Sink, swim, or..... water wings?

Apr 19 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

One of the things that fascinates me about academia is the diversity of training environments and philosophies. Whereas some labs are genuinely run by people who should not even own a hamster (let alone be responsible for providing a good environment for the development of a scientist and person), most PIs have a method that they feel is effective for getting their people to where the PI believes* they need to be.

In the last 6 months I have been an examining member on three different thesis committees, all with very different levels of PI involvement in the final product. Knowing the different PIs, I can say that each is engaged in the research their students are doing and meet regularly with them, but each to a very different approach to the student's thesis and presentation.

The lifeguard: In one instance it was clear that the PI had been through several thesis drafts with the student and made significant editorial changes along the way. As a result, the thesis was a very complete document without much for the examiners to deal with on that front. Interestingly, it would appear that being too well put together can have its downsides, as one committee member wondered aloud to me prior to the exam whether they should be congratulating the student or PI on the quality of the thesis.

The mildly attentive parent: In this case, it was clear the PI had a hand in the final outcome, but that the writing was largely the student's work. The committee had a bit more to focus on, in terms of the editorial side, but I felt like this was better received than the thesis mentioned above because the perception was that there was more ownership from the grad student.

Good luck with that: On the other side of the spectrum is the PI who let's the student write the whole thing and send it out without the PI providing much or any feedback. As a committee member, these are the ones you fear. Sure, maybe there is the exceptional student who writes science like they were born doing it, but this is not the norm.

Obviously if the student has published several chapters already PI input becomes less of a concern because it has been invested along the way, but it is common in my field for students to have some chapters that are not submitted for publication just yet. Whereas I can see the perspective of wanting the students to stand on their own two feet at the end of the road, I think my own philosophy tends more towards the middle. Just because someone is earning a graduate degree doesn't mean that their training as a communicator of their science is done.

Or perhaps PI involvement is just a function of career stage.

*A view not always shared by the trainee

8 responses so far

  • Worm Pilot says:

    Nice post! I think there's an element missing, though. Do PIs cater to the student? What I mean is, do they adapt their style based on what he/she perceives as the student's ability? I have to say my PI definitely did this. I think she had a preferred level of involvement, but that wasn't always possible with everyone (she had to do more with some students than with others). So, I wonder how much the student her/himself influences the PI's style. Although, I also know that sometimes the PI doesn't care and does it the way they want, regardless of what may be best for the student. It's like most other jobs-there are good bosses, and there are bad ones. It just so happens that a grad advisor has a lot more sway over your life than just a regular boss.

  • I don't have a lot of experience yet as a supervisor, but if I take into consideration the way my colleagues and I are dealing with trainees, I think that the career stage is an important variable.

    I usually like to go through several thesis drafts with my trainees but I try not to impose major editorial changes (when possible). So, I don't consider myself a lifeguard but maybe more a VERY attentive parent 🙂

  • B says:

    In my group, the bulk of the thesis consists of published and/or submitted papers.
    In addition, there is an introduction, conclusions and "stuff that did not work/is incomplete". The former has heavy input from me. The latter is mostly in the second category that you mention (draft+one edit on my part)

  • Dr. O says:

    My grad mentor was an expert at what Worm Pilot suggests - adapting to each student's needs. I do think there is still a middle ground with each student, from hand holding to ignoring. But some students need a little more help to find their independence, while some are *naturals*. Of course, the ones that are more independent can also be worrisome, in that they can end up in a serious bind before the advisor has a chance to put up a caution sign.

  • Namnezia says:

    I just hate it when I'm handed a thesis with crappy writing by a student whose committee I sit in. The PI really should work with the student to make sure the committee members don't waste their time with editorial comments. I've never heard any negative comments said because a thesis is "too well written".

  • Kaija says:

    My thesis advisor was more of the last sort, who advised via "benign neglect". If you really wanted something and were willing to stalk him and pin him down, he'd be happy to discuss and give feedback, but it was mostly up to the student. Luckily, this worked mostly well for me as I had been raised on the "benign neglect" model, was a mature student who was self-directed, and had a lot of writing experience to draw on.

    I think that the best PIs, like the best coaches, are able to do what Worm Pilot described...get a feel for the individual student, his or her goals, strengths & weaknesses, and figure out what kind of motivation and mentoring clicks with that student...hard to do, admittedly. Which is why there are so few really outstanding coaches and PIs 🙂

  • Principle Investigator says:

    I probably fall somewhere between 1 and 2. I go through multiple drafts, first making general comments on content, ultimately correcting specific word choices and editing typos. I find bad, error-riddled writing PAINFUL to read and would not wish it on members of my students' committees (I need to preserve their goodwill for future students).

    Also, it was made abundantly clear to me with my first student that committee members do not consider it in any way their job to assist students with drafts prior to the defense, but they do consider it to be mine. How did I find out? That student circulated an early draft to all committee members without running it by me first (*forehead smack*).

  • I just sat through a set of oral exams for some graduate students in my group. This is a fairly informal affair, serving mostly to check that the students have enough research under their belt to successfully produce a thesis in a couple years, and for people outside the group to make sure the advisor isn't sleeping on the job. The advisor shouldn't let you take this exam unless (s)he thinks you will pass. At least at my current academic home. Unfortunately, in my previous institution, it was (is?) sometimes used as a means for advisors, who for whatever reason didn't get along will with a student, and for whatever other reason didn't feel like (s)he could address the problem with the student or advise him/her to work with someone else in the dept. could get rid of a student by failing them.

    This is a slightly different situation than what your post is about, but the discussion about customs surrounding orals at different universities I recently had made me think of this post.

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