Wednesday, August 01, 2007

'Unsuccessful Grad Students Blame Their Advisors'

I once read somewhere that unsuccessful grad students always blame their advisors for their lack of success. (Sorry, can't find the original piece.)

To what extent is this true?

I've known grad students who were discouraged at every step of the way, by being told they were bad scientists, by having their littlest result doubted, by having their professional competence impugned. Sometimes they kept on keepin' on. Sometimes they left work every day at 5 and went biking.

Sometimes their advisors praised them later, for working in the face of adversity. Sometimes their advisors told their peers and committees that they weren't working hard enough. Sometimes they got notes in their annual reports that said 'He really was a horrible student the first three years, but he's doing better now, I suppose.' Sometimes they just left.

So let's say there are several kinds of lack-of-success.

There's a lack of results, which is often minimally controllable in that particular project by its researcher.

There's the failure to move on to a new project. This one, I believe, deserves blaming both ways. The student should evaluate her projects to see if they are progressing or are likely too, but the advisor's job is to advise her how to cut her losses.

There's the should-have-worked-harder (more hours, more weekends, less vacations, should have turned over experiments faster... etc.). It's true, one could always work harder. At the same time, there's a finite limit to how much each person can work while remaining sane, healthy, and supplied with clean socks. Whose job is it to say a grad student worked hard enough? In my world, it's my job. When I say it's enough for the day, it is, because no-one wants me to get this PhD more than I do. But this can be problematic if the advisor doesn't agree, or thinks everyone should be in lab from 8 AM to 8 PM six days a week, and half-days on the seventh. Then the student is blamed for a lack of motivation. The student blames the advisor for unrealistic expectations.

There's the student who doesn't have as many papers as he/she could have, for whatever reason. You know, the one who's 'not working up to full potential.' Is it depression? Distraction? A partner who lives far away? Laziness? Hard to tell.

There's the student who runs into infinite technical difficulties, and is blamed by the advisor who doesn't have the foggiest memory of what bench science is like. Or who does. Sometimes this student has less-than-golden hands, and sometimes the experiment is really hard.

If Suzie Frustrated quits grad school after four years because she can't take the condescension, or grinding down, or putdowns, or four straight years of negative results, she may well blame her advisor. Advisors aren't cheerleaders, but good leaders of any sort learn to motivate their underlings. Suzie's advisor hasn't helped her scientifically, or she would at least have a plan that would lead her out of the tunnel. The advisor hasn't helped her professionally, because he hasn't provided any positive feedback: he's been quick to pounce on mistakes, but miserly with praise (and all of that backhanded, to boot).

It's Suzie's 'fault' for joining a bad lab. But it's also her advisor's fault for running a bad lab. Suzie has not reached her scientific potential in part because of the lack of support. Her advisor isn't to blame for her 'giving up', or reaching the end of her rope, but he is to blame for not doing anything positive about it. It's easy to tell when people are frustrated with their research, and it's not helpful to tell Suzie that she's a bad scientist or she'd have results.

So sometimes, yes, unsuccessful grad students do blame their advisors. But some of the time? They're right.

Any good advisor or bad-student stories? Do share.