The true mission of an academic advisor: Just say NO!

Training research graduate students is a tricky, very tricky business and there is more than one approach. Graduate students are different from research undergraduates because the former depend on the work they do to graduate, the latter, not so. Usually undergrads spend a couple of years in the lab and then leave. Graduate students need to be more focused so they can complete a project so they can earn their degree. That’s the key term in my book; again, they have to earn it.

That presents me with a dilemma; you see, I tend to be friendly, that’s my nature. That does not help when I have to say “NO”, But I say it nonetheless. This is something that I have to do very often, especially with the very best students. In my view a good scientist need to be able to do two seemingly opposite things: to stay focused in their project while at the same time try not to fail to see the forest by looking at the trees. Again, the really good ones like looking at the forest, and that’s great, but my main job is then to try to keep them focused.

Part of that is saying “NO” when I think that they have enough to graduate. “No” to new projects, “no” to further explorations, “no” to ideas for new experiments. All of that goes against the grain of my scientific soul. But, I have to do it nonetheless, as my main duty is to my students. It would be really easy to keep them for longer that they have to; after all, more data usually means more papers. But I cannot bring myself to do that; it would be incredibly selfish of me. So it is a kind of paradox. I look after them by being the proverbial “bad guy”.

This is an acquired trait (don’t write me an email, I don’t mean it like that!). I have been incredibly lucky to have had great advisors who trained me well. Here’s the example of my doctoral advisor, as seen in the post below. He told me once: “…if you have never called me an SOB, I am not doing my job.”

I KNOW that I have been called an SOB and worse, by some of my students. I just hope that it was called that for the right reasons… (:-)

Note: I originally published the post below in April 2012. Enjoy!


Why I use planaria in my research

Life has a way of surprising you. If you had asked me ten years ago what type of research I’d be doing now I would probably have said something like biochemistry, which is what I was doing at the time.

If you have never read my blog (in that case, where have you been?), I use flatworms, specifically planarians in my research. These are very interesting critters. I basically use them as animal models in pharmacology due to multiple advantages, but this is a story for some other time.

I knew very little about planarians, as much as any Bio major that has never worked with them would know. I was aware of their regeneration capacities, but not much else.

In 2001 I started my PhD work with Prof. George P. Hess, Cornell University, with a project on the biochemical pharmacology of neurotransmitter transporters. I was in an interesting situation, as I was the “resident biologist” in the research group of a hard-core physical chemist/biochemist! You see, physical chemists and biochemists (God bless them) usually do not tend to think very highly of biology. Too many moving parts, I guess…(:-)…

I was running a reference search circa 2003-2004 and I found a paper from 2001 published in the European Journal of Pharmacology (EJP). This paper described some aspects of behavioral pharmacology using planarians. I thought that it was pretty cool! I went to George very excited and told him that we should try to use planarians to test some of the compounds that we were working on from a biochemical point of view. Well, George was standing up. At about 6’4″ he easily towered over me. He said something like: “Well, when you have your own laboratory, you can play with them”. Guess what? That is exactly what I did! Incidentally, I try to remind him of this story every chance I get (I know, I’m a meanie). In all fairness, he was right, of course. At that time, if I’d started a project from scratch it would have finished my degree much later. Also, because of it, I was able to take the project with me as a new Assistant Professor. Since then, I have published several papers on planarian pharmacology, my latest one as a coauthor with the researcher who published the 2001 EJP paper!

I feel blessed (or very lucky, depending on your philosophical stance) that I had an advisor who did a great job. Moreover, he did it with my best interests in mind. I’d like to think that I am following his example when I train one of my own research students. Thank you, George.


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  1. I wish you all the best! Here in the US is a little different indeed, but not very much. The main thing is that the MS is not as common as before. Most students go straight to the PhD from the bachelor’s, which can be a disadvantage to some students. I was also a nontraditional student in the sense that I worked for a while after my undergrad, did my MS part time (I did both my undergrad and my MS in Puerto Rico, where I am from), worked for a while after it before going for the PhD in the mainland US.. Doing a research-based master’s first helped me quite a bit; it gave me a much better sense for research that if I had gone directly. Anyhow, again, good luck and keep writing!!!!!


  2. The US system for grad school seems to be a bit different to here.
    From what I understand, it is the same level (After BSc, while studying for MSc), but here, the majority of people who do a BSC go on to do an MSc at the same uni (I think this is due to the 5 years of funding you get, a BSc won’t get you in anywhere really, private sector or academic).
    I have just done my BSc paper, which was on Botany, and I was chatting to a professor randomly, when he said “Hey, I am thinking of doing a Masters project to Iceland, as you are doing the course next year, would you be interested in it”, so, rather than have to go and find a supervisor or NGO to do my thesis with, I have ended up doing with a paleobotany/geology one, sometime between Spring 2014 & Spring 2015. (We get 3 semesters for our thesis, in case we need to go somewhere cold ^^, usually it is 2, or 1, depending on how many credits it is for)


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