Things I wish my graduate students did (or did not do)

I recently saw a funny, yet right on point post by Dr. Lisa Wade on the blog Sociological Images about some pet peeves that university professors have (or in my case, things that drive me up the wall…). You can find it here. Some of them are similar to the ones I posted when I wrote about “Students say the darndest things“, and there are even some others that I never considered or occurred to me. Great post!

Dr. Wade’s post inspired me to actually finish articulating some thoughts specifically tailored to my graduate students, past, present and future.

I have said before that in virtually every case, I like my students, undergrads and grads; otherwise, I would not be in this line of work. That said, the dynamics of the student-professor/advisor relationship is rather different in each case. In general, if undergraduate students come to class, (hopefully) study and pass their required courses with various degrees of success, they will graduate, and great for them! To some extent the same applies to my research undergraduate students. Things are very different for my graduate (meaning thesis-based Master’s) students and therefore I have a whole different set of expectations as far as they are concerned.

Incidentally, I think it is a pity that nowadays most students bypass the thesis Master’s Degree altogether and go directly to the PhD. Working on a Master’s thesis to actually **earn** their degree is a wonderful way to prepare themselves for a doctoral degree, particularly the research kind. There is no doubt in my mind that my own experience writing a Master’s Thesis prepared me rather well to survive and even thrive my doctoral work.

An advanced academic degree requires that the student generates original knowledge in their chosen area of research. In this sense I hope you see that this is fundamentally different from other, more structured degrees. In the case of my own students, my perspective is that it is not enough for you just to pass your courses (I already know you can do pass classes, otherwise you would have not even been considered for admission in our program); again, you are expected to generate an original contribution to the proverbial wealth of human knowledge.

Of course, this never happens in a vacuum. In my case, each and every one of my thesis students get the general topic from me and they then develop it under my guidance. In rare cases, exceptional students take the idea and run with it, generating solid ideas of their own and expanding the limits of knowledge in a logical, truly scientific way. believe me, from the perspective of an advisor, there is no greater source of pride than that.

In other cases, I need to provide closer guidance and sometimes I even need to say “No”. I know that at best I will annoy someone for that and at worst I will be hated for it, but this means that I actually care, I care very deeply about the students and their progress. In a very real sense, their success reflects on me. Therefore my promise to my thesis students is to scientifically train them the best way I can, and I am tough with them because from where I stand on, it is best that I point out any mistakes rather than someone else. I am very protective with my guys.

As I said, I can and will say “No” when I think is warranted. I learned this from the very best. My own PhD advisor at Cornell once told me something in the lines of “If you have never referred to me as ‘that son of a b****’, I am not doing my job“. He was right, and for the record, he **did** a very good job (:-)… and in a very real sense, my success today is a reflection of his guidance as well as from the guidance of my MS thesis supervisors, of whom I will talk about in a future post.

As for myself, I know for a fact that I have been called an S*B and even worse, but the truly good students always realize in the end that I am the way I am (as far as science is concerned) with their best interest in mind.

Now, without further ado, here is an initial list of some things that I wish my graduate students do (or do not). I am sure that the list will grow as things keep coming to my mind, but nonetheless, here we go…

***DO NOT come to the lab, or even worse, call/email me asking “are we going to do any experiments today?

I will let this slide for maybe 2-3 months, tops, after you start your research with me. This is perfectly ok for undergrads, but I expect a certain degree of independence and motivation from a thesis student once a specific project is established. After all, the faster the research is done the faster you’ll earn your degree. The question above is specially irritating after your thesis proposal has been accepted by the committee.

***DO NOT badmouth fellow professors in my presence. If you have a legitimate complaint, take it to the the director of the department or other university authorities.

These are my colleagues and even when I may not even get along with some of them (and I can’t imagine why because I am wonderful…) they deserve your respect and after all, they will likely still be here after you are long gone from my research group.

***DO give due credit to your fellow labmates.

Sadly, this needs to be explicitly stated for obvious reasons. Besides, I will always know if you even try to pass the ideas of others as your own.

***By all means, when in doubt, DO ask questions.

There is no shame on saying “I do not know” or “I need help”; in fact, I welcome these instances as teaching opportunities.

***DO NOT badmouth me. Trust me, I will know, and even if I don’t it will only affect yourself.

The only thing in this universe that is faster than light is gossip, and trust me when I say that some people will try to “earn points” by telling on you (they won’t get any points at all from me because I do not respect that kind of behavior, but they will tell on you all the same). Along similar lines, do not badmouth me when in an interview for a job or for admission for another advance degree; the only thing that you will achieve is to raise a continental-size red flag and I may even get a call to set the record straight, which I’ll gladly do.

***Within reason, DO be thorough when writing a paper intended for publication.

Among other things, follow the instructions of the journal where we’ll submit our work and do a proper (and I mean proper) literature search. Nowadays this is truly easier than ever and there is nothing quite as embarrasing than to get a comment in those lines from a reviewer.

***If I tell you to fix something in a paper please DO so.

I will always read back what you give me, and it is a true waste of time when something needs to be fixed and is not. By the way, in those very same lines…

***PLEASE please PLEASE pretty please… If you are a first author in a paper DO NOT send it to me for proofreading say, on Monday and then on Tuesday morning send me another version with further corrections, saying something in the lines of “don’t mind the first version“, especially if in reality you are sending it to me with the same errors!!!!!

(Please imagine a solitary tear down the left side of my face)…

Again, this is not an useful use of the time, mine and yours (and really, REALLY irritates me). It also tells me that at best you did not think things through, slightly worse, that you are sloppy and the absolute worst, that you do not really care.

By the way: Bah! Humbug!

***DO REALIZE that I will “Paganize” whatever you write.

“Paganization” (nothing to do with religion; this is based on my last name) is a term coined by a former thesis student who not only earned her degree but also earned coauthorship in several papers. The Paganization procedure involves my evil red pen and a detailed look at your thesis/paper. It is rarely pretty and I take no prisoners; I do not go easy on you because the scientific world will not go easy on you either; the sooner you learn this, the better.

***DO tell me if you have a research idea.

More than once I have said “yes” to a student that wants to explore a logical idea. As with everything science (and all of life for that matter), sometimes things work and sometimes they do not. This is precisely why is called research. Mind you, sometimes I may say “NO” (see above).

DO be proud of what you do and where are you doing it.

It is true that we do not work at a major research university, but don’t you ever feel a lesser scientist because of that. I did my undergraduate degree and thesis-based Master’s work in Puerto Rico, of which I am very proud of. It was only after that I earned my PhD at an Ivy-league university, of which I am also very proud and grateful for.

The point that I am trying to make is that my capabilities are not dependent on my place of work, and my publication records demonstrates it. Moreover, this applies to you as well. As an example I submit to you my very first research students. First, they were both girls (later on a third girl started with us), one of them an undergraduate and the other one a Master’s student. The former went to medical school and is currently at a residency program at a Harvard-affiliated hospital and the latter recently earned her PhD in neuroscience at a top research university in the Philadelphia area. The third one is now a practicing nurse. Need I say how proud I am of them?

ALSO, we are very well-published (papers, book chapters and a book) and if I have it my way, it is only going to get better thank you very much…

DO keep your curiosity and wonder; this will help you appreciate this universe of ours…


Picture credit: Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham –, by permission.

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22 thoughts on “Things I wish my graduate students did (or did not do)

  1. I agree with Funky.

    A PI who is worried about badmouthing is a red flag to me as a student. I have 5 years working experience in an industrial facility and managed to also build my first startup, which has been evaluated recently to worth around 1.7 million USD. I am just 28 years old and know my way around in life, a bit “mature”. Next year, I will be doing my MSc on a fully paid scholarship and I know I will suck balls at first; since I haven’t done engineering school in around 5-6 years. With a supportive PI, I will manage.

    If I get a snobby PI then I might threw the entire opportunity away, as I am not really in a need of money and just doing the program for the knowledge and experience it will bring to me as a fella.

    Thanks for your article nevertheless.

    • The tone of your post is disgusting. If it is representative of your general attitude in life, which in sure it is, you don’t fare well in grad school. Also, If you don’t need the money, be kind and give up that space for someone who needs it. What a loser.
      Josh, BA,MA,MSC;grad cert;PHD

    • Thanks for your thoughts, but you misunderstood me. I am not worried about badmouthing, it will always happen. What I worry about is how that will affect the student. For example, nothing is more damaging to a job application than to talk badly about a previous employer in an interview. This is a dealbreaker…

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  3. There are days, like today, that I wish I do not need to mentor/graduate all of them! The chance of having productive and effective graduate students is about 50% at best.
    Traits of problematic graduate students (not limited to)
    – huge ego, hate criticism
    – try to do as little as they can get away with and dare to complain that you do not help them
    – work hard but without thinking and expect others to tell them what they should do next (well,.should try using one’s brain for a start….)
    – extremely sensitive and consider every comment as a personal attack (should try growing up…)

    • – I see a huge ego, writing about other’s ego here…You’d never see their ego if you didn’t have one! Maybe you should have a less of an egoic mind, then they wouldn’t react to you with their ego! Open your heart to (first yourself then) them, so they would love to learn from you.
      – If you don’t know how to constructively criticize, then of course they would hate your criticism! Maybe you need to learn that, it’s a whole science behind it (constructive vs. destructive criticism). Please don’t hate these criticisms!!
      – This is your job and responsibility to help them grow up as a scientist. But instead, you sit here and judge the poor students that” they should try growing up”. It’s your job to help them in that regard but unfortunately they have you as an adviser which is not very helpful for them to grow up.
      – Don’t expect them to not complain when you do the same!
      – You should use your brain and help them to learn how to use their brain. If you’re not a good example, then don’t expect them to learn to use their brains.
      – You need to work on the way you talk to them, how to guide them, etc… If your words and actions don’t imply that you’re attacking them then they wouldn’t get offended.
      Basically whatever you see that you don’t like in others, are coming from yourself very deeply that you don’t even see that. Open your heart and you’ll see it. Then your world would be kinder.

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  7. Interesting take on the process. My approach overlaps with yours, but also has some differences. I tend to look at the research process as a flowing river. I’ve been involved in the flow for a long time. My students are new to it. I expect them to know why things are as they are now, and to understand how the lab’s work is a response to the how things currently are, and what we expect to get out of our current work, that is, where we are going in the flow. The idea being that, no matter what field they eventually end up in, this type of logic will apply and help them organize their understanding.

    Like you, I stress the importance of writing and use every opportunity to strengthen my student’s writing skills (including posters and PowerPoint and talks). I too have the dreaded red pen!!

    Perhaps the most important thing to me though is teaching the students how to be a “grown up”, for lack of a better term. I mostly educate PhD students, and so, they are all on the verge of becoming my peers and colleagues, in one way or another. I think its important they make the transition from seeing themselves as “merely” students, to seeing themselves as junior professionals. So, one very important thing I do is take my students to professional meetings. Here they get to meet the people whose papers they read. They get to see all the talks and posters, interact with other students, see how science is an international enterprise, and so on. See how science is a human enterprise. I have found it makes a quantum difference. They are often different people after such experiences.

    Another thing I find critical is what I call “aligning interests”. If we all work as a team, then everybody’s interests get fulfilled. I say this right to their face. They want the eduction and degree, and some papers. I want papers and want to get the next grant. So, the key idea is that we are a stronger entity as a team. Generally, this works very well. And it is also a part of the “growing up” process for them to see the world in this fashion, and to learn that by working with people, everybody can win. I make all the student work on each others projects. A student is the lead on their own project, but the other students have to help. First, this is how new students learn the lab techniques. Second, it helps everybody get papers. Third, it teaches and reinforces the teamwork idea. Luckily, the kind of lab work I do allows for this kind of thing. There are so many moving pieces to the types of experiments we do that no one could do a project by themselves anyway, so it works out.

    So, that’s a little bit about my style. I think this is an important discussion, airing our personal teaching philosophies. That way we can all learn from each other! Thanks for starting the conversation!



    • Spot on, Don! We have a similar style as PIs. We do not have a PhD program at my university, but I am very rigorous with my thesis MS guys. Thanks for the comment and I hope to keep in touch!

  8. The first advice should be “Do not do PhD in West Chester University “, unless you want to live a life of an adjunct. Thankfully you have mentioned to any graduate student that you will always bow to the powerful since you do not want to listen to even legitimate complaints.

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