Thesis poll redux and mentoring

Dec 15 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Following up on the poll posted yesterday, I found the results really interesting. As I mentioned in the comments, I think it would have been even more interesting to see how the perception of "whose responsible for what" in the thesis/dissertation process is broken down based on career stage. I know that my perception of the process has changed over time and through seeing it from multiple angles.

In some ways it surprised me that more than a quarter of the 113 respondents (at the writing of this post) saw the PI contribution as either equal or greater than the students. That percentage was more than the people who felt the student is responsible for the result of their dissertation. It makes me wonder if most people who picked those categories were mostly picturing dissertations that did not go well as the result of PI / student conflict.

I also found intriguing the sentiment from the comments that there was some arbitrary level of "good" that all PhD students should be measured against, with those not meeting the amorphous criterion being removed from the pool by "The System" and its various lifeguards. The problem with this notion is that trainees in ANY field inhabit an enormous spectrum, from clearly not fit to pursue the career at hand to stellar. Combine that with the differences between the measure of "good" in a field and how we actually test for that early on, and the process of placing the predictive bar for who will be successful and who will not becomes increasingly difficult to define. But wait! It turns out that not everyone with a PhD goes on to follow the academic path through which they have come thus far. These must be the failures, because they couldn't hack it. Their interest were in tangential fields or career paths, and thus they should have been eliminated by The System.

Give me a second, I have to slip into these meat pants. Man, I've put on weight since last wearing them. Hold on. Okay, I think the button will hold. Now, where were we?

What a crock of shit.

Are there people who enter PhD programs that shouldn't be there? Absolutely. These people often drop out because they are miserable* or are asked to leave or take a MS degree instead. This happens all the time. But there are many more who, for various reasons, do not live up to the perceived arbitrary bar for Good that others have in their own heads. Is someone a failure if they get one paper from their PhD dissertation and go on to work very successfully in a non-academic career? I think a lot of people that hang on to the myopic view that the Ivory Tower is The Goal would say yes, and that the person should have gotten the hook earlier, etc., etc., call the whaaambulance.

But here is why I think the perception of the thesis process between trainees and those in a position to advise PhD students can be so different: If you've never had to work with someone to meet non-academic career goals, it may not cross your mind to think about what that process takes or what the end product might be. There are also trainees who follow a different career trajectory than what some consider traditional, and really bust out as postdocs rather than grad students.

I'm not saying that PhD students shouldn't publish and attend conferences, etc., because many non-academic careers value that production as well. But the emphasis for some other careers may not be on the same tick boxes that academics focus on (see one example here). So maybe rather than focusing on whether some students "deserve" a PhD, consider what some people's goals are in relation to your own and measure them by a different standard.

*Or maybe stick around to be that miserable person who everyone keeps telling to go do something else, but who ignores this and treads water, seemingly just to remain miserable. Everyone knew someone like this in grad school.

9 responses so far

  • I WAS that miserable person in grad school. 🙂 Then I finally crawled away, put my life back together, and found much better things to do with myself. Wish I hadn't wasted half my 20s on a corrupt, backwards department in a substantially corrupt enterprise, but so it goes.

    Thank you for "crock of shit" -- because it IS. Read yer Lovitts and Wilf Cude, people.

  • Ria says:

    I was one of those "non-traditional" students who had a mediocre graduate school experience (largely due to a very tense personality conflict with my PI at the time...sexual harrassment and sex discrimination) and then had an extremely productive postdoc (3 first author papers, 10+ coauthorships on additional papers, all in 3.5 years) with a different mentor. I'm still pursuing an academic career, although my graduate experience definitely inhibited grant funding in my postdoc, so I'm somewhat behind the curve.

    Students should be informed early on as to how critical a good relationship with their PI is, and if the relationship that they have with their PI in their current lab is toxic, they should be advised to leave. I never received this advice and was instead told to "stick it out"...I should have switched labs. At least half of the students that I've seen leave their PhD programs after the second year did so exclusively because of the poor mentoring relationship with their PI. The fault could lie with either party, of course, but I find it interesting to note that of the 5 students that I know who either did or should have changed labs, all were female.

  • Stacey says:

    Love the post - I continually struggle to convince people that I actually had a great grad school experience, published multiple papers, etc., etc. and I CHOSE to leave the Ivory Tower because I didn't want an academic career. It leaves the myopic ones scratching their heads, and then assuming I must have been dropped as a baby because something is really wrong with my priorities.

  • GMP says:

    I think the treatment of students who envision nonacademic career paths varies with the field. Industry is a lucrative and fairly common option for students in my field, so wanting an industry job is not a sign of failure and I think most PI's don't view it as such. But one should still demand excellence of the PhD work -- there is a minimal level of independence, motivation, technical expertise achieved and number of hours worked per week below which it makes no sense to do a PhD in a given PI's lab, no matter what the student wants to do later. This also means a minimal number of quality papers and conference presentations that each student should produce. These numbers will be significantly higher for people who want an academic path, but just because someone doesn't, that doesn't mean they don't have to do or present or publish quality science --these are all parts of the PhD training.

    What all these minimum requirements are depends on the PI and the given project... Switching advisors early in one's PhD is often the best option if there is a clash, but students should also be advised to look very carefully when choosing the second advisor -- a lot of students need to switch advisors once so it's not a big deal, but it's a real red flag if you need to switch advisors more than once.

  • chall says:

    I think that half of the "problem" answering "who's responsible" is that you have your own feelings and measurements in there.... [that would be the 'age'/career step breakdown affecting it too]

    I mean, I think when it comes down to it that it has to be the student as defending their dissortation. However, it might have been a harder road if there was a problem between the student and PI. But, isn't that what life is about?!?! Realising that you will have to work with people you don't like, or at least you haev to work out how to not work with them....

    It sucks to have that experience from your gradstudies/PhD and I would've been much happier if my relationships with my PI from grad studies would've been as the other PhD stident in the lab (which was awesome and great). Alas, it was not. And my thesis didn't "turn out as magnificent as I would've wanted" . But really, I think some of it was probably due to me too.... but why would I start looking for that in the middle of my grad studies?! I focused on getting through and getting done and there was that lovely border where my advisor and I all of a sudden had a good relationship 😉

    I guess my best lesson from the time was "if you feel you want to get out of the situation - do it sooner rather than later" (especially since I tend to give it "some time"). There is learning in every bad situation too - as long as we can refrain from repeating it.

    that said, I think the whole situation would be easier to handle if it wasn't that whole "You got admitted to the PhD studies so if you don't finish you are a FAILURE". If it was less stigma and more 'normal"' to "try and realise it wasn't for me" or "get the PhD but not follow TT" maybe people would behave a bit differently?!

  • Hope says:

    Wow, myopia indeed! So people who think that some students should get the hook earlier are those who consider life outside the Ivory Towers a failure? Or they’re just concerned about their job prospects, as DM claims in the last post?

    I will return to my *guaranteed* job at National Lab for at least a couple of years when I graduate, and I don’t consider myself a failure for that. Still, I think the PhD should mean something, independent of the student’s career goals or the advisor’s tenure status. What’s a crock of shit is the claim from some faculty that this is somehow an unreasonable/impossible goal.

    And just to clarify: someone who doesn’t publish or go to conferences while in grad school is not necessarily an “unqualified dolt.” Someone who has their thesis largely written for them by their advisor because that advisor is up for tenure and needs to graduate a student is. (As is the student that Ex-hedgehog Freak wrote about in his comment on the last post.) Take off those academic blinders, PLS!

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Hope, in your rush to interpret everything based on your experience alone, you're completely missing the point. I have never said anything about advisor's writing a student's papers, which is something I think is ridiculous unless the student drops off the planet and/or relinquishes 1st authorship due to their disinterest in finishing the paper. I'm not sure where you got that idea, but then....

    If you actually read the post you might find that I am completely on board for removing PhD candidates who are not cutting it, for whatever reason. However, the endgame for students and their advisor can be very different, depending on the career aspirations of the student. Thus, when people come along and judge the final product at the 11th hour, I often doubt their ability to understand the situation. In many cases the students who are perceived by their peers to be sub-par are only not meeting the goals of their peers, but may in fact have met their own goals very well.

  • Hope says:

    Oh, I get it. So as a new TT-prof you are concerned that graduating a student who aspires to go into industry with fewer pubs and conference presentations to their credit will reflect badly on you, the advisor? That those who “come along and judge the final product at the 11th hour” will perceive *you* to be sub-par? Now that’s a post that might have lead to some interesting discussion ….

    As for your accusation that I’m interpreting everything based on my experience alone … I hope you realize how silly that is. What makes you think that I am any more prone to this than you are? My experience is not all that unusual for my field, where people that go into industry instead of academia are not considered losers for it. So when one of my peers or I look down our noses at someone else’s record, it has nothing to do with their career goals and everything to do with the idea that there should be some standards to which all PhD students are held, irrespective of anything else. Perhaps the student’s goals were to get out of grad school with the minimum possible effort, so they gamed the system and managed to do just that. You think the rest of us should sit tight and nod approvingly?! Forgive me for wanting the degree that I am working so hard to attain to actually mean something.

  • Interesting poll and discussion, PLS. I think my answer now (I picked the most popular response) is probably different from what I would have said as a student or at an earlier point in my career. As a student, everything seemed so clear--we can make a line here, and everyone below this line should be kicked out and everyone above it gets a degree. I never considered students who were bad in the classroom, but great in the lab. Or students who are great communicators, but have bad hands. I also never considered how really hard it is to tell someone they won't make it, or to know when to give up on improvement, especially if someone works hard but ineffectively or inefficiently.

Leave a Reply