Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Advising Grad Students

It's that time of the year when I have new first year advisees, concentration advisees, new grad students, old grad students, and junior colleagues. I find myself dispensing lots of advice - some of which will (and should) be ignored; some of which might be handy. Just for fun, I thought I'd try to do a series on the different types of advice I give different people.

Today's installment is about advising grad students. Advising graduate students is really quite unlike anything else you've ever done (except perhaps advising your grown children, but I don't have any of those yet, so I don't know; I can hope that my experience advising grad students will make me a better parent; being a parent certainly makes me a better colleague and advisor).

Anyway, there are a couple of statements that ought to be obvious, but that aren't always spelled out in black and white. First off, grad students are adults (then again, I think undergrads are too). And they don't actually work for you (exception: if they are your teaching fellow for a course, then they actually do work for you and different rules apply in that specific context) . If you're a good advisor, they will work with you and they will align their goals with your goals, but they don't really work for you. They work for themselves (face it -- in the sciences and engineering, the stipend we pay them doesn't come close to a fair wage). Their goal is to acquire a PhD and they've entrusted themselves to your guidance. Yeah, really, I view it as an incredible compliment and a huge responsibility when a student decides to work with me. Given the quality of students who apply here, they have choices to attend many fine institutions and work with many talented faculty. If they choose to work with me, they've placed an enormous amount of trust in me.

I don't get to tell my students what to do. I can suggest they do things, but if I do, I darned well better be prepared to explain why I think they should do it and what's in it for them. If the only answer I have is, "I need you to do this." then I'm better off being honest about this and not suggesting it, but saying, "Hey -- I really need you to do this, do you think you could?" If you have a good relationship with your students, they will do that in a heartbeat. If they won't, then it's time to ask yourself where you've messed up. In general, whenever I'm about to suggest that a student do something, undertake a particular project, write a paper, etc., I like to be prepared to answer the question, "What's in it for me?" I've never actually had a student ask that (mostly because I tell them explicitly), but I think it's important that I understand my own motivations.

Let me tell a story -- as I was approached my tenure review, my group got a paper published in one of the top conferences in our field. This was clearly a group project -- we'd built a large system and this was the first real paper where we told the world exactly what it was and how well it worked. The paper was the result of a lot of hard work of three students and myself. Normally I'd have tried to give the talk presentation to the most senior student or the student who'd carried the lion's share of the work -- neither of those two questions was easily answered, and as I said, "tenure was approaching." I explained to the group that I wanted to give the talk. I was pretty blunt -- I explained that I was fully aware that this was a group project and that I could entrust the talk to any of them, but that I felt I needed to do this. It's easy to say that they had to agree, because I was their advisor and they dare not disagree, but I'm reasonably confident they agreed, precisely because I didn't try to justify my request on any meritorious grounds -- I didn't try to make it sound like I had more of a right to give the talk than they did. In fact, I did quite the contrary, I admitted that all of us had a right to give the talk and made it clear that I was asking their permission. By this time, we had a multi-year trust relationship built up -- they knew that I would always look out for their interests and were happy to do the same for me. Fifteen years later, I still think of these people as my friends. Yes, they are former students, but they are friends and colleagues, and those relationships had already started forming oh so many years ago.

Another job of an advisor is to be an advocate, marketing department, and sometimes "mama bear" for her students. For every student, an advisor must be his/her marketing department -- it's your job to introduce your students to the people in your field, talk up their work, give credit for their work when you give talks about "your group's" work, etc. That is the easy part, but what about when things go wrong? Here's an example that actually happened to an undergrad, but the principle was the same. The undergrad undertook a project with another established person in my field. That person then sort of took the work and claimed it as his/her own. The student was upset.

What did I do? Following the principle of, "Students are adults," I first let the student vent. Next I counseled the student on actions he might take. When those actions didn't help, I finally stepped in. it wasn't pleasant; I was jeopardizing my own relationship with the individual; and it wasn't particularly pretty, but it had to be done. If your students can't count on you to really support them when the going gets rough, what kind of message are you giving them about the relationship? Sure, most of the time, students are fully capable of taking care of themselves (as are we all), but every once in awhile we need to pull in the big guns and know they'll support us. I can still think of people who did that for me when I was a grad student and young faculty member, and I'm still grateful.

Then there are the less obvious questions -- how do you teach someone to conduct research? It took me many years to figure this out, but I believe that apprenticeship is the only way that really works. What this means is that you bring new students in on an existing project and let them watch how it works and contribute in small, well-defined ways. Once they've had that experience, with some assistance, they can identify and tackle a small project of their own design. After that, most of them really begin to soar. Along the way, there are moments to put forth your beliefs about research methodology, what constitutes a good problem, LPU (least publishable units) versus meatier papers, writing, giving talks, etc. However, I firmly believe that the groundwork you lay in those early apprenticeships are critical. The two failure modes I've observed are, 1) assuming that since they've done well in the past they know what they are doing and simply turning them loose and 2) assuming that only you have good ideas and if they aren't working on your ideas, they aren't doing anything valuable. Both approaches can have dire consequences -- I've met highly recommended, very strong PhDs who did not seem capable of identifying a good research problem or setting a research agenda and I've seen really smart gifted graduate students flail, being unsure how to get started.

There are dozens of other parts to advising graduate students, but I'll stop here for now with this: Treat your graduate students as you would have liked to be treated as a graduate student, not necessarily how you were treated as a graduate student.


  1. I recently came across your blog while searching for stories about broken ankles in their eighth week of recovery... Boom, I hit you. What I didn't expect was the stuff about graduate student advising. I spent 13 years as a graduate student, and never finished my Ph.D. in large part because of a moment when I was blown out of the water by a scathing critique I received from one of my closest advisors on one of my chapters. I discovered I was much too thin skinned to keep on, though that discovery took me at least four years to make (four years of borrowed tuition money, four years of potential employment lost, etc.). I subsist on temp work and unemployment compensation after having worked with some of the top people in my field (sociology). And now I am recovering from a broken ankle, eight weeks in and still unable to do any weight bearing on it at all... I had hoped to be hearing stories about people putting down the crutches by week-eight and at least being able to make a sandwich in the kitchen unassisted, but it seems I will still need to wait a bit.

    Which is all to say, thanks. Stories help.

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