Saturday, November 2, 2013

New Profs as PhD Advisors

Recently, I spoke with a junior colleague who had just started as an assistant professor on the tenure track. He is understandably very busy; I remember well that first year, things get completely insane.

He is at a good public R1, where he is presently teaching a graduate-level course. Alas, he has found himself disappointed by the quality of graduate students and fears he will never get any good ones. Luckily, he is probably wrong, but won't be able to see that for the next few years.

After having gone through the tenure track and a few additional years, I feel that one of the things that has most profoundly changed with respect to the early days of assistant professordom is my ability to work effectively with graduate students -- not the imaginary perfect ones, but the students you actually have around.

Sure, there is the initial shock -- not every potential graduate student is brilliant. Or competent. Or motivated. Actually, they may all seem hopeless at first. "Students here suck," you think, "I would be so much better off if I could only get my hands on one of those super smart kids at Top Notch Places. Sky would be the limit, with my brilliant ideas and their boundless potential!"

Several years down the road and many laments with colleagues later, you realize that everyone everywhere complains about the quality of students. But here's the thing: we weren't perfect graduate students either, it's all revisionist history; I bet most of us professors would not actually want our own selves as graduate students.

When you are on the tenure track, your own career is tied to your students. You are understandably very antsy to get things moving and are less able and less willing to ask yourself if maybe this student needs a different type of project or a different type of mentoring or more time or something else. I don't think this is selfish. You need to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping anyone else. Tenure track is a brutal, stressful time, and if you fail you will likely not get another chance again. For a student, working with a brand spanking new professor can be a trying time.

As a new professor, you don't really know what you are doing. You have no idea what you really need in a student (even though you totally think you have it figured out) and  you don't know what it takes to advise someone. Mostly, you only know what you want done and you want someone who will magically understand what you want done and exactly how you want it done and just do it the exact same way that you would, preferably without asking you for help because you are unavailable on account of being crushed by teaching, grant writing, and service.

Recruiting students is initially very hard. You don't know what to look for. You don't know what kind of people you enjoy working with, you don't know how to give the students the right balance of structure and freedom. Some students are very gifted and can do almost anything well. Some students may appear to be a total failure, only to discover that they thrive and be very creative on another type of project. When you are new, spending your start-up and hearing the relentless ticking of the tenure clock, you don't have the money or the time to enable people to leisurely try out different things for size.

These days, I know what I am looking for in a student in terms of background, motivation, attitude, and aptitude. There are schools from which I like to recruit, as I've had excellent students from there in the past. I have enough funding and flexibility that I can offer a student several projects to choose from. Students usually start with a smaller project, where they take on an extension of someone else's work, the equivalent of one paper's worth, just to cut their teeth. By the end of this process, the student has a good first-author paper and we both have a better understanding of how the student likes to work, what their strengths and weakness are, and -- most importantly --  what gets the student really fired up and what types of projects they would really like to tackle. Here is an example: I recently had a student who spun wheels for a year on a project with a somewhat abstract,  fairly theoretical focus;  seeing that things were not working out, I restructured the project a bit to shift  the focus onto a less lofty, very concrete and very computationally demanding problem. The student -- who had always been smart, hard working and conscientious -- took off in a particularly spectacular way and has made great strides on the revised project, as it turns out he is a very skilled programmer. The story has a double happy ending, as I soon thereafter recruited a student who loves the more theoretical work, so the original project is progressing well, too.

With the right project and proper guidance, I think almost any student who has the right background and motivation can do a very good job. It is true that sometimes finding the right project does mean changing advisors, but often it works out well with a little tweaking of the focus within the original group, or with a change in advising style: some students don't need the advisor much, some start out needing more time but gradually become more independent. As an advisor, you learn all these things through experience and you get better and more patient down the road.

Finally, I believe there are excellent students at every R1 university. It's just that they are fewer and farther between at lower ranked places, but they are definitely there. You may need to go personally through every applicant file, but there are many smart people all over the world. All it takes is one or two good students, with whom you can work productively, to make all the difference in your budding research program. And working with students definitely gets smoother and more enjoyable as you gain more advising experience.

Best of luck to all our junior colleagues in recruiting their first PhD students!


Anonymous said...

You make some great points - there are bad students everywhere, a bad student for one person may be a great student for another, and figuring out how to work effectively with students can be difficult at first.

I've also noticed that many supervisors don't think about training their students to be supervisors, they only focus on training them to be researchers. As a grad student I helped supervise undergraduate honors projects, as a postdoc I helped supervise graduate students, and (most importantly) my supervisors and I would have great discussions about what was working and what wasn't. I learned a lot about my supervisory style and what I preferred in a student in a situation where I still had a mentor to go to for help and advice. I also learned early that each student is different in terms of how much supervision they need and if you adapt to meet their needs you can usually get good work out of most of them. By the time I started my own lab I was way better prepared to supervise my own students independently (not that it isn't still a learning experience!).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this wonderful post, GMP! I am in my 3rd year of tt, still struggling with advising, and this post has been very re-assuring.

A problem that I find with many students particularly in their first or second year is that they don't take research as seriously as their classes. I have weekly individual meetings, and they would often not do the research tasks I would set them in these meetings because of homework or other class-related stuff. This happens not just the week of the finals (which I can understand), but almost every week. I have told them many times that research is much more important in grad school than classes, but still the reflex action of first or second year grad students is to spend hours and hours on homework and maybe an hour on the research project if time permits. Mind you their course load is quite reasonable -- two grad courses a semester -- so research is totally doable.

Do you have any advice on what to do in this situation and how to convince junior students that research is important? Perhaps in a separate post? Any advice would be highly valuable.

Alethea said...

As a just-finished student, I will say that other students at my university (me included) advise rotating students to actively avoid new professors. "Don't be the guinea pig" we say, because it's clear that they often aren't able to provide effective project guidance and mentoring, because they are so (necessarily) focused on output.

If you need someone who can just crank out data, with no training and no mentoring, hire a "research associate" or something, don't take a student. After a year or two, then think about it.

My university does try to provide students who have the misfortune to go to a still-tenuring professor's lab with a second (tenured) mentor to make sure they don't slip through the cracks.

GMP said...

There is no need to demonize assistant profs as a group. The only way to get better at advising graduate students is by advising graduate students. In the physical sciences there are no rotations, so often you have to try working for a prof to see whether it works or not; also, graduating at least one PhD student is a requirement for tenure. My first PhD student joined me after having spent a fairly unproductive 3 years in an established lab, and then did great with me; so it's not like invariably established lab = slam dunk, new prof lab = guinea pigdom.

I actually think that there are people who are inherently better suited to work with assistant profs than established profs. It's the same personality type as the person who is bored in a big corporation but thrives in a startup. There are many good things about working for a junior prof: you get to help build a lab and develop expertise in all aspects of doing science professionally and there is never a dull moment. Also, assistant profs are younger, so the relationship is often more peer-like than hierarchical, the latter more typical with established profs. (My first student was the same age as my younger sibling.)

Anon at 10:16 AM: that's a good idea for a post, thanks! The short answer is -- as your group gets more established, you will have senior and junior students, the senior ones naturally being very productive, which then reduced the pressure on the junior ones who are distracted with classes and often still bewildered by the whole grad school ordeal. But, on the tenure track, these junior students are all you have and I remember how frustrating it is to see them obsess and spend tremendous time on the wrong things. On the one hand, I understand that for many the focus on classes is the way to establish control -- they know how to do well in class, they are likely still lost around the lab. However, if they said they would do something and then repeatedly fail to deliver on what they promised, it is time to warn them that their advising situation may have to change dramatically. I am all for being flexible within reason -- of course, leave them alone for a week around midterms or finals -- but they should not kid themselves about their obligations. Research assistantships are not charity handouts, research has to be done in return for them, or the money goes away.

EarthSciProf said...

Very helpful post. Thanks!

EliRabett said...

Being the first student of somebunny who within a few years is amongst the best in the field is a huge advantage. Of course, it is also a crap shoot, because not everybunny makes it.

So, any student joining up with a new Asst. Prof. needs to carefully weigh the odds.

Anonymous said...

I happen to be a first grad student of a first grad student of a first grad student (currently I'm a postdoc). It seems to be going OK so far! But indeed, I could have crashed and burned. And I knew a few asst. profs the same "generation" of my adviser that never managed to graduate a student. So it can be a crap shoot for sure.

In many ways I'm enjoying my (more senior) postdoc adviser's much more laid back style compared to my grad adviser, but there was a certain excitement in my grad adviser's lab that is lacking here (though the science is exciting as it is!)