Advice to Graduate Advisors

Preamble:   People need constructive feedback to improve their art. While being the most qualified, grad students are unable to give feedback on the quality of mentorship due to reliance on advisors for letters of recommendation and financial support. This is unfortunate because a lot of time, money, resources, and grad students are lost simply because communication is closed. Still, I am going to brave the storm. This is my experience and those of my fellow grads, not just in my lab but in labs across the US (I have friends with advanced degrees everywhere). I framed it as a personal letter because I really want it to reach into advisors.

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To My Advisor, 

As a leader, a mentor, a guide, as someone who is going to change my life, there are some things I need you to consider, some things I need you to do and be aware of.

 Do you ever find yourself thinking: What’s going on in my lab? Where are my lazy idiot students? Where’s that data? Why aren’t they graduated yet? Why’s my lab a mess? These are just symptoms, here are the real problems.

 The dysfunctional lab

Is your lab a mess, running out of stuff constantly, reagents are missing, equipment broken…etc? Ask your grads, “who is in charge of X?”. They will answer, I don’t know. Clear authority/duties, directly named by you, are necessary to make sure lab runs smoothly. Who gathers the lab needs list? Who keeps the computers in working order? Just like in a house, some things will just eventually need cleaning/organizing (not someone’s specific mess). Who is responsible for this? If you take this as your own authority, then don’t be angry that the lab is a mess and you have to say something – that is what you are asking for! If you do give a person authority for a task, make it official by saying it at a lab meeting AND have a means to support their authority for instances of non-compliance. I know specific people who REFUSE to clean, or do anything that doesn’t directly help them, and who ignore the requests from other students. The selfishness, lack of accountability, and lack of rewards for those who take the time for others, creates a hostile/back-biting atmosphere which fosters neglect and sabotage (this happens!).

Also, have clear expectations. There’s no reason to result to passive-aggressive sticky notes or emails if things are bothering you. If you find yourself getting annoyed at something a student/students are/aren’t doing: 1. let them know what you expect from them. 2. make sure there isn’t anything hindering them from doing this by asking them. For example, you may want them to keep records of their work, but they may be doing something difficult to record (eg. bioinformatics) and not know what to put. Students will have different strengths and weaknesses. If one of their weaknesses is one of your peeves, as a mentor, you may have to work closely with them several times a week for months to build up that strength. Just like exercising – not all people are natural athletes and will need coaching.

 My grad student is a dud

During meetings, you likely become hostile/ frustrated when a person doesn’t understand your statement/question. You may find yourself repeating what you said, or belittling them saying “you don’t read enough” or “use your brain”. This is really unconstructive. They either honestly don’t know, which continuing to assault them with questions won’t help, or they are not sure what your are trying to get at, which means your question isn’t direct enough. Take a breath and rephrase.

As far as journals reading goes: did you bother to go over the information in the journal with them? We only remember 10% of what we read, but 70% of what we read and discuss. It is good to give ‘tough-love’ by challenging us intellectually when talking science during meetings, but this is not something to be done in a constant “I’m smarter than you” ego-stroking way, and not during seminars! That’s not their purpose. Seminars are for improving communication and getting input about a project from the greater scientific community. Sometimes grads will become lazy, not reading enough journals or working in lab, and will need a talking to. This is something that needs to happen in your office, again not during a presentation.

If they come to you, and you get into a conflict, but you don’t have time. Just tell them that you are under time constraints and will meet with them later at X time. If they say it is urgent, something actually IMPORTANT they are doing right now, and you can’t easily come to agreement, this is a symptom of a greater problem. You either didn’t know they were running a tricky/expensive experiment or you weren’t clear with them on the protocol and how to deal with problems before starting. There was too little communication and engagement between both of you. This too little communication likely has roots in them not feeling they can come to you, and you need to root out why and be open to the answer knowing you probably won’t like it.

 The vanishing grad student

You have vastly more experience and knowledge. When a student does something incorrect (eg. preparing a lab with the wrong type of plastic tubes), it is not stupidity, it is a lack of knowledge. Graduate STUDENTS are still learning. Calling a graduate student stupid for anything less than life-endangering mindlessness simply encourages the hiding of mistakes, and ensures that a student will avoid communicating with you in the future. Name calling, berating, accusations, passive aggressive communication, yelling are unacceptable and supremely harmful, your grad student will begin to withdraw from you and lab.

Without regular communication from them, you may feel like they are hiding something from you, keeping you in the dark. The resulting avoidance is not them hiding something from you, it is them hiding themselves from you. Your suspicious and confrontational attitude puts students further on the defensive, causes them to distance themselves even more (possibly to the point that they come into work when you are not present). This vanishing graduate student may give you the impression that the student is lazy, since you never see them in lab. So much research fails, so it is easy to feel like a failure, and having an advisor that has no apparent faith in a student’s ability puts them into depression/discouraged mode. This makes a student not WANT to work, they cease to care anymore, and progress slows or completely stops. If you are negative to them and they are negative towards you, like the same poles of two magnets, you will repel rather than working together.

 Will they ever graduate?!

So much time is wasted in grad school for no reason. Here’s some noticeable areas needing improvement for all science advisors. NEVER assume that if you tell one grad student something, the other grad students know. A lot can happen between you telling someone a general practice/request, and that grad student seeing all the other students, so the message gets lost. Email/tell everyone if it is important. Make sure BOTH do’s AND don’ts go into the SOPs! You know it. Your CURRENT grads know it. But next year, or 5 years from now, those grads won’t know it. They’ll waste their time doing something that doesn’t work, or making a common mistake (using the wrong _ to do _) that causes possibly weeks (or in my case, half a year) of work to fail.

Grad students often dig and dig, futilely trying all sorts of things, not recognizing the gems and wasting effort, gathering piles of data that may require more time to sort than it did to make. Women especially have a hard time with “good enough”, and will keep trying to get that r-squared value from 0.96 to 0.99 for months. Some times you have to step in and say “all you need to do is X”. While this may seem like coddling, once they see how “good enough” becomes really good when combined with other work in the big picture they will start to reign themselves in. You will save a lot of time and resources if you cut your student off and say it doesn’t have to be perfect, just accurate and replicable.

Sometimes interesting things that pop-up will sidetrack the student, and sometimes these tracks are whole new dissertations projects themselves. If you have a wandering student, who may get lost in the forest of research questions, you may need to give them a little structure in their research. Help them focus on getting X done this week by doing X protocol. Remind the student/clarify what steps specifically need to be done to be “done”, or else they may spend years longer in grad school than they need to and burn out.

 Leading by good interactions

You should regularly be asking yourself “am I too hands-off or am I micromanaging?”, because you are likely doing one or the other. This seems to be the most noticeable problem with graduate advisors, and is a near-universal leadership problem. Hopefully just being conscious of how you are managing your students will prevent the extremes of sheer neglect or harassment. Some students will need more/less guidance and they may not know which they need, so just be aware:

-          If you don’t show them how to steer the ship, don’t complain when you don’t reach port!

-          If you grab the wheel from the driver, you’ll likely crash the car.

Ask students how THEY are doing, not just their research. Take an interest. They will be more engaged with you and the lab if you engage with them. In a few years they will be your colleagues, people who will work in your field, sit on grant panels, recommend students or jobs…etc. How do you want them to remember you? Interpersonal skills aren’t usually the mark of a scientist, so like any skill, it will take practice. When a student does something clever, or does good solid work, tell them you think so. Positive work environments are more productive.  If a student seems to be floundering: be supportive – tell them that you know they are capable individuals. Also, guide them: if they are spinning their wheels, work out a solid plan to overcome the hurdle. This is your chance to use those years of experience. And as burgeoning scientists, they will ask why you recommend doing something a particular way, this is not a threat to your intellect, they are just trying to learn!

 In conclusion:

Maybe the advisor reading this doesn’t do any of the unskillful things mentioned here, but can you really be sure…? Just please remember:

-          Your grads WANT to make you HAPPY. You are their lifeline to a job, to contacts, to skills they will need to succeed in their career.

-          As the leader and role-model, you set the tone of the lab. Do you want friendliness and cooperation, or distance, passive-aggressiveness, and self-interest?

-          Not all students will be focused, self-directed, and helpfully considerate. Some will need encouragement, focus, direction, and even discipline. Still, if you take the time to work with these less-than-perfect students, they may become awesome and be allies to you long beyond their time in your lab.

Myth of American Labor

If cows can be good for the environment (Allan Savory Ted Talk on Greening the Desert), if being green actually saves businesses money, if even Al Greenspan can declare that the economy needs oversight, then maybe another popular thought :: American labor is unaffordable and would make stuff too costly :: is wrong too!  

Sure we may pay American laborers more than , but if we: 1. spend our money on ourselves rather than other countries, 2. if more Americans are working and thus earning and spending, 3. if our economy starts to grow from the increased spending –> we all start making more money – then we can afford to spend more on stuff = it is ok that it costs more!

Besides, moving companies overseas was not to provide US with more affordable stuff, it was to undercut the competition.

Goodbye House of Representatives!

It is increasingly clear that the governors of the US are not capable of making decisions in the best interest of the people of America. At a time when the US is in financial crisis, these people voted for a pay raise for themselves and spending cuts for everyone else. We are paying billions towards Congressional salaries/ pensions/ benefits (for life), and the HoRs (House of Representatives) are a major chunk of that. The current system of governance was created at a time when having an informed populous was not possible. According to the US census, on average 75-80% of the households in the US now have internet access (55% for > 65 y.o.a.). This means that people can get informed and interact quickly in a massive way.

Why do we need the HoRs? We can represent ourselves!
Here is how:

1. The Senate’s only job would be to research and draft legislation that is concise and in plain english
- This increases government transparency/minimizes devious practices, trims the fat off the body of law.
- I have come up with clear, simple legislation myself on very complex topics (see previous blog “Escaping Social Security in 3 sentences”), so I know it IS possible.

2. Voting deadlines occur quarterly. Legislation is posted for two months minimum before the next quarterly deadline.
- Legislation posts are online, emails/tweets/texts, public TV, library, news…etc
- People can vote at their leisure up to the day of the deadline.
- There were 280 laws passed by 112th US congress, so about 1 per work day.
Compared to number of emails/posts/texts… we look at each year, this is a drop in the ocean.

3. Voting can happen in several ways:
a. We already have online systems for communicating relatively securely with the government (sam.gov, IRS…etc).
We can use our PINs to sign in and vote at leisure.
b. For those few that don’t have access at home – schools, post offices, town halls…etc can be equipped with voting kiosks
(like ATMs) where people can swipe their driver’s licences and vote (they have those strips on the back so why not use them?)
c. People could even phone it in. It is good enough to make financial transactions!

Before you raise an objection, ask yourself:
1. Do think this would be worse/more expensive considering the system we have now?
2. Can you do any better to foster democracy – civic pride – corruption combating?
- If you can honestly answer yes, let me know so I can fix the problem!

There is $500 million spent each year on public GK-12 schools. With $3 billion freed by axing the HoRs (save about $20/taxpayer annually), schools could find themselves 6X richer = better teachers, supplies, programs = better educated populous. Just one example of how the money might be better spent!

We don’t need the government babysitting US, it is time to leave the House and start speaking for ourselves!

Cutting Back on Empty Mind Calories… Mental Diet for Modern Life

Doctors are always advocating that people get sleep, good nutrition, and exercise for good health. This same trinity goes for mental health as well, not your brain, but your mind.

Sleep: Most of us in the “not retired” category spend our lives in a state of endless frantic busyness. Bills, cars, kids, groceries, home repair, work, cooking, news, driving, phones, our health, relationships, taxes, friends… These are just some of the things our brain is continuously coordinating. In modern life, it is a cardinal sin to not be “doing something” at all times, and there is SO MUCH to do. Even if people get a full 8 hours of sleep, they feel it isn’t enough, that there is some deeper exhaustion that seems only to accumulate. What is needed isn’t just sleep (to rest the brain), but a resting of the mind. Shut off all the constant input (tv, music, phones, facebook…etc.), shut off that ever nagging voice in your head, set aside all of tomorrow’s fears and yesterday’s regrets, and just be quiet. The mindfulness of breathing is a great training to accomplish this. Allow your MIND to completely relax and be empty for awhile, you will find that somehow your mind feels like your muscles do after a massage – mmmm GOOD.

Diet: It is hard to go a few hours free from the technology that is supposed to make our lives easier. Our mind is constantly processing everything we feed it: tweets, news (a.k.a. gossip), ‘reality’ TV, YouTube videos, Facebook, emails, MOUs…etc. Most of the information we give our mind to digest in a day is like cotton candy, all fluff and empty calories, and through modern technology we consume a lot of it. It is ok to have junk food sparingly, a desert episode of ‘dancing with the stars’ at the end of the day, but the bulk of the mind food should be educational/useful and in general we should cut WAY back on what we ‘eat’ (see Sleep section). By the way, that sense of apathy or powerlessness, is directly due to lack of knowledge. Knowledge is power and there are many ways you can do meaningful things if you know what the problems are and how to help.

Exercise: Work, after a few weeks (or longer if you like your job) tends to be rather tedious and repetitive. The daily routine can become so familiar people do it mindlessly, and most of the activities we put our mind to requires little in the way of mental effort. The brain may not be a muscle, but the mind certainly is. Challenge your brain by learning new things, create something, by playing mind enhancing games, by introspection and deep contemplation, by debate or competition with others… It is scientifically demonstrated that the mind can be trained and improved, with effort you will be more fit mentally. The same mistakes people make when trying to become physically fit, too much weight too soon/not regularly done/ not at right time of day/food intake, are the same mistakes for becomming mentally fit.

Stress, boredom, apathy, snarling impatience, and the urge to just go home and collapse on the couch, are all gaining prevalance and acceptance as features of modern culture. This unsatisfied state is a manifestation of an unhealthy mind.  In conclusion, EVERY DAY take time to -  1. put down the smart phone, close the laptop, and take 20 minutes to just breathe, 2. stop watching E! and go learn/try something new, 3. sit and really think about something.

Dear Susan and Elisabeth… the battle rages on.

130 million. That is the number of women who as a small girl had her genitals mutilated as the ultimate symbol of her helplessness. These girls are now very much MORE LIKELY TO DIE in child birth because of the scar tissue.

2/3. This is the proportion of children not in school that are girls. Without an education they have NO HOPE for advancement.

1 in 3. This is the number worldwide, according to the UN, of women who will suffer violent and sexual abuse. “More women die in the world from rape and domestic abuse than accidents, malaria, cancer, and war combined.”

2 million. The number of women and children sold into slavery each year, and regardless what use they are eventually put, nearly all will be sexually violated. There are frequent reports of young girls under 5 years old where “dozens of men had raped them so badly their intestines were coming out…”

 

Frequently, men in the US make any women who brings up women’s rights feel ashamed, playing it off as if it wasn’t still an issue and that a woman advocating women’s rights must be a hairy-armpitted lesbian. You cannot see these numbers, the devastating effects on the victims, and say nearly global enslavement of women isn’t happening. Even in the “freedom and equality” touting United States, a woman is beaten by her husband or partner every 15 seconds and 20,000 women are sold each year into sex slavery. The apathy and cavalier attitude taken towards the treatment of women by men is a pernicious problem everywhere.

While religion is often sited as an excuse for the poor treatment of women, more often it is actually the culture that is to blame. Only by the skin of our teeth do women in America retain some level of reproductive rights, but many are actively (and with increasing success) fighting to deny women access to both birth control and abortions.

It is said we can not judge other people’s religions and cultures. When these practices destroy lives and keep people in ignorance and slavery, I do judge. I judge that the culture is unworthy of the people who bear it!

No matter how advanced we become technologically, until all women are free and equal to men, humanity will remain only 1 step above animals.