eat lunch then, I would have invited them to join me at the taco truck so we could discuss research while waiting in line. If that didn't work out, then we would meet the next time our schedules lined up.

I have had several students who had medical or family problems that they did not wish to discuss with other students or faculty. For the most part, they were forced to use unexplained "I can't make it then" excuses, so I don't judge people harshly for not explaining conflicts.

Students in our department have started using to schedule things like thesis committee meetings and discussions of fellowship applications. If people use the three-state answers (yes, no, only-if-essential), it is often easier to negotiate a feasible time for everyone. That happened recently when a group of seven students and me were meeting to provide feedback on fellowship applications. There was no time in a two-day window when everyone could make it, and only 2 hours when all but one could make (and then only after a couple of people switched their "no" to "only-if-necessary"). We ended up meeting with one person missing. One of the students who switched from "yes" to "if necessary" had a thesis committee meeting immediately after the fellowship meeting---his initial desire to keep that slot open was understandable, and his willingness to give it up on seeing that no other slot would work for others was commendable. (It turned out not to be a major problem---the meetings got scheduled for the same room, and he had enough time between them to set up a projector and collect his thoughts for a couple of minutes.)

Canadian_Brain said...

I'd say the warning flag for this student should be "They were dumb enough to SAY that they had to go for lunch"... I may not be the most socially aware person out there, but even I know that translates into "I am an ass-hat who is going to do something else stupid"

Anyone with common sense would just say "I've got an another meeting/appointment/thing" at that time and suggest otherwise... people gotta realize what kind of message they are sending...

Anonymous said...

Would it really bother you if the student said "I can't make it at that time, but what about X?" And then maybe some back-and-forth until you find a time that works for both of you?

I have to say, it's really difficult for me to imagine that a lack of reasons would bother me. I often find students' ability to articulate their reasons quite bad anyway; I prefer when they just try to negotiate a time that works for both of us.