Being the first pancake

Dec 06 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The other day I received an email from a grad student that read as follows:

I'm a second year PhD track grad student, and my advisor is in his 3rd year of a TT position. As a request: I'd really like to hear your thoughts on what it's like to mentor PhD students for the first time. PhD students are an odd bunch, and It would be really nice to get a sense of what my TT prof is going through. I once heard a tenured prof talk about her first grad student, who dropped out after two years. She called him her "burnt pancake", because 'the first one never turns out right'. I don't really wanna be that pancake.

Fair enough, no one wants to be the guinea pig as someone else tries to figure out how all this works. At the same time, if the tenured prof from the email has (presumably) successfully mentored other students since (meaning that she isn't a tyrant or obstructionist), I would guess that it has far less to do with the advisor than it does the student. She may have been rationalizing the failure of her first student, but as the supervisor of a non-zero number of grad students I have found one thing very clearly: they are all completely different.

What I mean by this is simply that the process of mentoring a student who is interested in the work they are doing and intellectually up to the challenge is not all that hard. Yes, you learn a few things along the way that might head off some issues, but overall our job is to keep students on a productive path, get them resources and be a sounding board for ideas, problems and progress. Sticking to those points seems to work pretty damn well for most students.

I think more at issue here is the what the PI sees as failure is not necessarily what the students sees as the same thing. If a student leaves the lab (perceived as "failure" in most academic circles), it could be as much to do with the fact that they decided the life wasn't for them than anything else. They may have had a different opportunity or decided that they didn't like the path ahead. Maybe they had a long distance relationship that they didn't want to be long distance anymore. Who knows? But there is a good chance that they say leaving the lab as more of an opportunity than a failure, whereas the PI decided that she needed a do over because if she had more experience she could have kept that student interested in the amazing research she was doing. Obviously I don't know any of the back story, but I'm guessing that the student found something that was better for their life and the supervisor, unable to picture that possibility, decided that she must have messed up that student because she wasn't warmed up just yet.

I guess my advice to students of junior faculty is to focus on your project and pushing it forward. If your PI gives you the resources (physical and intellectual) to do something you enjoy, while still be available to help you when you need it, then I wouldn't worry too much about turning out like the first pancake out of the pan. If you like what you are doing and have a functional relationship with the boss*, there are not many ways in which "mentoring" can go horribly wrong just because the PI is supervising their first student. In fact, there are many ways in which being one of the first students in the lab can be a good thing, as long as your PI doesn't get crushed by the weight of getting funding (which can happen at any career stage, FWIW). Use your network of friends and your committee members if you think you need more perspectives than just that of your PI and be a little selfish about advancing your own career.

And if that means leaving a lab for a different opportunity, know that your move will only be seen as "failure" by the people you are leaving behind.

*Obviously, if your PI turns out to be a total douchecanoe, this is a whole other problem.

13 responses so far

  • Ink says:

    Heh heh re: "douchecanoe."

  • Foxglove says:

    I'm a first pancake.
    Attempt 1 at a PhD was with a relatively new TT prof. I spent much of the time thinking I was a complete loser, academically. Eventually I realised that all the other students (honours and masters) had the same complaints I did - very little feedback, and what there was amounted to "Sounds good", even if what we were doing was crap.
    I was struck by your description of the supervisor's role: "...overall our job is to keep students on a productive path, get them resources and be a sounding board for ideas, problems and progress." This is everything that the first supervisor was not, and I suspect that it had nothing to do with being TT, and everything to do with having a different vision from mine of what it is to be a supervisor. Never mind if you're the person's first PhD student, what you really want to know is how they see their role. Apparently my first supervisor preferred the sink-or-swim model; I preferred for my supervisor to be a collaborator.
    I left after two years (pointless stubbornness on my part) and went on to a successful PhD with a more interactive supervisor. Attempt 1 was not a total loss; I learned a lot and developed a thick skin. But whenever anybody asks me about doing a PhD, I tell them to ask very specific questions about what their potential supervisor's philosophy is, and check that it meshes with theirs.

  • [...] Another insightful post from what’s becoming a favorite blog of ours, The Spandrel Shop: mentoring and junior faculty. [...]

  • Liz says:

    For me, the concern would not be that a new PI couldn't be an excellent mentor to their first student, because I am sure that many are. And I think that someone who is a decent mentor throughout their career will likely be a dcent mentor with their first student. The problem is that, with a brand new PI, you have no former students to speak to and therefore no valid source of info as to whether the PI is a decent mentor or is, in fact, a douchecanoe (or, less dramatically, just someone who doesn't mesh with your prefered work style, etc.).

    This is analogous to me not wanting to buy a new car model the first year it is released. I don't doubt that it could be the best car ever, but I have no way of evaluating whether it is actually a lemon. I guess I am not an "early adaptor" but I would never join the lab of a brand new PI for this reason alone. Could I be missing out on some great mentors? very likely, yes, but the risk is not worth it to me.

  • Hope says:

    Both Liz and Foxglove make excellent points above.

    Foxglove, I have a friend who came to many of the same conclusions also through an unfortunate experience. But I’m not sure that asking very specific questions about someone’s mentoring philosophy is a fool-proof way to avoid being caught in this type of situation. Sometimes, there is a big disconnect between the way someone sees themselves (and their philosophy, etc.) and how they actually behave.

    This is where previous students come in handy – if you can get them to be really honest with you. Because sure, your potential newbie advisor may be waving you in, assuring you that he pours in the batter only when the skillet is at just the right temperature. But you’ll only really know that if you’ve seen other attempts besides your own.

  • [...] like to hear your thoughts on what it’s like to mentor PhD students for the … – Readmore Related Video about Magic and Students First: Video Loading... @import [...]

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I have to agree that you can't always know what you're getting into no matter how many people you ask. And Liz, your car analogy could be extended to any career stage:

    PI just before tenure - Do ya trust a car fresh off a lease? Could it be a former rental car? Is it gonna make it through tenure?

    PI just after tenure - You never know with a car that has 60K miles on it, it might just go into cruise control and never come out.

    Full Prof - Could be an old junker that is on it's last legs.

    The point is that even with some track record, committing 3-5 years to anyone means that the situation can change. Maybe for good, maybe for bad.

  • Excellent post, PLS. It is easy to forget that effective mentoring requires a match in expectations and work styles between the mentor and mentee. Even a track record of success does not mean that a particular mentor is a good choice for a particular student.

    I do encourage new students to speak with my current students on what I am like to work with, because I think more information is a good thing to help with making choices. I also try to see if a student's style will mesh with mine when I meet them and when I look at their applications, since effective mentoring relationships are two way.

  • Nice post ! I have recently accepted to supervise my first PhD student (although I am already supervising master's degree students)... let's see what happens !

  • Pharm Sci Grad says:

    My prof's mentoring style has evolved as he's moved up the TT - the guy I joined as a newbie would annoy me now, and the guy I work for now I would have hesitated to join as a noob. I don't know whether that's brilliant mentoring or amazing luck/serendipity on my part...

    Also, second time I've seen douchecanoe today, but I'm catching up on posts I missed over the weekend while I was at a conference... wish I could remember who said that.

  • HFM says:

    I agree with the above - if a professor is going to be a good mentor to Students 2-N, they probably won't botch Student 1 too badly. The problem is, you don't have any evidence of a new professor's mentoring skills. Without previous students to get the dirt from, what are you supposed to do - ask the professor if he/she is a douchecanoe?

    Me: "Hi, Prof. New. I know you're just getting started, but your research on whatsits is very interesting. Are you taking students?"

    Prof. New: "Why yes, I am. Why don't you send me your CV?"

    Me: "Certainly. But before I do, I just have one question: are you a douchecanoe?"

    Prof. New: "I prefer the term cocknozzle. Or fuckbasket, as my last technician used to call me. But yes, I plan to destroy your will to live, and possibly your love of science. Is that okay with you?"

    Me: "Um...hey, look at the time, gotta go."

    Prof. New: "What's your name? I would like to add myself to your thesis committee."

    Me: *runs*

  • […] I had a terrible graduate advisor. He wasn’t anywhere near the worst advisor ever, but he was bad. When choosing graduate school opportunities, I made the classic mistake of going with The Big Name guy, instead of the lesser-known-but-much-nicer guy. That decision is about two decades in the rear view mirror, and while I regret it a bit I don’t think it really made much of a difference in where I am today (despite what I thought at the time when my apprenticeship with my advisor was imploding). I learned a few very good ideas from my advisor, particularly how to write clearly and how to frame an argument. But mostly what I learned was how NOT to be a graduate advisor. Now that I am an advisor I know what I shouldn’t do, but often I’m not always sure on what I should do (other than hoping not to burn any pancakes). […]

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