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 (:-)… I miss that man. 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 – www.phdcomics.com, by permission.
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