"hands off" by any other name

Jul 18 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I often hear about people describing PIs as "hands off", meaning that their students have to forge their own way. Some find this style works for them because they are self-motivated and don't want someone looking over their shoulder. However, there is a fine line between hands off and doesn't give a shit. If a PI is still hands off when it comes to reviewing manuscript drafts, looking over thesis drafts and advocating for you, then you are just politely saying they don't care about you at all.

7 responses so far

  • Dr 27 says:

    Yup, pretty much sums up how my postdoc went. I'd walk in and show whatever, got no help or direction ... PI was totes hands off. Or maybe I just like to whine too much.

  • JGB says:

    I got exactly what I wanted at the time, the independence of a more hands off PI, though that was only discussed at the bitter end. As they say be careful what you wish for consciously or not. I'd like to say I salvaged something out of those 3 years, but despite passing my prelims there was no data, and no coursework only option for a masters. Hopefully a useful warning to someone else who thinks they want free reign.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I don't do close supervision, and I have had students tell me they would have liked more supervision. Said students turned out OK, in spite of me, perhaps. My PhD major professor was pretty hands off with me, but he saw to it I had anything I needed to do my research or grow professionally. I've seen colleagues smarter, better educated, and harder working than me, not accomplish much because of lack of ability to function well on their own. I wonder how much the present day story of multiple postdocs creates dependence on supervision.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    To be clear, I am not talking about daily (or even weekly) supervision. I am referring to being available to mentor when needed. Providing feedback when people ask for it or taking time to listen to ideas and be a sounding board. This is even possible via structure in a larger lab, as long as that structure is maintained from the top down.

    Hand-holding is just as bad as being unavailable.

  • B says:

    I got this kind of 'help' as a grad student. My PI had pretty much checked out of science as a whole. So when I went to him for help there was NONE. He would happily listen to me talk about my ideas, but never had suggestions or advice. His standard response to data was 'well there's something there' and that's it. So everything else was done on my own.
    It was good in that I have learned a TON and am fairly independent early in my career. But it was frustrating in that I could have probably finished grad school several years faster with a little guidance.
    Seems like there's good and bad either way, so I've just taken the attitude that you have to make the most of whatever situation you're in. Or find a way to get out.

  • FSGrad says:

    Relatedly, in my program I think it is anathema to refer to yourself as 'hands-on' during the student-lunch portion of faculty interviews. I have heard candidates say that their advising style is "very hands-off" and then describe that as something that sounds more hands-on than anything we are used to in these parts.

  • Yup that's kind of my PI too; he's proud of the fact that he lets people figure it out for themselves (which is sometimes good) but also doesn't really give a lot of comments on grant proposals and manuscripts. My first grant proposal came back with: "that looks so good, I'm sure you'll get it!". It was rejected in the first round and I now realize 1) that it was overambitious, 2) that I need to ask a billion times to get actual comments and 3) that I need to send proposals to other people as well for their input (probably a good idea anyway).
    Overall, I like my PI and I think I'm independent enough to make my project work without a lot of input. But for a bunch of people in my lab this is not going too well, which is exemplified by the large number of years that people spend getting their PhDs around here...

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